When Acorn Masts, Rodents, and Lyme Disease Collide

“‘Mast years’ is an old term used to describe years when beeches and oaks set seed. In these years of plenty, wild boar can triple their birth rate because they find enough to eat in the forestes over the winter… The year following a mast year, wild boar numbers usually crash because the beeches and oaks are taking a time-out and the forest floor is bare once again.” — The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben

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When a plant population’s annual production of seeds is highly variable and synchronous, it is considered a masting or mast seeding species. Why and how masting happens is a bit of a mystery, and efforts are underway to better understand this phenomenon. One thing is clear, boom and bust cycles can have dramatic effects on animals that use the fruits and seeds of these plants for food. Acorn production in oaks provides a stark example. As Koenig, et al. describe in Ecology (2015), a “variable acorn crop initiates a ‘chain reaction’ of responses that cascades through the ecosystem, affecting densities of deer, mice, ground-nesting birds, gypsy moths, and the tick vectors of Lyme disease.” The connection between mast seeding oaks and the prevalence of tick-borne pathogens is of particular interest considering the risks posed to humans.

Lyme disease is an infectious diesease caused by a bacterium vectored by ticks in the genus Ixodes. The life-cycle of a tick is generally 2 to 3 years, beginning after a larva hatches from an egg. From there the larva develops into a nymph and later an egg-laying adult, taking a blood meal each step of the way. Tick larvae feed on the blood of small rodents and birds, which is where they can pick up the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. After feeding, they develop into nymphs and go in search of another blood meal, perhaps another rodent or maybe something larger like a deer or a human. It is in their nymphal and adult stages that ticks transmit Lyme disease to humans. Nymphs tend to transmit the disease more frequently, partly because they go undetected more easily.

The risk to humans of being infected with Lyme disease varies year to year and is dependent largely on how many infected ticks are present. For this reason, it is important to understand the factors affecting the density of infected nymphs. In a study published in PLoS Biology (2006), Ostfeld, et al. collected data over a 13 year period in plots located in deciduous forests in the state of New York, a hotspot for Lyme disease. The predictors they considered included temperature, precipitation, acorn crop, and deer, white-footed mouse, and chipmunk abundances. Deer abundance and weather conditions had long been considered important in predicting the prevalence of ticks, but little attention had been paid to small mammals – the larval hosts for ticks – and the variability of acorn crops – an important food source for rodents.

deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) — via PhyloPic; user Mathilde Cordellier

The results of their study revealed a clear pathway – more acorns leads to more rodents which leads to more Lyme disease carrying nymphs. The process takes a couple of years. First, oak trees experience a mast year, flooding rodent populations with food. In the following year, the numbers of mice and chipmunks is unusually high. The year after that, there are lots and lots of nymphal ticks infected with Lyme-disease. The relationship is so direct that Richard Ostfeld claims, based on his research, that he can predict the incidence of Lyme disease among residents of New York and Connecticut based on when a mast year occurs. In a summer when there is an abundance of 2 -year-old oak seedlings in the surrounding forests, expect the infection rate of Lyme disease to be high.

Lyme disease also occurs in regions where oak trees are not present or are uncommon, so variability in acorn crops isn’t always the best predictor. The researchers acknowledge that acorn abundance is not going to be “a universal predictor of risk;” instead, anything that leads to an increase in rodent populations, whether it is some other food source or a lack of predators, may be a key indicator since rodents are reservoir hosts of Lyme disease.

A study published in Parasites and Vectors (2020) looked at the effects of rodent density on a number of tick-borne pathogens. They confirmed that an “increase in rodent density positively affects populations of nymphal ticks in the following year;” yet, they could not confirm that rodent density is the sole predictor of disease risk. Other factors come into play depending on the disease in question, and further research is needed to improve models that predict tick-borne diseases. They did, however, confirm that, by flooding the food supply with acorns, mast years can boost populations of a variety of rodents.

white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) — via wikimedia commons; USGS

A fear of ticks is justified. They suck your blood after all, and besides that, they can transmit some pretty serious diseases. Arm yourself by educating yourself. One place to do that is with The Field Guides podcast. Their tick two-parter is well worth the listen (part one and part two). Not only will it give you valuable information in protecting yourself against ticks, it may also give you an appreciation for their prowess. Just maybe. See also their You Tube video demonstrating how to sample for ticks.

