Category Archives: Plants

Mother Nature Abhors Average

 

 

 

This has been a strange year. In many respects, but certainly from the perspective of a flower child like me.  Any person, like me, who spends an inordinate amount of time pursuing truth and beauty in places of torture—i.e. bogs infested with mosquitos, horseflies, black flies, hornets and worse—has had to deal with fact that this year was not an average year.

The wild flower year started off in spring and early summer with bitter cold. No self-respecting flowers wanted to appear. Can you blame them? That was followed by hot. Again it was so hot that no sane flower would stick its lovely head out. Most flowers were late in making an appearance. To make things even worse, it was dry. In Manitoba until the last couple of days, it was the driest year since records were started to be kept about 150 years ago.  Recently we have been plagued with torrential downpours that point to a deluge. How can wild flowers survive that? Did they?

I went in search of an answer. I wanted to see Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) and Grass Pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus). Both of these gorgeous orchids usually appear at the same time. It was late in the summer for both but I thought in this untypical year my chances of finding them were good.

I know one very reliable site for Rose Pogonia a very rare orchid. There were none to be found. Not one. Even though we had massive rains in much of Manitoba recently there was very little water in the fen. That was a dreadful pity. As a result I show you 2 photos from earlier years.

 

After that I drove to the Brokenhead Wetland Interpretative trail near Gull Lake Manitoba. This is the best place for wild orchids in southern Manitoba and one of the best in Canada. It was incredibly hot and humid so I did not want to wear my elaborate and stifling  bog gear. So I went minimalist thinking even mosquitos would hunker down on such a day.  And I was right. Then miraculously, I found them. Diligence paid off.  Most specimens of Grass Pink orchid were spent. There was one fine pair of flowers deep in the fen where I am not supposed to go. That is why we have a boardwalk to keep us pedestrians off. It took supreme moral fibre for me to stay on the boardwalk because I could not photograph  it from there.

A little farther I was amply rewarded for my righteousness. A wonderful specimen right beside the boardwalk. Life was worth living again.

But I have not learned much about the year except the important lesson that Mother Nature abhors average. There is no such thing as  “an average year” in nature. It  just never  happens. Thank goodness.

 

Coral-roots

 

These are not Manitoba’s most beautiful orchids. But they are among the most interesting.

Manitoba has 37 different species of orchids. They vary greatly from the small and mundane to the large and glorious.  Perhaps none though are stranger than those within the genus Corallorhiza(Coral-roots). We have only 3 of the genus in Manitoba. The name is derived from the Greek word korallionwhich means “coral” and rhizawhich means root.  This refers to the fact that these orchids spend most of their life underground away from the light. They live among the roots of trees and other plants in the forest. The ones in Manitoba rarely live in wetlands, though one comes pretty close.

Coral-roots are mycoheterotrophs meaning that they are not autotrophs, or primary producers, but rather heterotrophs, or secondary producers who cannot produce their own food like the green plants, but rather derive energy from consuming plant and animal tissue. Specifically, they derive their nutrition from nearby mycorrhizal fungiunder the ground who in turn get the nutrition from nearby roots of trees. Their underground life-style does not allow them to produce their own food from sunlight like green plants. Instead they take advantage of a beneficial mutualistic relationship with the neighbouring trees and the mycorrhizal fungi in the ground between them and on them. Since the orchids host the same mycorrhizal fungus that are found in the roots of the adjacent trees the coral-roots are able to use the fungi as a conduit to share the sugars produced by the trees. Trees have green leaves so they are able to produce food, unlike the coral-roots that are unable to produce food because they lack the green chlorophyll.

This is a colony of spotted-coral orchids.

The spotted coral-roots are my favourite. Notice how they  entirely lack green. That is why they are unable to produce food.

Notice how the size of these are reflected by the size of the mosquitos. They are about the same size

The striped coral-root orchids are very distinctive with their prominent dark red stripes.

 

These are coral-roots but they have some green and thus are able to produce some food and are likely not entirely dependent on the associated mycorrhizal fungus under the ground for nutrition.

All I can say for sure is that orchids are fascinating.

The oldest plant in the Sonoran Desert–maybe the world

 

 

Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata.)

