Field Trip: Alaska Botanical Garden

While in Anchorage for the Alaska Invasive Species Workshop, I had the chance to visit the Alaska Botanical Garden. As you might expect, the end of October is not the ideal time to be visiting an Alaskan garden, but it was still fun to walk around and imagine what things might look like in their prime while appreciating the year-round beauty that many plants offer.

I arrived on a Saturday morning. The garden was open, but no one else appeared to be around. I walked along the pathways that brought me to all the different cultivated spaces, which cover only a fraction of the 110 acre property. Nervous about bears (signs throughout the garden kept reminding me to be “bear aware”) and wanting to get out of the cold, I skipped the 1.1 mile nature trail that would have taken me around the perimeter of the garden.

While my visit was brief and most of the plants had already gone dormant, I still enjoyed the garden and will make it a point to return if I ever find myself in the area again. In the meantime, here are a few photos I took on that chilly October morning. Apologies in advance as all photos were taken using my cell phone, which is not ideal.

Fruits of highbush cranberry, also known as mooseberry or squashberry (Viburnum edule)

bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia)

Entrance to the Junior Master Gardener Plot (a.k.a. Children’s Garden)

Ursus botanicus

Astilbe x arendsii ‘Bridal Veil’

alpine cinquefoil (Potentilla villosa)

Entrance to the Herb Garden

Rock Garden maintained by Alaska Rock Garden Society

One of several tufa troughs planted with alpine plants in the Rock Garden

Another tufa trough in the Rock Garden

snowbells (Soldanella sp.)

Saxifraga paniculata var. minutifolia ‘Red-backed Spider’

Holzhaufen or Holz Hausen (a.k.a. German woodpile). Check out this YouTube video to learn how to build your own round woodpile.

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More Awkward Botany Field Trips:

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Making the Case for Saving Species

It is no question that the human species has had a dramatic impact on the planet. As our population has grown and we have spread ourselves across the globe, our presence has altered every ecosystem we have come into contact with. Our footprints can be detected even in areas of the planet uninhabited by humans. As awareness of our impact has increased, we have made efforts to reduce it. However, much of the damage we have caused is irreversible – we can’t bring species back from extinction and we can’t replace mountaintops. Furthermore, for better or for worse our continued existence – despite efforts to minimize our negative influence – will continue to be impactful. This is the nature of being human. It is the nature of all living things, really. As John Muir said, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” That we are cognizant of that fact puts us at a crossroads – do we make a concerted effort to protect and save other species from the negative aspects of our presence or do we simply go on with our lives and let come what may?

The quandary isn’t that black and white, obviously. For one thing, cleaning up polluted air, water, and soil is beneficial to humans and has the side benefit of improving the lives of other species. Protecting biodiversity is also in our best interest, because who knows what medicine, food, fiber, or other resource is out there in some living thing yet to be discovered that might be useful to us. On the other hand, putting our own interests aside, what about protecting other species and habitats just to protect them? Purely altruistically. That seems to be the question at the crux of an article by Emma Marris in the May/June 2015 issue of Orion entitled, “Handle with Care: The Case for Doing All We Can to Save Threatened Species.” [Listen to a brief discussion with Marris about the article here.]

The main character in Marris’ article is the whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis), a species whose native habitat is high in mountain ranges of western United States and Canada. Whitebark pines thrive in areas few other trees can, living to ages greater than 1,000 years. Here is how Marris describes them:

Whitebark pine’s ecological niche is the edge of existence. The trees are found on the highest, driest, coldest, rockiest, and windiest slopes. While lodgepole and ponderosa pine grow in vast stands of tall, healthy-looking trees, slow-growing whitebarks are tortured by extremes into individualized, flayed forms, swollen with massive boles from frost damage. Their suffering makes them beautiful.

photo credit: www.eol.org

photo credit: www.eol.org

But in recent years they have been suffering more than usual. White pine blister rust, an introduced pathogen, is killing the trees. The native mountain pine beetle is also taking them out. Additional threats include climate change and an increased number, extent, and intensity of wildfires. Combined, these threats have been impactful enough that the species is listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List where it is described as “experiencing serious decline.”

So people are taking action. In Oregon’s Crater Lake National Park, botanist Jen Beck is part of an effort to select blister rust resistant trees and plant them in their native habitats within the park. Hundreds have been planted, and more are on their way. Great effort is taken to minimize human impact and to plant the trees as nature would, with the vision being that blister rust resistant trees will replace those that are dying and that trees with rust resistant genes will dominate the population.

