Hairy Vetch

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I just picked the first violet blue flowers of the hairy vetch that was creeping along the road, its ladder like leaves following curling spirals. I noticed that a few plants had already found purchase on lupine spires; in my garden the delicate leaves and tendrils of the vine are just beginning their spiral ascent into deep green.

 

Here in Maine the plant begins to bloom in June and I make sure that I have some sprigs in my flower garden each year because long after deep blue is just a memory by mid-summer, hairy vetch provides my garden with blue and my fiery late summer bouquets with a delightfully deep contrast. The plant looks especially beautiful twining among a riot of colorful day lilies. I also love to watch its growth habits, the way its intriguing tendrils meander over the tops of other flowering plants seeking the heat of the sun.

 

Last year in New Mexico I planted Hairy vetch in the spring because the plant is a nitrogen fixer and the desert soils of Abiquiu are low in nitrogen. What follows is an excerpt from my journal:

 

“Here it is almost mid October and my Hairy vetch blooms on with its glorious violet blue color. Bees, and cabbage butterflies are still seeking its sweet nectar. So far, these plants defy the frost. Mine is sprawling on top of all the other wild weeds providing a crown of deep blue around my little pond.” This climbing vine is not for everyone; its wild roaming habits make it unwieldy and those folks that need a tidy garden will not be drawn to this plant.”

 

It is true that gardeners need to beware of the vetches tendency to climb over every plant in sight! However, if the gardener is anxious for pollinators, planting a crop of vetch will become a source of great pleasure. Keeping vetch nearby draws down hummingbirds, bees, moths, and every other insect I can think of. In both Maine and NM and everywhere else where the plant grows wild the seed pods appear in the fall and the legume re –seeds itself with ease.

 

This year in Abiquiu I didn’t put any vetch in and when I left in April almost every place I seeded last spring had tender green vetch tendrils appearing. It’s important to note that this legume is not parasitic although in some areas like New Mexico it can look as if it’s smothering other plants.

 

Although it tangles itself into knots as it grows I am happy to say that vetch is the easiest plant to remove. Here in my perennial flower garden I can pull it out anytime during the season that it becomes annoying. Best of all, the dried remains can become part of winter’s cover, re seed an area in fall or spring, or end up in a compost heap. Last fall my two little pear trees had vetch wrapped around them and early in April I was delighted to see tiny green tendrils peaking out from beneath the cottonwood bark that I also use as mulch for my trees.

 

Introduced from Europe as a rotation crop (it is now considered native to parts of this country), Hairy or woolly vetch has since become an established weed in many areas, especially along roadsides, waste areas, and in croplands. Many, of course consider it an “invasive” which I translate as a plant that has found a way to adapt in these times of Climate Change. A plant to be celebrated not demonized!

The cover grows slowly in fall, but root development continues over winter. Growth quickens in spring, when Hairy vetch becomes a sprawling vine that can exceed 12 – 15 feet! Field height rarely exceeds 3 feet unless the vetch is supported by another crop like my giant five foot Abiquiu weeds. Its abundant biomass can be both a benefit and a challenge. The stand smothers spring weeds, another reason I love it, and it can help replace all or most nitrogen fertilizer needs, but because it breaks down quickly, the plant will not provide lasting mulch.

Additionally, the plant’s roots anchor the soil, reducing runoff and preventing soil erosion. When the plant is plowed into the ground in spring, it improves soil structure, promotes drainage and increases the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and moisture. For this reason, Hairy vetch and other cover crops are often known as “green manure.”

 

Curiously, vetch was once a commonly cultivated plant that fell out of favor over time… Most of the plant is edible and some species actually taste quite good in salads when they are small. The young shoots can also be cooked.

Few legumes (pea family) can match Hairy vetch for versatility. Widely adapted and winter hardy it requires virtually no care to thrive. However, in Abiquiu, I have found that it requires supplementary watering, a practice I have never engaged in before becoming a desert lizard!

Ruffed Grouse – A Mother’s Day Gift

 

 

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On Mother’s Day just before dusk I saw an amazing sight just outside my front door. It had been a cold gray wind driven day, so the birds at my feeder were scarce, even here in the hollow. To see the male grouse displaying his beautiful feathers on my front step brought tears to my eyes. Such a lovely visitation!

 

I had been listening to the grouse drumming for a few days. Every year this beautiful woodland bird calls from the same direction in the deciduous part of my forest. This practice began the first year I lived here – many years ago now. Some years the female nests very close to the house and I am treated to a family parade of fluffy miniature grouse pecking their way through the high grasses during the late afternoon. I deliberately leave high grass close to the brook for these ground – loving birds – turkeys appreciate the cover too.

 

The plumage of the Ruffed grouse is subtly and exquisitely marked in a way that blends so well with their habitat that even when you see one it can disappear before your eyes. The broad black band of the fan-like tail feathers and the patch of dark feathers on both sides of the ruffed grouses neck can be expanded into an umbrella-like ruff. In the field, it is supposed to be possible to tell the difference between a male and female by tail length – the male’s tail appears longer. However, unless I see chicks or witness a display I find the two sexes indistinguishable. There are two color phases of ruffed grouse, red and gray. The gray phase is predominant in Maine, although I have seen both phases here.

 

We have another grouse in this area (Grafton Notch), the Spruce grouse, that folks say can be confused with the Ruffed grouse, although to my mind the two are quite different with the former having a more spotted look and red eyebrows. The Spruce grouse also lacks a crown at the top of his head.

 

These two related species are considered sympatric because they exist in the same geographical area. Initially these two interbred and then split off into separate populations.

 

In many areas across the country, the birds are disappearing. In some states there has been a 50 – 60 percent decrease in grouse. Additionally, because of Climate Change the remaining birds are moving north. It is expected that by 2050 the lower 48 states will no longer have a population of Ruffed Grouse. With this trend in place it is hard for me to understand why the fish and wildlife folks would advertise Maine as “the state” to come to in order to shoot grouse. Grouse are the number one game bird in Maine. Wouldn’t it make more sense to try to conserve the population we have? Roughly 500,000 grouse are being shot by hunters in Maine every year.

Grouse need early successional forests, or stands that are growing back to maintain their populations. Hardwood dominated mixed growth, softwood dominated mixed growth, upland hardwoods, lowland hardwoods, old fields, and orchards comprise the best habitat. Stands of aspen as also favored. Because of the small home range of grouse, good habitat must meet all food, shelter, and drumming requirements within a small area.

 

Ruffed grouse are omnivorous; they eat green leaves, fruits, and some insects. During winter, when snow covers the ground, they live almost exclusively on the dormant flower buds or catkins of aspens, birches, and cherries. Aspen (or poplar) is generally regarded as the most important single year-round food for ruffed grouse in Maine.

