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Hog Plum

Hog Plum

Ximenia americana

Olacaceae

Trudging across the burning scrub sands and down into the deep dank swamp yesterday, orange was the new black: day-glo orange fungi in the swampy shadows, pale orange saw palmetto fruits full of prostate pseudo-therapy, orange tail-end on the garden spiders, and orange Hog Plum “plums,” many on the ground.

Garden spider spinning (by John Bradford)

Garden spider spinning (by John Bradford)

Here’s a poorly chosen name, because  “Hog Plum” to other folks refers to edible species of Spondias (and even to additional “plum”-making plants).   Another reference-book name for today’s species is Tallow Wood, but in my narrow world nobody actually seems to call it that.

The oil is abundant in seeds from today’s species and in its cousin the Old World Ximenia caffra, with a history (and future?) of all things oily, such as medicines, lamps, leather treatment, and most prominently cosmetics. Here is a quote from modern promotional blurb, “it contains unsaturated fatty acids and has an exceptional nutritional value to nourish the skin while moisturizing, softening and revitalizing the skin.” The paleo-cosmetic diet! Being as fashion-forward as can be, John and I mashed some and nourished and revitalized our facials.

And if we suffered any discomforts or snake mishaps, we’d have been in a good way. The reported doctor uses would fill a page. Name an ailment: somebody somewhere used Ximenia oil to fix it, from STDs to Cobra bites, hopefully not in the same patient.

The orange ripe fruits, in season now (by John Bradford).

The orange ripe fruits, in season now (by John Bradford).

Even beyond medicine, Hog Plums have more historical uses than you can shake a thorny branch at. Useful parts include the stems, roots, and fruits. The strong wood serves for handles, spears, and assorted kitchen implements. And of course firewood. (I’ll bet that oily wood burns dandy.)

The fruits are food, although mostly pit, not tempting, and impossible to store. Come on now, don’t go eat them. There is a reported laxative consequence.   Gopher Tortoises eat the plums*, with there being at least anecdotal geographic association between Hog Plums and Tortoise nests.   That would be a fun geo-statistical study for a class with apps.   I wonder if hogs like Hog Plums. Monkeys do.

So obviously the fruits are animal-dispersed. But that’s not all.  The fruit pits have spongy flotation material. Their ability to bob safely for months is demonstrated.  Mother Nature conducted the best experiment, floating Ximenia americana all around the tropical world.   Its ethnobotany is richer in Ethiopia than in the Americas.

Hog Plums prefer hot dry habitats, mostly scrub locally, although they also occupy wet mangrovey places, which are “physiologically dry” thanks to salt.  Ximenia is one of many species divided between dry habitats and wet-yet-dry situations.

Hog Plum flowers are white, fuzzy, and fragrant (by John Bradford). This photo not taken yesterday.

Hog Plum flowers are white, fuzzy, and fragrant (by John Bradford). This photo not taken yesterday.

Hog Plums are “facultative” root parasites. Facultative means they can take it or leave it. In a greenhouse they do not need to take it. Hog Plum may have the plant world’s largest known haustoria (suckers) which attach indiscriminately to the roots of neighbors, or to their own roots, or to rocks, or to plastic scraps.   The suckers can be over an inch in diameter.

One final odd feature, apparently a protective adaptation for surviving youth in nasty sands.   As germination proceeds, the first two foliage leaves, instead of unfurling optimistically  to greet the sun, bend straight down.  They tuck snugly into the nook between the cotyledons and stem, terrified like a kid frozen in the car on the first day of school. Perhaps the leaves fear a Gopher Tortoise lumbering out for an oily snack.

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*Ever seen Gopher Tortoise scat? They may appreciate a little regularity from that Hog Plum oil.

 
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Posted by on August 29, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Itchgrass is Not Without Virtue

Rottboellia cochinchinensis

Poaceae

Yesterday John and George extracted three hours of botany from a streamside hammock near Stuart so loaded with green entertainment we couldn’t quit, until the temperature hit 90.   The immediate goal was to rediscover a population of Eelgrass where John intends to shoot a video we’ll all enjoy soon. The Eelgrass destination was attained, and the fun’s in the journey. That is, unless along the journey your ankles feel like bee stings, but where are the bees? Back to that in a moment. Before the pain, here are some of the nicer waypoints climbing through the poison ivy:

Mitrewort (all photos today by John Bradford)

Mitrewort (all photos today by John Bradford)

We have a couple local species of Mitrewort or Hornpods, Mitreola, with their names coming from their two-horned fruits resembling a bishop’s mitre.