But Beck faces opposition, and not just from challenges like seedlings being trampled by visitors or a warming climate inviting mountain hemlocks and other trees into whitebark pine’s native range, but by people who argue that the trees shouldn’t be planted there in the first place – that what is “wild” should be left alone. Marris specifically calls out a group called Wilderness Watch. They and other groups like them profess a “leave-it alone ethic.” Rather than be arrogant enough to assume that we can “control or fix disrupted nature,” we should respect the “self-willed spirit of the wild world.” Proponents of nonintervention criticize what they call “new environmentalism” and its efforts to engineer or manage landscapes, fearing that these actions are “morally empty” and that “rearranging bits of the natural world” lacks soul and will ultimately serve to benefit humans.

In her article, Marris argues against this approach. First off, the human footprint is too large, and for natural areas to “continue to look and function the way they did hundreds of years ago” will require “lots of human help.” Additionally, nonintervention environmentalism “perpetuates a false premise that humans don’t belong in nature,” and if we decide not to work to protect, save, or restore species and habitats that have been negatively affected by our actions simply because we are “in thrall to wildness”, we will be withdrawing with “blood on our hands.” Marris sums up her position succinctly in the following statement:

We have to do whatever it takes to keep ecosystems robust and species from extinction in the face of things like climate change. And if that means that some ecosystems aren’t going to be as pretty to our eyes, or as wild, or won’t hew to some historical baseline that seems important to us, then so be it. We should put the continued existence of other species before our ideas of where or how they should live.

Marris acknowledges that there are risks to this approach. “Our meddling” may save species, but it could also backfire. But that doesn’t mean the effort wasn’t worth it. We can learn from our mistakes and we can make improvements to our methods. Some sites can even be cordoned off as areas of nonintervention simply so that we can learn from them. The ultimate goal, however, should be to save as many species and to keep as much of their habitat intact as possible. Putting “other species first, and our relationship with them second” is what Marris considers to be a “truly humble” stance in our role as part of nature.

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

Cones of whitebark pine, Pinus albicaulis (photo credit: wikimedia commons)

The dichotomy presented in this article is a tough one, and one that will be debated (in my mind particularly) long into the future. If you would like to share your thoughts with me about this issue, do so in the comment section below or by sending me a private message through the contact page.

Other article reviews on Awkward Botany

Moss Reanimated After 1,500 Years in Permafrost

Some plants die hard. At least that seems to be the lesson learned after moss retrieved from deep within the frozen ground of Antarctica was found to still have life left in it. Following in the footsteps of the discovery by a separate research team of moss revived after spending 4oo years beneath glacial ice, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Reading set out to determine the viability of the innards of a moss bank encased in permafrost.

Mosses are ancient plants, predecessors to the more recently evolved (at least on a geological timescale) vascular plants. They produce no flowers or seeds and have no roots. Their leaves carry out photosynthesis – just like other plants – but they also absorb water and nutrients. There are about 12,000 species of mosses found in a wide range of habitats. Because they lack a vascular system, mosses require a damp environment (or at least one that is seasonally damp). While commonly seen growing in shady locations, there are some moss species that thrive in full sun, such as those growing on rocks in alpine environments. Mosses are the dominant vegetation in the polar regions where they can form thick moss banks in which an actively growing layer is underlain with moss that has slowly become incorporated into the permafrost.

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The researchers in this study, which was published in the latest issue of Current Biology, took a core sample of a moss bank on Signy Island, Antarctica. The moss bank consisted of a single species – Chorisodontium aciphyllum. The sample core went 138 centimeters (4.5 feet) deep, and  radio carbon dating of material taken from near the bottom of the core gave it an age of between 1533-1697 years old. The core was cut into several sections and then exposed to temperature and light conditions similar to the moss’s native environment. New growth occurred in many of the sections, but the most impressive finding was that after only 22 days, growth was noted in the 121-138 cm section, demonstrating that even after being frozen for more than 1500 years the moss was still alive. It was simply in a cryptobiotic state – a state in which all metabolic processes pause due to adverse environmental conditions.

signy research stationSigny Research Station on Signy Island (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Certain microbial life has been known to survive in a cryptobiotic state for tens of thousands of years, however this is the first time that a multicellular organism has been found to survive in such a state for longer than a few decades. So is their a moss species out there that has been surviving frozen conditions for even longer? It’s quite possible. And from an ecological standpoint, suspended animation is essential in order for polar mosses to survive periodic ice ages. Perhaps that’s why they have developed this remarkable trait.