 

With the onset of spring, male ruffed grouse defends an area of woodland approximately 6-10 acres in size. Male grouse then advertise their location to females by drumming (Adult males drum again in the fall, to re-establish their rights to their territory). Females are receptive to, and mate with, displaying males for only a few days. After fertilization occurs, they leave the male and seek nesting cover. Most ruffed grouse nests are located at the base of trees in open hardwood stands, the base of stumps, or under bushes. The clutch normally numbers 9 – 14 eggs, which are laid over a period of approximately 2 weeks. The eggs are incubated about 24 days, and all the eggs hatch within a few hours of each other during late May and early June. Young ruffed grouse are able to move about shortly after hatching. Grouse chicks begin their lives by feasting on insects and other invertebrates, but they will also eat plant shoots and young leaves. And they won’t pass up small frogs or anything else that might fit in their beaks!

 

A casual woodland stroll in June or July might result in a grouse sighting. By this time the chicks can fly into the lowest branches and although I never do this deliberately I often come upon a little family making its living in the woods. The chicks are adorable!

The Quackers

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( I chose this picture rather than using one of my own because it highlights the male’s emerald green head and the blue on its feathers – gorgeous duck!)

 

A number of years ago I decided to raise some baby Mallards. As a child I used to feed and make friends with them, even as a toddler I was told. Because I live so close to North Pond I decided to raise some Mallards and release them on the lake, although I had never seen them here and wondered why. After doing some preliminary research I learned that this area was a breeding area for wild Mallards, so I figured that I had nothing to lose.

 

What an adventure! The “quackers” were characters. My dog adored them and they seemed equally fascinated with her because whenever Star visited with them they would waddle over to quack excitedly at her when she pawed their cage. I came to love them too, and although they made a horrible mess I loved the quackers enthusiastic morning greeting. When the day came to release them I felt sad.

 

By this time I had spent a lot of time in my kayak looking for a safe haven for the youngsters. I created a nest at the end of a peninsula, and left them there on North Pond. I saw the quackers occasionally during that summer while kayaking but when they migrated in the fall they didn’t return… I believed my experiment to re- introduce them had failed.

 

About a week before leaving Abiquiu I spied a Mallard couple on the river a few times. Much to my surprise, when I returned to Maine the first of April, I also spotted another Mallard couple on the North Pond – the first Mallards I had ever seen here since I let the quackers go. Was it possible that this couple had returned to breed?

 

When I researched this possibility I learned that Mallards choose new mating partners each fall. They stay together throughout the winter and once the mating season ends the male abandons the female to raise her family (up to13 chicks) alone. The female returns to her original waters to breed, so it was conceivable, that the female was the original “quacker” that I had raised.

 

All the breeds of ducks that are common today can trace their origins to the wild Mallard except the Muscovy who roosts in trees in South America. No one knows for certain when Mallards were first domesticated, but there is some evidence to suggest that the Egyptians sacrificed ducks and also bred them for food.

 

Breeding Mallards nest in the North Country and in Canada and Alaska. Females will build a nest out of breast feathers and twigs near a body of water. She lays a clutch of eggs and incubates them for a month. Once the ducklings hatch, they are immediately taken to water for safety. The ducklings will follow their mother for the next 50 to 60 days, maturing and developing their ability to fly. The ducks can reach breeding age after a year. Mallards frequently interbreed with Black Ducks and the Northern Pintail.

 

There are four major flyways that Mallards use. Migrating Mallards in Abiquiu use the Pacific Flyway; In Maine they use the Atlantic flyway. Non breeding Mallards inhabit most of the country, and some live year round in Florida and other southern most states including southern New Mexico. Many are considered pests and millions of these birds are killed each fall by hunters.

 

Mallards are the latest fall migrants and fly in a V-formation in order to have the lead bird break the headwinds and lower the resistance for those that follow. They migrate at night and although theories abound, no one knows how they manage to navigate such distances. Mallards can travel 800 miles in one day. They are excellent endurance fliers, sustaining speeds of up to 40 miles per hour. They usually fly at altitudes between 400 to 2,000 feet, but have been spotted much higher and have even gotten into crashes with commercial airliners above 20,000 feet.

 

Mallard ducks can be found in the Northern Hemisphere throughout Europe, Asia, and North America. Most Mallard ducks are migratory birds, flying south to temperate climates during the winter, and northwards in the summer to nesting grounds. Mallards prefer wetlands near water sources with an abundant supply of food and cover. They can be found in many types of habitats throughout the country including lakes, rivers, streams, small ponds, swamps, marshlands, and water reservoirs.

Their diet consists of aquatic vegetation, insects, worms, and more recently grain crops like wheat and corn. They dip their heads under the water and forage for plants on the bottom. This “dabbling” is the feeding technique the ducks prefer and execute most often. When visiting the Bosque del Apache I was delighted to see so many Mallards. The heads of the males are fashioned out of shimmering emeralds, and to my mind are astonishingly beautiful to behold.

Mallards are also the most heavily hunted North American ducks, accounting for about 1 of every 3 ducks shot. This species can also be affected by poor water quality, including mercury, pesticides, and selenium pollution, wetland clearing or drainage, oil spills, etc, etc. They are losing ground. Across the continent, millions of acres of wildlife habitat have been converted to agriculture. Some have adapted and eat harvested rice, corn, wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. I cannot help wondering what agricultural pesticides might be doing to these ancestral ducks.

 

Mallards, like so many other migrating species are migrating later and returning to breeding places earlier than ever before. And perhaps like other migrating birds their patterns are shifting.

 

I am anxious to learn whether the Mallards I saw for a few days were still migrating or if they will spend summer on North Pond.

Little Foxes

 

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(little foxes – note facial differences)

I am hiking through the woods one day with my dogs when we hear a rustling. Investigating the sound we are all astonished when three little foxes shoot out of a pile of oak leaves to greet us. My little Chihuahua Lucy wags her tail – everyone wants to play until Hope (2nd Chihuahua) barks at which time the foxes dive for cover. I call out “hey little foxes” a few times and two reappear but don’t emerge completely from the den. I snap two pictures.

A couple of days earlier on the same hike I had seen an adult fox scurrying up a hill hugging a stone wall at mid day; now I knew why. I returned to the den area each day around the same time and called out “hey little foxes.” I believed I could teach them to respond to my voice. It didn’t take long. On the fourth day as soon as I greeted them one emerged. To say that I was thrilled is an understatement. Yesterday I was amazed to find a good sized dirty baize egg dropped outside their door. One of the parents must have brought it home?

Because I feed foxes here I am used to seeing both reds and greys bringing in their kits to snack on birdseed later in the spring (from June on). But because they are older, they look more like their parents. One of the dens on this land can be viewed through binoculars but it is not the same thing.