To Fruit or Not to Fruit – The Story of Mast Seeding

Perennial plants that are able to reproduce multiple times during their lifetime don’t always yield the same amount of seeds each time they reproduce. For some of these plants, there is a stark difference between high-yield years and low-yield years, with low-yield years outnumbering the occasional high-yield years. In years when yields are high, fruit production can seem excessive. This phenomenon is called masting, or mast seeding, and it takes place at the population level. That is, during a mast year, virtually all individuals in a population of a certain species synchronously produce a bumper crop of seeds.

Plants of many types can be masting species. Bitterroot milkvetch (Astragalus scaphoides) and a tussock grass known as Chionochloa pallens are masting species, for example. However, this behavior is most commonly observed in trees, notably nut producing trees like oaks, beeches, and pecans. As you might imagine, the boom and bust cycles of mast seeding plant populations can have dramatic ecological effects. Animals that eat acorns, for example, are greeted with a veritable buffet in a mast year, which can increase their rate of reproduction for a spell. Then, in years when acorns are scarce, the populations of those animals can plummet.

How and why masting happens is not well understood. It is particularly baffling because masting populations can cover considerably large geographic areas. How do trees covering several square miles all “know” that this is the year to really go for it? While a number of possible explanations have been explored, there is still much to learn, especially since so many different species growing in such varied environments exhibit this behavior.

A popular explanation for mast seeding is predator satiation. The fruits and seeds of plants are important food sources for many animals. When a population of plants produces fruit in an unusually high abundance, its predators won’t possibly be able to eat them all. At least a few seeds will be left behind and can sprout and grow into new plants. By satiating their predators they help ensure the survival of future generations. However, even if a plant species has evolved to behave this way, it still doesn’t explain how all the plants in a particular population seem to know when it’s time for another mast year.

Predator satiation is an example of an economy of scale, which essentially means that individual plants benefit when the population acts as a whole. Another economy of scale that helps explain masting is pollen coupling. This has to do with the timing of flowering in cross pollinating species. If individuals flower out of sync with one another, the opportunities for cross pollination are limited. However, if individuals in a population flower simultaneously, more flowers will be pollinated which leads to increased fruit and seed production.  For this to happen, there are at least two factors that come into play. First, the plants have to have enough resources to flower. Making flowers is expensive, and if the resources to do so (like carbon, nitrogen, and water) aren’t available, it won’t happen. Second, weather conditions have to work in their favor. Timing of flowering depends, not only on daylength, but on temperature, rainfall, and other local weather conditions. If individuals across a population aren’t experiencing similar weather, the timing of their flowering may be off.

pollen-producing (male) flowers of pecan (Carya illinoinensis) — via wikimedia commons; Clemson University

Resource matching and resource budgeting are other proposed explanations for masting. Since plants can only use the resources available to them for things like growth and reproduction, they vary each year in how much growing or reproducing they do. Theoretically, if plants in a population are all going to flower in the same year, they all have to have access to a similar amount of resources. Often, the year following a mast year, there is a significant drop in fruit production, as though the plants have used up all of their available resources for reproduction and are taking a break. Some hypothesize that masting is a result of resource storage, and that plants save up resources for several years until they have what they need for yet another big year.

Another thing to consider is how plant hormones might play a role in masting. Gene expression and environmental cues both result in hormonal responses in plants. As Bogdziewicz, et al. write in Ecology Letters (2020), “if hormones and the genes that control them are hypersensitive to an environmental signal, masting can be at least partially independent of resource- and pollen-based mechanisms.” This and other potential explanations for masting are, at this point, largely theoretical. In their paper, Bogdziewicz, et al. propose a number of ways that theoretical predictions can be experimentally tested. If the “research agenda” outlined in their paper is carried out, they believe it will “take the biology of masting from a largely observational field of ecology to one rooted in mechanistic understanding.”