Another soggy-foot friend is Pluchea odorata, sometimes called Sweetscent (a name applied to multiple different plants). It looks so pretty and smells so medicinal, you guessed it, species of Pluchea have more medicinal history than the AMA.

Sweetscent yesterday

Sweetscent yesterday

Mixed in with all the usual native and non-native ferns a surprise stood out, a big multi-branched fern, Macrothelypteris torresiana, Mariana Maiden Fern, one more garden fern rampaging into Florida natural areas. Why would anyone import an alien fern!? Ferns make billions of wind-blown spores. No likelihood of those escaping-eh?  Morons.  This Asian-African fern has turned up all over Florida, part of the “silent majority” of hundreds of invasive exotic species not in the public eye. It looks like the endangered rare Florida Tree Fern, but the horticultural runaway has distinctive sparse chocolatey-colored (vs. abundant usually orange-toned) scales at the base of the stalk, white whiskers under the leaf (vs. essentially no hairs), and two (vs. more) veins at the base of the stalk if you slice cleanly across it.

Mariana Maidenfern

Mariana Maidenfern

Invasives not in the public eye include dozens of grass species. One possibly in the public ankle is so-called itch grass. (It does not itch—it stings, for hours.) Everyone who has ever been outdoors knows how plants use flesh-piercing prickers for self-defense. Odd, isn’t it, that in 12,000 species of grasses prickly is uncommon…but John and I found an example yesterday.  If you want to identifiy Rottboellia, merely look for a pencil-shaped flower spike.   Then close your eyes and grab the base of the stem firmly. If you think you snagged a porky-pine, you have found today’s grass.

This odious agricultural nuisance grows in unattractive places, and ouch. Unloved and sad. On top of all other repugnance, it is allelopathic, meaning the grass makes natural herbicides to reinforce its social isolation. How’d such a stinker get to Florida? According to web sites, probably as a “pasture improvement” introduction in the 1920’s. A lot of weird stuff happened in the 20s.

Rottboellia

Rottboellia

Corn, sugar cane, and rice farmers hate Rottboellia. It spreads abundantly by seed and rises 10 feet in 3 months, needing prop roots to stand so tall. The seeds mingle with crop seeds, thus invading cultivated fields, sometimes massively. And, remember the toxic allelopathy? That’s another big negative in a rice paddy, right? Maybe.

Or maybe not. When life gives you itchgrass, scratch the itch. In the vicinity of Lampang, Thailand,  rice growers deliberately let the invader take over fallow fields, even deliberately sowing it in crop rotation, then plowing it in as a green manure. The manured grass retains soil water and turns into mulch and compost. Even better, its allelopathy seems to be a no-cost natural pre-emergent herbicide more suppressive of weed seedlings than young rice plants. (After the fallow year the Rottboellia presumably can be suppressed with fire and permacultured soil. Its seeds require light to sprout.)

Aren’t “green manures” usually nitrogen-fixing legumes, such as alfalfa? Let’s join in on speculation. Fact: Grasses can be surprisingly nitrogen-fixing. Fact: One reported situation where grasses are good at nitrogen fixation is in heavy black soils, such as rice paddies and along the shore where the Rottboellia poked us yesterday. Speculation: Observers in Thailand suspect our nasty grass to be nitrogen-fixing as a bonus to its green manure potency. A great study for a thick-skinned Florida student to tackle…the soil ecology and nitrogen metabolism of this unique grass.

 
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Posted by on August 22, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

The Shells Beneath our Hiking Boots

The perfect condition of fossils never ceases to amaze and inform.

The perfect condition of fossils never ceases to amaze and inform.

Travel complications prevented John’s and George’s weekly Friday native plant field trip, so we’ll take a side trip today. I’ve been in Pennsylvania for a taste of “Pennsylvanian Period” fossils roughly 300 million years old, my favorites being Seed Ferns. (Long-extinct seed plants with ferny leaves.)

