Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Burning Bush

Lovely planting
Its time for True Confessions.  We have an invasive species planted in our back yard.  Quite possibly you do too.  Many invasive species get their start as decorative plantings and fly under the radar for years before escaping into the wild.  The last decade it was callery (Bradford) pear.  Today it is burning bush.

Lovely forest floor or horror? -
Yes, we are talking about the common burning bush, Euonymus alatus, a beautiful shrub that brings bright red fall color to your yard as early fall colors are fading.  It was brought to North America in the1860s and like many invasive species it has been slow in asserting itself.  With time it has gradually spread to a variety of disturbed habitats including forest edges, old fields, and roadsides.  It is now taking over undisturbed forest understory where it crowds out shrubs and tree seedlings.

It has an advantage over native shrubs and seedlings.  Like most of us, deer have their favorite foods, and they avoid burning bush like a kid offered broccoli.  In one study of an infested forest, deer feces contained 17 plant species but no burning bush.  This means that they are likely to thrive in areas with large deer populations such as forests and woodlands near urban areas, an expanding portion of our landscape.
Escaping cultivation- 2013

The term "invasive species" covers a multitude of sins from kudzu (the plant that ate the south) to species such as callary pear that are just getting started.  The burning bush story is still early and the threat to Missouri is presently unknown.  Climate and soil types may influence its spread as well as many other factors.  Like callery pear, it is spread by birds, first to adjacent urban fields, then on to more distant areas.

Roadside invasion- Nature Conservancy
There is some good (and bad) news on the burning bush field as botanists are having some success developing a sterile cultivar.  We have been here before (recall the callery pear again), as nature's desire to reproduce has overcome our sterilization efforts in the past.  Also, with an acceptable sterile substitute it would soon be impossible to determine which urban planting was sterile.  Life only gets more complicated with time.

Ironically Euonymus, roughly translated, comes from the Greek meaning "good name" or "of good repute."  Much like the burning bush of Moses which refused to be consumed by the flames, E. alatus isn't likely to disappear from our woodlands without our help. suggests these native species as replacements for burning bush: 

Euonymus atropurpureus (Wahoo)
Shrub or small tree most often grown for its attractive red berries and reddish fall color. Small purple flowers in spring are followed by scarlet red fruit in fall which birds enjoy.
Aronia melanocarpa (Black Chokeberry)
It is hard to beat the wine red fall color and the black fruit display of this very adaptable shrub! A plant the colonizes due to its ability to sucker. Foliage is deep green and glossy all summer. Clusters of white flowers in spring form the large black fruits in the fall.
Rhus aromatica (Fragrant Sumac)
Low, irregular spreading shrub with lower branches that grow horizontally then turn up at the tips. Tends to sucker and root along stems that touch the soil, forming a dense stand. Yellow-green flowers appear before leaves emerge. Clusters of fuzzy red fruit form on female plants August-September and may persist into winter. Many birds and mammals feed on the fruit. Leaves turn bright red-purple in fall.
Rhus glabra (Smooth Sumac)
Compound leaves are shiny dark green on top and almost white on the undersides. Compact clusters of dark red, velvety berries form August-September. The brilliant red fall foliage becomes a focal point in the landscape.

Information on control is at NRCS

Monday, November 25, 2013

Aldo Leopold's Amazing Family

We just visited the Aldo Leopold Foundation and "the Shack" where the Leopold family spent weekends, planted 30,000 pine trees and Aldo wrote Sand County Almanac and other contributions highlighting conservation science, policy, and ethics.  Another aspect of the Leopold legacy is their incredible family. Among their many honors, they are the only family to have three siblings elected as members of the National Academy of Sciences.

Starker Leopold, the eldest son, was an ornithologist and professor of zoology at U.C. Berkeley.  He authored over 100 papers as well as multiple books such as Wildlife of Mexico: The Game Birds and Mammals and North American Game Birds and Mammals.

Warming up in the "Shack"
Next in line was Luna Leopold, trained in engineering, meteorology, geology and hydrology.  He "developed the scientific foundation for the field of fluvial geomorphology, the study of how rivers are shaped and influenced by their surrounding landscapes," and received many awards as a pioneer in this field of ecology.  It was a natural fit with his youthful experiences along the sandy banks of the Wisconsin River immediately behind the shack.


