Friday, October 2, 2015

Ramble Report October 1 2015

Today's report was written by Dale Hoyt. The photos that appear in this blog are taken by Don Hunter; you can see all the photos Don took of today's Ramble here.

Twenty-five ramblers met at the Arbor at 8:30AM on a fine morning.

4th Annual Bluestems and Bluejeans Native Plant Sale
Thursday, Friday and Saturday on the first two weekends in October
October 1st – 3rd and again October 8th – 10th
4:00 pm – 6:00 pm weekdays, 9:00 to noon Saturdays
Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies at SBG-Athens
Pollinator Garden
Sunday, Oct. 4th @2PM
Contact Debbie Cosgrove for more information 706-338-4964;
Will be cancelled if it rains.
Sponsored by the Friends of Scull Shoals at the Durham Herb Walk
Take GA15 from Watkinsville across the Oconee River into Greene Co.
Go left on Macedonia Church Rd and after 2.5 miles turn left at the Scull Shoals sign.
The Herb Walk is 200 yards on the left.
Dan Williams will lead a Guided Walk
Wednesday, October 7 at 9:00AM
 Sandy Creek Nature Center.

Today's reading: Hugh read a passage about Flying Squirrels from How to be Wild, by Simon Barnes (pp. 162-164):

Dusk is the time of the flying squirrels. The first one: shuffling up the side of a tree like a squirrel hoping to escape recognition for a rather unedifying reason, wrapped up in a cloak. This furry cape ruffled and rippled with each movement: the entire animal looked like a small bedroom slipper running away by itself. At last it reached the topmost branches, which bent and swayed under his slight weight.
And once he got there you could see him nerving himself up for the next bit. Oooh-er! I'm going to do it! I really am! Next time! No, time after that. All alright then, Now! Oooooo - and with a wild, despairing leap, the squirrel left from the tree and spread out his crazy furry membrane that stretched between his legs, becoming in a trice the worst glider you have ever seen. The completed craft was on the far edge of control: there seemed to be no lateral stability whatsoever: the squirrel wobbled from side to side, correction, over correction, recorrection, oscillating wildly, until, apparently more by luck than judgement, it slapped itself onto another trunk and stopped there: regrouping, apparently saying to itself: bloody hell, that was close. I thought I was a goner that time. I'm never going to do that again. Not until. .. well, I'll try it again. just once more. I'm going to do it you know ... and up he shuffled again, furry cloak aflap, till he was at the top again and ready to try another demented leap into the void.
This was not flying. It really wasn't much better than falling. It was a kind of parachute jumping: completed under some hazy notion of control. A swift can manage a flight of three years: a flying squirrel can manage about half a minute. Swifts fly [from England] to Africa and back: the record for flying squirrels is about 500 yards. Flying squirrels are the funniest animals I have ever seen, but no one could call them the finest flying machine ever designed.
Are they an evolutionary mistake? No, certainly not: there are 43 species of them worldwide, including one in Siberia. There are fourteen in Borneo alone: from the pygmy flying squirrels at eight centimetres in length, to the giants, five times as big, They are a successful little group.
Are they improving? Are the forces of evolution trying to make them more sophisticated, less funny? Again: certainly not. Why should they improve? They work perfectly well as they are. The blind forces of evolution are not seeking to create perfection: they are seeking something that works well enough: well enough to permit the creature to survive, breed, become an ancestor.
The flying squirrels are gorgeous proof that evolution is not about perfection. This is an absurd and glorious jerry-rigged creature . . .
. . .the process of life isn't about the seeking after perfection. It is about the seeking after even more life. Those squirrels: like the magnificent men in their flying machines, are gallant pioneers of the skyways, flinging themselves into the air once again with a crazy fecklessness: faulty, optimistic, jerry-rigged, jaunty, indomitable, and apparently deranged: perhaps the ultimate symbol of life on earth.

Today's route: Down the cement walkway through the Shade garden, across the road and take the White trail to the power line. Turn right on the power line and go uphill to the locked gate, then turn left and follow the fence to the White trail. We rambled along the White trail until a little past 10:00 and then walked back along the White trail and returned to the parking lot.

Witch Hazel flower buds
Shade garden: We stopped to take a look at the tiny flower buds of the Witch Hazel. They look almost exactly the same as they did last year at this time. Witch Hazel is remarkable for blooming in late fall when almost no other plants are flowering. We'll pass by this area later in October and November and to watch the progress of the flower buds.
Question of the week: do you know the other plant in our area that flowers in late fall/winter? The first rambler to email me with the correct answer gets a quarter at the next ramble.

