Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Piney-Looking Trees Part 4: Loose In The Spruce

A Whiny Preamble

So I’m back home, and the week to date’s been a bit bumpy. First, I’ve been a bit sleep-deprived from our late-night storm-delayed flight home Sunday night. Then yesterday someone stole the catalytic converter off my truck. (Apparently, this is becoming a pretty common crime, and my vehicle- a Toyota 4Runner- is the prime target. See here for more info.) So today meant lots of cycles spent with the Toyota dealer and the insurance company… Then last night I went mtn biking with the guys, a ride that I planned to take easy, but quickly turned into a mad chase, after a call back from the Midvale PD put me 10 minutes behind the group.

Tangent: Normally our group has a “moderate-speed” climber (my organic chemistry professor friend) who I could count on to keep the group’s climbing speed down a bit. But the professor- let's call him "Rick"- was absent last night, so I was chasing hard.

I Always Feel Like I Need More Time

Finally caught up to the gang shortly before the intersection with Mid-Mountain trail.

On Mid-Mountain, in the week and a half I’ve been away, the world has changed. With minor exceptions, the wildflowers are GONE. Every single flower I’ve blogged about and seen along this trail- Columbine, Sticky Geranium, Richardson Geranium, Low Larkspur, Western Clematis, Utah Sweetpea, Wild Rose, Ballhead Waterleaf, Yellow Fritillary, Scarlet Gilia, as well as all the remaining Balsamroots and Mules Ears- gone, gone, gone. I knew this was coming, but the shock of the sudden disappearance hit hard. I’m still trying to watch the world wake up, and it’s kicking back for a late-summer siesta…

Side note: There are a few new/different flowers out now, about which I hope to blog soon, most notably Indian Paintbrush and various Asters and/or Fleabanes.

An hour later, heading back to the trailhead on the final descent, for no apparent reason, I crashed, hard. Today I’m scraped and bruised with a sore knee and a bump on the head (from helmet impact.)

Tangent: I almost never crash, even when I'm doing something stupid. On those very, very rare occasions, once every 2 or 3 years, when I do crash, my buddies just stare at me for a minute with a mix of consternation and horror, as if they’d been watching Jesus walk across the water, when suddenly he falls in and gets soaked.

Then, to top it off, my brother back in Massachusetts, who’s is one of my absolutely favorite people on the planet (and is one of the 5 or so people who actually read this blog) has come down with Lyme Disease. What’s particularly ironic about this is that unlike me, my brother- let’s call him “Phil”- has almost zero interest in the outdoors. How does Phil get bit by a tick if Phil never goes outside??

OK so there’s 2 or 3 other things I could bitch about, but this preamble is in danger of developing into a full-blown theme, and not a pretty theme, but the most common, unappealing blog theme of all: Middle Aged Man Complaining About Stuff. So let’s quit bitching and talk trees.

The Topic At Hand - Wasatch PLT #3

I almost never see Engelmann Spruce below 8,000 feet, and more often I run into it at 8,500 feet and above. In fact I see a lot more Spruce skiing than mtn biking in the Wasatch, because most mtn biking is below 8,500 feet while most skiing happens above. A good spot to see lots and lots of Engelmann Spruce from on high is from the ski lift at Brighton- all the big piney-looking trees below you (and beside you on the steeps) with reddish/pinkish trunks are Engelmann Spruce. The “Underwear Tree” alongside the Crest Express lift is an Engelmann Spruce.

But Engelmann Spruce often occurs lower, either on North-facing slopes or along drainages. A great place to see plenty up close is along the Great Western trail as it climbs from the intersection with Big Water trail up to the head of the Mill Creek drainage.

Engelmann Spruce is the most shade-tolerant and least sun-tolerant of the 3 main piney-lookers, and as a result it’s almost never a “pioneer” species that colonizes open, burnt or logged spaces, but rather a follow-on, or “climax” species, slowly growing to adulthood in the shade of other, more sun-tolerant trees. In the Wasatch those “nurse trees” are Aspen, Fir or Douglas Fir; farther afield they’re often Pines. As the Spruce grow they eventually shade out their former “nurses” and come to dominate the canopy, becoming the dominant tree over 9,000 feet.

Oftentimes over 9,000 feet the Engelmann Spruce will be co-dominant with Subalpine Fir. The Spruces lives longer and are more shade-tolerant, but the Firs grow much more speedily and are quicker to exploit new openings in the forest. This ongoing battle of succession is analogous to that going on in the foothills which we looked at when we talked about Bigtooth Maple and Gambel Oak.

Sun-tolerant trees tend to thrive in areas and periods of disturbance. And for millions of years, the most common disturbance has been fire. A century+ of fire-suppression has caused Engelmanns to thrive and dominate in many areas where they didn’t historically. And the single-species dominance has made Engelmanns vulnerable to epidemic-level infestation of Pine Bark Beetles, which kill the Spruce by destroying the tree’s cambium layer. The worst of these infestations in Utah is on the Markagunt Plateau, North of Zion and East of Cedar City, where vistas now feature rolling acre after acre of dead, standing Spruce snags.