Seed Fern leaflet from deep in a PA ravine. 200 million years old?

Seed Fern leaflet from deep in a PA ravine. 300 million years old?

But who needs Pennsylvania for fossils? Florida is paleontology paradise, although vastly more recent.

Most of our local fossils date to the Pleistocene Epoch, which ran approximately 2.6 million – 12,000 years ago spanning the spell between the first humans ever, to the first humans to visit the Sunshine State.

Although dinosaurs were extinct for over 60 million years when South Florida dried out, our state hosted equally awesome paleo-mammals, such as giant ground sloths, sabretooth cats, cypress-eating mastodons, and additional furry Flintstones giants.

Mastodon lower jaw. Any DNA left there?

Mastodon lower jaw. Any DNA left there?

Today’s seashell fossils are a little smaller.   Native plant roots mingle with them. No native plants field trip is complete without fossils underfoot. A construction site is an instant museum, I find more pretty seashells in the eroded canal bank behind my house than beach combing at Sanibel.

Off the beach this week, or dug up after 74,000 plus years??

Off the beach this week, or dug up after 74,000 plus years??

Fossil shells can be exasperating to identify. Much like identifying yellow Asteraceae wildflowers, any fool can match a specimen to a photo in a handbook,  but open another book and discover lookalikes, lots of lookalikes. Farewell confidence! But it is great fun to look and try, not to mention a taste of evolution in everyday living. The species encountered are a mix of those still with us, others still living but not nearby, and the extinct.

No, I'm not providing identifications, no confidence in my own work (although this is an

No, I’m not providing identifications, no confidence in my own work (although this is an “easy” one).

The expert on these matters is FAU Professor Edward Petuch, who has authored several relevant books, perhaps the most appropriate to our haunts being, “The Geology of the Everglades and Adjacent Areas” (2007) authored with Charles Roberts.

Web resources stand by to help with the exasperation. The UF Natural History Museum has an online gallery of fossil shell photos.    Another useful site is the Neogene Atlas of Ancient Life Southeastern United States.

Good luck! No single reference “does it all.”

The Pleistocene Epoch was a time of sea level fluctuations as glaciers waxed and waned, with southern Florida a blue lagoon repeatedly, except for a ring of raised “islands,” including the “Palm Beach Archipelago.”   Most of the surface area, including where we botanize, was fishy repeatedly, finally above “for good” about 74,000 years ago.

Chione shells are the vast majority around my house.

Chione shells are the vast majority around my house.

The repeated dousings, climate wobbles, landform changes, and disturbances across space and time make for a complex system of fossil formations and paleo-communities across South Florida.  The shells in my canal bank probably date back over 74,000 years, and in other places can be far older. After all the many millennia some look like they came from a tourist trap, some even remain glossy and colorful.

Fresh and new after a few eons

Fresh and new after a few eons

 
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Posted by on August 15, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Coinvine

Dalbergia ecastaphyllum Fabaceae Here’s a quiz: Where can you go to see Acrosticum species (Leather Fern), Caesalpinia bonduc (Nickerbean), Chrysobalanus icaco (Cocoplum), Conocarpus erectus (Buttowood), Dalbergia ecataphyllum (Coin Vine), Laguncularia racemosa (White Mangrove), Rhizophora mangle (Red Mangrove), Ximenia americana (Hog Plum) as dominant local species? If you said along the brackish lower Congo River in Angola you’d be correct.   (Or if you said along the brackish lower St. Lucie River where John and George explored today you’d also be correct.) That’s what’s so fun about mangrove-habitat species…they make you feel cosmopolitan. Those salty species get around, and one of the widespread botanical wanderers is coinvine, named for its floating coin-shaped pods encountered often washed up on beaches.

Coinvine coins

Coins on the beach

The coins don’t look much like legume pods, but they are.   Come to think of it, the simple leaves don’t look much like the compound leaves characteristic of legumes either. The little white pea flowers are legume-ish and so are the nitrogen-fixing root nodules in Dalbergia species.

