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What Tea-Drinking Philadelphia Mayor Escaped from Cannibals?

Dahoon Holly

Ilex cassine

Aquifoliaceae

On this blustery overcast late autumn day John and George walking Seabranch State Park felt the chilly ghost of Jonathan Dickinson pass by retracing his shipwrecked footsteps near were we were today, and at nearly the same season.

We enjoyed our field trip, but Jonathan Dickinson, not so much. As we arrive at Thanksgiving, contemplate JD’s heartfelt thanks for escaping Florida in 1699:

“God’s protecting Providence, man’s surest help and defense in the times of the greatest difficulty and most imminent danger, evidenced in the remarkable deliverance of diverse persons from the devouring waves of the sea, amongst which they suffered shipwreck. And also from the more cruelly devouring jaws of the inhumane cannibals of Florida. Faithfully related by one of the persons concerned therein, Jonathan Dickinson.”

I wonder if Jonathan Dickinson at any point had a few moments to enjoy the beautiful plants of what is now Seabranch State Park.  If he’d not been starving, fearing for the life of his family and companions, freezing, and threatened by murder, Jonathan might’ve had a chance to enjoy the golden asters, palafox, and blue curls.  He did come across one of the more beautiful autumn species, magnificent for its red berries, Dahoon Holly, Ilex cassine.   JD encountered it as the tea known as black drink.

Dahoon Holly.  All photos today except the fungal galls by John Bradford.

Dahoon Holly. All photos today except the fungal galls by John Bradford.

Bear with me through another long quote from Jonathan Dickinson. It is worth it:

 “In one part of this house where the fire was kept choose one, was an Indian man, having a pot on the fire wherein he was making a drink of the leaves of a shrub which we understood afterwards by the Spaniard is called caseena, boiling the said leaves, after they had parched them in a pot; then with a gourd having a long neck and at the top of that a small hole which the top of one’s finger could cover, and at the side of it a round hole of 2 inches diameter, they take the liquor out of the pot and put it into a deep brown bowl, which being almost filled containeth nigh 3 gallons. With this gourd they brew the liquor and make it froth very much. It looks of a deep brown color. In the brewing of this liquor was this noise made which we thought strange; for the pressing of this gourd gently down into the liquor, and the air which it contained being forced out of the little hole at the top occasion to sound; and according to the time and motion given would be various. This drink when made, and cooked to sup, was in a conch shell first carried to the Cacique, who threw part of it on the ground, and the rest he drank up, and then would make a loud he-m; and afterwards the cup passed of the rest of the Cacique’s associates…”

(There is some disagreement and confusion in the historical literature as to the relative importance of Dahoon Holly as opposed to Yaupon Holly in preparation of the black drink. Both species apparently were in the brew.   Without much evidence I suspect  JD’s quote to refer to Dahoon Holly.  Its species name cassine is a historical term for the black drink.  The species name for Yaupon Holly, vomitoria, likewise refers to the black drink which caused vomitoria after indulgence.)

Dahoon Holly is one of multiple Holly species native to Florida, the other locally abundant native Holly being  Gallberry.  Gallberry is a small shrub, whereas Dahoon Holly can range from a good-sized shrub to a tree, generally in wet habitats.   The light-toned bark is often decorated with red lichens. The tiny springtime flowers are white. The trees are usually described as having separate male and female individuals, although I don’t think this is strictly true.

Gallberry

Gallberry

On the female trees in season the red berries can be as eye-catching as a fire truck.

Let’s return to making tea from Hollys.  Beyond coffee and grocery store Tea, how many plants provide caffeinated beverages?  Holly’s are one.  In Asia, South America (yerba mate), and in the Southeastern United States multiple Holly yield caffeinated teas.  There’s more than one bioactive compound in Holly preparations, and everything is not necessarily safe to drink.  You have theobromine, an alkaloid occurring also in cacao.  More ominously to the tea-sipper, reports of preparing the black drink, including the one given above, mention whipping it into a froth. That’s a hint of compounds called saponins, which lather in water, kill fish, and are variably toxic to humans.  Among the old reports of Dahoon Holly’s use in making the black drink, are also reports of applications as soap.