These little characters wore dark brown coats and I soon learned that this coloring identified them as young grey foxes. They were about five weeks old and I was so excited because I had never had an opportunity to visit with young kits on a regular basis in such close proximity. I hope I am writing this article at the beginning of a long spring journey to learn more about grey foxes…

All animals like routines, so I visit each day at the same time and hope to get some more pictures as time passes. These delightful children are so curious and unafraid. At this point in their lives no human has yet threatened them.

Gray foxes are the only member of the canines that can climb trees and have retractable claws like a cat. They are sometimes mistaken for red foxes, because they have some reddish fur, but gray foxes have a black stripe and black-tipped tail; Reds wear black stockings and have a white-tipped tail. The latter are found from southern Canada southward to Venezuela and Columbia, except in mountainous areas of northwestern United States, parts of the Great Plains, and the eastern coast of Central America.

Gray foxes thrive in forest and brushy woodland areas – they choose habitat with hollow trees or logs, rock crevices, or hillsides they can use for dens, places that have access to water. They have adapted to living in close proximity to humans.

Gray foxes have several natural predators, most notably coyotes, followed by bobcats, but great horned owls, eagles, and cougars also prey upon them. They are territorial among themselves, yet they share these spaces with red foxes, enabling both species to make use of mutually desirable habitat with minimal conflict.

Their “unnatural” predator is man who shoots and traps them and whose most egregious act is fox penning, a canned hunt of foxes that are trapped in the wild, placed within fenced areas, and then set upon by dozens of dogs who are let loose to hunt them down (they do the same thing with bears and deer). The live foxes are literally torn apart by the dogs, dying in massive pain and agony. This disgusting behavior on the part of man makes a powerful statement about the extent of human cruelty that is impossible to ignore.

Gray foxes are solitary most of the year, but while their kits are young both parents share in caring for them. Keen vision, hearing, and sense of smell help them hunt for cottontails, tree squirrels, voles, mice, wood rats, black rats, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and invertebrates. By adding fruit and mast to their diet in autumn, they become helpful as seed dispersers.

Sometimes gray foxes will rest on high branches or in the crotch of a tree. To climb trees, they rotate their forearms, enabling them to hug the tree, while pushing upward with their hind legs. Once in the canopy, they are nimble enough to leap from branch to branch. Coming down is a bit trickier than going up… it’s either a slow and careful tail-first descent or, if the angle is not overly steep, a speedy headfirst downward run. A low center of gravity and four well-clawed feet make the latter option less scary than it sounds. These foxes also like to swim if denning near water.

According to the literature breeding occurs in January or February and the kits are born in March or April. They begin to emerge four or five weeks after birth. I met these little foxes the third week in April. Gray foxes dig their own dens or enlarge dens that other animals have used before. They have a number of entrances.

Both gray and red foxes are supposed to be nocturnal; however this has not been my experience perhaps because animals know I am not a threat. It is more common to see adults hunting during the day while they are raising young. I can attest to the fact that little foxes love to play around their dens during the day.

I am already getting attached to this family and hope to meet the parents one day soon.

The Croakers

 

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(Frogs mating – note the one who didn’t make it! Eggs in upper right)

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(Look at those golden eyes!)

 

The most exciting part of arriving home in early April is that signs of spring are everywhere. This is truly the season of new beginnings. I listened for the croaking quacking wood frogs at every ditch, puddle and vernal pool and was rewarded by one croaking male wood frog on April 12th.

Two days later in the same place I discovered one couple mating and laying; a few clumps of jellied eggs were scattered close to the frogs who were still clasped together. The frogs vanished the next day. I realized then that in this place there should have been many couples, not just one…All frogs and toads are the most threatened species on earth, our canaries in the coal mine. They absorb pollutants through their skin – human induced poisoned air, earth, and water. We are currently in the process of losing the species for good.

 

I happily scooped up the newly laid eggs to bring home to scatter in various vernal pools on this property where the have a better chance of surviving, grateful that I had not missed wood frog emergence. Normally they begin to croak before ice –out in late February March (March around here). So I am a bit puzzled by their current behavior.

 

Wood frogs are native to our Boreal forests in Alaska, Canada, and throughout the Northeast. Wood frogs are the only frogs that live north of the Arctic Circle.

 

Wood frogs are omnivorous, and eat a variety of small, forest-floor invertebrates. Adults consume a variety of insects including spiders, beetles and moth larvae. The tadpoles feed on plant detritus, algae (they also like lettuce) and also eat the eggs and larvae of other amphibians.

 

Similar to other northern frogs that enter dormancy close to the surface in soil and/or leaf litter, wood frogs can tolerate the freezing of their blood and other tissues. Urea accumulates in tissues in preparation for over wintering and liver fluid is converted in large quantities to sugars in response to ice formation. Both act to limit the amount of ice that forms and reduces osmotic shrinking of cells.

 

Amazingly, these creatures can survive many freeze/thaw events during winter if no more than about 65% of their total body water freezes.

 

After wood frogs emerge from hibernation they begin a yearly migration to the nearest vernal pool for breeding, starting in late February or March. This species is often described as an explosive, short-term breeder which means that the window for survival is minimal. In this region, breeding often takes place over just a few days. Males search for a mate by hugging other frogs until they find one who is round enough to be carrying eggs. Females lay approximately 1500 – 3000 eggs, often in the deeper sections of the pools. Out of the large amount of eggs deposited only about 4 percent survive. The egg mass retains heat, and those eggs located near the center of the mass have a higher survival rate.

 

Communal egg masses are sometimes attached to vegetation within pools. The ones I have found in ditches are free floating. Eggs will hatch in 4 to 30 days. Temperature is a factor. Around here the eggs I have hatched have become tadpoles in 2 -4 days.

 

In four to sixteen weeks, depending on water and food supply, wood frogs have completed their growth cycle. My tadpoles become frogs during the month of July. Maturity may be reached in one to two years, depending on the sex and the population of frogs. A wood frog’s lifespan in the wild is usually no more than three years.

 

In my eyes the glorious sight of a wood frog (now very rare) is cause for celebration. I used to see a few each summer, but no more. They are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. Most of the time the frog lives close to the ground, hiding under leaves in woodland areas.

 

A wood frog’s most distinct characteristic is the black marking across its eyes, which has been said to resemble a mask. The bodies of wood frogs can be varying shades of brown, red, green, or gray, with females tending to be more brightly colored than males (note picture). These frog hues sound dull but each has an iridescent sheen. Adults can reach about three inches. The ones around here do not.

 

It seems to me that everyone loves to eat wood frogs from eggs through adulthood…Herons maneuver their way into my vernal pools for a snack even in the deep woods! My kingfishers love them. A variety of snakes eat adult wood frogs. These creatures fall prey to snapping turtles, raccoons, skunks coyotes, and foxes. Beetles, turtles and salamanders feast on eggs and tadpoles.

