Why Do Rhododendron Leaves Droop and Curl in the Winter?

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Broad leaved, evergreen plants living in the temperate regions of the world face quite a challenge come winter time. Freezing temperatures, lack of water, and often intense sun can exact quite a toll on living tissues. These are likely just some of the reasons why, relatively speaking, broad leaved evergreens are a rare occurrence in temperate zones. By far the most popular group of plants in this category are the Rhododendrons.

Many a Rhodo lover has said that they can tell how cold it is outside by looking at Rhododendron leaves. Indeed, as temperatures drop, the leaves of these evergreen shrubs frequently droop and curl up like green cigars. These leaf movements do seem to be tied to the weather but their triggers and function have been the source of a lot of debate. Certainly not all Rhododendrons are cold hardy but those that are seem to benefit from reorienting their leaves. Why does this happen?

In the past it has been suggested that leaf reorientation may have something to do with reducing snow load. If the leaves were to remain horizontal, this could cause enough snow buildup to break branches. The fact that a considerable amount of ice and snow can accumulate on branches regardless of leaf position, and largely without harm, seems to suggest that this is not the case. Others have suggested that it could be a way to reduce water loss. As the leaves droop and curl, they are hypothetically increasing the humidity around their leaves and thus reducing their chances of desiccation.

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This seems pretty far fetched for a few reasons. For starters, Rhododendron simply do not open their stomata during the colder months. By keeping them closed, there is no net transfer of water into or out of the leaves. Also, their thick, waxy cuticle keeps water within the leaves from evaporating out as well. Finally, leaf drooping and curling happens long before the ground freezes and therefore doesn't seem to be triggered by a lack of water in the environment.

The leading theories on this phenomenon seem to deal more with issues at the cellular level. The first of these has to do with the sensitive photosynthetic machinery inside the chloroplasts. Leaf drooping may actually be a response to increased light. Though we generally don't think about photosynthesis in the winter months, evergreen plants actually experience the highest light intensities of the year during this time period. Throughout the growing season, they are generally shaded by the overstory. However, once the canopy leaves fall, things change.

Because the plants are, for the most part dormant, the photosystems within the chloroplasts have no way of dissipating the energy from the incoming sunlight. Photosystem II is especially vulnerable under such scenarios. Experiments have shown that leaves that were forced to stay horizontal during the winter experienced permanent sun damage and photosynthesized considerably less than leaves that were allowed to droop once favorable temperatures returned. The thought is that by positioning the leaves vertically, the plants are reducing the amount of direct light hitting them throughout winter and therefore reducing the potential for light damage.

These experiments also revealed something else about the changes in leaf position when it comes to shape. As it turns out, curling made no difference in protecting the leaves from light damage. It would seem that drooping and curling are responses to two different types of environmental stress. So, why do the leaves curl?

The answer to this question is physical and one that has gained a lot of research attention in the field of cryogenics. When living tissues freeze, ice crystals build up to the point that they can rupture cell membranes. This is only exacerbated if the tissues thaw out quickly. Anyone that has ever tried to freeze and then thaw leafy vegetables knows what I am talking about.

To best preserve tissues via freezing, they must freeze quickly, which reduces the size of the ice crystals that can form, and then thaw out slowly. Researchers found that Rhododendron leaves freeze completely at temperatures below -8 degrees Celsius (17.6 degrees Fahrenheit), temperatures that occur regularly throughout the range of temperate Rhodo species. Again, experiments were able to demonstrate that flat leaves thaw much more rapidly than curled leaves. This is because a curled leaf exposes far less surface area to the warming sun than does a flat leaf. As such, curled leaves don't thaw out as fast and thus are able to avoid much of the damaging effects of daily freeze-thaw cycles.

Though these are all components of the Rhodo leaf puzzle, there is still much work to be done. What we do know is that leaf drooping and leaf curling are two separate behaviors responding to different environmental pressures. Indeed, it appears that these two traits seem to be tied to cold hardiness in the genus Rhododendron. What the exact triggers are and how they produce the changes in shape and orientation, as well as the mechanics of winter survival at the cellular level are topics that are going to require further study. Until then, I think its safe to say that we can appreciate and, to some degree, rely on the spot forecasting abilities of these wonderful shrubs.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

 

Red or White?

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Who doesn't love a nice oak tree? One cannot overstate their importance both ecologically and culturally. Although picking an oak tree out of a lineup is something many of us are capable of doing, identifying oaks to species can be a bit more challenging. This is further complicated by the fact that oaks often hybridize. Still, it is likely you have come across some useful tips and tricks for narrowing down your oak choices. One such trick is distinguishing between the red oaks and the white oaks. If you're anything like me, this is something you took for granted for a while. Is there anything biologically or ecologically meaningful to such a split?