This post is getting a little long so let me finish it up quickly with an unrelated item potentially of interest to some readers, who may notice it on their own.  A lot of Hollys, as well as several species unrelated to Hollys, develop galls and growth deformities from a fungus known as Sphaeropsis tumefaciens.  Dahoon Holly is particularly susceptible to this pest. The fungus causes knots and swellings on the young branches, and more conspicuously, witch’s brooms, these being dense tufts of young branches rising from the same point.

Witch's broom and galls on infested Dahoon branch.

Witch’s broom and galls on infested Dahoon branch.

To sum it all up, some of us may give thanks for a chance to escape Florida cannibals, some may feel gratitude for teas, some may like Holly Berries, others may prefer Halle Berry, but we give thanks for the beauty, intricacy, and serenity of nature our gift from Providence to enjoy.

(Yes, JD went on to become Mayor of Philadelphia.)

Happy Thanksgiving!

No inhumane jaws around here!

No inhumane jaws around here!

 
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Posted by on November 21, 2014 in Dahoon holly

 

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C-Fern, Water Sprite, and Goodbye Age Spots!

Water Fern

Ceratopteris pteridoides

Pteridaceae

Riverbend Park,  Water Fern is on the shore here. All of today's photos, except the one by john Bradford, taken at the time of the class fieldtrip.

Riverbend Park, Water Fern is on the shore here. All of today’s photos, except the one by John Bradford, taken at the time of the class field trip.


John and I were unable to take a field trip today, Friday, due to the funeral of my wonderful plant-loving friend Arthur Leibovit.  Today’s blog is dedicated to Arthur, and perhaps somebody reading this could have known him.  He was the first agriculture graduate from the University of Florida and was a prominent local horticulturist.  Arthur returned to college in his late 70s a decade ago and graced every botany and horticulture class Palm Beach State College offered.  We’ve been friends in green ever since.  He was living proof that the prime of life can extend to age 89.

So we’ll focus instead on a Thursday excursion.  On that afternoon my Palm Beach State College field trip class enjoyed Riverbend Park in Jupiter, complete with a gator encounter.  We noticed a curious fern in the creekside mud. My shoes are still soggy to prove it.  Some of our oddest local ferns live in the water, although only one “full -sized” fern is amphibian, dubbed aptly “Water Fern” (or Horn Fern). (Our other aquatic ferns are diminutive and do not look “ferny.’)

We have two species of Water Ferns swimming in our waters.  One is native (Certatopteris pteridoides) and the other, called Watersprite, is Asian (C. thalictroides), and is a popular aquarium plant available in plastic.

It is seldom my interest in this blog to sort out species.  Even so, briefly, it is worth mentioning that these two species are enormously variable with the variations depending on whether they are floating or anchored in the mud and whether the fronds are sterile or spore-bearing.  In the native species the non-sporing leaves are simple (not compound) although they can be plenty lobed.  In the Asian species the non-sporing leaves are 2 to 3 times compound.  If you wanted to teach a lesson on the breadth of variation to be found within a single species you might choose humans, or dogs, or Water Ferns.  The difference between the spore-making vs. sterile leaves on the same individual is striking, almost like two different species rising from the same base.

Two species?   No, just one, with spore-bearing leaf on the left, and sterile leaf on the right.

Two species? No, just one, with spore-bearing leaf on the left, and sterile leaf on the right.

The genus Ceratopteris is small, interpreted by contemporary botanists as just four arguably distinct species around the warm-climate world.  Easy to cultivate, splintered into strains, and manipulated in the lab, these ferns have become standard guinea pigs for botanical genetic and developmental studies and for classroom projects, marketed as “C-Fern.”