 

In the amphibian world, wood frogs may be the species best able to recognize their family. When many tadpoles are in the same place, siblings seek each other out and group together (my guess is that it is the only species that has been studied). My observations of all frogs confirm that the young like to be close to one another.

 

Wood frogs are found in deciduous, coniferous, and mixed forests; marshes; meadows; and swamps. They spends most of their time on the ground in woody areas except for during mating season when they are breeding.

 

I am anxiously awaiting the birth of these tadpoles hoping that my attempts to scatter the “Croakers” around my property will lengthen the time they remain on Earth.

The Forest Has a Heart and S/he Sleeps Too

 

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The heartbeat of the tree is hidden in its trunk…

 

The Forest has a heart?

Scientist Diana Beresford Kroeger proved that the biochemistry of humans and that of plants and trees are the same – ie the hormones (including serotonin) that regulate human and plant life are identical. What this means practically is that trees possess all the elements they need to develop a mind and consciousness. If mind and awareness are possibilities/probabilities then my next question isn’t absurd: Do trees have a heartbeat?

According to studies done in Hungary and Denmark (Zlinszky/Molnar/Barfod) in 2017 trees do in fact have a special type of pulse within them which resembles that of a heartbeat.

To find this hidden heartbeat, these researchers used advanced monitoring techniques known as terrestrial laser scanning to survey the movement of twenty two different types of trees to see how the shape of their canopies changed.

The measurements were taken in greenhouses at night to rule out sun and wind as factors in the trees’ movements.

In several of the trees, branches moved up and down by about a centimeter or so every couple of hours.

After studying the nocturnal tree activity, the researchers came up with a theory about what the movement means. They believe the motion is an indication that trees are pumping water up from their roots. It is, in essence, a type of ‘heartbeat.’ These results shocked everyone. At night, while the trees were resting, slow and steady pulses pumped and distributed water throughout the tree body just as a human heart pumps blood. It has been assumed that trees distribute water via osmosis (a process that defies gravity and never made sense to me) but this and other new findings suggests otherwise.

Scientists have discovered the trunks and branches of trees are actually contracting and expanding to ‘pump’ water up from the roots to the leaves, similar to the way our hearts pump blood through our bodies. They suggest that the trunk gently squeezes the water, pushing it upwards through the xylem, a system of tissue in the trunk whose main job is to transport water and nutrients from roots to shoots and leaves.

But what “organ” generates the pulse?

Recently forest science researchers have found that the pulse is mostly generated by diameter fluctuations in the bark only. This was somewhat surprising, as traditionally it was thought that bark is totally decoupled from the transpiration stream of the tree. To better understand this mysterious situation, we need to have a closer look at the bark.

Bark can be divided into a dead (outside) and living (inside) section. The living section contains a transport system called phloem. The phloem relocates sugars – produced during photosynthesis in the leaves – to tissues, which require sugars for energy. The direction of transport leads to a downward directed stream of sugar-rich sap in bark towards the roots. The phloem uses water as transport medium for these sugars, and under certain conditions it appears that this water can be drawn out of the phloem into the transpiration stream of the stem. Plant biologists were able to show that these conditions are most likely to occur during the rapid increase of transpiration in the morning hours. During this time, the tension in the capillaries that transport the water upwards in rapidly increases.

Just like a rubber band, too much tension would cause the water column inside the capillaries to burst; this is one horrible way that trees can die during drought.

To prevent this snapping, water from phloem is drawn into the capillaries, and the loss of water from the phloem causes the stem to shrink. Once the tension in the capillaries declines as a consequence of decreasing transpiration, the formerly lost water will be replaced back into the phloem, and so the stem expands again.

The exact pathway of this water transfer takes place within the phloem that acts like a sponge that gets saturated and squeezed continuously.

The only difference between our pulse and a tree’s is a tree’s is much slower, ‘beating’ once every two hours or so, and instead of regulating blood pressure, the heartbeat of a tree regulates water pressure. Trees have regular periodic changes in shape that are synchronized across the whole plant.

It seems obvious to me that the ‘heart’ of a tree extends through its entire trunk just under the bark, the place where the pulse of a tree beats continuously.

 

Part 2   Trees Sleep?

In 2016, Zlinszky and his team released another study demonstrating that birch trees go to sleep at night (now we know that all trees – at least all the trees that have been studied so far – do sleep at night).*

Trees follow circadian cycles responding primarily to light and darkness on a daily cycle. The researchers believe the dropping of birch branches before dawn is caused by a decrease in the tree’s internal water pressure while the trees rest. With no photosynthesis at night to drive the conversion of sunlight into simple sugars, trees are conserving energy by relaxing branches that would otherwise be angled towards the sun. Trees increase their transpiration during the morning, decreasing it during the afternoon and into the night. There is a change in the diameter of the trunk or stem that produces a slow pulse. During the evening and the night tree water use is declining, while at the same time, the stem begins to expand again as it refills with water.

When trees drop their branches and leaves its because they’re sleeping. They enter their own type of circadian rhythm known as circadian leaf movement, following their own internal tree clock.

Movement patterns followed an 8 to 12 cycle, a periodic movement between 2 – 6 hours and a combination of the two.

As we know, plants need water to photosynthesize glucose, the basic building block from which their more complex molecules are formed. For trees, this means drawing water from the roots to the leaves. This takes place during daylight hours.

The movement has to be connected to variations in water pressure within the plants, and this effectively means that the tree is pumping fluids continuously. Water transport is not just a steady-state flow, as was previously assumed; changing water pressure is the norm although the trees continue to pulse throughout the night as tree trunks shrink and expand.

This work is just one example of a growing body of literature indicating that trees have lives that are more similar to ours than we could have ever imagined. When we mindlessly destroy trees we are destroying a whole ecosystem and a part of ourselves in the process because we are all related through our genetic make up. A sobering thought, for some.

Personal footnote:

Having lived in the North Country surrounded by evergreens of all kinds (balsaam, fir, spruce, hemlock, and white pine) for most of my life, I have always suspected that trees sleep during the winter months. On frigid mornings one glance at my closet neighbors shows me the needles are drooping, the needles turning almost gray. If the temperatures do not warm during the day the trees remain bowed, even if no snow is present. During a thaw the trees come back to life raising their branches towards the sun. Even their various greens intensify in color. Although I have conversed with my trees asking them how they are doing, I had no idea that what I observed was simply one aspect of a continuous process that was occurring with all trees every single day/night. I have not seen research on this wintering behavior of northern trees but now I am speculating that winter sleeping might be an unexplored aspect of northern tree behavior?

The Ecology of Bark

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(the wonderfully wrinkled bark of an old Cottonwood tree that I love)

 

Wandering among the trees and bushes in the Bosque each day has peeked my curiosity about bark and it’s less obvious functions.

Some trees like aspen and birch have smooth skin all their lives, others like the Cottonwoods end up with heavily wrinkled bark that sometimes turns reddish with age in the Southwestern sun.