Tangent: Fire suppression changes the mix of trees in many parts of the country. Another great example is in Sequoia National Park, where decades of suppression have allowed White Fir to proliferate in the spaces by the Giant Sequoias, which in turn has inhibited the establishment and growth of younger Sequoia seedlings.

I mentioned earlier that DNA seems to indicate that Picea is the genus most closely related to Pinus (Pines) and they may have shared a common ancestor as recently as the early Cretaceous.

Tangent for non-Dinosaur-savvy-readers: The dinosaurs lived in an era called the Mesozoic (we are in the Cenozoic era now.) The Mesozoic is divided into 3 periods, each of which lasted several tens of millions of years: the Triassic, the Jurassic and the Cretaceous. Most of the best-known dinosaurs- such as T-Rex and Triceratops, lived in the Cretaceous.

The Other Spruce

Today there are 35 species of Picea strung across the Northern hemisphere, of which 7 are native to North America. And of those 7, only 2 are native to Utah. The vast majority of the time (95% according to one source I read, but I think it’s more like 99%) that you see a Spruce in a Utah forest, it’s an Engelmann Spruce. The other 1%(?) or such, it’s a Blue Spruce, Picea pungens, sometimes called “Colorado Blue Spruce.”

Tangent: The “Colorado” moniker is also often used for Columbine as well. I dislike it. There’s no indication that either Blue Spruce or Columbine is more native to Colorado than Utah, and I think this naming trend is just another aspect of the odd-but-prevailing bias towards Colorado over Utah as the ideal “Rocky Mountain” destination for people on the coasts. What’s even weirder is that “Colorado Blue Spruce” is the state tree of Utah.

Nested Tangent: Seriously, what is up with the whole “State Tree”, “State Bird”, “State Flower”, “State Gem” thing? What does the tree/bird/flower/gem get anyway? Special treatment? A tax break? Do state legislatures really have so little to do that they need to hold these little virtual Miss-Universe pageants for trees and rocks?

Return-to-Main-Tangent: A far better state tree would be the Utah Juniper. It’s the most common tree in the state, has “Utah” in the name, is tough, hardy and almost un-killable, and although its shade is a bit meager, it gives shade where you need it- in the heat of the desert.

Ironically, Blue Spruce is almost certainly more common in suburban yards and office parks than it is in the wild. The very-noticeably-blue Blue Spruces you see around town are all specific, well-developed cultivars, bred for their form, and the blue-ness of their needles (which, like all blue-tinted conifer foliage, is caused by wax build-up on the stomata.) If you go trudging around the Wasatch looking for Spruce with blue needles you’ll never find them; I’ve never noticed wild Blue Spruce needles to look any bluer than Engelmann Spruce needles. No, the way to tell the 2 Utah Spruces apart is by their cones (pic left). Blue Spruce cones are always bigger- generally twice as long.

The best place to find Blue Spruce is in canyon bottoms along watercourses. Here’s an easy spot to find one: drive up Big Cottonwood Canyon, past the “S-Curves.” A couple miles further the canyon opens up dramatically and there are parking lots on both sides of the road, a trailhead on the left (Mill D trail) and a side road going off to the right and across the creek. Immediately after is an open park-like meadow on the right by the creek, with a couple of big, nice-looking PLT’s right in the middle (pic above a bit & left, Trifecta for scale.) Those are Blue Spruces, and you can easily park, walk over and check them out.

The inside of an Engelmann Spruce forest is shady, cool and sometimes a bit spooky (in July they’re often buggy as well, with plenty of mosquitoes.) Even in mid-July, large, 3 or 4-foot deep icebergs of old winter snow linger here and there on the shaded floor. The densely-needled boughs block much of the sun, delaying the melt significantly

Tangent: Backcountry skiers are sensitive to foliage density. Most backcountry-skiing in the Wasatch occurs in slopes covered with Aspen or Engelmann Spruce. The Spruce boughs catch, hold or deflect far more snow than the bare Aspen branches. So if you’re looking for a good, deep-powder ski run, a line through the Aspens generally beats a line through the Spruce. But if you’re looking to punch in a skin-track up to the top, sticking to the Spruces is often far less work.

Engelmann Spruces are probably the stateliest trees of Utah. Their dark, cool shade and somber ambience is all the more remarkable in that it so often exists only a few miles from hot, brown desert valleys. Of all the cool things about Utah, the coolest thing for me, the thing that never ceases to surprise me, are the contrasts in the natural landscape. Old-growth Engelmann Spruce forests capture this sense of contrast better than almost anything.

Monday, July 28, 2008

I Go For a Bike Ride With A Turtle

I know I’m supposed to get back to Utah trees, but I can’t resist just one more New England/Maine post, in part because it’s about a reptile, and I’ve only focused on reptiles a couple of times so far this year, and also because it involves a short stunt of extreme coordination on my part which gives me an opportunity to showcase my formidable 1-handed rough-road cycling skills.

Yesterday I took a short road ride from the cabin out through a couple of small villages and back. Anytime I road-bike from the cabin, the ride starts and ends with ~1.5 miles of slightly rough dirt road. One the way back, about a mile from the cabin, I came across a great sight- a Painted Turtle crawling across the road.