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer proposes an additional explanation for the mechanisms behind masting – the trees are talking to one another. Not in the way that you and I might converse, but rather by sending signals through the air via pheromones and underground via complex fungal networks. There is already evidence for this behavior when it comes to plants defending themselves from predators and in sharing resources, so why not in planning when to reproduce? As Kimmerer writes regarding masting, “the trees act not as individuals, but somehow as a collective.” The question now is how.

seedlings of European beech (Fagus sylvatica), a mast-seeding species — via wikimedia commons; user: Beentree

Additional Resources:

Winter Trees and Shrubs: Northern Catalpa

The names of plants often contain clues that can either help with identification or that tell something about the plant’s history or use. The name, catalpa, is said to be derived from the Muscogee word, katałpa, meaning “winged head,” presumably referring to the tree’s winged seeds. Or maybe, as one writer speculates, it refers to the large, heart-shaped, floppy leaves that can make it look like the tree is “ready to take flight.” Or perhaps it’s a reference to the fluted, fused petals of the tree’s large, tubular flowers. I suppose it could mean any number of things, but I’m sticking with its seeds, which are packed by the dozens in the tree’s long, slender, bean-like fruits. The seeds are flat, pale brown, and equipped with paper thin, fringed appendages on either side that assist in wind dispersal – wings, in other words.

winged seeds of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Catalpa speciosa, or northern catalpa, is a relatively fast growing, short-lived tree native to the Midwest and one of only two species in the genus Catalpa found in the United States. Its distribution prior to the arrival of Europeans appears to have been restricted to a portion of the central Mississippi River valley, extending west into Arkansas, east into Tennessee, and north into Illinois and Indiana. It has since been widely planted outside of its native range, naturalizing in areas across the Midwest and eastern US. Early colonizers planted northern catalpa for use as fence posts, railroad ties, and firewood. Its popularity as an ornamental tree is not what it once was a century ago, but it is still occasionally planted in urban areas as a shade tree. Its messiness – littering the ground below with large leaves, flowers, and seed capsules – and its tendency to spread outside of cultivation into natural areas are reasons why it has fallen out of favor with some people.

The oval to heart-shaped, 8 to 12 inch long leaves with long petioles rotting on the ground below the tree are one sure sign that you’ve encountered a catalpa in the winter time. The leaves are some of the first to fall at the end of the growing season, briefly turning an unmemorable yellow before dropping.

leaf of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) in the winter with soft hairs on the underside still visible

The leaf arrangement on northern catalpa is whorled and sometimes opposite. The twigs are easy to identify due to several unique features. They are stout, round, and grayish brown with prominent lenticels. The leaf scars are large, rounded, and raised up on the twig, looking a bit like little suction cups. They are arranged in whorls of three, with one scar considerably smaller than the other two. A series of bundle traces inside the scar form an ellipse. The leaf buds are tiny compared to the scar and are protected by loose, pointed, brown bud scales. Northern catalpa twigs lack a terminal bud. In the winter, seed capsules or the stalk of an old inflorescence often remain attached to the terminal end of the twig. The pith inside of the twig is thick, white, and solid.

twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

pith inside twig of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Another common name for Catalpa speciosa is cigar tree, a name that comes from its up to 18 inch long, cigar-like seed capsules that hang from the otherwise naked tree throughout the winter. The sturdy, cylindrical pod starts out green in the summer and turns dark brown by late fall. Seed pods that haven’t fallen or already split open will dehisce in the spring time, releasing their papery seeds to the wind.

fruits of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) hanging from the tree in the winter

The young bark of northern catalpa is thin and easily damaged. As it matures, it becomes furrowed with either scaly ridges or blocky plates. Mature trees are generally twisted at the base but otherwise grow straight, reaching 30 to 60 feet tall (sometimes taller) with an open-rounded to narrow-oval crown.

maturing bark of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa)

Northern catalpa is one of the last trees to leaf out in the spring. In late spring or early summer, 10 inch long clusters of white, tubular flowers are produced at the tips of stems. Before the flowers open, they look a bit like popped popcorn, reminding me of a song from my childhood (which I will reluctantly leave right here). The margins of its trumpet-shaped petals are ruffled and there is yellow, orange, and/or purple spotting or streaking on the inside of the tubes.

flower of northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) just before it opens

More Winter Trees and Shrubs on Awkward Botany:

A Few More Snags Near Ketchum

Nearly a year has passed since Sierra and I took a trip to Ketchum, Idaho and I reported on some of the snags we encountered there. After months without a break, we finally had the chance to get away for a few days, and since we were desperate for some time off and a change of scenery, we couldn’t turn it down. Plus, we were heading back to Ketchum, so I knew I’d get to check out a few more snags. I was stoked.