 You would have to be a much better photographer than I am, to make this inconspicuous plant look interesting. But it is interesting. Very interesting. It is probably the most interesting plant in the Sonoran Desert. They are very common. Ubiquitous I would say.

It isa shrub or  bush. But, it is a perennial bush that has some amazing properties. It can live for up to 2 years without rain. Today it did not have its tiny yellow flowers. They have already turned into tiny fruit.  These plants are believed to be among the oldest living plants. Some are as old as 11,000 years old! That is older than the Old Testament was written. That is older than the pyramids. Archaeologists believe Egypt’s large pyramids are the work of the Old Kingdom society that rose to prominence in the Nile Valley after 3000 B.C. Historical analysis tells us that the Egyptians built the Giza Pyramids in a span of 85 years between 2589 and 2504 BC. Is it possible that a creosote bush is twice as old as that? At least one such plant was carbon dated to be more than 11,000 years old.

Creosote is the probably the most drought resistant perennial plant in North America. It must be to survive in a desert for that long.  And we humans think we are smart? As humans we naturally value what we do. Does anything we do compare with this? This was an old friend worth cherishing. I tried to show I appreciated it.

The Most Important Plant in the Sonoran Desert

 

Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea)

This is a pretty boring little bush isn’t it? Nothing special. Less than that it looks puny and unimportant. To add to the wonder, this plant is actually filled with flowers! Can’t you see them?  Well they are tiny. Tiny and green.  Little green jobs is what we call them. They are very difficult to see and hardly look like flowers at all. After all who has green flowers?

According to my hero Ranger B, this is both the most the most common and most important plant in the Sonoran Desert. But it gets no respect.  How can a commoner be so important?

To begin with, Bursage holds  the desert soil together. If it were not for Bursage there would be a lot more sand and dust in the air in Arizona. So Bursage keeps the air clean. That is very important. It would be very difficult to live here were it not for my old friend Bursage. Because of Bursage sand storms in the Sonoran desert are very rare, unlike other deserts such as the Sahara. The problem is, of course, that Bursage is disappearing. The reason of course is obvious. Life is disappearing on the desert, as it is everywhere, that humans touch. All life  that is except Homo sapiens and those organisms and creatures that can stand living with us. Things like quack grass, rats and cockroaches are doing fine. Humans make life difficult for many plants and animals. That is a pity. The Sahara desert does not have Bursage, hence it has more sand storms. I am exaggerating a bit of course. The Sonoran desert has more plants than most deserts because it has more moisture. More rain means more plants. Plants hold soil together. So it is only natural that there are less sand storms here. But of all the plants the lowly inconspicuous Bursage may be the most important of all desert plants as Ranger B claims.

Too often people have insufficient respect for Bursage. They build new residential subdivisions everywhere and kill the Bursage. That is why there are now more dust storms in Arizona now than ever before.

I must admit that as a wild flower guy I would tend to pass over such a lowly plant but that would be a big mistake. No one wants Bursage on front lawns. Too boring. Saguaros everyone accepts. No one cares about Bursage. Everyone gets rid of it. It does not have pretty flowers because it relies on wind pollination, not insects. Insects don’t come for tiny little green flowers. After all they have standards. Insects, like wild flower guys, want the big flashy flowers with bright colors or scintillating scent, or better yet, both. The flowers of Bursage are extremely small.

Bursage is also important as a nurse plant. This happens often in the Sonoran Desert. Conditions are so harsh that young plants seek the protection of old plants to give them shade from the harsh sun. For example, many Saguaro cacti start out this way. But other plants use the same survival technique. According to Ranger B, Bursage is also the best shade plant in the desert. It supports more young plants than any other plant. According to Ranger B it is not uncommon for ground temperatures in the desert to hit 160°F in the open sun. Remember temperatures are measured in the shade. Plants like humans find that tough. That can kill plants like young saguaros. Most plants in the desert need shade to get a good start. Without bursar there would be a lot less plants in the desert, including the massive Saguaro that starts out as a tiny little plant that needs a nurse–like Bursage.

Like human children, showing a startling lack of gratitude, the young plant eventually outgrows the nurse and overshadows it, stealing nutrients that the nurse could use.Often the nurse dies.  Life in the desert is harsh. Just like life in gated communities.