White trail: We stopped to take a look at the American Beech with the long branch reaching out to the sunlight in the path. We've followed the development of the Beech nuts on this plant this year and today some of us were surprised to discover there weren't nearly as
Beech buds
many visible as there were the last time we visited. Blame the squirrels. Rosemary won the 25 cent reward for the first to discover one. Also noted were the typical Beech buds, almost fully developed. These sharp pointed, cigar shaped buds house the future leaves and twigs that will appear next spring. There is no other tree in this area that has similar buds.

One of the lower limbs of the beech was
Sooty black mold on Beech leaves
covered with sooty black mold, Scorias spongiosa. We commonly see this mold on or beneath beech trees. It is not really infecting the tree – it is growing on the "honeydew" produced by aphids located on the branches above. The honeydew is the same sugary solution that spots your windshield when you park your car under a tree during the summer. The mold is simply growing on a rich carbohydrate source that is really just aphid poop. Of course the aphids produce it by sucking the sap of the tree, so, in an indirect way, the mold is really growing on the tree – just not in the way you think. Later on today's walk we found a colony of Beech blight aphids on another tree and noticed a similar sooty mold on the ground beneath the colony.

Of course we had to stop and examine the fruits of the Hophornbeam that are now fully mature, brown clusters of hop-like seed pods. This year is certainly the year for this particular tree to reproduce, but many others of the same species in the wooded areas are not following suit. Is it because that this tree is in a nice, sunny location?

Wild sensitive plant
One of the nice finds today was a single individual of Wild Sensitive Plant (Chamaecrista nictitans). Don's closeup of
Wild sensitive plant flower;
extrafloral nectary on petiole at bottom pair of leaflets

the flower also shows the conspicuous extra floral nectary on the petiole of the compound leaves. Nectar produced in these structures attracts ants by offering them a sweet drink without having to climb around inside the petals. While on the plant the ants will eat any herbivorous caterpillars or insect eggs they run across, so the plant benefits from their presence.

Other plants still flowering in this area were Small red morning glory, Pennsylvania smartweed, Camphorweed Golden aster, Yellow crownbeard, Forked blue curls, Late blue aster, Leafy elephants foot and Ragweed. We also found a fern, Ebony spleenwort tucked away in the trees by the edge of the path. The grasses, Splitbeard bluestem and Little bluestem were also flowering.
The Ragweed is responsible for the persecution of Goldenrod. It flowers at the same time as Goldenrod, but its flowers are wind pollinated and, therefore, very inconspicuous. They produce copious, dry and very light pollen grains that are carried for miles by the breezes. It is these pollen grains that cause the seasonal allergy, Hay fever. Goldenrod flowers are pollinated by insects and their pollen grains are large and sticky, not likely to be blown about by a wandering breeze. But because they are often the most conspicuous flower open during Hay fever season they get all the blame. Moral: Don't confuse correlation with causation.

Elaine Nash prairie: Some of the fall wildflowers are showing their age just as the grasses we saw last week are beginning to bloom. The white crownbeard was not much in evidence today, but it is still there, just not obvious as it was a few weeks ago because most of the white petals have dropped. Without the petals the plants no longer stand out; they just blend in with the general green vegetation background.

At the bottom of the prairie nestled among the grasses was a group of puffballs. These are fungi that produce spores within an outer wall. The interior is solid when they are young and, when mature, becomes a dry powdery mass of spores that are dispersed when the puffball is disturbed by a mechanical force, like raindrops.

Linear ant mound
In the path we found another linear ant mound. I still have no idea what causes these mounds to be so straight. This one was about a 3-4 feet in length and less than an inch in width, which was variable. Entomologists that I have talked to have never heard of such a thing.

Dog fennel; closeup of flowers
Dog fennel has begun blooming. It is in the Aster family, but unlike most other plants here in that family it is wind pollinated. Most wind pollinated flowers have no petals – they would interfere with pollen dispersal and Dog fennel is no exception to that generalization.

Roundleaf thoroughwort
One new plant was encountered: Roundleaf thoroughwort.

Wreath goldenrod
The other species that are still blooming are: Goldenrod, Rabbit tobacco, White Crownbeard, Blue mist flower, Slender gerardia and Blue stem or wreath goldenrod.