I’m obsessed with trees, and my preference is for live ones (generally speaking), but dead trees are certainly gaining in popularity. After all, a dead tree isn’t truly dead. As its corpse slowly rots, it continues to harbor and support life inside and out in a substantial way. Forests need dead trees just as much as they need live trees. Plus, ecology aside, dead trees are no less photogenic than any other tree.

Death isn’t all bad. New life springs from decay. Given our current state of affairs, we need this reminder, and snags offer it in spades. As Sierra and I pulled up to the Apollo Creek trailhead, we looked out onto a section of forest that had clearly been ravaged by fire in the not too distant past. Acres of standing and fallen burned out trees bore witness to this fact. Yet among the dead, life flourished, as dozens of songbirds actively foraged on and around the charred trees. They were there for the insects that were feeding on the dead wood, fueling themselves for fall migration. In the spring, when the birds return, some of them may even nest in the cavities of the dead trees. They will feed again on the insects and raise up a new generation of songbirds that will do the same. In and among snags there are myriad examples just like this, showing us the countless ways in which death supports new life.

What follows is a small sampling of the snags we encountered this time around on our trip to Ketchum.

post-fire snag among many other snags

a series of cavities in a post-fire snag

snag surrounded by live trees

three new snags

fallen snag

broken snag

new tree emerging from a nurse stump

not a snag, but one of many lupines we saw flowering along Apollo Creek Trail

The Hidden Flowers of Viola

Violas keep a secret hidden below their foliage. Sometimes they even bury it shallowly in the soil near their roots. I suppose it’s not a secret really, just something out of sight. There isn’t a reason to show it off, after all. Showy flowers are showy for the sole purpose of attracting pollinators. If pollinators are unnecessary, there is no reason for showy flowers, or to even show your flowers at all. That’s the story behind the cleistogamous flowers of violas. They are a secret only because unless you know to look for them, you would have no idea they were there at all.

Cleistogamy means closed marriage, and it describes a self-pollinating flower whose petals remain sealed shut. The opposite of cleistogamy is chasmogamy (open marriage). Most of the flowers we are familiar with are chasmogamous. They open and expose their sex parts in order to allow for cross-pollination (self-pollination can also occur in such flowers). Violas have chasmogamous flowers too. They are the familiar five-petaled flowers raised up on slender stalks above the green foliage. Cross-pollination occurs in these flowers, and seed-bearing fruits are the result. Perhaps as a way to ensure reproduction, violas also produce cleistogamous flowers, buried below their leaves.

an illustration of the cleistogamous flower of Viola sylvatica opened to reveal its sex parts — via wikimedia commons

Flowers are expensive things to make, especially when the goal is to attract pollinators. Colorful petals, nectar, nutritious pollen, and other features that help advertise to potential pollinators all require significant resources. All this effort is worth it when it results in the ample production of viable seeds, but what if it doesn’t? Having a method for self-pollination ensures that reproduction will proceed in the absence of pollinators or in the event that floral visitors don’t get the job done. A downside, of course, is that a seed produced via self-pollination is essentially a clone of the parent plant. There will be no mixing of genes with other individuals. This isn’t necessarily bad, at least in the short term, but it has its downsides. A good strategy is a mixture of both cross- and self-pollination – a strategy that violas employ.

The cleistogamous flowers of violas generally appear in the summer or fall, after the chasmogamous flowers have done their thing. The fruits they form split open when mature and deposit their seeds directly below the parent plant. Some are also carried away by ants and dispersed to new locations. Seeds produced in these hidden flowers are generally superior and more abundant compared to those produced by their showy counterparts. People who find violas to be a troublesome lawn weed – expanding far and wide to the exclusion of turfgrass – have these hidden flowers to blame.

That being said, there is a defense for violas. In the book The Living Landscape by Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy, Tallamy writes: “Plants such as the common blue violet (Viola sororia), long dismissed by gardeners as a weed, can be reconstituted as desirable components of the herbaceous layer when their ecosystem functionality is re-evaluated. Violets are the sole larval food source for fritillary butterflies. Eliminating violets eliminates fritillaries, but finding ways to incorporate violets in garden design supports fritillaries.”

sweet violet (Viola odorata)

In my search for the cleistogamous flowers of viola, I dug up a sweet violet (Viola odorata). I was too late to catch it in bloom, but the product of its flowers – round, purple, fuzzy fruits – were revealed as I uprooted the plant. Some of the fruits were already opening, exposing shiny, light brown seeds with prominent, white elaiosomes, there to tempt ants into aiding in their dispersal. I may have missed getting to see what John Eastman calls “violet’s most important flowers,” but the product of these flowers was certainly worth the effort.