Turtles are cool for lots of reasons: Their shells, their egg-laying habits, and their long life-spans are some of the better-known ones. But a really cool thing about (many) turtles is that they’re slow, and easy to catch. So if you’re a dad with 3 wildlife-nut kids (Wonder Boy, Twin A, and Twin B, hereafter to be referred to as The Trifecta) and you come across a turtle a mile from home, the first thing you think is: How do I get this thing home to show the kids?

Do Not Try This Part Unless You Are (Like Me) An Expert Cyclist

Painted turtles are pretty benign as far as turtles go, and generally react to threats by retracting into their shells (as this one did) but they can also react to danger by biting, scratching or urinating. For this reason, I quickly ruled out putting her in the pocket of my bike jersey (which was sort of a shame, because it would have fit just perfectly.) So I did the only other thing I could think of: I held her in my left hand and rode home one-handed, a feat which involved steering, shifting and braking with one hand. The ride- all along a bumpy dirt road- included a quick un-nerving descent, and a brief out-of-saddle climbing effort, which I will say was probably my single-most coordinated (albeit hare-brained) biking maneuver ever.

I arrived home with that sheepish-yet-triumphant feeling of having done something really stupid but gotten away with it, and yet also felt oddly nostalgic all at the same time (probably because I’d felt that feeling much more frequently in my high school/college years) and delighted The Trifecta with my find.

Turtles are one of those kinds of creatures you really don’t think about very often unless you happen to stumble across one. Which is unfortunate because as a “design” they’ve been incredibly successful. Turtles, or turtle/tortoise-like critters, have been around for over 200 million years, and have taken on many different forms and lived in all sorts of interesting and challenging environments.

Turtles, Tortoises and Terrapins comprise the order Testudines. The Testudines are divided into 2 sub-orders: Pleurodira, the side-necked turtles, so-called because they retract their heads by folding their necks sideways in a somewhat snake-like manner, and Cryptodira, which retract their heads by lowering their necks and pulling their heads straight back in, sort of Rex Reed-(of the Fantastic4, which for the record I always thought was cool till they made that crappy movie)-like. The majority of Testudines are Cryptodira. The largest family within Cryptodira is Emydidae, which includes 40 species across 12 genera, nearly all of which are freshwater turtles.

One of those 12 genera is Chrysemys. Chrysemys contains just 1 species, Chrysemis picta, the Painted Turtle (making the Painted Turtle a monotypic species, like Blackbrush.) There are 4 subspecies of Painted Turtle (weirdly analogous to Moose in North America) and the one I picked up was an Eastern Painted Turtle.

Tangent: Painted Turtles also occur in Utah. The local subspecies here is the Western Painted Turtle, Chrysemys picta belii.

Like all turtles, Painted Turtles lay their eggs on land, typically in sandy soil, and in Maine that all too happens in the middle of dirt roads, which generally means a quick doom for the brood if not the mother. And that’s why I refer to the turtle I found as a “she”, since that was by far the likeliest reason I found her so far from the water (~60-80 feet.)

Turtles have been around so long, and been so successful, that you wonder why the grow-your-own-armor strategy isn’t more common in the animal kingdom. Armadillos do a version of it in the animal world, and a number of arthropods do something of and armor+roll-in a ball strategy (our old friend the Woodlouse, favored prey of the Black Widow, is an excellent example), but no creature seems to do it on anything near the scale of the Testudines. But the absolutely coolest thing ever about the Painted Turtle isn’t its shell- it’s its hibernation. Every winter the Painted Turtle settles deep into the mud in the bottom of a pond or lake and hibernates- without taking a single breath- for up to 6 months. There’s no other creature on the planet that can pull off that trick. Several other turtles- including the famed Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina-, also hibernate underwater sans breathing, but the Painted Turtle is the endurance champion.

Clarification Tangent #1: Just to be clear, Turtles are reptiles, have lungs and breathe air like we do. They cannot breathe underwater.

Clarification Tangent #2: Technically, they don’t actually “hibernate”. Hibernating is something that mammals do. Reptiles “brumate”.

Scientists have studied just how it is that Painted Turtles can survive so long without oxygen. They’ve found that C. picta has evolved two important tricks. First, they can lower their metabolism- and specifically both the production and consumption of ATP- to an extremely low level, particularly in brain tissue through a chemistry and molecular/synaptic architecture very alien to that of a mammalian brain, such as ours.

Quick Backgrounder on ATP: ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) is an organic compound (specifically a nucleotide) that is the most important energy transfer mechanism in living things. Pretty much everything living things do- move, think, whatever- is powered by and consumes ATP. Animals make ATP by metabolizing food; plants also make it by metabolizing food, but in their case it’s overwhelmingly food they’ve produced themselves via photosynthesis.

Tangent: The actual methods involved in this research are a bit repugnant. Researchers basically asphyxiated turtles and rats, then sliced up their brains and analyzed the slices…

Part of that metabolic slowdown is a reduction in heart rate. My typical resting pulse is in the mid 50’s BPM (beats-per-minute.) When I’m walking around it’s typically between 70-90 BPM, when I’m biking between 120-150BPM, and the highest it’s been in the past year is 191 BPM. A Painted Turtle’s typical “active” heart rate is ~40 BPM. When it’s hibernating its heart beats once every 10 minutes, or an incredible 0.1 BPM.