Coinvine in flower (by John Bradford)

Coinvine in flower (by John Bradford)

The nitrogen-fixing angle is interesting. Why do plants have symbiotic bacteria housed along their roots? To extract nitrogen from the air and make their own nitrogen fertilizer.   That ability might help explain the ability of coinvine to occupy nasty soils.    But there’s more.  Coinvine does not merely tolerate poor soils, it tolerates poor salty soils, and that introduces a kink.

50 cents (by JB)

50 cents (by JB)

Most legumes have species of the bacterial genus Rhizobium as their nitrogen-fixing symbionts.   But now for that kink.  The large bacterial genus Burkholderia, some of its species pathogenic, started turning up as nitrogen-fixing symbiont in a variety of plants, including an increasing number of species of Dalbergia.  Dalbergia ecastaphyllum is characteristic of salty and alkaline habitats.   Research shows Burkholderia soil species to be especially salt-tolerant and to increases salt tolerance  in host plants, and although with the data thin and sketchy, this bacterium has spawned interest as potentially useful to boost crop yields on saline soils.   Too bad spare change doesn’t really grow on vines.

Coinvine (by JB)

Coinvine (by JB)

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

Clammy Weed

Polanisia tenuifolia

Cleomeaceae (Capparaceae, Brassicaceae)

July showers bring the flowers. Not to mention mushrooms in fashionable colors. Today the scrubby woods pleased John and George botanically, with erect dayflower (one clump sporting 100 blossoms), prairie clover, froelichia starting to get busy, bright yellow partridge pea, and clammy weed.

Clammy weed on the sand (by John Bradford)

Clammy weed on the sand (by John Bradford)

Clammy weed is a pretty little curiosity, it’s clamminess coming from sticky hairs which give it the alternate name catchfly, a name applied to additional clingy plants. Clammy weed will look familiar to some northern gardeners familiar with its close relative spider flower, Cleome hassleriana.

Cleome in the garden

Cleome in the garden

Some botanists have included Polanisia within a broadly defined Cleome. Polanisia differs by having vertical vs. horizontal or dangling pods.   The long skinny pod, called a silique (sill-EEK) opens gradually dispensing minute pill-shaped seeds. (A silique is long and sleek.)

Closer (by John Bradford)

Closer (by John Bradford)

The little white clammy weed blossom is delicate with a surprise in the center, a great big sticky green gland, apparently there to attract pollinators.

The gland at the center of the flower (microscope view)

The gland at the center of the flower (microscope view)

The flower gland is not the only gland. Glandular hairs are generally believed to deter insect feeding and creeping, and that’s undoubted.  Beyond that botanists have sometimes interpreted secretions from glandular hairs in part as “sunscreen.”   The sun melts the coppertone, which spread out over the exposed surface. A hint of this speculative possibility is that in Polanisia species studied biochemically the secretions contain an array of flavonoid pigments. Flavonoids are known to provide UV screening in addition to additional benefits.

One chemist described species of Polanisia as smelling like “perm solution.”   I’m not sure I’d recognize that smell but looked it up. Let’s see, there are a few ways to melt human hair, including ammonium thioglycolate, a sulfur compound which breaks the sulfur-to-sulfur bonds in hair protein.  That actually makes some sense, as some members of the caper family and mustard family have protective compounds called glucosinolates that separate into sulfur compounds when the plant is wounded.    I’m sniffing some mashed clammy weed right now and don’t smell the beauty parlor, although there is something with some “bite” that registers way up in the sinuses.

A glandular hair on the stem (microscope view)

A glandular hair on the stem (microscope view)

Polanisia species have histories in human affairs as eats and meds in the usual ways, ho hum, but what caught my attention were records at the University of Michigan of Polanisia  “ceremonial cigarettes”  at Pueblo Isleta, New Nexico.   I wanted to whip out my zig zags today and roll some up, but John just said no.

 
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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Erect Dayflower and its sensitive pals

Commelina erecta

Commelinaceae

Yesterday John and George said phooey to 90 degrees and hoofed across the burning sands to warm up even more at a literally burning prescribed fire to examine the effect of heat stress on foliage (relevant to my plant physiology class), and to wonder how red widow spiders repopulate after fire.  (The red widow is one of John’s “pet” projects.)   It was hotter, spideryer, and smokier than Jerry Falwell’s preview for sinners.