Fruits formed from the cleistogamous flowers of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

Up close and personal with the fruit of a cleistogamous flower

The seeds (elaiosomes included) produced by the cleistogamous flower of sweet violet (Viola odorata)

See Also:

Winter Interest in the Lower Boise Foothills

The Boise Foothills, a hilly landscape largely dominated by shrubs and grasses, are a picturesque setting any time of the year. They are particularly beautiful in the spring when a wide array of spring flowering plants are in bloom, and then again in late summer and early fall when a smaller selection of plants flower. But even when there aren’t flowers to see, plants and other features in the Foothills continue to offer interest. Their beauty may be more subtle and not as immediately striking as certain flowers can be, but they catch the eye nonetheless. Appeal can be found in things like gnarled, dead sagebrush branches, lichen covered rocks, and fading seed heads. Because the lower Boise Foothills in particular have endured a long history of plant introductions, an abundance of weeds and invasive plants residing among the natives also provide interest.

This winter has been another mild one. I was hoping for more snow, less rain, and deeper freezes. Mild, wet conditions make exploring the Foothills difficult and ill-advised. Rather than frozen and/or snow covered, the trails are thick with mud. Walking on them in this state is too destructive. Avoiding trails and walking instead on trail side vegetation is even more destructive, and so Foothills hiking is put on hold until the ground freezes or the trails dry out. This means I haven’t gotten into the Foothills as much as I would like. Still, I managed to get a few photos of some of the interesting things the lower Boise Foothills have to offer during the winter. What follows is a selection of those photos.

snow melting on the fruit of an introduced rose (Rosa sp.)

fading seed heads of hoary tansyaster (Machaeranthera canescens)

samaras of box elder (Acer negundo)

snow on seed heads of yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

gall on introduced rose (Rosa sp.)

sunflower seed heads (Helianthus annuus)

sunflower seed head in the snow (Helianthus annuus)

snow falling in the lower Boise Foothills

fading seed heads of salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

lichen on dead box elder log

seed head of curlycup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

lichen and moss on rock in the snow

fruits of poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

See Also: Weeds and Wildflowers of the Boise Foothills (June 2015)

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The first issue of our new zine, Dispersal Stories, is available now. It’s an ode to traveling plants. You can find it in our Etsy Shop

Ground Beetles as Weed Seed Predators

As diurnal animals, we are generally unaware of the slew of animal activity that occurs during the night. Even if we were to venture out in the dark, we still wouldn’t be able to detect much. Our eyes don’t see well in the dark, and shining a bright light to see what’s going on results in chasing away those creatures that prefer darkness. We just have to trust that their out there, and in the case of ground beetles, if they’re present in our gardens we should consider ourselves lucky.

Ground beetles are in the family Carabidae and are one of the largest groups of beetles in the world with species numbering in the tens of thousands. They are largely nocturnal, so even though they are diverse and relatively abundant, we rarely get to see them. Look under a rock or log during the day, and you might see a few scurry away. Or, if you have outdoor container plants, there may be a few of them hiding out under your pots with the pillbugs. At night, they leave the comfort of their hiding places and go out on the hunt, chasing down grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetle grubs, and other arthropods, as well as slugs and snails. Much of their prey consists of common garden pests, making them an excellent form of biological control. And, as if that weren’t enough, some ground beetles also eat the seeds of common weeds.

Harpalus affinis via wikimedia commons

Depending on the species, a single ground beetle can consume around a dozen seeds per night. In general, they prefer the seeds of grasses, lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), pigweeds (Amaranthus spp.), and various plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). The seeds of these species are small with seed coats that are easily crushed by a beetle’s mandibles. Providing suitable habitat, avoiding insecticides, and minimizing soil disturbance (i.e. reducing or eliminating tillage) are ways that healthy ground beetle populations can be encouraged and maintained. Ground beetles prefer dense vegetation where they can hide during the daytime. Strips of bunchgrasses and herbaceous perennials planted on slightly raised bed (referred to as beetle banks) are ideal because they provide good cover and keep water from puddling up in the beetles’ hiding spots.

