An Iris With Multiple Parents

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The Abbeville iris (Iris nelsonii) is a very special plant. It is the rarest of the so-called “Louisiana Irises” and can only be found growing naturally in one small swamp in southern Louisiana. If you are lucky, you can catch it in flower during a few short weeks in spring. The blooms come in a range of colors from reddish-purple to nearly brown, an impressive sight to see siting atop tall, slender stems. However, the most incredible aspect of the biology of this species is its origin. The Abbeville iris is the result of hybridization between not two but three different iris species.

When I found out I would be heading to Louisiana in the spring of 2019, I made sure that seeing the Abbeville iris in person was near the top of my to-do list. How could a botany nut not want to see something so special? Iris nelsonii was only officially described as a species in 1966. Prior to that, many believed hybridization played a role in its origin. Multiple aspects of its anatomy appear intermediate between other native irises. It was not until proper molecular tests were done that the picture became clear.

The Abbeville iris genome contains bits and pieces of three other irises native to Louisiana. The most obvious parent was yet another red-flowering species - the copper iris (Iris fulva). It also contained DNA from the Dixie iris (Iris hexagona) and the zig-zag iris (Iris brevicaulis). If you had a similar childhood as I did, then you may have learned in grade school biology class that hybrids are usually biological dead ends. They may exhibit lots of beneficial traits but, like mules, they are often sterile. Certainly this is frequently the case, especially for hybrid animals, however, more and more we are finding that hybridization has resulted in multiple legitimate speciation events, especially in plants.

How exactly three species of iris managed to “come together” and produce a functional species like I. nelsonii is interesting to ponder. Its three parent species each prefers a different sort of habitat than the others. For instance, the copper iris is most often found in seasonally wet, shady bottomland hardwood forests as well as the occasional roadside ditch, whereas the Dixie iris is said to prefer more open habitats like wet prairies. In a few very specific locations, however, these types of habitats can be found within relatively short distances of eachother.

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Apparently at some point in the past, a few populations swapped pollen and the eventual result was a stable hybrid that would some day be named Iris nelsonii. As mentioned, this is a rare plant. Until it was introduced to other sites to ensure its ongoing existence in the wild, the Abbeville iris was only know to occur in any significant numbers at one single locality. This necessitates the question as to whether or not this “species” is truly unique in its ecology to warrant that status. It could very well be that that single locality just happens to produce a lot of one off hybrids.

In reality, the Abbeville iris does seem to “behave” differently from any of its parental stock. For starters, it seems to perform best in habitats that are intermediate of its parental species. This alone has managed to isolate it enough to keep the Abbeville from being reabsorbed genetically by subsequent back-crossing with its parents. Another mechanism of isolation has to do with its pollinators. The Abbeville iris is intermediate in its floral morphology as well, which means that pollen placement may not readily occur when pollinators visit different iris species in succession. Also, being largely red in coloration, the Abbeville iris receives a lot of attention from hummingbirds.

Although hummingbirds do not appear to show an initial preference when given the option to visit copper and Abbeville irises at a given location, research has found that once hummingbirds visit an Abbeville iris flower, they tend to stick to that species provided enough flowers are available. As such, the Abbeville iris likely gets the bulk of the attention from local hummingbirds while it is in bloom, ensuring that its pollen is being delivered to members of its own species and not any of its progenitors. For all intents and purposes, it would appear that this hybrid iris is behaving much like a true species.

As with any rare plant, its ongoing survival in the wild is always cause for concern. Certainly Louisiana is no stranger to habitat loss and an ever-increasing human population coupled with climate change are ongoing threats to the Abbeville iris. Changes in the natural hydrologic cycle of its swampy habitat appears to have already caused a shift in its distribution. Whereas it historically could be found in abundance in the interior of the swamp, reductions in water levels have seen it move out of the swamp and into ditches where water levels remain a bit more stable year round. Also, if its habitat were to become more fragmented, the reproductive barriers that have maintained this unique species may degrade to the point in which it is absorbed back into an unstable hybrid mix with one or a couple of its parent species. Luckily for the Abbeville, offspring have been planted into at least one other location, which helps to reduce the likelihood of extinction due to a single isolated event.


Photo Credit: [1]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4] [5]

Why You Should Never Buy Cypress Mulch

Gardening season is soon to be underway here in the northern hemisphere. This past weekend saw droves of people taking advantage of the nice weather by getting their hands dirty in the garden. A walk around the neighborhood brought with it a lot of smiles and a chance to reconnect with neighbors I haven't talked to in a while but it also brought with it something sinister. Lingering in the air was the scent of cypress mulch. Tons upon tons of it are being spread over gardens everywhere. One might ask "Whats the problem? Cypress mulch is more durable and more insect resistant than other mulches!"

WRONG!

Anymore today, these ideas are leftovers of a long gone era. Back when old growth cypress forests were still a thing, these centuries old trees did impart rot and pest resistance into their wood. Today, this is not the case. Because logging has taken most of the old growth cypress from places like Florida and Louisiana, mulch companies have had to resort to cutting down and mulching young, second and third growth cypress stands. Barely given the time to grow into the towering specimens their parents and grandparents once were, these young trees have not yet imparted the centuries worth of compounds into their wood that keep them from rotting and deter insect predators.

The saddest part of the cypress mulch industry is that they are destroying valuable and irreplaceable habitat for the myriad lifeforms that rely on cypress swamps for their existence. To add insult to injury, recovery of cypress trees is almost negligible anymore today due to the way we have managed our waterways. Cypress seedlings require inundation by freshwater and regular silt deposition in order to successfully germinate. A century of flood control, inundation by brackish water, as well as dam and ship canal building have completely upset this dynamic. Now, instead of building new habitat for cypress swamps, these sediments are washed away, far out into the Gulf of Mexico.

What staggeringly few people seem to care to realize is that cypress swamps are our first line of defense against hurricanes. Cypress swamps can cut the force of a storm surge by 90%. It has been estimated that the cypress swamps in Louisiana alone are worth a staggering $6.7 billion in storm protection every year. That is a lot of cash, people!

As with any other industry, the cypress mulch companies are driven by consumer demand. The simple act of individuals, communities, and local governments not purchasing this nasty product is all it will take to lessen the blow to these precious habitats. At the rate cypress is being cut, it will not take long for us to exhaust the resource entirely. As you are looking to do some gardening this year, and many years into the future, please keep these great trees in mind and stop buying cypress mulch. In lieu of wood and bark mulches, you should consider using shredded leaves from your property instead. They make excellent mulch and being locally sourced, the reduce the chances of introducing disease and other pests to your landscape. In the words of Captain Planet, "the power is yours!"

Photo Credit: Jesse Reeder (http://bit.ly/1wmQpn8)

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]