But let’s get back to Riverbend Park, habitat for C-Fern.  Whoever heard of an annual fern?  Water Ferns have unusual features in their reproductive cycle, including going from spore to spore production in a scant three months. That’s warp speed in the Ferniverse.

Mass of sterile leaves by John Bradford.

Mass of sterile leaves by John Bradford.

Like many other aquatic plants, these ferns can live floating and unattached, or they can take root in the mud. They can populate an area in a jiffy because they clone themselves from tiny buds on the leafy fronds. Each bud produces a new copy of the parent plant.

Spore bearing leaf, but you'll never see the spores; they are hidden under the rolled leaf margin.

Spore bearing leaf, but you’ll never see the spores; they are hidden under the rolled leaf margin.

Any plant easy to propagate, happy to grow, and big, soft, and succulent sounds like food.  Ceratopteris even looks like salad. The ferns do grow in rice patties and are on the vegi-menu in some places especially Asia and Madagascar. But don’t get out the Paul Newman’s Creamy Ranch Dressing quite yet.  Water Ferns contain a compound called arbutin.  This is an odd drug found to crop up sporadically in the plant kingdom among completely unrelated species. Cosmetologists know arbutin as a skin bleach.  Toxicologists know it as a probable carcinogen.

 
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Posted by on November 15, 2014 in Ceratopteris

 

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Who Put the Sand Mat in the Sidewalk Crack?

Sand Mats

Chamaesyce species

Euphorbiaceae

Whose little footprints are these, in the Seabranch sand?   Photo by John Bradford.

Whose little footprints are these, in the Seabranch sand? Photo by John Bradford.

As a teaching-botanist since the 70s, something that’s always bugged me is a commonplace sense that ”the” interesting plants are the far-flung exotic species, or are the rare species with their paparazzi.  Why?  Why do early students have to be flown to Costa Rica?  Why do the books get glossier and more loaded with photos of plants from other lands?  Wouldn’t learning botany be more meaningful and engaging if the examples were handy?  Maybe right here in front of us?  Don’t the same principles and mechanisms apply in Palm Beach County?

My teaching career sprouted in the Michigan State Penitentiary.  Ha, ha, I know, you are already speculating on my misdeed.  No, it wasn’t Murder-One, Sedition, or removing the mattress tag.  It was just being a poverty-stricken grad-student who accepted a PT job at a local Community College where they send the newbie to the prison outreach program.  And I’m glad of it—in the Big House I realized you can learn as much about plants in your own back yard (or wearing orange in the exercise yard, as the case may be) as on an eco-tourism trip wearing khakis.  Didn’t the Bird Man of Alcatraz discover the same?

It seems to me the most important plants to comprehend are the ones that cross our daily paths.   So today it’s one directly in our path, sidewalk-crack-dwellers, the Sand Mats, species of Chamaesyce (kam-eh-SIGH-see).

Sand Mat. I forget who shot this.

Sand Mat.
I forget who shot this.

These modest weeds tie in with John’s and my visit to Seabranch State Park today. Upon arriving there a little late, escaping gleefully from the oral surgeon who today yanked my molar, I encountered John filming a busy ant nest. We watched the insects bearing seeds “the wrong way”:  outbound from their tunnel.  How and why were the seeds in there to begin with?  To eat?  Then why did the house-cleaning anties lug them out apparently intact?

Like little miners, the ants were marching one by one hauling seeds to a refuse heap with hundreds of seeds at the edge of their mound.  We think we know the species of seeds but being unsure, mum’s the word. Not important.  The thing is, the activity got us interested in ants moving seeds around, and we do in fact know of one documented case where ants remove intact seeds from the nest to the trash pile.   You guessed it:  Chamaesyce, which by elegant coincidence our blog friend Katie MacMillen suggested as this week’s plant to feature.

Sand Mat cyathia. I forget who took this photo.

Sand Mat cyathia.
I forget who took this photo.