The freshness of weed seeds and the time of year they are available may be determining factors in whether or not ground beetles will help control weed populations. A study published in Weed Science (2014), looked at the seed preferences of Harpalus pensylvanicus, a common species of ground beetle that occurs across North America. When given the choice between year old seeds and freshly fallen seeds of giant foxtail (Setaria faberi), the beetles preferred the fresh ones. The study also found that when giant foxtail was shedding the majority of its seeds, the density of beetles was on the decline, meaning that, at least in this particular study, most of the seeds would go uneaten since fewer beetles were around when the majority of the seeds were made available. Creating habitat that extends the ground beetles’ stay is important if the goal is to maximize the number of weed seeds consumed.

Harpalus pensylvanica via wikimedia commons

Of course, the seeds of all weed species are not considered equal when it comes to ground beetle predation. Several studies have sought to determine which species ground beetles prefer, offering seeds of a variety of weeds in both laboratory and field settings and seeing what the beetles go for. Pinning this down is difficult though because there are numerous species of ground beetles, all varying in size and activity. Their abundances vary from year to year and throughout the year, as do their food sources. Since most of them are generalists, they will feed on what is available at the time. A study published in European Journal of Entomology (2003) found a correlation between seed size and body mass – small beetles were consuming small seeds and large beetles were consuming large seeds, relatively speaking.

Another study published in European Journal of Entomology (2014) compared the preferences of ground beetles in the laboratory to those in the field and found that, in both instances, the seeds of field pansy (Viola arvensis) and shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) were the preferred choice. The authors note that both species have lipid-rich seeds (or high “energy content”). Might that be a reason for their preference? Or maybe it’s simply a matter of availability and “the history of individual predators and [their] previous encounters with weed seed.” After all, V. arvensis was “the most abundant seed available on the soil surface” in this particular study.

Pterostichus melanarius via wikimedia commons

A study published in PLOS One (2017), looked at the role that scent might play in seed selection by ground beetles. Three species of beetles were offered the seeds of three different weed species in the mustard family. The seeds of Brassica napus were preferred over the other two by all three beetle species. The beetles were also offered both imbibed and non-imbibed seeds of all three plants. Imbibed simply means that the seeds have taken in water, which “can result in the release of volatile compounds such as ethanol and acetaldehyde.” The researchers wondered if the odors emitted from the imbibed seeds would “affect seed discovery and ultimately, seed consumption.” This seemed to be the case as all three beetle species exhibited a preference for the imbibed seeds.

Clearly, ground beetles are fascinating study subjects, and there is still so much to learn about them and their eating habits. If indeed their presence is limiting the spread of weeds and reducing weed populations, they should be happily invited into our farms and gardens and efforts should be made to provide them with quality habitat. For a bit more about ground beetles, check out this episode of Boise Biophilia.

Further Reading:

A Few Snags Near Ketchum and Stanley

A couple of weeks ago, Sierra and I were in Ketchum, Idaho taking a much needed mid-October vacation. The weather was great, and the fall color was incredible, so heading out on multiple hikes was a no-brainer. On our hikes, I found myself increasingly drawn to all of the snags. Forested areas like those found in the Sawtooth National Forest are bound to have a significant amount of standing dead trees. After all, trees don’t live forever; just like any other living being, they die – some of old age, some of disease or lightning strike or any number of other reasons. But death for a tree does not spell the end of its life giving powers. In the case of snags, it’s really just the beginning.

Death might come quick for a tree, but its rate of decomposition is slow. Fungi move in to begin the process and are joined by myriad insects, mosses, lichens, and bacteria. The insects provide food for birds, like woodpeckers and sapsuckers who hammer out holes in the standing trunk. As primary cavity nesters, they also nest in some of these holes. Secondary cavity nesters make a home in these holes as well. This includes a whole suite of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Without the habitat provided by snags, many of these animals would disappear from the forest.

Eventually snags fall, and as the rotting continues, so does the dead tree’s contribution to new life. It’s at this point that snags become nurse logs or nurse stumps, providing habitat and nutrients for all sorts of plants, fungi, and other organisms.

Unfortunately I can’t bring a you a complete representation of the many snags of Sawtooth National Forest. You’ll have to visit sometime to see them all for yourself. Instead, what follows is a small sampling of a few of the snags we saw near Ketchum and Stanley.

new cavities in new snag

old cavities in old snag

knobby snag with lichens

lone snag on hillside

double-trunked snag

fallen snag

snags are more alive than you might think

just look at those cavities

For more snag and nurse log fun, check out the following episodes of Boise Biophilia:

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This will be the last post for a few weeks as I will be taking a break to finish working on a related project. I hope to be back sometime in December with more posts, as well as the unveiling of what I have been working on. In the meantime, you can stay updated by following Awkward Botany on Twitter or Facebook.