The term “bark” is often used to describe only the corky, visible outer surface of trunks and branches. In botanical terms, though, bark includes the entire, multi-layered shell of a tree that can be detached from the wood -that is, everything outside a thin ring of tissue called the vascular cambium. Cells divide and grow in the cambium layer, producing a ring of wood in the inside and a layer of bark tissue, called the active phloem, on the outside. The phloem transports sugars and nutrients throughout the tree, and is typically hidden from view, beneath the outer bark.

Outside the phloem, trees have three additional bark layers, collectively called the periderm. The first two layers are virtually invisible; the inner layer – the cork skin – usually contains chlorophyll and does some photosynthesizing. The middle, cork cambium layer facilitates cell growth. The third, outer layer is made up of cork cells that die soon after they mature. This cork layer protects the tree from infection, infestation, and drying out. The smooth, unbroken outer bark that all trees start out with is this cork layer.

As a tree grows, its wood thickens and pushes out against the bark that surrounds it. The different ways in which the outer bark adapts to this pressure is what gives each species its distinctive appearance. Some species maintain their original outer layers for their entire lives. In such cases, the outer bark expands to match the growth of the wood beneath it, and it remains unbroken.

However, in other trees pressure from the faster-growing wood soon causes the initial periderm to split as a new layer forms in the inside, usually in overlapping sections that vary in shape, size, and thickness according to species. This process can repeat itself as a tree grows. Alternating layers of old periderm and dead phloem form the thick, craggy, wrinkly outer bark that is found on most mature trees.

In each tree species, the bark’s appearance is determined by the shape of the overlapping sections of periderm, the type of connective tissue, and the rate at which layers of bark break apart.

Thick outer bark is generally a good investment, since it better protects a tree from wounds and provides more thermal protection. The outer bark’s air-filled cells function much like home insulation, keeping the inside warmer or cooler than the outside. Ridges, scales, and vertical strips can dramatically increase the outer surface area and help maintain a more even temperature. Contoured barks also hold moisture, which slows the transfer of heat through the outer bark. I think these characteristics are really easy to see on the trunks of adult cottonwood trees.

Thick bark is especially important for fire protection. Redwoods, for example, have bark that is almost a foot thick making the tree impervious to all but the hottest fires.

Rapid temperature changes can also damage or kill sections of bark. In winter, for example, direct sunlight can warm bark to temperatures much higher than the surrounding air. When temperatures plummet rapidly, cooling bark can crack as it contracts. Extreme temperature changes create havoc.

With all the protective advantages of thick bark, why does the bark of some trees remain thin? Smooth bark is easier for the tree to grow but a major advantage of thin bark is its increased ability to photosynthesize. Scraping away the outer bark on a twig or young branch reveals the thin skin that photosynthesizes in some cases almost as efficiently as the leaves of trees can.

Since thick bark blocks most or all sunlight from reaching the cork skin, photosynthesis levels are usually much higher in species that maintain thin bark on their trunk and branches. Energy produced by bark photosynthesis is thought to support regular cell maintenance in the trunk and branches and can help trees recover from defoliation due to insects, storms, or severe drought. Bark photosynthesis works best when leaves do not shade the bark. Even in a seemingly dormant forest if the sun warms the bark it can photosynthesize even when air temperatures are below freezing.

Thin bark also helps thwart mosses, lichens, and algae. Epiphytes can block sunlight preventing efficient photosynthesis. They can also absorb heat, which increases a tree’s risk of damage from temperature changes. Some trees, like paper birch, feature strips of bark that peel away from the trunk and take with them any light-blocking epiphytes that may have become established there. An amazing adaption, that!

Outer bark also protects a tree against intruders. In general, thin-barked species like American beech are easier to penetrate than species with thick bark. But bark of any thickness has weak spots at pores, cracks, and furrows, and at branch junctions where wrinkles bring the inner bark closer to the surface. Wounds in the outer bark open pathways for fungi, bacteria, and insects, but in healthy trees the bark’s chemical and structural defenses can often overcome infections and infestations.

For example, resins in conifers and the gum in black cherry bark repel insects and infectious agents, seal small wounds to prevent infection; they also trap insects. Betulin a substance that whitens the bark of paper birch, deters gnawing animals, fungi, insects, and other invaders. The inner bark of aspen and other members of the willow family contains, salicin which deters bacteria, fungi, and insects.

Structural mechanisms also defend a tree against infection and infestation. Fungi that breach the outer bark, for example, can be walled off, or compartmentalized. This action contains the infection, but it also kills sections of bark by blocking the incoming flow of water and nutrients. The resulting small areas of discolored, sunken, or cracked bark are called cankers.

Even when an infection or infestation is controlled, a tree must contend with the breach that has occurred in the protective outer bark. The inner bark generates cork to surround a wound, and can close small openings and narrow or close large gaps over time. In Maine Eastern hemlock is the only species that produces wound cork in annual increments that you can count – like rings of wood – to determine a wound’s age. Unfortunately, despite its multiple chemical and structural defenses, bark can’t protect trees from all attackers, especially introduced organisms for which a species has no evolved resistance. In many cases foreign pests successfully kill a tree.

However. Some bark-inhabiting fungi and bacteria do no harm. Other fungi and bacteria defend their hosts by out-competing or preying upon canker-causing fungi. These beneficial organisms are often found near weak areas of bark where pathogens might gain entry. When tiny insects, such as springtails and bark-lice, inhabit bark and feed on mosses, lichens, and fungi growing there, they can benefit their host tree by attracting spiders, ants, and other predators that can help control populations of defoliating insects.

At any given moment there are thousands of interactions between the bark and its environment that most of us take for granted. Especially during the winter months if you pay attention to bark you may, like me, develop a deep respect for the unparalleled beauty and for the protective skin of every tree.

Redwood Quest

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(Addertongue only grows in a Redwood forest Biome)

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A whole ecosystem….

 

Totally by accident, I discovered a picture of a most beautiful flower commonly called Adderstongue (Scoliopus bigelovii) that I had never seen before. Of course I had to look it up…

I learned that Adderstongue only grows in old growth forest in the understory of the ancient Redwood trees of California in moist mossy places that are shaded. It grows from a rhizome, and I immediately suspected the plant must have a symbiotic relationship with the Redwood’s underground fungal network. The flower is pollinated by fungus gnats, the fruit is a drooping capsule and when it bursts the seeds are carried away by ants. The moment I laid eyes on the picture I longed to see one in the flesh… and this is what got me started on my Redwood Quest.

Once Redwoods grew throughout North America as well as along the coasts of Europe and Asia, but now they are now restricted to the Pacific coast. And I have never seen one.

The earliest Redwoods -Sequoia sempervirens -(the name Sequoia is Cherokee in origin) appeared shortly after the dinosaurs disappeared. Redwoods have lived in their present form for about 240 million years although California didn’t become their home until about 20 million years ago.