We’ve all stepped on Sand Mats.  Next time you park at a supermarket if there is a plant coming up out of a crack in the pavement it may be one of the approximate dozen mostly native Chamaesyce species in our area.  Too many to sort out here.  They are sometimes called Sand Mats, and are among the most abundant and conspicuous urban weeds, and occur in scrubs, beaches and additional usually sunny sandy disturbed habitats.  Several creep, while others are small sub-sub-shrubs.  The leaves are opposite, and the stems drip milk when broken.  The flowers are a small fraction of an inch across, usually white or greenish.  Technically each “flower” is a unit called a cyathium beyond  your attention span today, but here’s a handy link to CLICK for the curious.

Now at long last on to the real reason for today’s blog:

Species of Chamaesyce are emerging in ongoing research, mostly in Japan, as having unprecedented seed distribution relationships with ants.  Fancy symbiosis is always a tale to tell.

Three different means of seed dispersal occur among the Sand Mats.  First of all, the tiny fruits explode to pop the seeds away from the mother plant.  They are Mini-Mes to thier cousins, big forest-dwelling rubber trees, with their own exploding fruits launching the rubber seeds as far as 150 feet.  (Do they bounce when they hit the ground?)

Seed dispersal device #2 in Chamaesyce requires birds.  Famous botanist Sherwin Carlquist back in the 60s explained the broad distribution patterns as Sand Mat seeds sticking onto migrating birds. The seeds of many Chamaesyce species have little pustules of mucilage that release sticky goo upon wetting.  So far, ho-hum.  Patience:  Next comes the noteworthy…

Japanese ecologists studying Chamaesyce maculata, a species we too have here in Florida, discovered the plant adjusts its seed dispersal system to the season, an ability possibly unknown elsewhere in the plant world.  In summer in Japan Chamaesyce detonates its pods as we just discussed.  But in the autumn, the same species entrusts its seeds to ants who carry them home, dispersing the species.  Don’t they eat and destroy the seeds though?  Read on…

The plot thickens.  Only two species of Japanese ants like Chamaecyse seeds. Of these, one ant species is probably not very useful. It takes the seeds to its nest and eats them.  The second ant species is far more useful to the plant.  Recall the mucilage in the seed coats.   It’s utility apparently goes beyond sticking to plumage. The second ant species drags the seeds into the nest and nibbles the mucilage-laden seed coat off, leaving the rest of the seed intact.  I’m not 100% sure the coating the ants eat is the same mucilage coating that Dr. Carlquist talked about years ago, but it sure seems to be.  You can see its bubble packets on the seeds.

Chamaesyce seeds with presumed mucilage-bumps.  Photo from USDA, by Carole Ritchie.

Chamaesyce seeds with presumed mucilage-bumps. Photo from USDA, by Carole Ritchie.

And there’s more.  Removal of the seed coat turned out to make the Sand Mat seed comparatively resistant to fungal infection. That is fortunate because the ants toss the lightly nibbled seeds onto their dumpster of decay.  But it is all a matter of standpoint.  The seeds see the ant dump as a tilled, composted, garden bed with 24/7 security.

It just goes to show you that even a lowly weed sprawling across the gravel is potentially as complex and intriguing as that rare Orchid in Bali you’ll never see again.  And no Land Rover required.

 
5 Comments

Posted by on November 7, 2014 in Chamaecyse, Sand Mat

 

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Bones in the Shadows, Werewolf Spiders, Flesh Eating Plants: Lost Spirits Adrift in the Moors on Halloween

Sundew

Drosera capillaris and other species

Droseraceae

We don’t actually have any moors in town.  That’s for our U.K. blog correspondent blog friend Mary.   But John and I today were lost spirits adrift in Seabranch State Park.  But don’t think all’s hunky dory just because there is a restroom and a Ranger. Deep and dark where the Rangers dare not go lurk magic mushrooms, witch grass, devil’s potato, poison ivy, and gargantuan mutant plants drooling for fresh meat on Halloween.