Eating Weeds: Chicory

Over the course of human history, plant species once esteemed or considered useful have been recategorized into something less desirable. For one reason or another, plants fall out of favor or wear out their welcome, and, in come cases, are found to be downright obnoxious, ultimately losing their place in our yards and gardens. The particularly troublesome ones are branded as weeds, and put on our “do not plant” lists. These plants are not only unfavored, they’re despised. But being distinguished as a weed doesn’t necessary negate a plant’s usefulness. It’s likely that the plant still has some redeeming characteristics. We’ve just chosen instead to pay more attention its less redeeming ones.

Chicory is a good example of a plant like this. At one point in time, Cichorium intybus had a more prominent place in our gardens, right alongside dandelions in fact. European colonizers first introduced chicory to North America in the late 1700’s. Its leaves were harvested for use as a salad green and its roots were used to make a coffee additive or substitute. Before that, cultivation of chicory for these and other purposes had been going on across Europe for thousands of years, and it still goes on today to a certain extent. Along with other chicory varieties, a red-leafed form known as radicchio and a close cousin known as endive (Chicorium endivia) are grown as specialty crops, occassionally finding their way into our fanciest of salads.

Radicchio di Chioggia (Cichorium intybus var. foliosum) is a cultivated variety of chicory. (via wikimedia commons)

Chicory’s tough, adaptable nature and proclivity to escape cultivation have helped it become widespread, making itself at home in natural areas as well as urban and rural settings. Its perennial life history helps make it a fixture in the landscape. It sends down a long, sturdy taproot and settles in for the long haul. It tolerates dry, compacted soils with poor fertility and doesn’t shy away from roadside soils frequently scoured with salts. It’s as though it was designed to be a city weed.

Unlike many other perennial weeds, chicory doesn’t spread vegetatively. It starts its life as a seed, blown in from a nearby plant. After sprouting, it forms a dandelion-esque rosette of leaves during its first year. Wiry, branched stems rise up from the rosette in following years, reaching heights of anywhere from about a foot to 5 or 6 feet. When broken, leaves, stems, and roots ooze a milky sap. Abundant flowers form along the gangly stems. Like other plants in the aster family, each flower head is composed of multiple flowers. Chicory flower heads are all ray flowers, lacking the disc flowers found in the center of other plants in this family. The petals are a brilliant blue – sometimes pink or white. Individual flowers last less than a day and are largely pollinated by bees. The fruits lack the large pappus found on dandelions and other close relatives, but the seeds are still dispersed readily with the help of wind, animals, and human activity.

chicory (Cichorium intybus) via wikimedia commons

The most commonly consumed portions of chicory are its leaves and roots. Its flowers and flower buds are also edible. Young leaves and blanched leaves are favored because they are the least bitter. Excluding the leaves from light by burying or covering them up keeps them pale and reduces their bitter flavor. This is standard practice in the commercial production of certain chicory varieties. The taproots of chicory are dried, roasted, and ground for use as a coffee substitute. They are also harvested commercially for use as a natural sweetener due to their high concentration of inulin.

my puny chicory root

I harvested a single puny chicory root in order to make tea. On my bike ride to work there is a small, sad patch of chicory growing in the shade of large trees along the bike path. I was only able to pull one plant up by the roots. The others snapped off at the base. So, I took my tiny root, dried and roasted it in the oven, and ground it up in a coffee grinder. I followed instructions for roasting found on this website, but there are many other sources out there. I had just enough to make one small cup of tea, which reminded me of dandelion root teas I have had. Sierra found it to be very bitter, and I agreed but still enjoyed it. I figure that wild plants, especially those growing in stressful conditions like mine was, are likely to be more bitter and strong tasting compared to coddled, cultivated ones found in a garden.

roasted chicory root

roasted and ground chicory root

When I find a larger patch of feral chicory, I hope to try one of several recipes included in Luigi Ballerini’s book, A Feast of Weeds, as well as other recipes out there. I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes.

Are you curious to know how chicory became such a successful weed in North America? Check out this report in Ecology and Evolution to learn about the genetic explanation behind chicory’s success.