I’ll bet Hell doesn’t have the super-cool blue blossoms of erect dayflower, so refreshing like a sky blue popsicle on a blazing July day.

Commelina erecta yesterday. Note the abortive 3rd petal, and that half the stamens are pollen-making (brown) while the others are pollenless and bright yellow.

Commelina erecta yesterday. Note the abortive 3rd petal, and that half the stamens are pollen-making while the others are pollenless and bright yellow. (By John Bradford)

The Spiderwort Family, Commelinaceae (com-ah-lynn-ACE-ee-ee), combines the world’s most ephermal flowers with the world’s toughest foliage. Everybody encounters Commelinaceae.   Gardeners know, for example, oyster plant (Tradescantia spathacea), basket plant (Callisia fragrans), and small leaf spiderwort (Tradescantia fluminensis).   Persons concerned with invasive exotics know, for example, oyster plant (Tradescantia spathacea), basket plant (Callisia fragrans), and small leaf spiderwort (Tradescantia fluminensis).

Commelina diffusa, superweed

Commelina diffusa, superweed

Neglectful yard owners are intimate with spreading dayflower (Commelina diffusa), a worldwide weed with an impressive claim to fame, having evolved herbicide resistance in the 1950s before resistance was cool.

Oyster plant

Oyster plant

Commelina brings us to yesterday’s item of beauty: erect dayflower.   How many true blue wildflowers are there?   Commelina demonstrates in multiple ways how things don’t always amount to their original potential, beginning with the genus name itself.   The genus is named for a Dutch family of the late 1600s and early 1700s, Jan and Caspar Commelin were prominent botanists, but Caspar’s son died young.   Most Commelina species have two large petals representing Jan and Caspar. The third petal is usually abortive, standing for the son’s premature death.

The third petal is not the only abortive organ. Although you’ll never notice it, Commelinas fundamentally have two inflorescences per stem, but one often fails to mature, it is “vestigial,” that is, left over and no longer amounting to anything, like my appendix and canine teeth.

To keep going with lost functions, Commelina has six stamens but only two make pollen.   The others quit making pollen, and became bright yellow flags attractive to pollinators.  Among these, one is larger than the others and even seems (?) maybe to make a little pollen.

Growing among the erect dayflowers yesterday was another species with its own odd vestigial parts. Cacti evolved from “normal” leafy plants. They still carry genes for making leaves. The leaf-making genes are usually suppressed.   But not 100%. As prickly pear stems first emerge, they have cute little leaves on them, soon to fall off leaving behind the familiar prickly pads.

Prickly pear with leaves

Prickly pear with leaves (by JB)

Now back to Commelina.   This week my biology teacher wife Donna shared with me an internet report (there exist several) showing purportedly mutated flowers from the Fukushima nuclear disaster. (Yes, we all know there could be other explanations, so please no condescending e-mails pointing out alternative possibilities.)

Roseling (Callisia ornata) showing htsoe delicate Commelinaceae radiation-sensitive hairs (by John Bradford)

Roseling (Callisia ornata) showing delicate Commelinaceae radiation-sensitive hairs (by John Bradford)

How does this tie to Commelina?   The name “dayflower” comes from the ability of the flowers in Commelinaceae to turn to mush at the end of the day interpretably as an adaptation to recover nutrients if pollination fails. Perhaps the most delicate part of Commelina and other Commelinaceae flowers is a tuft of ultra-fine hairs on the stamens.   The hairs are so fragile they mutate especially readily, sometimes visibly to the naked eye, with low radiation exposure.   The mutating hairs helped monitor radiation following the Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters.   I wonder if a few dayflowers in the gardens around town near a power plant work as a cheap early warning  system.  Or maybe try a Geiger-tree.

IMG_7000

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Spooning, Dancing, and Spearing in Savannas

Everybody…get in your niche!

Today John and George visited the wading birds in Savannas Preserve State Park.  What a photo op!  John took the Snowy Egret action photos, and I took the others under John’s photo master supervision enjoying the use of my ancient and just-repaired 1970s reflector lens adapted happily to a modern camera.