Special Bonus Action Video

Here's a video of the turtle on the move across the cabin deck. (Pretty lame until last few seconds, when she hauls ass...well for a turtle anyway...)

The other trick is even cooler. Part of what kills most animals when deprived of oxygen is the build-up of metabolic waste, namely lactic acid. A hibernating Painted Turtle actually sequesters excess lactic acid within its bones, including its shell, until springtime, when it can safely extract it back from the bones/shell and process it with fresh oxygen. This feature is cool for 2 reasons: First, it’s yet another great biochemistry story, and second, it’s a great example of evolution making use of a structure that evolved for some other purpose. It’s pretty clear that turtle-shells evolved primarily for protection, but the evolutionary ancestors of Chrysemys later leverage this excess bone mass to evolve the sequestration technique.

After our little show-and-tell, we freed the turtle. Although Painted Turtles are the turtles most commonly kept as pets, my wife and I- as I’ve mentioned before- are not pet people. For my wife, this position is mainly driven by her continual and admirable quest for Less Needless Hassle. For me, it’s probably really pretty much the same deal, but I dress it up in an overblown “theory” about livestock and sociobiology and a bunch of other baloney that I’ll go off on a tangent about in some other post, but not right now. The plane is getting ready to land back in Salt Lake, and it’s time for me to get back to the Wasatch.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What Tree Geeks Do on Rainy Days - Blog

When you’re in the Maine woods for 4 days, and it’s raining pretty much non-stop, the best thing to do is to check out the trees. Seriously, the rain is putting a damper on the usual lakeside activities- swimming, sailing, canoeing, jumping off the floating raft and visiting the nearby waterfall. We’ve long since broken out the TV and videos for the kids and are considering an expedition to a multiplex this afternoon.

The coolest thing about Northern New England for a Westerner is all the fresh water. This part of the continent is packed with lakes, as is Minnesota, Northern Wisconsin and a huge swathe of Canada. That’s because they’re all part of the same geologic feature, the Canadian Shield, which is basically cool-sounding term for a very rocky landscape. The rocky soil means that it drains water poorly so that much of it pools into lakes and ponds.

Tangent: The downside of the Shield is that it also offers many stagnant pools for mosquito reproduction. Anywhere you go in the Shield in the summertime is Bug Central.

The rockiness is the result of the glaciers, which dragged lots and lots of rocks, boulders and gravel along with them, leaving the Shield behind when they finally retreated ~10K years ago.

The lakes and ponds are fascinating, full of interesting fish, snapping turtles and unusual birds (Loons and a Great Blue Heron are two fine examples on this lake) and almost any lake/pond up here could be the subject of a great blog.

Tangent: In fact, there are already a couple of great blog-like books on just this topic. 2 great ones are Franklin Russell’s “Watchers At The Pond”, and Bernd Heinrich’s “A Year In The Maine Woods”.

I’ve always loved lakes more than the ocean. I love the quiet, open space, the cool water. I’ve been coming up to these lakes for more than 35 years. There’s so much I could go on about, but the story of these lakes in Maine isn’t really the point of the blog, so instead I’ll include this “Highlight Map of the 5-Kezar Ponds which you can click on and check out if you’re interested.

A Bit About The Trees

Eastern forests have always frustrated me: too many trees all jumbled together. But this trip I find that they’re starting to make sense, mainly because of my efforts this year in identifying, categorizing and understanding trees back home.

Just like the Wasatch, there’s a broad division between leafy trees and Piney-looking trees. The biggest difference is that there are several leafy trees- they most common around the lakes are Northern Red Oak, American Beech, Red Maple and Striped Maple. But since I’m already on a PLT-theme back home, let’s look at those.

There are 4 PLTs I’ve found in the vicinity of the lake. 2 are Pines, 1 is a Hemlock, and 1 is a Larch. One of the Pines and the Hemlock are super-common; the other 2 PLTs you have to look just a bit harder for…

The 2 pines are Eastern White Pine (pic left), Pinus strobus, and Red Pine, Pinus resinosa. As I mentioned way back when, when I talked about Pines on Little Creek Mountain, Pines have been divided into 2 groups, or sub-genera, for the last 130 million years: soft pines and hard pines. Eastern White Pine is a soft pine; Red Pine is a hard pine. Eastern White Pine is by far the most common Pine (and most common conifer?) in the Northeast, and its range stretches up into Quebec and Newfoundland. It’s also the tallest tree in the Northeast, approaching 200 feet in height (pic of trunk right, Twin A for scale.) It’s been an important timber tree for centuries, valued for ship masts, and providing easily-worked, knot-free wood. It’s easy to identify: it’s the tallest tree around, by far the most common pine, and its needles are grouped in bundles of 5. Eastern White Pine is closely-related to Western White Pine, a common Pine of the Sierras which we’ll visit next month when we take our Tahoe vacation.

