Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Rare Thistle in the Sand

Despite the name of the blog being The Natural Treasures of 'Ohio', I'd like to escape our borders every once in a while for an out of state botanical adventure or two.  As unique and beautiful as Ohio is I think it's important to be well rounded and explore the infinite other areas of interest in our area of the country and beyond. 

Leelanau County, Michigan has been my summer vacation spot literally all my life.  A week or two each summer would be spent fishing the lakes for bass and pike, the cold, spring fed streams for trout, swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan searching for petosky stones and soaking in the sun and beauty of northern Michigan.  I'll always cherish my time up there with my parents and brother and look forward to those days renewed when I may take my future family up there to experience the same magic.  My footprints in the sand along the beach may be quick to wash away but all the memories made are etched in stone in my brain.

As my interest and passion in the botanical world has increased the past few years so has my realization of just how incredibly diverse and unique this area is.  Recently I've been going through some pictures from a couple summers ago when I hiked and camped South Manitou Island.  I plan on doing a post about my experiences on the island and the interesting history and flora that come with it in the near future but I decided to do a quick appetizer of a post on an interesting plant I just now noticed in my picture archives.  I'm not quite sure what got me to photograph this plant three years ago, as I didn't know what it was and it really doesn't stand out in any way but I am very thankful I did.  Little did I know I was photographing and admiring the rare and federally, yes that's right, federally threatened Pitcher's Thistle (Cirsium pitcheri).

Typical habitat for the federally threatened Pitcher's Thistle
Also known as Dune Thistle, C. pitcheri can only be found growing along the shores and dunes of the Great Lakes in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.  There are also a few small populations in the Canadian province of Ontario.  Pitcher's Thistle occurs in its greatest numbers in Michigan where it is most common in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, which includes South Manitou Island.   Growing only on open, windblown dunes and low beach ridges is what attributes to this plants rarity.  Already limited by it's naturally small amount of available habitat, shoreline development has played a large role in putting this species on the federal list of threatened and endangered plants.  Plant species that are obligated to shoreline and coastal habitats are among the most imperiled and endangered we have.  When society wants to develop every square inch of shoreline with summer homes, resorts, marinas and public beaches you lose the natural splendor and beauty to the predictable and cookie-cutter sights of concrete and asphalt.  The above picture shows the perched sand dunes on the western edge of the island that this plant calls home.  Commonly found growing alongside the thistle is Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), a state threatened species in Ohio, and Hairy Puccoon (Lithospermum caroliniense) which both share the same desert-like habitat.

Flowering head of a Pitcher's Thistle
Pitcher's Thistle is a relatively easy member of the Cirsium genus to identify, which can't be said for many of the other species.  Each plant spends 2-8 years maturing as a rosette of blue-green leaves densely covered in wooly, white hairs.  Upon maturation each plant suddenly sends up a single stem with many prickly branches 3-4 feet high to flower.  A taproot up to 6 feet in depth certainly helps this plant growing in some of the most xeric conditions survive even the driest and toughest of times.  

Pitcher's Thistle plant
 Each flowering head is pale cream to rosy pink in color and blooms from June to September before setting to seed and being dispersed by the wind like all other thistle species.  An interesting thing about this plant is the fact it is monocarpic.  Monocarpic means a plant that only flowers and sets seeds once in its lifetime.  So after up to 8 years of patient growing and biding it's time, the Pitcher's Thistle gets only one chance to show off its beauty, be pollinated by an assortment of insects, seed and then die, leaving the future of its race up to the hundreds of seeds dancing in the summer breeze.  Large seed counts and high germination rates are important with species that are monocarpic and this plant is no exception.  Pitcher's Thistle got it's name from the first person to discover it and submit it to science.  Dr. Zina Pitcher was an army surgeon at Fort Brady in Sault Ste. Marie in the 1820's and found this plant growing in what is now the Grand Sable Dunes of Lake Superior.  An accomplished botanist, he stumbled across a flowering plant of C. pitcheri on a camping trip and didn't recognize it as a species he knew so sent it in for examination and the rest, as they say, is history.

As mentioned before I plan on publishing an in-depth post on the rest of South Manitou Island in the coming days.  Visible shipwrecks, virgin White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis) forests, rare and interesting flora and amazing vista views across Lake Michigan await the patient reader.  Until next time!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Care to Learn Your Carya's (Hickories)?

