Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ponderosa Pine on Tygh Ridge: Succession or Invasion?

Scattered Pine in Tygh  Ridge Grazing Lands
Tygh Ridge is located in North Central Oregon and is part of the Columbia Basin Ecological Province. Much of the land has been continuously tilled and planted with dryland wheat over the past century. This hasn't been conducive for succession (see my last post) or for the land to be anything more than short term grassland.

OSU's ecological profile indicates that the expected vegetation over much of the Columbia Basin habitats would include some shrub cover, but doesn't mention any thing about Ponderosa pine. However, over the last twenty years the pine has established and spread in certain areas on Tygh Ridge.   How could that be?

There are many variables, but here's my take on it.  Most of the change was kicked into motion with the expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program.  In the mid-1980's, the program was expanded in order to protect highly erodible soils such as those on Tygh Ridge. Thousands of acres were taken out of production for wheat and seeded into expansive stands of grass where livestock grazing wasn't allowed.  By the mid-1990s I first started to notice pine trees where I hadn't seen them in the thirty years prior.

There also was funding available for landowners to plant shelter belts and  trees for wildlife habitat.  Perhaps   some of the pine got into the middle of the grasslands by planting, but I'm not convinced about that because the placement of the trees is so random.  It always seems that when humans are involved in something they must have a certain sense of order!

Ponderosa Pine in Idaho Fescue Grassland  on Tygh Ridge

Where did the seed come from? 

The Dalles Ecological Province is a long, thin map unit that covers most of the east slopes of the Cascade Mountains in North Central Oregon, and is adjacent to the Columbia Basin Province. Tygh Ridge lines the northeastern portion edge of The Dalles Province.

The Dalles Province is  forested with Ponderosa Pine, Oregon white Oak, and smaller amounts of Douglas fir. Those who have never been in that part of the world might find the transition, from the forested The Dalles habitat type  to Columbia basin grassland type, abrupt.  Once at the base of the Cascades, the trees don't slowly peter out as they often do in transitional zones, they just cease to exist in the landscape almost as if there is a line that they are forbidden to cross.  That's part of why it's surprising to see so much Ponderosa pine has established 15-20 miles to the east (as a bird flies) in the center of Tygh Ridge!

Since Ponderosa are monoecious, meaning the male and female reproductive structures are both present on the same tree, they have no reason to worry about pollination or how far a pollinator can be drawn in from. Ponderosas have a self contained system to perpetuate their existence, which sometimes makes them seem like nothing more than weeds.  Like weeds they grow in dense thickets that continue to get denser with lack of disturbance.

Boys and Girls Co-habitating. 
 I'm guessing that once the seeds for the rogue Tygh Ridge trees were mature, they got some help with their pilgrimage to the new world.  The distance is too far for mice or rodents to lug the big pine nuts, but it seems birds could do an efficient job of transporting them to their new home.

Clark's Nutcrackers have been known to transport both Ponderosa and whitebark pine seeds . The birds have been thought to be the salvation of the pine through  caching of seed, which in the end leads to greater genetic diversity. However, recent research has followed some of the nutcrackers in their migratory and caching activities and found that sometimes where they bury the seed is either marginal or totally wrong for germination. Or is it?  Perhaps for the whitebark pine that seems to be  a bit more particular about where it grows, but  what about the weedy Ponderosa?  It's successfully grown in a number of habitats for eons.

 When I looked at a sighting map for Clark's nutcracker and laid it over map of The Dalles Ecological Province, I found there have been a few sightings of the nutcrackers there.  Of course, the sighting map didn't show any nutcracker sightings in the adjacent Columbia Basin ecotype. It's likely none have been seen or even looked for there.  However, that doesn't mean they don't go there.  There also are a lot of jays and other corvids that are on less specialized diets that frequent both areas in question.

After spending  probably too much time wondering if the rogue Ponderosa pine trees of the grasslands got there through succession or invasion, I begin to wonder if my question really matters.  I don't have a research proven answer, but that's the neat thing about science because nothing stagnates.  Sometimes scientists work for years to come up with a reasonable hypothesis only to be tormented by someone else who claims to know it all, but really knows nothing.

We likely will never know as much as we would like, but must continue to chase each tidbit of truth we can find, because the natural world isn't going to sit here and stagnate with us..

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Backyard Succession:  The Jungle Bed

Succession is an often discussed topic of plant ecologists.  However, it is seldom considered by gardeners because they just plain don't have the time to sit back and let it happen.  Gardeners are busy ones.  They carefully tend their plants and continually are buying some new and sexy strain of hybridized horticultural variety that will move their garden toward their internalized vision.  Backyard succession can look sort of messy, so it doesn't appeal to many hard core gardeners. 