Here’s an interesting thing about Eastern White Pine: it’s only partially evergreen. Each fall it loses about half its needles. When the needles fall they’re a beautiful gold color. They often carpet the bare (highly acidic) forest floor in mature groves, and they’re a pretty sight in the Fall.

PLT #2, Red Pine, is far less common that Eastern White Pine, and only distantly-related to it. In fact, the closest relative of Red Pine seems to be our old friend Scots Pine, Pinus Sylvestris, a common exotic here in North America, which we visited back in May when I was bemoaning my pollen-related respiratory difficulties. Red Pine has a Northeasterly range, just barely encircling the Great Lakes, which seems to be a relic of it’s common Laurasian* ancestry with P. Sylvestris. Red Pine seems to have a very low level of genetic variation as a species- possible evidence of a past “genetic bottleneck” from which only a small pool of survivors emerged.

*Geeky Paleogeological Tangent: A couple hundred years million years ago, all the continents were bunched together into one super-continent called “Pangea”. Around 200 million years ago, Pangea split into a Northern super-continent, “Laurasia” and a Southern super-continent, “Gondwanaland”. Laurasia eventually split again into Eurasia and North America, with the final split between Greenland and Europe occurring around 60 million years ago. This timeline makes the speciation split between Red Pine and Scots Pine kind of interesting for us, in that we’ve looked at a number of very, very ancient speciation splits, like Gymnosperms vs. Angiosperms, and Monocots vs. Dicots, and of course we’ve looked at lots and lots of recent or ongoing speciation events in everything from Douglas Fir to Black-headed Grosbeaks to Moose, but this is the first speciation event we’ve looked at in the ~60-70 million years ago timeframe…

Red Pine does well in sandy soils with lots of sunshine (it’s shade-intolerant) and here around the ponds I’ve only found it on the sandy eskers separating the ponds. When you do find it, it’s also easy to identify. The bark is clearly reddish, from root to crown, on red pines of all ages. The needles are bundled in 2’s (just like Scots Pine or Austrian Pine) and are noticeably longer than White Pine needles.

PLT #3 is a Hemlock, which is cool for me as there are no native Hemlocks in Utah. Tsuga is a fairly small genus, with only 8 -10 species, 4 of which are native to the U.S. They include Western Hemlock, Tsuga heterophylla (the biggest, and which I saw plenty of last month in and around Mendocino), Mountain Hemlock, Tsuga mertensiana, (of which I’ve seen just one to date, mtn biking last summer in Tahoe), Carolina Hemlock, Tsuga caroliniana, down in the Smoky Mountains of TN and NC (never seen it, don’t know when I will- I rarely get to the backcountry in the Southeast) and Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis, which is all over the place here in Maine, as well as all along the Appalachians and into the Great Lakes region.

Hemlocks are easy to recognize once you’ve seen one; they have lots of very short needles on twigs that branch a zillion times, and have lots of teeny-tiny (1/2”) cones. They’re shade tolerant, and their dense foliage shades out other stuff underneath. Dense Hemlock stands are dark, shady, and on rainy days, a bit depressing.

The future of Eastern Hemlock is uncertain. Over the past several decades the Wooly Adelgid, Adelges tsugae (Cool electron-microscope pic right), an exotic sap-sucking bug from Asia (man I am telling you again- like all the nasty stuff comes from Asia), has been killing huge stands of Hemlock throughout Appalachia. It’s progress North seems to have slowed a bit but is continuing. So it’s a good idea to check out Eastern Hemlock now; it could be the 21st-century version of the Chestnut Tree.

Tangent: The American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, has been nearly extinct in the wild for decades. If most of us have ever heard of “Chestnuts” it’s probably only from corny Christmas songs. But until the early 20th century, Chestnut were the largest, and one of the most common, leafy trees in the Eastern US. (I’ve read that 1 out 4 broadleaf trees in the Appalachians was a Chestnut. Former range shown left.) Chestnut Blight, a disease, or more accurately infestation, of the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica arrived in 1904 and quickly wiped out all but a few survivors. We’ve looked at several exotics in this blog- Tamarisk, Dandelions, Musk Thistle, Crabgrass, Dyers Woad. The story of C. parasitica is probably the saddest of them all for a tree-lover.

Fourth, last and rarest (at least around these here ponds) is Tamarack, or Eastern Larch, Larix laricina which is cool because it’s a Larch, another Pinaceae genus absent from Utah. At first glance, Larches look like Spruces with something wrong with them. Then you get up close and see that the short needles actually grow in groups, like a Pine, but in “tufts” rather than bundles (pic right). And if you see Larches in Winter, you’ll most likely mistake them for dead Spruce or Fir, because they’re bare, like any good deciduous tree in Winter. Larches have teeny-tiny Hemlock-like cones, only a tad smaller.

Larches are way cool because they’re the only deciduous conifer, and they’re wildly successful. Tamarack, 1 of 3 Larches native to North America, has a range from Newfoundland to Alaska and Indiana to the Hudson Bay! (Range shown left.) Larches aren’t just some weird offshoot line of evolutionary freaks; they’re a fundamentally different way of being a successful conifer.