Basilica orbweaver
This is the time of year when spiders become more apparent and we saw three different orb weavers today, one of which we could not identify with any confidence. The other two were Spinybacked orbweaver and Basilica orbweaver.

White trail: At the top of the prairie we turned to the left and entered the woods to get to the White trail. Almost immediately we saw spectacular mushrooms, the first of many we were to find today.

Cinnabar polypore

Cinnabar polypore undersurface showing pores

Crown-tipped coral
Turkey tail

Multicolor gilled polypore
Multicolor gilled polypore showing gills on undersurface
The Multicolor gilled polypore is interesting because the DNA evidence shows that it is a true polypore but it has gills on its lower surface, like a gilled mushroom. Nature throws us a curve every once in a while.

You can see the other mushrooms we saw today by visiting Don's facebook album (see link at top of this post).

Grape fern with fertile frond
Not everything we saw was a fungus. We found a small cluster of Grape ferns, one of which had a fertile frond. The fertile frond arises from ground level in the Grape fern which is the way that you distinguish it from Rattlesnake fern in which the fertile frond arises from the point at which you find the sterile fronds.

Luna moth cocoon;
exit hole at top

Someone picked up an old cocoon from which a Luna moth had emerged.

White Oaks vs. Red Oaks: In our area the oaks can be divided into two groups of species: the White oaks and the Red oaks. These differ in many ways but I just want to focus on the acorns right now. I brought a recently fallen white oak acorn to show – it was already germinating when I found it. You can see the embryonic root projecting from the pointy end of the acorn. This illustrates one difference between the white and red oaks: white oak acorns can germinate right after falling. red oak acorns remain dormant until the following spring. 
Germinating White oak acorn

Another difference between the two groups is in their tannin content. White oak acorns have a lower tannin content than do red oak acorns. Tannin is a substance that imparts a bitter taste to plant tissues. It is responsible for the astringent quality of tea and red wine. (In wine it comes from the skin of the grape, which is why white wines, which are made from skinless grapes, lack the bitter quality of the reds). Tannins are found in other plant tissues as well. They combine with other molecules, especially proteins, to permanently interfere with their normal functions. Ancient humans discovered that animal skins could be treated with extracts from oaks or firs to create leather. The old German term for a fir, which survives in the Christmas song "O Tannenbaum" (literally, fir - tree) was adopted for the process of making leather: tanning. Since leather is usually darker than the original skin "tanning" has also applies to the darkening of human skin when exposed to sunlight, even though the underlying process is unrelated to making leather. Plants use tannins to protect their parts from herbivores. An herbivore that eats a leaf with a lot of tannins will not grow as fast one consuming a leaf with lower tannin content. Why? The tannins will combine with the animals digestive enzymes, inactivating them. This makes the food less nutritious because it cannot be digested as efficiently. Over evolutionary time herbivores will switch to plants with lower tannin content. (Sorry for the digression; back to the acorns.)

This difference in tannin content between white and red oaks has ecological consequences. Gray squirrels are major predators of acorns. When they find a white oak acorn they usually eat it. Those they do not eat are nipped "in the bud" – the squirrel bites off the end where the embryonic plant is located and then buries the acorn for future use. But, because of their lower tannin content, the white oak acorns are more likely to suffer fungal attacks during the winter. On the other hand, a red oak acorn is immediately buried. The higher tannin content better protects the acorn from attacks by fungi through the winter months and the squirrel has a larder of food to draw on over the winter; even if it tastes bitter. Sometimes bitter is better.

Acorns were a staple food for many Native American peoples and they had ways to remove the tannins before consuming them. If you want to try eating acorns this website has the necessary instructions and recipes (Note: I have not tried any of these. Caveat emptor.) If you're simply interested in growing oaks you'll find this publication has a lot of information about acorns, including how to prepare them for germination and how to store them.

Mea culpa: Tim mentioned another difference between the white oaks and red oaks: white oak acorns mature in the same year while red oak acorns mature in two years. I said that I didn't think that was right. I was wrong. I don't know if this is related to the tannin content difference or not. There are other nutritional differences between the two oak groups: the red acorns have higher lipid content, making them a better choice of food in cold weather.