Trees have always been one of my favorite pieces to the puzzle we call Nature.  The list of their functions and uses in both the natural world and our human society is miles long.  From recycling our waste carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen to supplying the world of birds and beasts food of countless varieties; it's safe to say the more trees, the better off our world is.  When I first started off learning my trees it was at the basic level of identifying it down to genus.  I could identify Oaks from Maples and Ashes from Pines.  Little did I know just how diverse and unique Ohio's forests were as I hiked through them in my earlier years.  In Ohio there are over 150 species of native trees and shrubs that grace our landscape and today I would like to show you how to identify a particular genus of native trees in their winter state.

Winter twigs of Ohio's indigenous Hickory species

Meet the genus Carya, commonly known as the Hickories.  Hailing from the Walnut (Juglandaceae) family there are six species native to our state: (from left to right) Shellbark Hickory (C. laciniosa), Bitternut Hickory (C. cordiformis), Pignut Hickory (C. glabra), Mockernut Hickory (C. tomentosa) and Shagbark Hickory (C. ovata).  There is a sixth species native, Red Hickory (C. ovalis) also known as Sweet Pignut Hickory that was long considered a variety of C. glabra but was recently designated as a separate species.  With that being said let's take an inside look at each individual species and how to identify it down to species in the field.

SHELLBARK HICKORY (Carya laciniosa)

Shellbark Hickory bark
Shellbark Hickory bud

Also known as Kingnut Hickory, this large tree grows throughout the state but is the most habitat restricted species of Hickory we have.  Found in wet bottomland and floodplain forests along streams and rivers as well as terraces and lower slopes in valleys, C. laciniosa is rarely found growing anywhere else.  As you will see later in this post, the mature bark can be easily confused with the more or less identical bark of another hickory, the Shagbark.  The best way to determine the two species in winter is by taking a look at the twigs.  Even though Sharbarks tend to grow on the higher and drier areas of the forest, I have seen them grow side by side Shellbarks in a bottomland forest on several occasions.  Shellbark Hickory twigs are a light orangish-tan color, stout and almost always glabrous (smooth, without hairs) while Shagbark twigs are darker brown colored, not typically as thick and quite hairy. While obviously not noticeable during the winter months, Shellbarks almost always have 7 leaflets per leaf versus the typical 5 on Shagbarks.  This acts as an easy separator during the growing season.

Twig with rachis
Typical form of the tree

Another helpful way to distinguish the two shaggy barked hickories is the presence of the rachis' over-wintering on the twigs, especially on younger trees.  The rachis is the long 'stem' that each leaflet (single, small 'leaf') attaches to to complete one, single hickory leaf.  In Shellbark's case just the leaflets tend to fall instead of the whole leaf; rachis and all, as seen in the picture above on the left.  C. laciniosa  tends to grow tall and straight with a round crown of thick, stubby branches on top.  These large trees can attain heights of over 100' tall and over 3 feet in diameter in the right conditions.  In fact, I have seen an old-growth shellbark growing in a wet flatwoods in southwestern Indiana that was approaching 150 feet in height with no branches for the first 80+ feet!


Shagbark Hickory bark
Shagbark Hickory bud

Up next to help dilute the confusion between the two is Shagbark Hickory.  In the picture above you can see the bark is the same as the aforementioned Shellbark Hickory in that the mature bark splits and begins to peel away from the trunk in long, curved strips.  Doing well in the moist soils of valleys and bottomlands to the dry upper slopes and ridge tops, C. ovata can be found growing in just about any part of a deciduous forest.  As previously mentioned, the twigs of the Shagbark are a dark brown and hairy with a pinkish terminal bud that is flanked by darker, purplish bud scales.  This is one of most commonly found hickories, occurring in every county in Ohio.   The new-growth twigs on this hickory tend to be rather hairy and noticeably darker and not as stout as the Shellbark.

Young bark of Shagbark
Typical crown form

The bark of younger Shagbarks is slow to get peeling and stays tight against the tree until small fissures form as cracks up and down the truck as seen in the picture on the left.  Given time these trees will grow to have the same pattern and shape as the Shellbark Hickory.  I've seen where some people take the long strips of bark from Shagbark hickories and boil them down to make Hickory syrup.  It's not as sweet as Maple syrup but is said to have a unique, smokey taste all its own.  I'd love to give it a try sometime whenever given the chance.