We were bewitched by the bloodthirsty Sundews, species of Drosera, almost 200 carnivorous species worldwide, five in Florida, and two in our usual enchanted forest.

Our locally common Drosera capillaris is not closely related to the other Florida species; rather, its two closest relatives are South American.  Sundews get around as if they had broomsticks.

Sundew.  All photography today by John Bradford.

Sundew. All photography today by John Bradford.

Why would a nice little rosette turn to the carnivorous side? Plants, after all, make their own food by photosynthesis, so who needs butchery?   Flesh-eating plants indulge in cannibalism not for energy, but for what we might refer to as fertilizer elements. When a plant harvests an insect—or a human—we’re talkin’ nitrogen and phosphorus in habitats where N and P don’t come easily.

Knowing that, some thinkers might now wonder, if N and P come from the beef, how does the Sundew acquire additional micronutrients.  With preliminary research, so far it seems the minor nutrients arrive by root in the usual fashion, but the weird thing is, the Sundew roots require pre-activation by a blood meal up top.

Gotcha!  (Before the spider did)

Gotcha! (Before the spider did)

It might be a good idea here to mention what the Dews do.  Their paddle-shaped leaf blades have on the upper surface fearsome tentacles tipped with glistening sticky glue. Birdlime for bugs. The reddish foliage no doubt attracts victims to the plant.  When a tiny buggie touches the sticky hairs the creature naturally gets agitated and starts kicking and cursing, only to become  mired like Brer Rabbit whupping the tar baby.

When an insect is entrapped in some of the hairs, separate previously uninvolved hairs on the same leaf reportedly bend toward the atrocity.   How do they know to do that?  It’s a mystery of nature.  The hairy entanglement pushes the twitching corpse onto the surface of the leaf blade where enzymes suck the last spark of life from the foul remains.

In some Sundews, although probably not our local species, spring-loaded hairs around the leaf margin fling incoming insects onto the lethal sticky hairs toward the center of the blade.

A single Sundew doesn’t snuff many insects.  But an entire Sundew meadow can decimate the ranks of those embarrassing creepie-crawlies worse than an angry ORKIN man might.  This puts the plant into competition with predatory beasts, possibly the only documented case of animal vs. plant competition for food.   The cheated beastie is the Wolf Spider who in a huff builds a supersized web when Sundews force the extra effort. And to balance the scales of justice, the Sundew too suffers diminished performance in the company of the ungracious arachnids. (Based on recent Florida research by ecologist David Jennings and collaborators.)

Sundews live not by nutrition alone.  They too need love, or at least love’s outcome: pollination.  If I were a pollinator on the wing, I’d shun those gooey botanical bastards with their deadly flypaper just under my six feet!  No thanks, I’ll go trick or treating in safer neighborhoods.  USF Professor Frederick Essig has observed the flowers to host surprisingly few visitors.  He observed further that as the day progresses the flowers close up, pushing the male stamens with their pollen against the female stigmas of the same flower, effecting a pollination “selfie.”   As he speculated credibly, the automatic self-pollination may allow Sundews to multiply in a jiffy to populate the entire mud bank.  Don’t wait for pollinators, gobble them, then go pollinate yourself.

Our day in the park started out fine, but we did experience an unfortunate incident upon wandering a bit off the beaten path trying to photograph a bird.  There is a remote swampy corner where the plants are so vastly oversized you have to wonder if something has caused mutations.  The deeper you push into the swamp, which is tough to penetrate, the plants and spiders become increasingly massive and bizarre until you lose sight of the sky in the gloom, with animal “voices” whispering and grunting from the shadows.  We wondered if maybe the mutations dated from a radiation leak at the nearby Hutchinson Island nuclear plant.  I was concerned about going into that ominous place, fearing mutation myself, but John couldn’t pass up a hot photo op. (He has a new lens.) So in he charged while I waited safely on the trail eating fruit and nut granola bars.  After hearing some strange sounds, maybe toads,  in the distance, and after waiting an hour, I reckoned John must have found an easier trail out and returned to his hearse to skulk back to his unholy lair in time to feed his bats.  Or perhaps chickened out and skedaddled when the raven spoke.  So, unconcerned,  I departed too. But later, the office called because a worker found a camera along the trail and was canvassing the park volunteer roster to find the owner.   Yes, John’s camera was easy to identify by the new lens. You may view footage recovered from it.  CLICK  if you dare.  If you’ll join the search mob, we’ll meet at the graveyard at the stroke of Midnight.  Bring your own torch,  and I”ll pick up some eye of newt.    Happy Halloween.