A coastal Redwood tree can grow to 350 feet or more and have a width of 22 feet at its base. Compare this to the tallest pine tree that might be 270 feet high. What amazed me initially was learning that a Redwood’s tap root system extends into the ground for only 6 to 12 feet. However, Redwoods compensate by creating surface roots that grow at least 50 feet from their trunks, and because they live in groves the trees literally support one another by intertwining their trunks and surface roots. Consequently, they have the strength to withstand powerful winds and flooding. Taking down even one tree creates havoc for the whole ecosystem.

Redwoods live a long time perhaps even longer than the 2000 plus years that are allotted them. Many Redwoods around today are 100 – 150 yeas old but a reasonable number reach an age of 600 years.

Studies show that coastal Redwoods capture more carbon dioxide than any other tree on Earth. And, as the climate changes, the Redwood forests are one of very few places that can provide a refuge for plants like the Adderstongue. Many wild creatures thrive in these forests because the area has many micro – climates, and is cooled by coastal summertime fog. California’s North Coast provides the only such environment left in the world. A combination of longitude, climate, and elevation limits the redwoods’ range to a few hundred coastal miles. The cool, moist air created by the Pacific Ocean keeps the trees continually damp, even during summer droughts. Fog precipitates onto the forest greenery and then drips to the forest floor. Fog accounts for about 40 percent of the redwoods’ moisture intake. When fog isn’t present, a grove of redwoods will make its own: a single large tree can transpire up to 500 gallons of water a day. The fog condenses on tree crowns and drips to the earth below. A Redwood’s ability to perpetually move this water hundreds of feet straight up from ground to crown defying gravity is a source of awe to me.

Exactly why the redwoods grow so tall remains a mystery.

Resistance to natural enemies such as insects and fire are built-in features of  coastal Redwoods. Diseases are virtually unknown (or were until recently) and insect damage insignificant thanks to the high tannin content of the wood. Thick bark and foliage that rests high above the ground provides protection from all but the hottest fires.

The Redwoods’ unusual ability to regenerate also aids in their survival as a species. They do not rely upon sexual reproduction, as many other trees do. New sprouts may come directly from a stump or downed tree’s root system as a clone.

Cloning is defined as the process of producing genetically identical individuals of an organism either naturally or artificially. Cloning in biotechnology refers to the process of creating clones of organisms or copies of cells or DNA fragments. Although grammatically correct, I object to the use of the word clone because it suggests to most people an artificial process – one that distances us from the fact that we are talking about a living organism that is reproducing itself. The Redwood’s ability to clone itself means that many of the forest’s trees are related to one another.

Cathedral or family groups are trees that have grown up from the living remains of the stump of one fallen Redwood, and since they grew out of the perimeter, they are organized in a circle. The genetic information in the cells of each of these trees is identical to that of the stump they sprang from.

Amazingly, Basal burls — hard, knotty growths that form from dormant seedlings on a living tree — can also sprout a new tree when the main trunk is damaged by fire, cutting, or toppling.

Undoubtedly, the most important environmental influence upon the coastal Redwood is its own biotic community. The complex soils on the forest floor contribute not only to the redwoods’ growth, but also to a verdant array of greenery, fungi, and other trees. A healthy redwood forest usually includes massive Douglas-firs, Western Hemlocks, Tanoaks, Madrones, among others. The emerald ferns and leafy redwood sorrels, mosses and mushrooms help to regenerate the soils. And of course, when Redwoods die they eventually fall to the forest floor where they decay and provide more nutrients to create new life.

The coastal redwood environment recycles naturally; because the 100-plus inches of annual rainfall leaves the soil with few nutrients, the trees rely on each other, living and dead for their vital nutrients. The trees need to decay naturally to fully participate in this cycle, so when logging occurs, the natural recycling is interrupted.

Many different shrubs populate the understory of old-growth redwood forests. Among them are berry bushes such as red and evergreen huckleberry, blackberry, salmonberry, and thimbleberry. Black bears and other inhabitants of the forest make use of these seasonal food sources.

Perhaps the most famous and spectacular member of the redwood understory is the brilliantly colored California rhododendron. In springtime, rhododendrons apparently transform the redwood forests into a dazzling display of purple and pink colors.

The survival strategies of these trees like their ability to reproduce identical relatives astonishes me. A Redwood that is knocked over will attempt to continue growing via its limbs. If undisturbed, the limbs pointing up will turn into trees in their own right.

Another unusual survival strategy is the Redwood burls. The growth of a burl is held in check by the presence of chemical signals in a living Redwood. However, if the tree should die, or even be stressed, say by drought or fire, the chemical signal weakens or vanishes and the burl will burst forth into verdant life. Burls kept in a shallow pan of water will grow almost indefinitely. They can also continue on to become a full grown redwood tree.

Sexual reproduction can also occur by seeding. About 20% of today’s present Redwood trees sprang from seeds ( some Redwoods don’t even produce them). The rest came from one of the various cloning/family-based proliferation strategies. This means that some of these trees could be the latest incarnations of the same line that stretches back 20,000 or 30,000 years.

Coastal Redwoods also have the unique ability to survive rising soil levels. Rising ground levels are commonly brought about by flood deposits, deposits that typically smother other trees root systems, killing them. The Redwood simply grows a new lateral root system. Seven successive layers of roots were observed on one fallen Redwood meaning that the ground level had risen dramatically up the tree seven times and each time the tree responded with a new root system. It has been observed that some 1000+ year old Redwoods have experienced and survived rises in ground level of as much as 30 feet.

Redwoods compensate for induced leans caused by shifting slopes, collisions of other trees, flood pressure and tectonic induced tilting, by the unusual ability to “buttress” their undersides through accelerated growth on the downhill side. What this means practically is that it is possible to find whole groves of trees that are leaning in the same direction.

Recalling that as a human I share 25 percent of my DNA with trees, it seems quite natural that I would want to meet a forest composed of my most astonishing relatives and perhaps visit with the Addertongue in the process!

Photosynthesis in Winter

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(in the Bosque…note the distinct greenish – yellow color)

 

I began to get very interested in the possibility of the bark of some trees photosynthesizing in winter as a result of my predawn meanderings in the Bosque. I noticed, for example, the pale skin of Mexican Privet and the young branches of Cottonwood trees. Both had a pale greenish tinge. I also recalled the Aspen and Poplars on my land in Maine that also had greenish bark.

 

When I was researching for an article on Aspens I learned that the willow family that included Aspens, Cottonwoods, and Poplars as well as our Coyote Willows did indeed photosynthesize all winter long as long as temperatures stayed above freezing. If sunlight warms bark on the south – and southwest – facing sides of trunks and branches, it makes it possible for bark to photosynthesize even when air temperatures are below freezing.