Read more about this study here and here.

A Plant Community’s Response to Climate Change

The threat of ensuing climate change has led many to consider what the future might look like for life on earth. Plant life will undoubtedly be affected, and numerous observations have already been made indicating that plants and plant communities are responding to changing climates.

A recent study, published in Ecology and Evolution, documented changes in the lower elevation boundaries and elevation ranges of common plants found on the Santa Catalina Mountains (near Tucson, Arizona). A study of this caliber is rare because there is relatively little data available to observe such changes over a long period of time. The scientists that carried out this study were able to use survey data collected by Robert Whittaker (the father of modern plant ecology) and William Niering in 1963. Whittaker and Niering conducted an extensive survey of plants along the Catalina Highway, which still exists today and runs along the southern slopes of the Santa Catalinas. Following similar data collection methods, researchers from the University of Arizona surveyed plants along the Catalina Highway nearly 50 years after the original survey. What they found confirmed predictions: montane plants in the southwest are responding to a warmer and drier climate by shifting their lower elevation limits upward.

The average annual air temperature in this region has increased an average of 0.25 degrees Celsius per decade since 1949. Also, rainfall has decreased significantly since Whittaker and Niering’s original plant survey. Twenty seven of the most common plant species were selected from the new survey and compared to the original survey data. Fifteen of the twenty seven species (56%) have significantly shifted their lower elevation boundaries, moving further up the slopes of the mountains to escape higher temperatures and reduced rainfall. Some of the plant species have also shifted their upper elevation boundaries, with four of them moving further upslope and eight of them moving further downslope.

The authors of this study state that “even a casual observer could recognize changes in plant elevation boundaries.” Alligator juniper, bracken fern, beargrass, and sotol are examples of plants in the Catalinas that have noticeably migrated upslope and are no longer found at lower elevations where they were once common. Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana), for one, was once documented growing at least as low as 3500 feet, but now does not occur until after the 5000 feet mark.

This rare opportunity to compare current plant survey data with old data paints a stark picture regarding the effects of climate change. As plants and animals are forced upslope to escape warmer and drier climates, they may eventually find themselves with nowhere to go and ultimately end up extinct, reducing overall biodiversity on the planet. The authors of this study conclude their findings with this statement: “The shifts in plant ranges we observed in the Santa Catalina Mountains indicate that the area occupied by montane woodland and conifer forests in the Desert Southwest is likely to decrease even more with predicted increases in temperature, and that regional plant community composition has and will continue to change with further warming as plant species respond individualistically to changing climates.”

Read more about this study at the University of Arizona news site.

alligator juniper_juniperus deppeana

Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana)

photo credit: wikimedia commons

Rock Gardens: An Introduction

Recently I helped build and plant a rock garden. It was a first for me, but something I had been wanting to do for a while. Rock gardens consist of plants that grow in rocky environments, such as rock outcrops on mountains or accumulations of rocks at the bases of cliffs or steep slopes. Rock garden plants are commonly called alpine plants – alpine refers to an environment that is very high in elevation or, in other words, in mountains above the tree line. Not all rock garden plants are native to alpine environments; however, in the rock garden community, the term “alpine” often refers to small, hardy plants that are ideal for rock gardens.

A rock garden mimics the environments of alpine plants by incorporating a mixture of large and small rocks placed in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Well-draining soil is brought in to fill the spaces between the rocks, and the plants are planted in these spaces. Rock garden plants are typically small and compact. Cushion plants (Silene acaulis, Saxifraga spp., etc.) are one example of a type of rock garden plant. Other popular rock garden plants include the following genera: Pulsatilla, Viola, SedumDaphne, DelospermaDianthus, Thymus, Primula, and Scutellaria. The list goes on. Many rock garden plants can be found at local garden centers, while others will require some searching, but there should be enough of them available to at least get you started.

A rock garden doesn’t have to mean a scattering of rocks laid out on the ground. They can also be built in raised beds or they can consist of a series of troughs or planters. Rock garden troughs are typically made of tufa or hypertufa. Tufa is a naturally occurring variety of limestone. Hypertufa is a human-made version of tufa that is composed of various aggregates cemented together.

To learn more about rock gardening and to join a community of rock gardeners, check out the North American Rock Garden Society, and stay tuned to Awkward Botany for future posts on rock gardens.