White rot vs. Brown rot mushrooms: Mushrooms that grow on dead wood are digesting the cell walls of the former tree. People noticed that the same kind of wood being rotted by different mushrooms often developed different colors: with some mushrooms it became brown and with others it was white. To understand these differences you have know a little about woody plant cells. Plant cells differ from animal cells in that each plant cell is surrounded by a wall. The principle component of this wall is cellulose. Paper and cotton are made from the cell walls of plants. But you've undoubtedly noticed that wet paper isn't very strong. So how could a tree be able to support its massive weight if its component cell walls are inherently weak? The secret is a second substance that is incorporated into the walls of tree cells: lignin. Lignin binds to cellulose molecules and gives them strength and rigidity. (The most abundant complex molecules on earth are cellulose and lignin.) Cellulose by itself is white in color (think paper or cotton) but lignin is brown. So the higher the lignin content of the cell wall, the browner the color. The two types of mushrooms (brown rot or white rot) are degrading either the cellulose or the lignin component of the cell wall. If a mushroom digests the cellulose the brown lignin will remain, therefore it's a brown rot fungus. But if the mushroom digest the lignin the light colored cellulose will remain – it's a white rot fungus.

Sidebar: Making paper from ground up tree wood pulp requires the removal of the lignin bound to the cellulose. This is done by using some very harsh chemicals that produce obnoxious odors and, if not properly treated, severe water pollution. Since the white rot fungi essentially do the same job, removal of lignin, some people think that they could be adapted to the commercial paper production process. This is currently still a research idea and is far from being a practical, commercially viable process.

We were running out of time so we turned around and took the White trail back to the parking lot. On the way we spotted the leaf of a Cranefly orchid and after that first one we noticed several more. The single leaf lies flat on the forest floor. It is green on top and maroon on the undersurface. It stays out all winter, slowly photosynthesizing throughout the cold weather, taking advantage of the open canopy after all the trees have dropped their leaves. In late spring the leaf finally senesces and in mid-summer a single flowering stalk emerges from the ground, bearing tiny brown flowers.

Then we adjourned to Donderos' for our customary food and beverage.

American beech
Fagus grandifolia
Black sooty mold
Scorias spongiosa
Marasmius (black footed?)
Marasmiellus nigripes?
Red morning glory
Ipomoea coccinea
Pennsylvania smartweed
Polygonum pensylvanicum
Golden aster
Heterotheca latifolia
Yellow crownbeard
Verbesina occidentalis
Splitbeard bluestem
Adropogon ternarius
Forked blue curls
Trichostema dichotomum
Wild sensitive plant
Chamaecrista nictitans
Ebony spleenwort
Asplenium platyneuron
Late blue aster
Symphyotrichum patens
Little bluestem
Schizachyrium scoparium
Ambrosia artemisiifolia
Leafy elephants foot
Elephantopus carolinianus
Puffball mushroom
Lycoperdon sp.
Solidago sp.
Rabbit tobacco
Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium
Dog fennel
Eupatorium capillifolium
orb weaver

White Crownbeard
Verbesina virginica
Roundleaf thoroughwort
Eupatorium rotundifolium
Blue mist flower
Conoclinium coelestinum
Slender gerardia
Agalinis tenuifolia
Spiny backed orbweaver
Gasteracantha cancriformis
Blue stem or wreath goldenrod
Solidago caesia
Cinnabar polypore
Pycnoporus cinnabarinus
Luna moth cocoon
Actias luna
Crown tipped coral mushroom
Clavicorona pyxidata
Turkey tail mushroom
Trametes versicolor
Multicolor gill polypore mushroom
Lenzites betulina
Purple cort mushroom
Cortinarius violaceus
White cheese polypore
Tyromyces chioneus
Brown toothed polypore
Hydnellum sp.
Tall, light brown/tan mushroom
Amanita sp.
Grape fern
Botrychium biternatum
Fragile dapperling (the yellow parasol)
Leucocoprinus fragilissimus
Chanterelle mushroom
Cantharellus cibarius
White (clear) jelly fungus
Tremella fuciformis
Red oak
Quercus rubrum
White oak
Quercus alba
Scarlet oak
Quercus coccinea
Cranefly orchid
Tipularia discolor
Fuzzy slime mold
Chromelosporium fulvum

1 comment:

  1. I have corrected an error. I originally referred to the two groups of oaks as the white and black oaks. The black should have been red: the white oak group and the red oak group. Confusingly, the black oak is a member of the red oak group.


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