 

Energy produced by bark photosynthesis is thought to support regular cell maintenance in the trunk and branches and can help trees recover from defoliation due to insects, storms, or severe drought.

 

I keep a sharp eye on the Coyote Willows because I don’t want to miss the changes that are subtle; they are already starting to turn. Anthocyanins and carotenoids are plant pigments that produce the red, brown and purple colors in willow stems while carotenoids produce yellow and orange hues. Both anthocyanins and carotenoids protect photosynthetic pathways from being damaged by New Mexico’s intense spring light before the narrow leaves appear. My observations suggest that the only time the willows approach dormancy is during December and January (at least this year).

 

Because we have spent most of the winter with above freezing conditions this may have been a particularly good year to notice subtle changes in young bark. It turns out that Birch and Beech, two northern trees, are adept at this process as well. I only recently discovered that some northern deciduous trees continue to photosynthesize even under the snow! There is filtered light, beneath the snow – pack. And plants are able to harvest that light once temperatures get above freezing, most notably in wetlands – good examples are pitcher plants and cranberries. And, not surprisingly, low growing alpine plants, also avail themselves of this strategy in the harsh alpine zone, where the growing season is so short.

 

We all know that plants and trees use their leaves to convert sunlight into sugar, or carbohydrates during the warmer months, and some folks are aware that evergreens continue to photosynthesize all winter as long as the temperatures are above freezing; one reason we continue to water our evergreens at regular intervals in New Mexico.

 

Although I don’t have adequate research available to support my hypotheses I suspect that many trees and bushes with thin bark in our areas take advantage of this phenomenon. Certainly Chamisa must; their lime green bouquets are stunningly beautiful by February. I also suspect that my two pear trees may be doing the same thing. In just the past three weeks the bark has lightened to a pearly eggshell. Unfortunately, for young trees and bushes this tender sweet bark with cambium beneath provides a sugary treat for hungry rodents.

 

Many people don’t know that extreme temperatures of 100 degrees or more will stop photosynthesis completely in trees, and around here summer temperatures hover well above the 100’s in the sun. Thus, beginning the photosynthetic process early in the year has definite survival value for our trees and bushes especially as the Southwest heats up. Did you know that according to NOAA, 2019 was the hottest year in recorded history?

 

Another aspect worth mentioning is that early photosynthesis helps with buds that are getting ready to swell. I am fortunate to live near a cottonwood bowery so I can watch those photosynthesizing buds and twigs every single day, and they have definitely begun to become engorged. But even in the Northeast the buds are visible. Those of red maples are swelling, weeping willow twigs develop a yellow tinge, as do the pussy willows. There is a narrow window to spot them during the time between snow – melt and when the buds burst into flowers and leaves. Scientists call that period the “vernal window.”

 

According to Rebecca Sanders-Demott, a research scientist at UNH, the length of time between melt and blooming can have implications for how much carbon dioxide goes into or out of a tree’s system on an annual basis. Demott been researching this vernal window. If snow melt occurs very early in mid-February for example, we know that leaf out won’t happen until early May so there is an extended “vernal window”.

 

That extended window has different effects on different species, but scientists are in agreement that changes to the window impact how much photosynthesis occurs during the rest of the season.

 

In New Mexico the vernal window is a long one that helps the trees and bushes to maximize photosynthesizing before summer heat strikes its lethal blow.

 

Photosynthesizing tissue, whether buds, the year’s new shoots, or tasty branches and saplings are a welcome arrival for animals in any region this time of year.

 

Yesterday I had a couple of very unwelcome cows who were just about to devour my crocus, planted only inches from the house; one had already begun to feast on my favorite juniper when my dogs went berserk as did their mother. As a self-responsible animal ‘owner’ I balk when others allow their animals to trespass illegally. At the very least cow owners could feed their livestock so they stay home.

 

Just for fun I am experimenting with willow twigs, but the wily rabbits are onto me; they systematically demolished my first experiment with ease. Undeterred, I have devised a different method to foil them, but I carry grave doubts of its success because ‎Lagomorphs and other wild animals are much smarter than me!

BLM Deforestation Practices

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(author’s withered juniper needle clumps)

 

Did you know that the Federal government is overseeing a program of massive deforestation on Western public lands? Some 7.4 million acres of pinyon-juniper forest in the care of the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, Utah and southern Idaho are targeted for destruction over the next several years.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Soil Conservation Groups are using Tebuthiuron, an herbicide to ‘control ‘unwanted plant growth. BLM, in partnership with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District and the Farmington Field Office here in New Mexico, treated approximately 9,000 acres of juniper, pinion, sagebrush and other plants beginning last October.

These treatments occurred on BLM-managed, State, and private lands within San Juan, Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties. The herbicide was dropped by low flying planes to kill trees, especially junipers, sages, shrubs, and vines “to keep land from being taken over” by anything besides grasses and forbs for grazing. The poison must be activated by “adequate” rainfall to penetrate the soil. It is absorbed by the roots of targeted plants to a depth of two feet, and transported to the leaves and needles where it kills the offending tree or plants (slowly) by inhibiting the plants’ ability to photosynthesize.

In Socorro N.M the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), in partnership with the San Juan Soil and Water Conservation District also treated 4,100 acres of creosote bush and juniper with the same herbicide in early November 2019.

According to BLM the herbicide has minimal impact on desirable grasses and forbs. Because Tebuthiuron is applied in pellet form by low flying planes BLM tells us it doesn’t drift from the treated areas. When the pellets dissolve with ‘favorable’ precipitation, they are absorbed into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet and taken up by the target plants root system. The pellets are not dropped near waterways (no mention is made of the distance required for safety) or on steep slopes. Tebuthiuron has been used to thin many bush species including creosote bush and juniper trees since the 1980s.

Past studies indicate that Tebuthiuron pellets killed about 76% of the treated junipers. Where pinions grew with junipers, more than 50% of the trees were eradicated. Wavyleaf oak, sagebrush and other bushes were also wiped out by Tebuthiuron. To date, the plan has treated more than 3 million acres across the state.

BLM assures us that although Tebuthiuron is moderately toxic when consumed by humans, the herbicide is only ‘slightly toxic’ if inhaled and is ‘practically’ non-toxic through the skin. It may cause eye irritation, they admit. Tebuthiuron does not ‘appear’ to cause developmental or reproductive effects, or to cause cancer although residue of the herbicide ends up in meat and milk products. BLM folks would have us believe the risks to exposure are minimal.

In contrast, the Environmental Protection Agency considers this herbicide to have a great potential for groundwater contamination due to its high water solubility, low soil particle absorption, and the fact that it has a half –life of 360 days; it remains in the ground for at least a year.