The middle child, Nina Leopold, was "the senior author of a 1999 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that analyzed decades of phenological records demonstrating that climate change was affecting the region and its native ecosystems."  She was instrumental in the development of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the LEED certified buildings housing it.

Carl Leopold was a plant physiologist who wrote the classic textbook Plant Growth and Development.  He authored 2000 papers and five books.  In his teens he became the family photographer and most of the family images are his.

The "baby" of the family was Estella Leopold, eight years younger that her youngest sibling.  Not to be outdone, as a University of Washington professor of botany, forest resources and quaternary research, she authored of over 100 scientific publications in the fields of paleobotany, forest history, restoration ecology and environmental quality.  She may be best remembered for "pioneering the use of fossilized pollen and spores to understand how plants and ecosystems respond over eons to such things as climate change."

All in all, not too shabby for a bunch of siblings who spent their weekends planting pines and kicking around on a worn out patch of sandy farm, restoring a little bit of nature.

Aldo was notified of Sand County Almanac's acceptance for publication just one week before he died of a heart attack fighting a fire a mile from his shack.  The fire occured on the land now occupied by the Institute.

If you aren't familiar with the book but have visited this blog more than once, you owe it to yourself to find a copy.  You will return to it over the years.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A Bittersweet Story

Along the walk beside Valley Water Mill Lake, we saw the bright orange fruit of a bittersweet vine.  As Barb began the chase to determine if it was the native or the invasive oriental species, we discovered some interesting botanical sidelights.

Our native American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens) has almost been loved to death because of its bright orange berries which brighten the woods after the autumn leaves fall.  People harvest the vine for decoration, leaving less to reproduce naturally.  Bittersweet vines have either male or female flowers (called dioecious) and needs nearby male plants for the female plant to reproduce.  This complicates its reproductive ability and it is considered threatened in several states.

The berries are a favorite food for birds but poisonous to humans.  They are said to not be necessarily deadly but likely to make the prospect temporarily a desirable option until the intestinal tract settles down.  They were used by settlers and native Americans to induce vomiting and treat venereal disease (possibly making one want to avoid the source in the future?)  The bittersweet vine is stout and twines vigorously enough to strangle saplings and damage small trees.

Unfortunately, not all bittersweet is as desirable.  Celastrus orbiculatus (Oriental bittersweet) is an invasive species that is threatening not only our American variety but also the landscape it spreads in.  It was introduced as a beautiful method of roadside erosion control in the Northeastern US because it grows readily and is resistant to disease (sound like a familiar recipe for invasive spread?) and indeed it is all those things.

Oriental Bittersweet, note berries off leaf axils -
Its flowers and showy scarlet fruit arise from the leaf axils while the American species occur to the ends of the branch.  The American bittersweet capsule around the fruit is orange, the Oriental is yellow.

Oriental bittersweet vines tightly on trees with the same strangling capability as its American cousin.  Since it grows more aggressively as it climbs to find the sun it can cause more damage.  It also grows without support as a shrub, creating a dense thicket.  It naturalized, spreading across the eastern US.  It became popular in wreaths and floral arrangements which are then discarded and scavenged by birds, spreading the seeds farther.

Oriental bittersweet climbs the trees -
Although capable of growing in a wide variety of conditions, it thrives in sunlight and produces a greater amount of above ground biomass, climbing to reach the sun and blocking out less aggressive natives in their search for light.  Its ability to strangle small trees improves its access to sunlight while it also is stealing nutritional resources from the roots.

Oriental bittersweet takes over - Terrene
Oriental bittersweet vines cut at base - Terrene

Oriental bittersweet has an interesting association with mycorrhizal fungi.  C. orbiculatus is especially dependent on high levels of phosphorus.  Mycorrhizal fungi that form a mutualistic relationship with its roots provide this nutrient in phosphorus-poor soils and the bittersweet therefore can use more of its energy above ground rather than wasting it producing more root mass looking for phosphorus.  The presence of the fungi are an critical factor in the Oriental bittersweet's success.

Oriental bittersweet also hybridizes with its American cousin, outcompeting it in the landscape.  There are steps you can do to help fight the invasion.
  1. Don't plant Oriental bittersweet.
  2. If using it in decorations, destroy the berries, don't leave them in a landfill or outside  for the birds to spread.
  3. Plant only native American bittersweet from a reputable and knowledgeable dealer.
  4. Avoid harvesting American bittersweet in the wild.  It needs all the help it can get.
  5. Cut and kill Oriental bittersweet.