What Is Ecological Succession?

In a nutshell, ecological succession is the observed change of structure (herbaceous or woody) and species presence through time.  It's a concept that has always fascinated me as I've wondered how much impact we have on succession as we go about doing our good deeds.  

When we built our house in the Southern Black Hills eleven years ago, I put in one large bed where the soil was sandy, rocky, and thin.  Since the bed is on the south side of the house and has such poor soil, it tends to be very dry.  Initially, I had no idea what would grow in such a harsh site, but figured whatever I discovered that would grow there would be easier than lawn.  

A few years after planting some aspen and chokecherry in the bed we dubbed it with the name of" the jungle bed."  The jungle bed has done well by being mostly on its own and has taken off on its own path of succession.  It's been my own classroom to observe ecological succession.
The Jungle Bed in May 2013.
Jungle Bed, September 2004
I was so new to gardening in this part of the country when the jungle bed came to be.  In spite of going to all of local resources like SDSU Extension, Master Gardeners, and the Garden Club I never really got a good feel for what it was like to garden in the Black Hills or found a plan that suited me, so I decided to experiment.

First I went and got a package of wildflower seed.  I was in full realization that most of the seed in such a mix wasn't native, but I also made sure that the mix didn't have seeds from the more aggressive naturalized plants like ox-eye daisy or dame's rocket.  The next spring we transplanted some aspen and chokecherry that we dug up at some friend's house over on the Limestone.  The Limestone is quite a bit higher in elevation than where our house is, so it was a bit of a gamble, but one that worked out.

Everything that was planted in the jungle bed in the spring of 2003 grew well, but the poor plants had a hard time keeping ahead of the browsing deer.  I initially tried the conventional gardening practice of pulling out the grass and clover that inevitably started growing in the jungle bed, but after the first couple of years things got way out of hand, so I stopped. That's when the backyard succession really began.

In 2005, we built a permanent fence around the jungle garden because the deer continued to be a problem.  Their continuous dining was leaving all of the plants looking deformed and stunted.  The fence further helped succession by releasing some of the plants we had yet to realize were there.  When we dug up the aspen and chokecherry we must have also gotten some root runners of prairie rose and once the deer were gone the roses really took off.
A Haven for Birds

The only plants that I've tried to be aggressive about keeping out of the jungle bed are white campion (Silene pratensis), field bindweed (Convoluvulus arvensis), and Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense). All of these weedy plants spread aggressively once established.

Once the area was fenced and the aspen began to get larger, there's been another wildlife problem affecting them.  We have a lot of woodpeckers in the area that  peel the bark off the larger aspen stems, in the early spring, trying to get at the sugary sap for energy.  They often will strip the bark off all the way around  the main trunk killing the entire top of the tree.

Woodpecker Damage
   At first this bothered me because it gave the trees a really ugly look to be cut off mid trunk, but then I looked at it from a different perspective.  Aspen require some disturbance in order to stay healthy.  They're clonal so they continually are sending up sprouts from the roots. Killing the tops of the trees stimulates the growth from the roots.  The relationship between the aspen and the woodpeckers indicates two species that are taking care of their own needs while benefiting another in the process.  It's a sustainable situation for both species!

I recently did an early spring crawl through the jungle bed to find and destroy white campion and bindweed.   It was amazing to see some of the good native plants that have found their way into the jungle garden over the last ten years with no help at all from me.

The yearly cover of deteriorating leaves dropped by the aspen and chokecherry has really improved the soil by adding an organic component and increasing moisture retention.  Because of the improvement in the soil I now have healthy stands of native plants like  starry false Solomon seal (Maienthemum stellatum), meadow-rue (Thalictrum sp.) and sedge (Carex sp.).  All of these plants are generally adapted to much moister habitats than the rock pile I started with eleven years ago.

If you give them a chance, they will come.

Starry False Solomon Seal

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fritillaria atropurpurea
Fritillaria pudica

Those Crazy Fritillarias of Spring

The first clue that spring is coming for many rural Americans in  the West is the bloom of  yellowbells (Fritillaria pudica).  During my years living in Central Oregon, the cheery little yellow flowers were like a rite of passage for warmer weather and brighter days ahead.  You couldn't miss them as they rose up from an otherwise largely brown landscape in late February and March.  Just like clockwork they were.   However, since moving to South Dakota I've had to travel west a state or two to commune with my little yellow pals.