In short, yes. However, a true appreciation of these groups requires a deeper look. To start with, oaks are members of the genus Quercus, which belongs in the family Fagaceae. Globally there are approximately 400 species of oak and each falls into one of three categories - the red oaks (section Lobatae), the white oaks (section Quercus), and the so-called "intermediate" oaks (section Protoblanus). For the sake of this article, I will only be focusing on the red and white groups as that is where most of the oak species reside. The intermediate oak group is made up of 5 species, all of which are native to the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.

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As is common with oak identification, reliable techniques for distinguishing between the two groups can be tricky. Probably the most reliable feature is located on the inner surface of the acorn cap. In white oaks, it is hairless or nearly so, whereas in red oaks, it is covered in tiny hairs. Another useful acorn feature is the length of time it takes them to germinate. White oak acorns mature in one season and germinate in the fall. As such, they contain lower levels of tannins. Red oak acorns (as well as those of the intermediate group) generally take at least two seasons to mature and therefore germinate the following spring. Because of this, red oak acorns have a much higher tannin content. For more information on why this is the case, read this article.

Tyloses in white oak xylem.

Less apparent than acorns is the difference in the wood of red and white oaks. The wood of white oaks contains tiny structures in their xylem tissues called tyloses. These are absent from the wood of red oaks. The function of tyloses are quite interesting. During extreme drought or in the case of some sort of infection, they cut off regions of the xylem to stop the spread of an embolism or whatever may be infecting the tree. As such, white oaks tend to be more rot and drought resistant. Fun fact, tyloses are the main reason why white oak is used for making wine and bourbon barrels as it keeps them from leaking their contents.

More apparent to the casual observer, however, is leaf shape. In general, the white oaks produce leaves that have rounded lobes, whereas the red oaks generally exhibit pointed lobes with a tiny bristle on their tips. At this point you may be asking where an unlobed species like shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) fits in. Look at the tip of its leaf and you will see a small bristle, which means its a member of the red oak group. Similarly, the buds of these two groups often differ in their overall shape. White oak buds tend to be smaller and often have blunted tips whereas the buds of red oaks are generally larger and often pointed.

Tricky leaves of the shingle oak ( Quercus imbricaria ). Note the bristle tip!

Tricky leaves of the shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria). Note the bristle tip!

Despite this broad generalizations, exceptions abound. This is further complicated by the fact that many species will readily hybridize. Quercus is, after all, a massive genus. Regardless, oaks are wonderful species chock full of ecological and cultural value. Still, oak appreciation is something we all need more of in our lives. I encourage you to try some oak identification of your own. Get outside and see if you can use any of these tricks to help you identify some of the oaks in your neighborhood.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

Leaf Them Be

Thinking of raking your leaves? I urge you to reconsider. 

In temperate regions around the world, fallen leaves are a hallmark of autumn. It may be tempting or even required to rid your property of their cover but in doing so you are removing a very important natural process.

Leaves are nature's compost. The decomposition process is an important part of the natural cycle. It returns vital nutrients and not to mention vast amounts of carbon to the soil. In areas without earthworms, layers upon layers of fallen leaves create favorable microclimates for myriad lifeforms. 

Our senseless and relentless obsession with the "perfect lawn" means people around the globe are devoting countless hours to raking, blowing, and shipping away a problem that shouldn't be a problem in the first place. Leaves make excellent and FREE mulch. They have the added benefit of fertilizing your gardens as they decompose. Considering the price (and often the carbon footprint) of some mulches, using leaves is a no brainer. 

Removing leaves is not only removing nutrients, it is destroying habitat. Many organisms rely on fallen leaves in order to find food as well as a home. Fallen leaves provide animals like chipmunks, salamanders, turtles, and insects with shelter for the coming winter. This is not lost on other animals as they take advantage of ample foraging opportunities. Countless insect species lay eggs and pupate in fallen leaves only to emerge the following spring. 

When you rake away your leaves, you are raking away these animals. Think about all of the hungry birds returning from a long spring migration. They rely on the spring insect bounty to regain their strength and feed their chicks. When you remove leaves from your yard, you are removing their food. 

Now I realize that many of you are probably bound to some sort of home owner agreement. Fear not! There are plenty of alternatives to getting rid of your leaves entirely. For starters, you can use them to create compost. As mentioned, you can also use them as mulch in your garden beds. By keeping them on your property, you are preserving some semblance of a natural cycle. 

Photo Credit: www.forestwanderer.com