Oriental bittersweet base - The End- Terrene

Friday, November 15, 2013

Woolly Bears of Winter

  Bob Moul
You can predict this time of year that the nights will start to get colder and the news will carry stories of Woolly Bear caterpillars and their predictions of the severity of the upcoming winter.  The more dark segments it has, the colder the winter will be the old-timers will tell you.  As an old-timer myself, I am not convinced.

Certainly Pyrrharctia isabella caterpillars deserve a lot of respect because of their rugged life.  They are found as far north as Alaska, and seem to enjoy the cold.  They come equipped with the stamina and chemistry necessary to survive winter weather like Garrison Keeler's old bachelor Norwegian farmers.
"(The woolly bear) literally freezes solid. First its heart stops beating, then its gut freezes, then its blood, followed by the rest of the body. It survives being frozen by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues."  Wikipedia
To prepare for winter the caterpillar has to eat a lot.  It does this over several months in Missouri where the growing season is long.  In Alaska where the season is short, it may have to last through several winters, emerging from its frozen state to put on "a few more pounds" before the next prolonged freeze.  They have been known to survive up to 14 winters!

Pity the poor Isabella tiger moth that will emerge from the woolly bear caterpillar's future cocoon next spring.  Indeed, the Wikipedia article on P. isabella doesn't mention the moth beyond a picture.   The specimen above is a female with the typical red-orange hind wing.  The moth has a lot of work ahead of it, first finding a mate and then delivering its eggs, all over its short adult life span.  The egg has to be placed on the appropriate host plants such as asters, birches, clover, corn, elms, maples, and sunflowers.

  Bob Moul
The story of its survival over winter as well as its supposed forecasting skills is told in this interesting video from Science Friday.

The pictures above were taken by an excellent amateur nature photographer, Bob Moul.  He submitted many images to and BAMONA, an example of the contributions of citizen scientists to our natural history.  He passed away in 2011.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Asian Lady Beetles Revisited

"Go ahead, make my day." -

I have been hearing a lot of comments about Asian lady beetles which are everywhere this time of year as they prepare for winter.  Soon they will be clustered together behind boards, in wood piles and in houses when they find a crack to enter.  A beneficial insect in your garden, they are annoying house guests with a tendency to lightly nibble on your neck.  They also have a bad odor when squished.

"M" is for Asian -

Asian lady beetles can be distinguished from our many native varieties by the "M" on the back of their heads.  They typically have 19 spots but this can vary and occasionally they will have no spots at all.

Eggs - Perry Babin CC
It has been three years since we last wrote a blog about these foreign lady beetles. When I started to look at what is new, I came across an old favorite, Shelly Cox at MoBugs who has started blogging again.  Her extensive coverage of these lady beetles blew me away, so I will shut up for the day (welcome news to my friends!) and suggest you go directly to her blog for everything you never asked yourself about them.

See more extensive history and information at this Ohio State University site.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Velvet Foot Mushrooms

Several years ago, Mort Shurtz girdled this tree as part of a TSI project (Timber Stand Improvement) at Valley Water Mill.  What we didn't realize at the time was he was just feeding fungus.  Mark Bower, who photographed it, tells me that a forest is just a fungus farm and the TSI is simply feeding it.

This beauty is Flammulina velutipes, a fungus that enjoys the cold, appearing in the last days of fall.  Its cap is slightly sticky with a rubbery feel.  It only grows on hardwoods, although if the wood is buried in dirt it may look like it grows on the soil itself.  The stem is darkened at the base and has a fuzzy or hairy surface.  Its common name is "Velvet Foot" and it is easy to see why in the picture of its stem below.

