Of Bluebells and Fungi

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Whether in your garden or in the woods, common bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are a delightful respite from the dreary months of winter. It should come as no surprise that these spring geophytes are a staple in temperate gardens the world over. And, as amazing as they are in the garden, bluebells are downright fascinating in the wild.

Bluebells can be found growing naturally from the northwestern corner of Spain north into the British Isles. They are largely a woodland species, though finding them in meadows isn't uncommon. They are especially common in sites that have not experienced much soil disturbance. In fact, large bluebell populations are used as indicators of ancient wood lots.

Being geophytes, bluebells cram growth and reproduction into a few short weeks in spring. We tend to think of plants like this as denizens of shade, however, most geophytes get going long before the canopy trees have leafed out. As such, these plants are more accurately sun bathers. On warm days, various bees can be seen visiting the pendulous flowers, with the champion pollinator being the humble bumble bees.

The above ground beauty of bluebells tends to distract us from learning much about their ecology. That hasn't stopped determined scientists though. Plenty of work has been done looking at how bluebells make their living and get on with their botanical neighbors. In fact, research is turning up some incredible data regarding bluebells and mycorrhizal fungi.

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Bluebell seeds tend not to travel very far, most often germinating near the base of the parent. Germination occurs in the fall when temperatures begin to drop and the rains pick up. Interestingly, bluebell seeds actually germinate within the leaf litter and begin putting down their initial root before the first frosts. Often this root is contractile, pulling the tiny seedling down into the soil where it is less likely to freeze. During their first year, phosphorus levels are high. Not only does the nutrient-rich endosperm supply the seedling with much of its initial needs, abundant phosphorus near the soil surface supplies more than enough for young plants. This changes as the plants age and change their position within the soil.

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Over the next 4 to 5 years, the bluebell's contractile roots pull it deeper down into the soil, taking it out of the reach of predators and frost. This also takes them farther away from the nutrient-rich surface layers. What's more, the roots of older bluebells are rather simple structures. They do not branch much, if at all, and they certainly do not have enough surface area for proper nutrient uptake. This is where mycorrhizae come in.

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Bluebells partner with a group of fungi called arbuscular mycorrhiza, which penetrate the root cells, thus greatly expanding the effective rooting zone of the plant. Plants pay these fungi in carbohydrates produced during photosynthesis and in return, the fungi provide the plants with access to far more nutrients than they would be able to get without them. One of the main nutrients plants gain from these symbiotic fungi is phosphorus.

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For bluebells, with age comes new habitat, and with new habitat comes an increased need for nutrients. This is why bluebells become more dependent on arbuscular mycorrhiza as they age. In fact, plants grown without these fungi do not come close to breaking even on the nutrients needed for growth and maintenance and thus live a shortened life of diminishing returns. This is an opposite pattern from what we tend to expect out of mycorrhizal-dependent plants. Normally its the seedlings that cannot live without mycorrhizal symbionts. It just goes to show you that even familiar species like the bluebell can offer us novel insights into the myriad ways in which plants eke out a living.

Photo Credits: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Further Reading: [1] [2]

 

Early Land Plants Made The World Muddy

Cooksonia  is one of the earliest land plants to have evolved.

Cooksonia is one of the earliest land plants to have evolved.

Try to picture the world before life moved onto land. It would have been a vastly different landscape than anything we know today. For one, there would have been no soil. Before life moved onto land, there was nothing organic around to facilitate soil formation. This would have changed as terrestrial habitats were slowly colonized by microbes and eventually plants. A recent paper published in Science is one of the first to demonstrate that the rise in certain sediments on land, specifically mud-forming clays, coincided with the rise in deep-rooted land plants.

This was no small task. The research duo had to look at thousands of reports spanning from the Archean eon, some 3.5 billion years ago, to the Carboniferous period, some 358 million years ago. By looking for the relative amounts of a sedimentary rock called mudrock in terrestrial habitats, they were able to see how the geology of terrestrial habitats was changing through time. What they found was that the presence of mudrock increased by orders of magnitude around the same time as early land plants were beginning to colonize land. Before plants made it onto land, mudrocks comprised a mere 1% of terrestrial sediments. By the end of the Carboniferous period, mudrocks had risen to 26%.