Seed Dispersal by Way of Tree Climbing Goats

Goats are surprisingly good climbers. Given the opportunity, they’ll climb just about anything, including each other. So what’s stopping them from climbing a tree, especially if there is something up there they can eat? And so they do. Tree climbing goats are such a fascinating sight, they even have their own calendar. But the story doesn’t end there. The goats find food in the trees, entertaining humans as they go; meanwhile, the trees have a reliable partner in the goats, who inadvertently help disperse the tree’s seeds.

In general, goats don’t need to climb trees to find food. Goats aren’t known to be picky eaters, and there is usually plenty for them to eat at ground level. However, in arid climates where food can become limited, ascending trees to eat foliage and fruits is a matter of survival. This is the case in southwestern Morocco, where goats can be found in the tops of argan trees every autumn gorging on the fruits of this desert tree.

goats in Argania spinosa via wikimedia commons

Argan (Argania spinosa) is a relatively short tree with a sprawling canopy and thorny branches. It is the only species in its genus and is endemic to parts of Morocco and neighboring Algeria. The tree is economically important to the area due to the oil-rich seeds found within its bitter fruits. Argan oil has a variety of culinary uses and is also used medicinally and in cosmetics. To get to the oil, goats are often employed in harvesting the fruits. The goats retrieve the fruits from the tops of the trees and consume their fleshy outer layer. The hard, seed-containing pits are expelled, collected, and cracked open to get to the seeds.

This is where a team of researchers from Europe come in. There has been some confusion as to how the pits are expelled, with some reports claiming that they pass through the goats digestive track and are deposited in their manure. This is a common way for the seeds of many other plant species to be dispersed, and is carried out not only by goats and other ruminants, but also by a wide variety of mammals, as well as birds and even reptiles. However, considering the average size of the pits (22 mm long x 15 mm wide), the researchers thought this to be unlikely.

fruits of Argania spinosa via wikimedia commons

Others reported that the seeds were spat out in the goats’ cud while they ruminated. Goats, like other ruminants, have stomachs composed of multiple compartments, the first of which being the rumen. Partially digested food, known as cud, is sent back into the mouth from the rumen for further chewing and may be spat out or swallowed again. Goats are known to ruminate in the same location that they defecate, which results in confusion as to when and how certain seeds, like those of the argan tree, are deposited.

By feeding various fruits to a group of goats, the researchers were able to test the hypothesis that seeds could be regurgitated and spat from the cud and that this is a viable method of seed dispersal. The researchers reported that larger seeds were more commonly spat out than smaller seeds, but that “almost any seed could be ejected during, mastication, spat from the cud, digested, or defecated.” The viability of spat out seeds was tested, and over 70% of them were found to be viable.

pits and seeds of Argania spinosa via wikimedia commons

This discovery suggests that seed dispersal via spitting by ruminants could be a common occurrence – possibly far more common than previously considered. The researchers postulate that studies that have only considered seeds dispersed in manure “may have underestimated an important fraction of the total number of dispersed seeds” and that the seeds spat from the cud likely represent different species from those commonly dispersed in dung. In addition, the seeds of some species don’t survive the digestive tract of ruminants, so “spitting from the cud may represent their only, or at least their main, dispersal mechanism.”

This study surrounding the argan trees was followed up by the same group of researchers with a literature review that was published last month. The review looked into all available studies that mentioned seed dispersal via regurgitation by ruminants. While they considered over 1000 papers, only 40 published studies were found to be relevant for the review. From these studies, they determined that the seeds of 48 plant species (representing 21 different families) are dispersed by being spat from a ruminant’s cud, and that most of these plant species are trees and shrubs whose fruits contain large seeds. Also of note is that ruminants across the globe are doing this – representatives from 18 different genera were mentioned in the studies.

ruminating goat via wikimedia commons

The researchers conclude that this is a “neglected” mechanism of seed dispersal. It’s difficult to observe, and in many cases it hasn’t even been considered. Like so many other animals, ruminants can disperse seeds in a variety of ways. Seeds can attach to their fur and be transported wherever they go. They can pass through their digestive track and end up in their dung, potentially far from where they were first consumed. And, as presented here, they can be spat out during rumination. Investigations involving all of these mechanisms and the different plant species involved will allow us to see, in a much clearer way, the role that ruminants play in the dispersal of seeds.