However,  a cousin of yellowbells known as spotted fritillary (Fritillaria atropurpurea) does grow in South Dakota.  These two species of Fritillaria are the widest ranging within the genus, but I find it fascinating where each species have decided to put down roots.  

Yellowbells do grow as far east as North Dakota, but for some reason haven't made the short leap across the border into South Dakota.   A study of the USDA Plants Database range map for yellowbells revealed that even though they grow in California, Nevada, and New Mexico for some reason they refuse to take up residence in Arizona.  Yellowbells can even be found in western Canada (British Columbia and Alberta).

Central Oregon yellowbells

Spotted fritillary also have their own nonsensical quirks about where they grow.  They not only grow in North Dakota, but also South Dakota and Nebraska.  
Black Hills  Spotted Fritillary

There are so many similar habitats in Oregon and Washington that one would expect to find spotted fritillary in both states, but for some reason they don't like Washington.

Columbia Gorge Fritillary

While yellowbells maintain their consistency to be bright yellow, the spotting and coloration blend of spotted fritillary is wildly variable, as can be seen above in the photos of the South Dakota and Oregon cousins.

Pinewoods fritillary (Fritillaria pinetorum) are very similar in appearance to spotted fritillary, yet they only grow in California and Nevada.  One reliable way to tell pinewoods from spotted fritillary is that the flowers on pinewoods don't nod. Thus if one were to see what they thought was a spotted fritillary without nodding flowers when they are in California or Nevada, they should realize that it's really pinewoods fritillary.   Likewise, California is the only state that hosts the chocolate lily (Fritillaria bicolor) which has much larger flowers that are deep chocolate brown. 

While humans seem to spend a lot of time wondering how we got here and then arguing with others about whose tribe was here first, it's highly likely that the Fritillarias haven't given any energy to the subject at all.  Perhaps we should take a lesson from the Fritillarias and put our energy into doing what comes naturally by celebrating a time of renewed growth and enjoying life wherever we've put down roots.  Diversity truly is more of a pleasure than a pain!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Howell's Triteleia: A Backgrounder in the Columbia River Gorge Flower Scene?

My mother passed away recently, so I was in Oregon a few weeks ago.  I was able to witness a spectacular bloom of spring wildflowers on the Columbia Plateau and within the Gorge itself.

As my niece, Amanda and I  were picking wildflowers for arrangements that would be displayed at Mom's memorial service most of our focus was on the two big flashy mega-flora that were blooming at the time,  lupine and  arrowleaf balsamroot. However, I also found and picked some dainty Howell's triteleia (brodiaea) that were much more discreet and less gaudy in their reproductive show. Of course, not being a plant geek, it took awhile for Amanda to notice them then ask, "What are those cute white flowers?" The brodiaea demurely blended into the finished arrangement nicely and took a truly subordinate roll to the other two showboats. This was a fitting tribute to my mother because she also tended to be a backgrounder.
Triteleia grandiflora var. howelli is also known as Howell's Lily, fool's onion,  brodiaea, wild hyacinth, and bi-color triteleia.

Howell's triteleia is native to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia growing in oak woodlands or relatively undisturbed grasslands.  It's fairly common in Oregon and Washington, yet listed as endangered in California and British Columbia and thought to be extirpated in at least part of those ranges because of development. There really doesn't seem to be much known about the biology of this species.

Howell's triteleia prefers fairly deep, drier, somewhat sandy soils.  They are in the lily family and a cousin to  wild onion (Allium sp.). They're similar in appearance to the onions, which is why they are sometimes called fool's onion. Like wild onions, they grow from a scaly bulb that the Native Americans and early western pioneers dug, cooked, and ate extensively in the past.  The bulbs are said to have a nut-like flavor.

Amanda and I had been collecting our wildflowers on the rim of Wapanitia Canyon which is a tributary to the
Deschutes River.  The surrounding area was settled by my ancestors 134 years ago with other pioneers following. In spite of the shallow soils and ongoing agricultural activities, there was still Howell's triteleia to be found, which was a good thing. However, they were pretty small compared to what I would find a few days later.

Once the memorial service was over and everyone had gone home, I treated myself to a botanical stroll in the Tom McCall Preserve that is located on The Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway between The Dalles and Hood River.

The 271 acre preserve sits on the Rowena Plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

The area offered spectacular views of the river and very good plant viewing for this spring-starved botanist.  I was thrilled to find much healthier populations of Howell's triteleia than I'd seen the week before. Even though the flowers were much larger than those I'd seen down south, they were still playing the background roll to the riots of color exploding from the arrowleaf balsamroot and lupine.  The extroverts and introverts of the plant world!

