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lichen "roots" Katherine

The Social Lives of Trees: Part 3 Underground Partnerships

September 1st, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Emma Ewert, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort. Take a look at part one and part two of her series on the social lives of trees!

While the partnerships between trees and fungi that I have been discussing in my previous posts are fascinating, what really intrigues and excites me is how these mycorrhizal networks we have been talking so much about help trees connect to each other, and how they form the basis for almost every aspect of the forest ecosystem. The relationships between trees allow them to survive and adapt to the world around them. It certainly helps explain why a tree that relies so much on access to the sun would choose to live so closely together that their ability to photosynthesize might be compromised.

At the moment, what we know is that mycorrhizal fungi not only play a huge part in keeping trees alive, but they also connect trees and plants, creating a forest ecosystem where almost every plant in any one square mile is directly connected to every other plant. This underlying mycelial structure allows trees and plants to share resources and warn each other of dangers.

» Continue reading The Social Lives of Trees: Part 3 Underground Partnerships

The Social Lives of Trees: Part 2 Mycorrhizal Fungi

August 25th, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

Sourdough T downed tree

By Emma Ewert, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort. Take a look at part one of her series on the social lives of trees!

It is almost impossible to distinguish root systems from the fungi that they are connected to. In fact, the term mycorrhizal means “fungi-root”, and refers to the root system as a whole, including both the tree roots and mycelial hyphae systems (Fungi are most commonly associated with mushrooms, but these visible structures are just the fruiting bodies of a network of thin string-like hyphae that create webs underneath the soil). Within three months of germinating, tree seeds have developed a mycorrhizal network, and while the species of fungi changes throughout its life, a tree will always maintain this partnership. Mycorrhizal fungi have existed for over 400 million years, and evolved along with plants as they moved onto dry ground. All conifers and most broad leafed trees have mycorrhizal partnerships, and it is probable that both  the fungi and the trees need this partnership to survive. Mycorrhizal fungi has three major roles. First, they extend the root system further into the soil, and allow a tree to access 1000 times more soil and water then they could with their roots alone. Secondly, they access and dissolve critical minerals and nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium or phosphorus into compounds that a tree can absorb and use. Finally, they can detect potentially harmful fungi or bacteria, act as an immune system for the tree.

» Continue reading The Social Lives of Trees: Part 2 Mycorrhizal Fungi

trees K. Renz

The Social Lives of Trees: Part 1

August 22nd, 2016 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

By Emma Ewert, graduate student in the Institute’s 15th cohort.

I have always found trees comforting and familiar. Playing in the dense woods surrounding my childhood home, they were the walls of my forts or the home of woodland fairies. Living in the Salish Sea, my childhood trees were the stately Douglas-firs, scrappy Shore Pines, somber Grand Firs, and the beautiful, queenly Madronas. Before starting the graduate program at NCI,  I took this connection for granted. I knew forests, I could sense the differences in species and size that came with different climates and succession stages. However, for the most part, I was more interested in getting through the forests to the high places where I could REALLY see something.  

As I learned more about trees and forests, I became more aware of each and every tree. Each new species I learned to see, each new forest I became familiar with added to this growing interest. I started to notice peculiar patterns. Cedars and Western Hemlocks grew tightly along the sides of Douglas-firs, taking advantage of their shade, and creating odd pairs of intertwined trees. Depending on the climate, the same species of tree could look like a gnarled shrub or grow tall and straight, reaching hundreds of feet into the air. I wanted to know why this happened, to get a sense for how and why trees chose to grow in these weird ways.

» Continue reading The Social Lives of Trees: Part 1

lichen close up Katherine

A-Hunting for the Details

January 22nd, 2014 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Today I went on a hike looking for wildflowers. I failed, miserably. But this was accounted for in the strategic plan, a given before I’d even cinched my shoelaces or threw on a daypack.

You see, it’s the middle of winter in the North Cascades. What else would one expect? But as an amateur naturalist with a penchant for all things botanical, the landscape can be a little — dare I say it? — boring. Emerald is pretty, and serves a photosynthetic purpose, and brown ground holds the nutrients to support the whole thing. But recollections of the summer’s subalpine petal-rainbow are haunting. Perhaps this admits a shallowness on my part, a doltish attraction to the obvious, a stubborn attachment to the reproductive parts and advertising wiles of plants, commonly known as flowers.

monkshood with bee KatherineMonkshood (Aconitum spp) and pollinator engaged in nature’s busy dance as seen on the Rainbow Lake Trail last August. This genus contains some of the most poisonous plants known to humans, containing an alkaloid that paralyzes the nerves and can fatally lower body and blood temperatures.

Last season was hardly so harsh: the fall brought mushrooms, which, though of a different kingdom, were close enough. But this new year, even the characteristic mega-fungi have melted back from whence they sprung. Twig ID, a tradition around these parts, is just not gonna cut it; lichen and moss are fascinating, but only do it for so long. Does anyone really want to read a blog post musing on the dozen different shades of Oregon grape?

cranberry scone fungiFall offered all sorts of intriguing decomposers, like this toasted marshmallow mass of mushroom, commonly called “bleeding tooth fungus” (Hydnellum peckii), which smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. Seriously.

The problem is the solution, as permaculturalists say, so what’s the remedy? Not too long ago while living in a dynamic though often ridiculous city, I grew into an expert at glimpsing the tiny things ignored by most: the swollen poppy growing solo next to a street tree near the 101 overpass, October’s spiders weaving webs in the monster trumpet vines, the aloe vera growing, appropriately, outside the tattoo shop. I needed to return to the details, big and small, of the North Cascades. I decided to stroll up the familiar trail to Sourdough’s waterfall.