 
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Posted by on October 31, 2014 in Drosera, Sundew

 

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The birds and the bees pollinate the trees, and now a sneaky peek at secrets in the creek.

Eelgrass (not a true grass)

Vallisneria americana

Hydrocharitaceae

Today’s blog represents a typographical techno-experiment. For the semi-blind like me, typing, proofreading, and correcting are always challenges. This week I’m trying voice recognition software and dictating into the computer. Let’s see how it goes.  Bear with me!

Vallisneria in the creek.  By John Bradford.

Vallisneria in the creek. See the cylindric female flowers on their curly stalks.  By John Bradford.

This afternoon John and George visited a sparkling stream gurgling through the dry sandy pine woods at Seabranch State Park.  The contrast between the clear brook and the desertlike scrubland is striking, an oasis in the Sahara.  But of course, in place of date palms we saw sweetbay magnolias, pond apples, and red maples.  The muddy shores are as lush as the Amazon itself, housing oversized arrow arums, spadderdocs, arrowhead plants 7 or 8 feet tall, and even-taller grasses.

Today’s special botanical treat was hiding below the ripples wafting gently to its own music.  CLICK  Not wishing to sink up to our armpits in creeky goo, we fashioned caveman plant retrieval hooks from dead palm petioles and snagged a couple of the submerged plants.  We hauled ashore Eelgrass, also known as Vallisneria americana, a relative of the more familiar sea grasses of coastal pollution fame.

Vallisneria has its own pollution creds in a surprising way.  Research in the Detroit Area shows some strains of Vallisneria to be highly resistant to water pollution.  You might expect water plants generally to be diminished or extirpated by pollution, end of story.  But, surprise, it seems that decades or centuries of exposure to water-borne toxins have caused evolved tolerance.  Evolution in a historical timeframe is always interesting.   And here is a thought: if pollution kills the competition and Eelgrass has “learned” to cope with it, you might say pollution is good for Eelgrass…or just call it another human-induced tilt in the balance of nature.  And I was thinking today’s creek looks so pristine, well maybe not, eh?

Female flowers by John Bradford

Female flowers by John Bradford

Eelgrass lives beneath the surface of the water, yet still it requires pollination.  How?  Many aquatic plants raise their flowers above the surface like a periscope on a submarine.  But Eelgrass doesn’t; it uses the water itself.

A male plant.  This is the structure that releases the male flowers to float to the surface.   Photo by David Cameron (permitted noncommercial use).

A male plant. This is the structure that releases the male flowers to float to the surface. Photo by David Cameron (permitted noncommercial use).

Rooted in the submerged mud, the plant produces floating female flowers on a twisty thread resembling a coiled spring.  The tops of the female flowers and their pollen- receptive stigmas sit at the water surface in a tiny dimple.  Produced on separate plants, male flowers are the size of a pinhead and float unattached from the base of the plant to rise to the water surface like tiny lifeboats.  These little bobber boys have no physical connection to their mother plant.  CLICK HERE to see floating male flower highly magnified.  They’re top-heavy carrying the pollen on stubby elevated stamens.  You might say they resemble minuscule sailboats with top-heavy masts.  And like sailboats, they drift in the breeze and currents. When they come upon the dimple with the female stigma waiting wihtin, the male flowers slide into the slippery slope and tip to dab their pollen load onto the receptive surface of the female flower.  Then its curly stalk pulls the now-expectant female flower protectively into the briny deep for the fruits to mature unmolested.