It seems showboats and backgrounders are the general nature of things, from plants to humans.  Some individuals have the deep down need to jump up and down screaming, "Look at me!  Ain't I purty?"  While others have the need to sit back, listen, and sometimes yawn at all of the commotion.

Let us remember that neither type of individual is more important than the other if we want to maintain a healthy balance!

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Thinking Rock

Due to the series of snowy spring storms that have kept rolling into the Black Hills over the past two weeks, I've found it hard to write about anything botanical.  So instead, this morning I made a visit to the thinking rock in an effort to find inspiration.

The thinking rock is in our pasture.  My husband dubbed it that when we were in the process of building our house and moving to the Hills from Oregon. He spent many hours there during the construction of our house thinking, worrying, and wondering about the future.

The thinking rock juts out of the lowland sedge pasture and has a small Ponderosa pine growing from a crack in the flat topped, table sized boulder.  The pine tree on the rock is small in size, likely aged, and of course, very wise.

However, the little tree didn't look too happy today, instead it looked sort of forlorn and lonely.

The Thinking Rock

My thought for the day:

I've often heard it stated that, "Trees are our most important (valuable) resource."  I agree with the fact they are important, but in defense of the other botanical resources that feed and clothe us, I can't say that trees are most important.  Anyone who disagrees with me should climb up a tree like a porcupine, and chew on some bark!

Don't you think the tree on the thinking rock looks happier in a more diverse setting?

We have the opportunity to be stewards of such a wide array of botanical resources.  It might not pay to get too wrapped up in identifying one as more important than others. Everything in our world is interconnected, so we should pay due respect to all.

By now you're probably wondering what the purpose of this blog is?  In the future, I plan to feature some really cool plants and habitats, how they interact with the living and breathing creatures on earth, and how each benefits from the other.

In the meantime, thanks for stopping by.  Hope to see you back again soon!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Trees & Beetles & Fuels.... Oh My!

I live in a small subdivision in the Southern Black Hills of South Dakota.  Our subdivision, Silver Star I & II, realized in the early part of the decade that we were vulnerable to losing everything to wildfire.  As a result, we have worked very hard to be Firewise  in our way of life.  Silver Star became a nationally recognized Firewise Community in early 2005. 

The Black Hills (along with many other western forests) are currently experiencing a mountain pine beetle outbreak of epic proportions.  As a result, the community of Custer has responded with numerous "Bark Beetle Blues" events throughout the year.

A couple of days ago, I participated in a forum called A Landowner Conversation: Beetles, Fuels, and Forestry that was sponsored by Custer County Conservation District.  As chairman of the Silver Star Firewise Board, the SCD  asked  me to put together a history of our Firewise project along with information on how the beetle outbreak has impacted us.  I put together the following video and have been encouraged  to share it.  I'm really proud of what our neighborhood has accomplished in the last 8 years.  What a small but mighty group!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Is There Really Such a Thing As a Moderate Botanist?

In the current, deeply divided political climate it seems that people can easily be assigned to one of two major camps just because of what they do for a living.  Botanists, archaeologists, and wildlife biologists tend to get thrown into the wacko-liberal-terrorist-camp (a.k.a. blockers), while other natural resource professionals such as foresters, range cons, geologists, loggers, miners and others who make their livings from resource extraction are the sane, level-headed stewards of the land.  However, after a career in natural resource management I can attest that there are plenty of moderate botanists, archaeologists, and wildlife biologists in the world.  I am one of them. 

Having spent more of my career administering grazing permits than counting posies has made me a staunch advocate for wise and sustainable uses of the land.  In other words, we have to use the resources to exist as a species, so we can't take the hands-off protective approach that true environmentalists demand.  However, we also can't continue to take everything that the land is generous enough to offer and continue to give nothing back.  Through the years I've witnessed that both approaches are detrimental for both the real estate  the human condition. 

Instead of wasting anymore time with the "blame game" and pointing fingers at those who view things through a different lens, why don't the extremists at both ends of the spectrum figure out a compromise that they can live with?  They won't have to give up  all, or perhaps any, of their values in the process.  Also, don't forget that the other 99% and future generations are going to have to live with it too.  The problem is just too complex for any simple solution.  Nothing black and white about it, just gray.

So here is my message to all the screaming liberals and confirmed conservatives: You're not only controlling the lives of moderates, but boring us stiff too!  Get your acts together before it's too late!