And speaking of conifers, it’s time to wrap up our review of Wasatch PLT’s, and get out of this endless rain and back home to the 2nd-driest state in the Union.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Seeing Home with Open Eyes

Quick break from the Piney-looking trees series…

So since last Wednesday I’ve been back in the Boston area, for a couple days of work, then time with my family (I grew up I a suburb of Boston.) Tomorrow we (me, wife, kids) are headed up to a cabin on a lake in Maine for a few days. I’ll be offline the whole time, so it may be as long as a week before I post again.

Tangent: I've bragged about my father before. Here's another thing to brag about: he built this cabin. Never built a house before, bought a couple of acres of land on a small lake in Maine. In the summer of 1972 went up and camped on the land for 2 weeks, and together with a friend (schoolteacher who had summers off, died more than a decade ago), and an 8-year old son (me) built a house that stands beautifully today.

Down here in MA, it’s been a pleasant trip. I’ve rented a road bike to try and stay in tune for the week and a half I’m away, which has meant daily rides through the towns that lie between routes 128 and 495, through little towns that look like this (pic left.) But the best part (after the family part of course) has been the part I never noticed before: the trees.

I wrote last month how going to a completely different floral environment, like California, is a bit like going to an alien planet. The amazing thing about this week is once again, I’m in a totally alien environment. My parent’s condo is in a heavily wooded development, and already I’ve found several wonderful “new” trees, including Eastern White Pine (Pinus Strobus), Northern Red Oak (Quercus rubra), White Oak (Quercus Alba), American Beech (Fagus grandifolia)(leaf pic right), American Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana), Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida), Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera), Gray Birch (Betula populifolia), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Red Maple (Acer rubrum) (pic left) and Sassafras (Sassafras albidum). That’s a lot of new species in 72 hours. But the amazing thing is- none of these species should be new to me- I grew up here! These are the same trees I walked by and sat under and climbed for pretty much the first quarter-century of my life, and yet I never learned to identify, or even really notice, any of them. It’s like this year my eyes have opened up, and now I’m seeing everything old as if it were new.

I couldn’t stand this place growing up. The winters were bitter, the summers hot and muggy, the towns and cities crowded, the roads congested, the people provincial (or at least seemed so at the time to a snotty 20-something.) For years I dreamed of moving out West, of open spaces. I’ve been gone now for close to 20 years, and I have no regrets. But if I’d been in tune with the wild green jungle all around me, maybe I wouldn’t have hated this place quite so much.

Off to Maine in the morning. Can’t wait to see what’s growing up there.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Piney-Looking Trees Part 3: White Fir is Big and Beautiful

Back in the mid-90’s, when I moved to the Salt Lake, I assumed that all the non-Spruce PLTs I was seeing were Douglas Firs. I knew Douglas Fir a bit from the Colorado Front Range. I didn’t know much about it, except that it was often the first PLT above Ponderosa and Lodgepole Pine.

But after a year or so in the Wasatch I read about this tree called “White Fir” and figured out that some of the “Douglas Fir” I was hiking and biking past were actually White Fir, and then I figure out that most of them were actually White Fir. Although White Fir’s range in the West- and even in Utah- is much more limited than Douglas Fir, in the Wasatch it appears to be a bit more common, and the commonest PLT.

White Fir seems to do better with just a little bit more moisture than Douglas Fir(it needs a minimum of 20”/year), and lower down does better in draws and North-facing slopes, then soon comes to dominate as one moves up. The foliage is less dense, lighter, and somehow more cheerful than Douglas Fir, perhaps because the needles are more upright and look a bit “perkier”. White Fir is a popular cultivar (though nowhere near as popular as Blue Spruce, which we’ll talk about shortly), and in fact there’s one in our back yard.

I have a soft spot in my heart for White Fir for another reason: they can get big, or more accurately fat, unusually so for a tree in the Wasatch. In particular, I’ve come across 2 monster White Firs, both while mtn biking.

The first is down in the Diamond Fork area, on the North-facing slope of Second Water Ridge between 2nd Water and 3rd Water creeks, East of Ray’s Valley Road and West of Strawberry Ridge. The top has been sheared off long ago, but the tree seems otherwise healthy. I’d guess the diameter to be around 5’.

The second is much closer to home, along the Great Western Trail, near the top of Bald Mountain, about 1.5 miles or so North of Big Mountain Pass. (pic left, bike for scale.)

What gets me about these 2 trees is how unusual they are in the Wasatch, or in Utah in general (though neither would be impressive in the Pacific Northwest.) Why are trees so wimpy-sized in the Rockies, and why are these two so big? My 2 theories (well hypotheses really, seeing as a) they’re un-testable and b) I’m really just thinking aloud here) are:

a) There used to be lots of trees this big, but they were cut down, or:

b) Trees just don’t grow that big/fat in Utah and these 2 lucked out in terms of location, moisture, lifespan, whatever.

I’m inclined to go with B, primarily because I never see giant stumps in Utah like I do all the time in Oregon, Washington and Northern California. Whatever the reason, these 2 are special, and I try to find a reason to visit and linger at each for a bit each summer.