Vallisneria

We can’t end without a quick quack to the ducks.  Some dine on today’s species. In fact, the scientific name of the redhead duck is Aythya valisneria.  The Vallisneria plants form at their bases hardened buds to help the Eelgrass spread and as a retreat for tough times.  Botanists call these little tubers turions, but duckies just call them lunch.

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Here’s a link to illustrate the pollination event:  CLICK HERE

 
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Posted by on October 25, 2014 in Eelgrass, Vallisneria

 

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Herbicides, Native Critters, and Us

Rainbows, Butterflies, and a Few Poisons

Praying Mantis

Praying Mantis

John and George today wandered Seabranch State Park the party-colored autumn wildflowers under heavenly heavens.  Funny what you ponder while playing in Mother Nature’s sandbox.  Today’s niggling thought was, “the flowers are spectaculous, but where are all the birds, bees, and butterflies?”  Now this may just be imagination or merely rosy historical re-creation, but compared with earlier life experience, butterflies and bees seem sparser.  Of course, “Silent Spring” documented Rachel Carson’s similar perception way back in 1962.  The Eagles were dying in ‘62, yet John and I think maybe we saw one far yonder today.  “Situation turned around,” we gloat.  Not so fast there Polyanna.

Katydid.  Todays' photos by John Bradford  (except maybe the butterfly.  Forgot who took that picture.)

Katydid. Today’s photos by John Bradford (except maybe the butterfly. Forgot who took that picture.)

Pretend there really has been decimation in the Hundred Acre Wood.  Who’d be surprised?  Assaults to wildlife are beyond obvious:  habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and bioinvasion leap to mind.  The mounting evidence against the popular neonicotinoid insecticides such as imidacloprid (Merit) in bee Colony Collapse Disorder is getting harder to sweep under the carpet.  You don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, and you don’t dismiss lightly Harvard University research.  But today it’s herbicides, not insecticides.

Don’t weed-killing herbicides kill just plants?

Not necessarily.  Many herbicides have links to mammalian cancers, developmental deformities, endocrine disruptions, and more.  Many to this day are chlorinated hydrocarbons, the very chemical class Rachel Carson indicted convincingly before we shot a man to the moon.  The nation’s most-used weed killer, Atrazine, is a chlorinated pesticide in the water water everywhere.  This billion dollar baby is implicated in amphibian decline, not to mention data indicating human toxicity. Even in the drinking water?  You bet:  Right here in the Sunshine State:  CLICK.  And I take little comfort in the notion of,  “well, concentrations are low, so don’t sweat it.  Let the BRITA snag it and don’t tell the Tourism Bureau.”

Grizzled Mantid

Grizzled Mantid

Continuing with the big question, don’t weed killers murder just plants?  Answer 2.  Plants are the salad bar at the bottom of the food chain.  In that connection, a whole new herbicide familycalled sulfonylureas has crept up on us, although they are not widely known among the hoi polloi.  Examples include Manage, Manner, the cutely named Sedge Hammer, and many more with active ingredients ending in –sulfuron, such as halosulfuron.  These are touted as environmentally compatible, and may be the best of the SOB’s.  Sulfonylurea herbicides have two potentially troublesome attributes:  they are extremely water soluble, and they are jaw-droppingly deadly at snuffing plants.  Agricultural doses can be as low as grams per acre.   A little dab’ll do-ya.

So here’s the worry.  Super-water soluble suggests slippage into canals and aquifers, although breakdown is probably rapid, usually.  In the water AND lethal in minute quantities hand-in-hand wink at undermining microscopic plankton at the base of aquatic food chains.  I am not saying this is happening on a Chicken Little scale.  Just the opposite, you have to search under stones to find kindred neurotics.  Yet we fret.

Asclepias curtissii likes scrub.