It worked. An afternoon of re-kindled love, demonstrated by bounding back to the Environmental Learning Center with camera in hand, all smiles, as though returning home from a successful hunt on the savannah. Some samplings:

cedar reflection KatherineReflections on the seasonal cedar swamp near the Pi Shelter. Notice the animal signs on the trunk on the right.
lichen "roots" KatherineMembranous dog-lichen (Peltigera membranacea). Check out the orange apothecia, which are the fruiting bodies from the lichen’s fungal partner and will eventually release spores. Also of note, the quarter inch rhizines, which do not help in water or nutrient absorption like plant roots do, but do serve to anchor the lichen to its substrate. It’s a fascinating little world, eh?
fungi on fungi KatherineFungi on fungi! I’d been paying attention to this shelf fungi on an old snag since coming to the Environmental Learning Center in late August: It always looked and felt very solid and unchanging. Add enough rain and time, and even the toughest decomposers start to get decomposed, too.
hanging roots KatherineLike a sleeping sloth of the Pacific Northwest, dangling roots and dirt clods invite the imagine against a backdrop of Doug fir forest.
Oregon grape KatherineOne of several manifestations of Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa), with a pale strand of fructose lichen caught in its spiky leaves. The primary understory species in the forest on the way to the waterfall, Mahonia provides most of the non-green hue in the wintertime forest up to the waterfall. The leaves can burst a crimson hue, spontaneously and randomly, after the plant is a couple years old.
lichen rock fall KatherineA miniature world of lichen and moss tumbled down with some mini-boulders from the perennial rock fall along the trail. Linger at your own risk.
de-barked KatherineAnother animal sign? A strip of bark harvested to make a traditional Salish basket? A weather-induced injury?
"lake"reflection KatherineYes, that is blue sky! As seen from the surface of the seasonal puddle-pond at the junction of the Sourdough Creek and East Diablo trails.
cedar disintegration Katherine Even giants disintegrate: The vermillion spire-snag of an old cedar crumbles slowly but surely onto the trail.
rattlesnake plantain KatherineEvidence of flowers — hallelujah! The bright green, basal rosettes of rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia ) on the banks of Fawn Creek offer a rare instance of soft, living leaves in January. Come late spring, stems of small, cream-colored flowers that look like tiny orchids will grow on a tall spike emerging from the center. Early settlers believed that this plant could be used to treat rattlesnake bites because the markings on the leaves resemble that species’ scaly skin.
witches butter KatherineA candidate for the “Brightest Organism in the Winter Forest”, witches’ butter glows like fungal gold. Note its neighbor on this alder twig, a species of avocado-green crustose lichen — a combination reminiscent of 1970’s kitchen appliances.
ELC with sun KatherineA small piece of Sourdough Ridge gets illuminated beyond a lodge at the Environmental Learning Center.
Leading photo: False pixie cup (Cladonia chlorophaea), a type of club lichen found on open sites, grows its upright “clubs” for reproductive purposes — notice the powdery, pale green grains (aka soredia) on the cup’s edge, awaiting to be dispersed by rain or wind. This one was found on that dry and rocky south-facing slope as one starts the immediate climb to the waterfall.
 

All photos by Katherine Renz

Katherine Renz is a graduate student in North Cascades Institute and Western Washington University’s M.Ed. program. This is her official call to all fellow botanizing freaks to the North Cascades this coming spring. Maybe we can start a club?

A Naturalist’s Weekend: Exploring Fungi, Fire and Beetles

October 28th, 2010 | Posted by in Graduate M.Ed. Program

After several weeks of preparing for and teaching fall Mountain School, graduate students of Cohort 10 momentarily stepped away from their roles as instructors and transitioned back to being eager students. The occasion was our fall graduate retreat, where we spent several days with various North Cascades Institute staff and friends studying and observing natural history in the North Cascades ecosystem. Our retreat offered a diverse range of topics that took us to nearby forests in the Upper Skagit Valley to east side pine forests in the Methow Valley.

Fungi were the first order of business on our three-day retreat. We met with Lee Whitford, a former NCI staff member and C2 graduate, who led us in a mushroom collection and identification lesson. Together we explored nearby National Forest land, scouting and harvesting mushroom specimens. At first glance, the mushrooms were difficult to find as we searched the thick, mossy underbrush of the forest. But our observant eyes did not fail us and fungi appeared everywhere!

» Continue reading A Naturalist’s Weekend: Exploring Fungi, Fire and Beetles

Hints of Autumn: Welcoming a New Season in the North Cascades

October 11th, 2010 | Posted by in Life at the Learning Center

Each season brings its own unique changes that are often welcomed when the time comes. Although I’m never ready for summer to end, and often in denial in September, I gladly accept the autumnal changes of October. In fact, if I had to choose a favorite season, it would be fall.

Autumn reminds me of both renewal, with the start of a new school year, and closure of the warm seasons, as animals build their winter cache and trees begin to shed their leaves in preparation for the cold months ahead. It seemed the early signs of autumn were present in September, when we graduate students of Cohort 10 in the Masters in Environmental Education program began our year-long residency at the Environmental Learning Center. Now, well into October, the signs of autumn are certainly upon us.

» Continue reading Hints of Autumn: Welcoming a New Season in the North Cascades