Tebuthiuron has been detected in ground water in Texas and California. According to the EPA Tebuthiuron may be nontoxic to birds, fish and aquatic invertebrates, but it is slightly toxic to mammals. Tebuthiuron may pose a significant risk for on- and off-site endangered terrestrial, semi-aquatic, and aquatic plants.

In Europe, Tebuthiuron has been banned since November 2002.

According to BLM the objective of all these treatments is to improve plant species diversity, which will benefit wildlife, rangeland and watershed health by reducing the density of sagebrush, junipers etc. These actions will result in an increase of native grasses, other herbaceous vegetation to hold soil in place and decrease erosion.

BLM couches the deforestation as environmentally friendly. The agency claims that erasing large swaths of pinyon-juniper will cut down on fires and create new habitat for the endangered greater sage grouse, a ground-nesting bird. It even claims that destroying pinyon-juniper forests will restore the threatened species.

Pinyon-juniper woodlands are the primary forests of the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin and these fragrant trees cover the otherwise sparse reptilian mesas and mountains in our area and elsewhere in New Mexico. Some are old-growth trees, squat and humble, gnarled surviving many hundreds of years in the extreme cold and heat of the arid West. Junipers can live up to 1,600 years. Some Pinion pines alive today have been dated to the Renaissance.

On the ground one of the primary agents of tree destruction is a Bull Hog, a bulldozer with a spinning bladed cylinder on the front end. It knocks down and chews up everything in its path wherever it is used. In the space of an hour, the machine can eradicate an acre of pinion-juniper. The Bull Hog, paid for by taxpayers, devastates the biome (ecological community), spitting out shattered trunks and limbs, the nests of birds, the homes of animals leaving the landscape flattened, the soil denuded, the air choked with dust. Once a Bull Hog has ravaged a forest the surface soil dries out because the trees that capture precipitation and hold the soil in place are gone. Erosion becomes a brutal reality.

I was aghast when first reading about BLM dropping herbicides by planes to kill junipers and sage in our immediate area last fall because our juniper trees and plants are superbly adapted to deal with the ever increasing drought conditions associated with Climate Change, and they provide shelter and food for so many birds and animals.

What I didn’t realize then was that what is happening here in New Mexico is also occurring throughout the rest of the Southwest on a massive scale.

With Climate Change our greatest global threat it is incomprehensible to me that we would allow BLM to continue to destroy the Juniper and Pinion forests when Carbon sequestration is a global priority for human survival.

Carbon sequestration is the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is taken up by trees, and other plants through photosynthesis and stored as carbon in biomass (trunks, branches, foliage, and roots) and soils. One tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year and can sequester 1 ton of carbon dioxide by the time it reaches 40 years old. Older trees sequester even more carbon. Combined with oceans, the terrestrial biosphere removes about 45% of the CO2 emitted by human activities each year. Planting small seedlings will actually do the reverse; until they are old enough, tree seedlings actually release carbon into the atmosphere.

Climatologists assure us that the Southwest is becoming dryer and hotter each year. Junipers and pinion as well as sagebrush are superbly adapted to deal with these worsening drought conditions. Other trees are not.

Without pinion, junipers, and oak to provide food and shelter our wildlife population is in deep peril. Junipers are one of the top ten species that support all wildlife. Audubon predicts that by the end of this century we will lose 2/3 of our bird species and almost all of our southwestern birds need junipers and pinion forests to survive. The pinion-juniper biome provides refuge for kestrels and hawks, black capped and mountain chickadees, black-throated gray warblers, flickers, gray flycatchers, scrub jays, pinyon jays and poorwills to mention a few. According to the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory, pinyon-juniper forests host more than 70 species that must have a healthy habitat as North American bird populations collapse. Nearly 3 billion birds are already missing. And by the way, regarding the sagebrush grouse, wouldn’t it be far less destructive overall to improve sage-grouse habitat by restricting livestock grazing in the areas that sage grouse currently occupy?

Removing junipers, pinion, sagebrush and other trees and bushes creates another problem. In order to remain vigorous any biome must support plant diversity and decimating the tree/plant population means that only grasses and forbs are left to feed cattle. Lack of diversity weakens the entire ecosystem and creates a perfect storm for insect infestation and disease to thrive. Deforestation of any kind, of course, adds tons of carbon into the air.

There are a few comments that I also want to address regarding the use of low flying aircraft to drop the herbicide Tebuthiuron in pellet form on the ground.

Today it is so windy that a dark raging cloud of dust totally obscures the field beyond my house. It is impossible for me to believe that once a pellet begins to disintegrate (or even if it remains whole) that winds like this wouldn’t pick up pellets/particles and disperse them elsewhere. We are prone to these winds at any time of the year and it is impossible to predict when they will hit.

BLM makes a point of stating that the pellets need “adequate” rainfall to dissolve the poison which then has to leach into the ground for two feet in order to begin eradicating the tree(s). The pellets were dropped in this area in October 2019; it is now February and this has been a dry fall and winter. My guess is that insufficient rainfall has left pellets disintegrating on top of the ground possibly posing threats to birds and wildlife.

Extreme flooding creates the opposite problems – runways for moving water – and contamination of ground water. This issue has already been addressed earlier in this article (EPA).

The fact that BLM admits that Tebuthiuron is ‘slightly toxic to mammals’ leaves me in a state of unease… my little 5 pound dogs could easily swallow one of those pellets…

Here in the Southwest we are dealing with pollution at levels that continue to increase at a disturbing level. Adult trees also absorb pollutants like lead and other toxic substances not just from the air, but from deep underground (the Poplar family which includes cottonwoods are one example of trees that clean up both the air and soil).

 

I also want to add an observation of my own. As some people know Western junipers are also an “indicator species.” If they are showing signs of stress from lack of water/poisoning then other less resilient trees are even more threatened. Not to take heed of this juniper tree warning would be a grave mistake…

I have a good-sized juniper that lives outside my front door. I adopted this tree as soon as I moved here watering her profusely. She rewarded me even during the worst drought I’ve witnessed (2018) by adding at least 6 – 12 inches to her girth and height with new growth. Last summer I was away and she evidently did not get enough water, because on my September return she was showing signs of stress that included lack of any new growth and many withered brown patches of dead needles were present throughout the tree (It’s important to note that some clusters of brown needles are normal but a continuous presence of withered needles indicates a problem). After removing all the dead bundles I immediately began watering her and continued this process into December because I know that junipers can photosynthesize/transpire much longer than other trees. Instead of responding to this treatment in a positive way my tree continues to develop shriveled brown patches that I am still removing. I have just started watering her again (its early February) but just yesterday noticed that the tree in general just doesn’t look as healthy as she once did. Low flying planes hovered over this area last fall and now I am starting to wonder if my tree has been poisoned…

In closing I want to remind folks that it took 300 million years for trees to provide the earth with enough oxygen for us to breathe. And at present we are destroying the source of that oxygen at a catastrophic rate.