There are around 50 species of Abies, or Fir in the world. Botanists divide Firs up in 10 different groupings or “sections”, each of which contains between 1 and 10 different species. As a rule, Firs within a given section hybridize easily, but those from different sections rarely do. 6 or the 10 sections are represented in North America. White Fir, Abies concolor, belongs to section Grandis, which also includes the Northwest’s spectacular Grand Fir, Abies grandis, as well as 2 beautiful firs down in Mexico: Durango Fir, Abies durangensis, and Jalisco Fir, Abies flinckii.

Tangent: Mexico is just loaded with awesome, rare and fascinating pines, oaks, firs, and so much more. In my next life I am going to be a Mexican botanist. I’ll travel to remote places, seek out rare fascinating species and investigate the incredible stories behind them. When I’m not in the field, I’ll wear stylish guyabera-type shirts, but I’ll otherwise look pretty much like I do now, except more like Antonio Banderas (so actually not at all like I look now.) I’ll speak perfect, elegant, melodious and deeply nuanced Spanish, and when I deign to speak a little English I’ll do so with a charming Ricardo Montalban-type accent that instantly makes people think how sophisticated and articulate I am. I’ll be married to Selma Hayek, who, in the evenings, as I’m leaning intently over my desk on the veranda, studying some rare seeds or leaves, will come up behind me, gently nuzzle my ear, and start softly singing “Siente Mi Amor”…

OK, back to the post. There are 2 subspecies of White Fir: Abies concolor concolor, which occurs here in Utah, as well as parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern Colorado, and Abies concolor iowiana, which occurs in the Sierras and Souther Oregon. And some botanists consider the 2 to actually be 2 different species. And holy-moly-does-this-story-sound familiar! Yes, it’s yet another example of speciation in action, abetted once agsin by our favorite contiguous region of interior drainage- the Great Basin. Seriously, we’re seeing this kind of variance/speciation so often it would be getting old if it weren’t so darn cool.

What’s interesting about the Sierra version though- especially given how much I’ve been waxing poetic about White Fir here in Utah- is that it’s actually a bit of a pest. White Fir does well longer-term in successional situations, as we’ve been seeing ever since we saw it rising up through a Bigtooth Maple canopy back in May. And it does particularly well successionally when fire is suppressed for a long time, as it has been for the last 100+ years or so in the West. This causes 2 problems in Sierra forests.

First, White Fir crowds out seedlings of other species, such as Giant Sequoias, Sugar Pine or Incense Cedar. (In the case of Sugar Pine, a valuable timber tree, this is bad news for timber companies; White Fir is low-quality wood, good mainly for pulp.) Second, unlike those other 3 Sierra trees, White Fir retains its lower limbs well into maturity, and so often serves as “fire-ladder” for ground/brush fires, providing them with a path up into the forest canopy, where they become far more destructive.

Back to Utah. There are actually 2 species of fir in Utah: White Fir, and Subalpine Fir, Abies bifolia. Subalpine Fir isn’t a member of the Grandis section; it belongs to section Balsamea, and so it doesn’t hybridize with White Fir. (But it looks a lot like White Fir.) Unlike White Fir, which barely makes it up in to Idaho, Subalpine Fir stretches way up through the Canadian Rockies and into Alaska.

Subalpine Fir is tough to tell from White Fir. There are differences in the cones (but you never see them anyway) and real subtle differences in the needles, but the most common difference seems to be shape: Subalpine Firs are usually (not always) real skinny and spire-like, with a silhouette almost like that of an idealized evergreen tree. So if it’s above 9,000 feet, skinny/spire-like, and occurring together with Engelmann Spruce, it’s a good bet it’s Subalpine Fir.

A. bifolia is pretty common in Utah, and in fact I seriously considered listing it as a 4th common PLT, and truthfully probably should have. But I didn’t because it usually occurs up above 9,000 feet, and so it’s not one of the 3 PLTs I’m typically running into biking or hiking.

Next Up: OK, 2 PLTs down, 1 to go

Friday, July 18, 2008

Piney-Looking Trees Part 2: Douglas Fir is Named Wrong

The biggest foothills of the Wasatch are minor peaks like Grandeur Peak and Little Black Mountain. And as you climb these “Plus-Foothills”, the first Piney-Looking Trees (PLTs) you encounter are usually Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii. Of the 3 common Wasatch PLTs, Douglas Fir does best in the hottest, driest, sunniest settings. Not nearly as well as any of the 3 Foothill Friends, but just a titch better than Fir or Spruce. It seems to do well seeding and growing up in the understory of sub-8,000 foot Aspen forests, another example of an ongoing succession battle between trees.

Part of Post Where I Whine About Bad Naming

Douglas Fir is named poorly. No reflection on David Douglas, the Scottish explorer-botanist (how do I get that job?) who discovered the species in California in 1831. But Douglas Fir is not a Fir. The cones are wrong, the needles are wrong, the ancestry is wrong.

It’s scientific name, Pseudotsuga, isn’t great either. The genus Tsuga is the Hemlocks, so Pseudotsuga literally means “False Hemlock”, and Douglas Firs are most certainly not Hemlocks, which don’t occur anywhere near Utah.

Worse yet, the generic name for other species in the genus is also “Douglas Fir”, so “Douglas Fir” can mean specifically Pseudotsuga menziesii, or just any species in the genus Pseudotsuga.