BITTERNUT HICKORY (Carya cordiformis)

Bitternut Hickory
Bitternut Hickory bark

Next is the first of the three 'tight bark' hickories and probably one of, if not the easiest tree to identify in Ohio when you can take a look at the buds on the twig.  Bitternut Hickory (C. cordiformis) has very smooth, thin and light grey colored twigs that are adorned with sulfur-yellow, naked buds unlike any other tree or shrub inside our state.  All the other hickories have scaled buds which have different layers or coats of 'shells' on the bud however C. cordiformis's bud has no layered or peeling scales.  The number of leaflets can range from 7-11 per leaf but seem to regularly average 9 in our state.  The individual leaflets also have a tendency to be the most lanceolate and thin.  The bark is thinly furrowed and does not peel or appear shaggy at all.  Towards the base of the trunk the bark almost looks as though a vandal with a spray can gave the bark a thin, silvery and shiny coat of paint. 

Bitternut twig and buds
Bitternut bud

On the left is a close-up, macro shot of the bud to show just how unique and alien it really looks.  The smooth twigs are covered in small, light colored 'dots' called lenticels.  A lenticels job is to act as a pore for the twig and tree and allow gas (mostly CO2 and oxygen) to move in and out of the plant.  Most commonly found growing in moist soils and on lower slopes, Bitternuts can really be found growing throughout a forests topography.  It is another very common tree found in every area of Ohio.  It gets its name from the small, inedible hickory nuts it produces each season.  While most hickory nuts are very palatable and tasty the Bitternuts, as the name suggests, are very bitter and are largely left alone by wildlife except in the most desperate of situations.  Like the rest of the hickory species this tree can attain great size and serve as a dominant member of the forest canopy.  

Old growth Bitternut
Blogger and old growth Bitternut

On my family's farm in Clark county, Ohio there is a small woodland patch that has several old-growth Bitternut Hickories that are over 150 years of age.  The above pictures show the largest one in summer as well as your blogger standing next to it in its dormant, winter state.  Over 100' tall (I've measured the tallest at 115') and approaching 4 feet in diameter, these behemoths show just how large this relatively slow growing tree can get when given the time and resources.

MOCKERNUT HICKORY (Carya tomentosa)

Mockernut bark
Mockernut twig and bud

Mockernut Hickory (C. tomentosa) gets its latin scientific epithet from the word 'tomentose' which means covered in dense hairs, which describes the twig and buds pretty accurately.  The twigs are brown in color and have a pretty hairy feel and look to them especially towards the the end of twig (new growth).  The terminal bud (bud at the end of the twig) is another way to tell this species apart.  The buds light yellow in color and have a "hershey kiss" look to them or to me look like a pear sitting upright.  During the growing season the leaflets number from 7 to 9 but are predominately 7.  The undersides of the leaves and rachis is very hairy.  The bark is similar to that of C. cordiformis, as it is silver-grey in color and is tight against the tree with no peeling or shedding.  Found growing usually on the higher slopes and well drained ridges, Mockernut is predominantly found in the eastern half of our state.

Typically growth form and habit
Young Mockernut bark

If confused by the bark and a twig is not reachable the best way to determine this from a Bitternut Hickory is to take a look at the crown of branches and twigs.  Bitternut branches tend to be long and thin with the ends coming to a point that appear to have no bud while Mockernut's branches a shorter, more stout and thick and end with a fat, round bud at the end.  Once you get to know your trees better it becomes easier to distinguish the bark between C. cordiformis and C. tomentosa without having to look at the other features, but when in doubt look up.  The bark of young Mockernuts can be confused with the young bark of Shagbarks (before any peeling/fissuring) and even more so with Bitternuts.  Once again, looking at the twigs and buds can help rule out the other species.

PIGNUT HICKORY (Carya glabra)

Pignut growth habit and form
Pignut twig and bud

The final species of hickory to be identified is the Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra).  The latin scientific epithet for this tree is just the opposite of the Mockernut.  Glabra comes from the word 'glabrous' which means smooth and without hairs.  This is describing the twig of this hickory species which is dark brown, smooth and on average the thinnest.  The buds are scaled and can look like miniature, hairless versions of their Shagbark counterpart.  The leaflets are almost always 5 in number and have a slender, glabrous rachis much like the twig.  Most commonly found on the drier soils of the upper slopes in the forest community, C. glabra can, like many of the other hickories previously discussed, occur in other habitats where the soils are well-drained.  The range within Ohio is very similar to that of the Mockernut Hickory in the fact it resides in the eastern half of the state with a few disjunct populations in the northwestern section.