"Velvet Foot" stem - Mark Bower
The "enoki or "enokitake," mushroom you find in the grocery stores and restaurants, is a cultivated form of Flammulina velutipes.  DNA studies suggest that the haplotype found in North America may have originated in Asia and made it across the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the last ice age. This mushroom can add to its pedigree the title "astronaut" as Michael Kuo describes below.
"In 1993 cultures of Flammulina velutipes were flown on the Space Shuttle Columbia in order to determine how the mushrooms would handle low gravity. Like many wood-inhabiting mushrooms, Flammulina velutipes typically bends its stem near the base, then grows straight up, resulting in a cap that is more or less parallel to the ground--presumably so that spores will fall easily from the gills. Aboard the space shuttle, however, the mushrooms got confused, growing out of a simulated tree trunk at all angles. In other words, they lost their balance."  See research at
Not bad for a little fungus that ended up growing on a girdled tree at Valley Water Mill.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

November Phenology

Phenology - the scientific study of periodic biological phenomena

Yellowjackets - Vespula maculifrons
Insects are starting to cluster up in protected areas for warmth.  Box elder bugs are everywhere, individuals along the south side of our house and clusters in the early morning chill.  We found this tightly packed bunch of yellowjackets under some leaves at the base of a tree, more protected than our Master Naturalist field trippers in the morning wind.

Jumping bush cricket-
The  cricket chorus is slowing down for the winter.  The last voice to be heard is Jay's jumping bush cricket whose brief buzzing call announces the beginning of winter.  They don't recognize daylight savings time, so you still have a chance to hear it just after dark.

Stick insects are now clinging to the sides of our house.  After spending the summer feasting on the leaves high in the trees, the wind, falling leaves and temperatures are dropping them to the ground where they optimistically start climbing up again.  Earlier in the fall they would be found clinging together in a reproductive embrace.  Now they are simply putting off the inevitable, as the adults die in winter, leaving the future to the eggs they deposited randomly last month on the forest floor.

Time to get out the bird feeders.  The best of the berries are already starting to disappear and available insects are rare.  Birds will appreciate the alternate food source, especially high energy sources like peanut butter/seed wads and suet cakes for the woodpeckers and nuthatches, and the occasional crow.

Frost flowers have already appeared twice in Bull Creek valley where cold air drops earlier. This year they "blossomed" again on the morning of the WOLF school field trip. They will continue to bloom unless the ground freezes hard.  In 2001 we saw frost flowers on 40 mornings.  Look for Verbesina virginica, white crownbeard, the best source, along roadsides and fields early on a freezing morning before the sun reaches them.

Bald-faced hornet nest - Wikipedia
The next few weeks will be the best time to look for bird nests as the leaves fall off the trees.  Later in the winter, weather will take its toll on many.  Check out nearby forests for the best trophy, a bald-faced hornet nest.  They tend to wither in winter if someone doesn't take potshots at them.  All the hornets die in winter except newly fertilized queens that fly off and spend the winter underground.  If you are brave or foolhardy you can take the nests down and preserve them with polyurethane spray.  No harm done, unless there are sill hornets defending it!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Blue Velvet on a Stick

Terana caerulea- Mark Bower
If you are a mycologist or a fungus photographer (say that quickly five times, I dare you), hiking in the rain can pay off.  Mark Bower sent me this picture of a fungus he found at Bull Creek known as "blue velvet on a stick".   As you may already know, it was named fungus of the year for 2009 by the German Mycological Society.  If you missed this news, see below.

This is Terana caerulea, a cobalt crust fungus which is found world wide.  It is usually found under fallen logs and branches in damp hardwood forests, especially ash trees.  Crust fungi tend to cling to the surface of their substrate, their fruiting body is against the surface of the substrate rather than on a stalk.

I can't find the criteria used to determine the "Fungus of the Year", but can think of several good reasons for it honor.  For one,  treating T. caerulea with heat or certain chemicals, produces an antibiotic named cortalcerone  that inhibits the growth of Streptococcus pyogenes.

Of more common importance, crust fungi are "white rot fungi", breaking down the dead tree's cell walls.  It reduces the starches to simple sugars, proteins to amino acids, and lipids to fatty acids and glycerol.  Without these saprophytic servants, you can imagine a world without replenished soil where thick layers of dead logs smothered plant growth.  This provides sustenance for worms, beetles millipedes and all the denizens living under dead logs which then feed the next level of predator.
T. caerulea on a 4" log- Mark Bower
This is just one more reason for pausing to look under dead logs in the forest.  There is a whole world of activity going on there including a variety of fungi.  The metabolic activity serves to prevent freezing and on a cold winter day, it may be the only place you can find insect life.  Be sure to put the log back like you find it.  The whole microcosm living there will thank you.

Congratulations T. caerulea, an honor well deserved.

More discussion is at this Loyola site.