I'm pink and I dabble.

I’m pink and I dabble.

There’s something about a marsh to make you think of the big picture, maybe because you see so much at once: the open primitive diorama underscoring those big wading birds as the modern-day dinosaurs they are.   Bird diversity helped Darwin envision evolution, so today John and George were 2015 Darwins.   If Darwin hadn’t figured it all out back in the 1830s, we should have today because Darwin’s Finches having nothing on the Savannas Egrets.

A Spoonbill goes around with a shovel on its face, walking along…sometimes rapidly…dabbling and swinging its bill from side to side like an elephant’s trunk. The beak looks like one of those wooden ice cream paddles in the little paper lunchroom tubs. Spoonbills eat anything from vegan to squirmy.   When the bird senses food the spoon snaps shut, and water drains out the sides leaving a tasty treat for Mr. Pinky to eat.

You stick to your niche, I'll stick to mine, and we'll get along okay.

Yo buddy,  you stick to your niche, I’ll stick to mine, and there won’t be no trouble.

Mixed in today’s flock were Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets.  There could be a competitive situation here.  But Mother Nature is on top of that.   She wrote the “Competitive Exclusion Principle,” decreeing that no two species occupy the same niche. The big wading birds may seem to have similar competing needs,  but competition breeds specialization, like the ecosystem of diversified shoe stores in the Treasure Coast Mall.    Today’s Egrets have détente with Spoonbills.  While Spoonbills eat with spoons, Egrets prefer harpoons.

Great Egrets are easy to photograph because they hold still until they spot a tasty fish, then snap, the sharp yellow dagger stabs like lightning.

Great Egret waiting patiently and posing for portrait.

Great Egret waiting patiently and posing for portrait.

The similar Snowy Egret, with rakish hair-do and a black beak has its own non-compete clause.   Rather than ambush large prey, it does the “stingray shuffle” or flaps around stirring up such lunchables as amphibians, insects, worms, crustaceans, or small fish. Snowy Egrets can hunt in groups and “round up” the menu as the birds dance around.  Below those black legs are yellow tootsies. According to some accounts, the birds while flying dangle those yellow rakes down into the water to frighten the fish upward for an easy catch.

This photo and next, dancing flapping Snow Egrets with their yellow feet.

This photo and next, dancing flapping Snowy Egrets with their yellow feet.

snowy 2 jb

So today’s bird party was a gregarious jumble of spooners, ambushers, and a yellow-toed wolf-pack each doing its own thing. Opportunity for everyone.

To go one paragraph further, the plants seem to do the same. Marshes can be quilts where single species form acre-sized patches.   The borders between the patches are often sharp, or not.   Why do marsh species often sort into monospecific stands?

I think about that at Wakodahatchee Wetlands and Green Cay Wetlands, vast constructed marsh areas of shallow reclaimed water. These two sites with full sun, constant water, and nutrients galore nourish millions of grateful marsh plants in a conditions “as good as it gets.” They do not have 100 per cent perfect conditions, as there may be limited oxygen in the mud, maybe some toxins in the water, or odd nutrient imbalances, but let’s pretend a shallow sea of fertilized sewer water is the perfect setting for those species thriving there. Great blankets of pickerel weed, arrowhead, bulrushes, spike-rushes and others look like a giant paint by number composition.

We might think the big species patches may merely represent each spreading out (most of them have rhizomes) from random points of origin until they bump into another patch—like expanding bacterial colonies after sneezing into a petri dish.  But it’s not so simple.  In the Google Earth helicopter view of Green Cay below, the species patch pattern relates to borders, structures, canals, cypress domes, and other physical variations an observer can see, let alone physical influences too subtle to spot.   Some species compete better along the boardwalk, some near the wooded hummocks, some near open water. There’s competitive exclusion afoot.  Even aggressive rhizomatous marsh species seem to divvy up the seemingly near-uniform wetland into divergent niches.

Green Cay, the species patchwork isn't random.  It seems related to the boardwalk, waterways, and islands.

Green Cay, the species patchwork isn’t random. It seems related to the boardwalk, waterways, and islands.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

 
 
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