The problem with Douglas Fir from a Euro-centric naming perspective is that unlike Pines, Spruce, Firs, Larches and Hemlocks, they’re not native to Europe. So until Europeans encountered them in Western North America, there existed no “natural” name for them. Hence the goofy, awkward and unclear name.

There are only 7 species of Pseudotsuga in the world, all in North America or Asia. 3 of those are native to North America, and 2 of those native to the US (the other is in Mexico.) Besides Douglas Fir, the other Pseudotsuga is the equally poorly-named Big Cone Spruce, Pseudotsuga macrocarpa, which is emphatically not a Spruce, but does at least have large cones (compared to Dfir in pic, left), and this is the most notable visible difference between it and Douglas Fir. Big Cone Spruce is endemic to California, and specifically a few mountain ranges in Southern California.

Douglas Fir “proper” occurs in 2 varieties: Coastal Douglas Fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii menziesii, in the Pacific Northwest (range map left) and Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir, Pseduotsuga menziesii glauca, which occurs here in Utah (range map right). Coastal Douglas Fir is massive; after Redwoods they’re some of the tallest trees in the world. The can reach over 300 feet in height, and it’s thought that they may have grown as high as 400 feet in the recent past. They suffer easily from frost damage, and thrive in the moist and mild climate of the Pacific Northwest. Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir handles cold well, but lacks the stature of the coastal variety; in the Rockies it’s a decent-sized tree, but it would be a runt on Vancouver Island.

Tangent: This difference raises a nagging question about trees in North America. Why are all of the tallest trees- Redwood, Giant Sequoia, Douglas Fir, Sitka Spruce- in the West/Northwest? Why not in New Jersey, or North Carolina. And it’s not just because of settlement or logging; so far as we can tell, there were never 300-foot high trees in New Jersey or North Carolina...

Never Speak Ill of a Tree

Now, if it isn’t already clear from this blog, as a rule I try never to speak ill of any tree- or any plant for that matter- but to try and see some aspect of the Beauty of the World in every plant. And surely I’ve pointed out the wonderful and notable characteristics of many plants that are commonly maligned by others, including Box Elder, Scrub Oak, Cottonwoods, Dandelions and even Crabgrass. But it can’t be denied that the comparison between Coastal Rocky Mountain Fir and Rocky Mountain Douglas Fir is to the detriment of the Utah native. Nor does comparison of the 3 main Wasatch PLTs favor RM Douglas Fir; it’s foliage is the least attractive, its stands the least majestic, when compared with White Fir or Engelmann Spruce. Still, it’s often the first “real shade” one encounters on a Wasatch climb, and a welcome tree for it.

Tangent: Douglas Fir is one of many Pinaceae species grown commercially in plantations for Christmas trees. The tops are lopped off every 4-7 years or so for the actual Christmas “trees”. Its lackluster foliage generally distinguishes it as being the least expensive Christmas tree on the lot. Higher-end Christmas trees are usually Firs, often Silver Fir.

Although the 2 varieties of Douglas Fir can easily interbreed, they’re separated well enough by obstacles like the Great Basin that they generally don’t (Although up in British Columbia they do overlap and intergrade a fair bit.) But neither can interbreed with any other Pseudotsuga species, and the most likely reason for this sterility is chromosome count. Douglas Fir (both varieties) has 26 chromosomes, while all other Pseduotsuga species have 24.

There’s a real interesting analogous situation in Primates. Humans have 46 chromosomes. Other primates, including Chimpanzees, Bonobos, Gorillas and Orangutans, have 48. Apparently sometime in the last 5-7 million years, 2 small chromosomes fused into 1, reducing the hominid haploid count by 1 and the diploid count by 2. So far as is known, humans can’t interbreed with Chimpanzees. With Horses and donkeys however, the situation is more interesting. Both animals are member of the genus Equus, but Horses have 64 chromosomes, while donkeys have only 62. Horses and donkeys can and do interbreed, but the offspring- a mule- is a sterile aneuploid hybrid, with 63 chromosomes.

Coolest Thing About Evolution = When Things Stop Being the Same

This same fertility hybridization/mismatch/disconnect issue keeps popping up over and over again. And one of the things that has really surprised me in doing this blog is how many times, and in how many different stages we’ve seen it. We’ve seen it at the point where different varieties of a species are still able to interbreed as with Coast & Rocky Mountain Douglas Firs, Stellers & Blue Jays, Lazuli & Indigo Buntings, and the Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. We’ve seen species whose genetic histories seems to hint at a past hybridization event, like Cutleaf Balsamroot. We’ve seen species combinations that usually or always produce sterile hybrids, like Curlleaf & Alderleaf Mountain Mahogany (or like Donkeys and Horses.) And we’ve seen species that share a recent common ancestry, but have passed the genetic point of infertility-non-return, like Douglas Fir and Big Cone Spruce (or like humans and Chimpanzees.) And the thing is, this wasn’t something I was even thinking about when I started the blog. But it just keeps coming up, over and over again, how two offspring of the same parent can go on to produce lines off offspring that live and reproduce and change over and over until they’re not quite- or not at all- the same thing anymore.