Typical Pignut bark
Shaggier bark (perhaps Red Hickory variety)

Pignut Hickory has the unique pleasure in the Ohio hickories of being in the middle between loose-barked and tight-barked trees.  On the right is a mature Pignut that has small pieces of bark slightly peeling away from the tree.  If confused on whether or not the tree is a Pignut or Shagbark/Shellbark remember that the twigs on the Pignut are thin and the buds small, while the Shag and Shellbark are stout and large.  A simple look up into the canopy should do the trick to resolve this problem in the field.  The picture on the left is of a Pignut with a considerable amount more bark peeling away from the trunk.   I have read and observed that the closely related Red Hickory's (C. ovalis) bark is slightly more shaggy than that of the average Pignut while the twigs are mostly the same with perhaps C. ovalis's being a bit more stout.  I suspect due to the shaggier appearance of the specimen pictured on the left that it is a Red Hickory rather than a Pignut.  If the leaves were present it would go a ways in helping to I.D. this tree as C. ovalis has 7 leaflets per rachis while C. glabra only has 5.

To wrap things up let's come back to the first picture I posted with all five species twigs represented in a line up.  I didn't line these up in just any random order but in regards to where you will most likely (key word being likely) find them in regards to where you are topographically in the forest community.  When looking at a hickory tree species it is helpful to notice where you are on the aspect of the slope to help rule out or tie in which species to consider.

Shellbark, Bitternut, Pignut, Mockernut and Shagbark

The Shellbark starts things off in the bottomlands and at the lowest points.  Bitternut is next up and is found in the bottomlands as well the lower, more moist slopes.  As you go farther up Pignut can be found from the lower slopes up to the higher ridges.  Mockernut sticks to the higher slopes and ridge tops while Shagbark dominates the highest and usually driest areas.  Remember that the trees don't read the books and this is only a guideline for the most typical situation but has provided to be an important resource in the past.

Well I hope you walk away from this post more confident in your abilities to correctly I.D. our hickories in their hibernative, winter state.  I plan on doing other posts in the future breaking down more families and genus' of our native trees. 

Some Over-Wintering Greenery

Winter is by and far the easiest season to complain about and as such feels to last the longest.  The summer greens and blues fade into the drab browns and grays that adorn the landscape for months on end and can cause even the cheeriest of people to be a bit grumpy come January and February.  I do my best to take the winter months in stride and spend my days outside admiring and studying the changes one can only see during this time of year.  Despite the seemingly boring and cold months of winter a good botanist won't take this 'down time' sitting inside wishing for warmer and greener days.  It's important to not only know the plants during antithesis but also any other time of the year.  Not all plants disappear during the winter even though they met their seasonal fate with the first freeze months ago.  Many persist through the winter and let sharp-eyed hikers pick up on their evidence along the trails.  Let's take a look at a few of my favorite species I came across on a hike through Zaleski state forest the other day.

Over-wintering leaf
Puttyroot orchid

Poking out of the ground at the base of a Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) are the over-wintering leaves of the Puttyroot Orchid (Aplectrum hyemale).  This plant does best in rich, moist deciduous woods which is reason why it is most common in the southern half of the state and in the northeast quarter.   Commonly found in ravines and along the high terraces of streams and rivers (the latter being where this colony was found), this orchid can really be found in any appropriate forest community.  A. hyemale received its name from the mucilaginous fluid released from its root tubers when crushed and was used by early settlers as a glue to fix broken pottery while the Native Americans used it as a topical treatment for sores. 

Last year's emptied seed capsules
Leaf with attached corms

Aplectrum has a much different vegetative lifecycle than that of most plants.  A large majority of plants have a growing season of spring to autumn however this orchid reverses that order and grows from autumn to spring.  Come November the corms send up a single leaf that is light green in color and has many parallel white lines running down the center.  This robust and tough leaf survives the hardships of winter and is able to photosynthesize by avoiding the light competition during the normal growing season.  With the leaves completely off the trees and no plants growing above or around it, the leaf can soak up as much winter sunlight as nature can offer.  This leaf begins to wilt and wither just before the flowering stalk is sent up in mid-May and is completely decomposed and gone shortly after antithesis.  Usually only a few individuals within a colony of A. hyemale flower each season and can be hidden by surrounding vegetation quite easily causing this to a rather hard plant to find.  The flowers being a green color tinged with purple doesn't make the hunt any easier.   Winter is the best time to go looking for this plant when the large, green leaves stick out like a sore thumb among the brown fallen leaves.  Luckily the colony I stumbled across had a flowering stalk left over to show the dried capsules emptied of their tiny, minute seeds.  In late summer and early fall this is the only evidence that this plant ever existed at that spot; no leaf for another couple months and no colorful flowers to catch the eye.
After standing up and brushing myself off from my visit with Aplectrum hyemale it was only a few minutes later I found Ohio's only other orchid that sends up an over-wintering leaf, the Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor).