This begs the question, why are mudrocks so significant? What do they tell us about what was going on in terrestrial environments? A key to these questions lies in the composition of mudrocks themselves. Mudrock is made up of fine grained sediments like clay. There are many mechanisms by which clay can be produced and certainly this was going on well before plants made it onto the scene. The difference here is in the quantity of clay-like minerals in these sediments. Whereas bacteria and fungi do facilitate the formation of clay minerals, they do so in small quantities.

A little bit of moss goes a long way for erosion control!

A little bit of moss goes a long way for erosion control!

The real change came when plants began rooting themselves into the soil. In pushing their roots down into sediments, plants act as conduits for increased weathering of said minerals. Roots not only increase the connectivity between subsurface geology and the atmosphere, they also secrete substances like organic acids and form symbiotic relationships with cyanobacteria and fungi that accelerate the weather process. No purely tectonic or chemical processes can explain the rate of weathering that must have taken place to see such an increase in these fine grained minerals.

What's more, the presence of rooted plants on land would have ensured that these newly formed muds would have stuck around on the landscape much longer. Whereas in the absence of plants, these sediments would have been washed away into the oceans, plants were suddenly holding onto them. Plant roots act as binders, holding onto soil particles and preventing erosion. Aside from their roots, the rest of these early land plants would have also held onto sediments via a process known as the baffling effect. As water and wind pick up and move sediments, they inevitably become trapped in and around the stems and leaves of plants. Even tiny colonies of liverworts and moss are capable of doing this and entire mats of these would have contributed greatly to not only the formation of these sediments, but their retention as well.

The movement of plants onto land changed the course of history. It was the beginning of massive changes to come and much of that started with the gradual formation of soils. We owe everything to these early botanical pioneers.

Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1]

A Litter Trapping Orchid From Borneo

Epiphytes live a unique lifestyle that can be quite challenging. Sure, they have a relatively sturdy place on a limb or a trunk, however, blistering sun, intense heat, and plenty of wind can create hostile conditions for life. One of the hardest things to come by in the canopy is a steady source of nutrients. Whereas plants growing in the ground have soil, epiphytes must make do with whatever falls their way. Some plants have evolve a morphology that traps falling litter. There are seemingly endless litter trapping plants out there but today I want to highlight one in particular.

Meet Bulbophyllum beccarii. This beautiful orchid is endemic to lowland areas of Sarawak, Borneo. What is most interesting about this species is how it grows. Instead of forming a clump of pseudobulbs on a branch or trunk, this orchid grows upwards, wrapping around the trunk like a leafy green snake. At regular intervals it produces tiny egg-shapes pseudobulbs which give rise to rather large, cup-shaped leaves. These leaves are the secret to this orchids success.

The cup-like appearance of the leaves is indeed functional. Each one acts like, well, a cup. As leaves and other debris fall from the canopy above, the orchid is able to capture them. Over time, a community of fungi and microbes decompose the debris, turning it into a nutrient-rich humus. Instead of having to compete for soil nutrients like terrestrial species, this orchid makes its own soil buffet!

If that wasn't strange enough, the flowers of this species are another story entirely. Every so often when conditions are just right, the plant produces an inflorescence packed full of hundreds of tiny flowers. The flowers dangle down below the leaves and emit an odor that has been compared to that of rotting fish. Though certainly disdainful to our sensibilities, it is not us this plant is trying to attract. Carrion flies are the main pollinators of this orchid and the scent coupled with their carrion-like crimson color attracts them in swarms.

The flies are looking for food and a place to lay their eggs. This is all a ruse, of course. Instead, they end up visiting a flower with no rewards whatsoever. Regardless, some of these flies will end up picking up and dropping off pollinia, thus helping this orchid achieve pollination.

Epiphyte diversity is incredible and makes up a sizable chunk of overall biodiversity in tropical forests. The myriad ways that epiphytic plants have adapted to life in the canopy is staggering. Bulbophyllum beccarii is but one player in this fascinating niche.

Photo Credits:
Ch'ien C. Lee - http://www.wildborneo.com.my/

and

Peter AJ Chong - bit.ly/1XLgFE6

Further Reading:
http://www.orchidspecies.com/bulbbeccarrii.htm

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