This Milkweed likes scrub. Do Monarchs like it?

Even if the watery ecological pyramids have rock-solid bases, here’s a parting gift.  Monarch Butterflies are in decline.  Have you noticed?  Have you shrugged and muttered, “insecticides”?  An article in Scientific American this summer (online June 2014) collared a different suspect: the weed-killer Round-Up (glyphosate).  Monarchs breed on Milkweeds, predominantly in the U.S. Corn Belt.

The Corn Belt has been de-weeding itself with showers of Round-Up applied to crops Round-Up resistant GMO crops.  The regional weed purge has spared too few Milkweeds to sustain Monarchs as we knew them.

What a freakin’ pity.  Maybe it’s not just our imagination.

Where did the Milkweeds go?

Where did the Milkweeds go?

 
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Posted by on October 17, 2014 in Herbicides

 

Bluestem Grasses

Andropogon (and Schizachyrium)

Poaceae

Today’s sunny fieldtrip took John and George through the north end of Seabranch State Park near Hobe Sound, Florida, the present epicenter of our green interests.  Today’s word to describe the glory of nature: Bluestem Grasses!

All Bluestem Grass photos today by John Bradford.

All Bluestem Grass photos today by John Bradford.

These are those large puffy-topped grasses, sometimes over 6 feet tall so pretty in October.  Always reluctant to pick favorites, apply tickle-torture and I may confess preference for those gorgeous wands of puff.  It isn’t just the silvery tops dancing in the breeze, but also the array of foliar colors.  So autumnal, a celebration of sunbeams and flickering memories, such as fond recollections of childhood strip mines.

I grew up in West Virginia immediately across the Ohio River from bigtime earth-rape.  Bluestems restore a tentative wisp of beauty to the toxic post-mining landscape.  (“Restoration,” yea sure.  Let’s go see the phosphate mines here in Florida.)  CLICK to see a Bluestem (“Broomsedge”) consoling an old mine crater in Illinois.

Bluestems make all the difference along roadsides, in old abandoned farm fields, along railroad tracks, and on rocky hilltops across much of North America and worldwide.  By the way, grouse like them.  Here is a Bluestem enhancing John’s path of life.

Several species coexist locally.  If you are nutty enough to try to sort them out, try our grassy web site.   Distinguishing these species can be extra-exasperating because:  1. The common species can be bewilderingly variable.  2. Different nearby regions house different species assortments.  3. Some hybridize.  4. They do not stick to their textbook habitats or to field-guide dimensions.  So for today, they’re just all “Bluestems.”

Andropogons usually have two bunny-ears.

Andropogons usually have two bunny-ears.

As hinted a moment ago, they tolerate the world’s worst soils:  graded roadsides, rocky hilltops, hellish railroad tracks, and scrub.  These rugged grasses have a few tricks, some of them studied in only one or few species.

Trick #1.  Some Bluestems have symbiotic root fungi (mycorrhizae) procuring phosphorus from shamefully nutrient-poor soils.

Trick #2.  Bluestems suppress potentially competing vegetation.  It is not mere competition.  Recent research shows some to diminish the “normal” nitrogen-fixing (fertilizer-providing) bacterial associates of non-grass species.

Grasses are turning out increasingly to have their own symbiotic arrangements with unconventional nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  Although data are sparse and preliminary, Bluestems sometimes have such unconventional nitrogen-fixers.  So could they sabotage the other guy’s nitrogen relations while enhancing their own, making the Bluestems kings of the starved soils?  Can they form a nitrogen monopoly?

Even weirder, one species preferentially takes up its soil nitrogen as ammonia, as opposed to slurping in nitrate, the other form in which plants take up nitrogen.  The selfish Bluestem is able to diminish soil nitrate to the detriment of potential competitors, while it somehow enhances soil ammonia for its personal private consumption.

Andropogon floridanus Jupiter Inlet Oct.

 
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Posted by on October 11, 2014 in Bluestem Grass

 

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