Previous year's Tipularia capsules
Over-wintering leaf of Tipularia orchid

Worldwide there are only three species of Tipularia that are known to exist; two make their home in Asia and our T. discolor here in North America.  All three send up a single leaf each winter to provide the same photosynthesis purposes as the previously mentioned Puttyroot orchid.  This species of orchid has a pretty wide range of preferable habitat within its deciduous forest home.  From old-growth forests to second growth, mesic woods to dry or rugged landscapes to flat, this orchid has been recorded growing in all of those instances.  One critical aspect however is the pH of the soil where it grows.  This orchid is largely absent from areas that are composed mainly of basic soils, doing much better in acidic to neutral conditions.  The only large difference in the life history of this plant in regards to A. hyemale is that T. discolor blooms in the summer rather than spring.

An interesting note about this species is its noticeable range extension over the past century.  Not known to exist in Illinois until 1958, this orchid has been found in several more counties as time has gone on as well as been found for the first time in Missouri in the 1980's.  Several disjunct populations have been discovered in Indiana and Michigan counties as well that had no historical documentation of being found there previously.  The cause of this range expansion most likely can be chalked up to natural phenomenon.  Many, many native plants of the past have extended and restricted their natural ranges through the natural course of time, it's just a unique and exciting opportunity to witness and document this as it happens.
At a later time I want to get into depth about the pollination of this plant as its one of the most unique and interesting of any orchid but it's time to move on to another persisting plant of winter.

Chimaphila maculata
Chimaphila maculata

Spotted Pipsissewa, Spotted Wintergreen, Striped Prince's it what you want but its botanical name is Chimaphila maculata.  This cute, little evergreen herb can be commonly found in a variety of sandy, acidic and dry environments such as pine stands, mixed oak woodlands and well-drained upland forests.  In Ohio the range is almost entirely in the eastern half of the state.  Common interstate highways can be a excellent way to provide an instantly communicable means of a plants range and with this plant it comes in pretty handy.  Almost every county in our state east of I-71 has this plant within its boundries, while only a few to the west can claim the same.  Creeping rhizomes sending up new stems can cause this plant to colonize an area and provide a beautiful mat of thick, dark green leaves with a striking white stripe down the middle.  In mid-summer stalks arise from the stems with a single whitish/pink flower per stalk to be pollinated by varying insects.  These stalks with their swollen capsules full of seeds can persist throughout the winter as shown in the photograph above.

Goodyera pubescens leaves
Old seed capsule

Arguably our states most common and easily found orchid is the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid (Goodyera pubescens).  The beautiful rosette of evergreen leaves this species displays is one of my favorite sights any time of the year.  Each leaf has a network of veins branching out across its surface creating almost a stained glass look.  Unfortunately this beauty is noticed by many who are not willing to just look with their eyes.  Thousands of these plants end up in terrariums and in plant stores for sale where they don't last long.  Diggings like these have caused sharp population declines in some areas and even extirpation in severe cases.

Close up of seed capsule
Frequently found in well-drained upland forests that have soil of an acidic makeup as well as moss covered rocks, ledges and outcrops.  Anyone can see the leaves anytime of the year but it takes a botanist willing to brave the heat and humidity of July to see this plant in flower.  Only older, matured plants send up an a raceme of tiny, white flowers to be pollinated by a a species of tiny bees.  The flowering stalk (as shown above) can persist throughout the winter as it releases its dust sized seeds to the wind.

Rock Polypody Fern

Growing right next to each other on a moss covered rock were the last two species I found interesting on my hike.  On the left is Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens), a creeping evergreen woody plant.  It can grow to form large mats on the ground and give a pretty green tinge to the blandness of the winter scene.  It grows in similar habitat to the aforementioned G. pubescens and is commonly found growing in rocky, inhospitable situations.  The small, red berries (one can be seen peeking out in the center of the picture) persist throughout the winter and are eaten by a variety of woodland critters and birds.

On the right is a species of fern found growing in similar situations as Partridgeberry, Rock Polypody (Polypodium virginianum).  The fronds are evergreen that can grow to be 6 to 12 inches long and shrivel up depending on how much moisture they have.  The tiny brown spots on the underside of the fronds are the spores which is how ferns reproduce.  In future posts I plan on getting into the many species of ferns Ohio has to offer but I'll leave it with just the one for today.