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Here is an example of a rock garden in a hypertufa trough. You can see this and more like it at Idaho Botanical Garden.

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Mountain Kittentails

Spring has sprung, which is evidenced by warming temperatures, lengthening daylight, and plants turning green and producing flowers. For those of us living at low elevations, signs of spring have been around for a while. Our landscapes are green again and gardens are coming to life. However, up in the mountains (and at higher latitudes), spring takes a bit longer to manifest itself. Snow is still the dominant groundcover, and freezing temperatures remain the norm. Yet even in these harsh conditions there are signs of spring. The flowers of the perennial forb, mountain kittentails (Synthyris missurica), are one of those signs.

Mountain kittentails are one of the earliest plants to flower in the mountains, often flowering while there is still snow on the ground. For this reason, their flowers are not commonly seen in the wild. Their range extends from Washington and Oregon down into northern California and across into Idaho and Montana. They occur in rocky, shady areas at mid to high elevations. Mountain kittentails are low growing with rounded, toothed leaves. Their flowers appear in tight clusters on upright stalks and are blue to purple in color. They are a member of the figwort family (Scrophulariaceae), sharing that distinction with a popular group of flowering plants that is common in the west, the penstemons. Mountain kittentails were first collected during the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806. The expedition discovered this plant as they passed through the mountains of northern Idaho.

Mountain kittentails are not a commonly cultivated plant, but the Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho happens to have a few growing in one of their native plant collections, giving more people an opportunity to see them in bloom. Because the garden is located in a valley, their mountain kittentails flower a few weeks earlier than their native counterparts, which means you’ve probably already missed them – but there’s always next year!

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Cushion Plants and Species Richness

Cushion plants are in the news. A study published in the journal, Ecology Letters, has demonstrated that cushion plants can help increase species richness (the number of unique species in an ecological community) by modifying their micro-environment, which in turn allows certain species to exist in the community that would otherwise be unable to survive the harsh conditions. Other studies have had similar conclusions, but what is unique about this study is how extensive it was, involving 77 alpine plant communities on 5 continents.

The term “cushion plant” refers to a specific growth form. It describes a plant that grows low to the ground, has numerous small leaves and a closed, tightly-packed canopy with dense non-photosynthetic living and dead plant tissues below the canopy. Above ground it appears as a lush, thick, spreading, green mat; below ground it has a long taproot and an extensive root system. There are around 338 species of cushion plants, spanning 78 genera and 34 plant families, which can be found around the world mainly in alpine (high-altitude, tree-less) environments. Around half of the cushion plant species are native to the Andes in South America.

So, how are cushion plants able to increase species richness in their communities? There are a few unique characteristics of cushion plants that lead to this result:

– The tightly-packed, low to the ground growth form of cushion plants helps to modify the temperature of the underlying soil, working as a living mulch to keep the ground warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Plants that otherwise could not abide in extremely cold soil conditions, can thrive inside of a cushion plant due to this modification.

– The shading and covering of the ground also helps to maintain a higher level of soil moisture below cushion plants, resulting in more available water throughout the growing season, which is especially important during warm months of the year when water becomes scarce elsewhere.

– Cushion plants may also increase nutrient availability in the surrounding soil. This could be due to their long taproots and extensive root systems allowing them to “mine” the soil and pull up nutrients (and water) that would otherwise be unavailable to shallow-rooted plants. It could also be due to the high degree of dead plant material found within cushion plants that leads to an increase in the amount of organic material in the soil below. The warm, moist conditions of a cushion plant’s underbelly could speed up the rate of decomposition and nutrient cycling, making essential nutrients available to plants growing within them.

Because of these features, cushion plants act as “nurse plants” to species that grow within their mats, providing them with more accommodating soil temperatures, greater access to water, and a higher level of nutrients compared to the surrounding open ground. Some of these plant species would have little or no chance of survival in the harsh environment outside of the cushion plant. Cushion plants are also considered foundation species or keystone species because they play such a strong role in structuring their ecological community, affecting the diversity of species found in the landscape and the abundances of those species.

Silene acualis

A common and popular cushion plant: Silene acaulis. Common name: moss campion. Plant family: Caryophyllaceae. Occurs in high mountains of North America and Eurasia. Photo credit: wikimedia commons.

cushion plant as nurse plant

An example of a cushion plant with another plant species growing within it. Photo credit: wikimedia commons.