Saturday, November 28, 2020

Kissing Trees

I have been intrigued for years with a pair of Shumard oak trees outside our kitchen window at the creek.  Not only are they fused for 3 feet at the base, but they join together at eight and again at twelve feet above ground.  I finally got around to looking into this.

This phenomena is called inosculation ("to unite intimately") and it is not unlike grafting in skin grafting in medicine when we sew on a skin flap and give it time to form new blood vessels before cutting its connection to the original source.  The difference is this is a tree and it is the cambium that is connecting,

Click to enlarge - NYGB

A little review for both of us.  Beneath the dry outer bark there is a vascular layer of phloem transporting nutrients down to the roots like veins.  Immediately inside that is the cambium and then the phloem which pumps up water and nutrients from the roots and also helps to form the woody element in the stem. (Think arteries.) Cambium is the layer of actively dividing cells between xylem (wood) and phloem (bast) tissues that is responsible for the secondary growth of stems and roots, i.e. growth occurring after the first season that results in increase in thickness of the stem or trunk.

It is most common for branches of two trees of the same species to grow together, though inosculation may be noted across related species. The branches first grow separately in proximity to each other until they touch. At this point, the bark on the touching surfaces is gradually abraded away as the trees move in the wind. Once the cambium of two trees touches, they sometimes self-graft and grow together as they expand in diameter."  Inosculation-Wikipedia  

Once this has occurred, bark also joins together, completing the healing and a solid junction.  I can think of three examples in our valley alone. 

Tree shaping - Axel Erlandson

John Wesley tree    






Inosculation has also been used as an art form, binding branches to create a living sculpture.  The famous John Wesley tree in Ireland was created by unknown means when two beech saplings were twisted at their crowns and they grew together over the years.  In California Axel Erlandson* turned this into an innovative art form and a roadside attraction, binding branches of a tree, or trees, to form structures like the chair on the right.

A similar process leads to trees growing around other objects.  At our cemetery we have a 26" diameter oak which had barbwire stapled to it in its youth.  It gradually worked under the bark and the cambium grew wood around it as the girth of the little tree expanded.  The wires are now sticking right through the center of the trunk.*

I thought that was pretty amazing until I saw the Bicycle Tree.  On Washington state's Vashon Island there is a tree which attracts a lot of tourists.  A bicycle hung there years ago has slowly been incorporated into the tree.  A legend of a young man leaving it leaning against a tree and going off to war is punctured by Snopes, but either way it is a remarkable sight.  I now set my phone alarm when I  lean up against a tree to take a nap. 

Marilyn Owen wrote us about our local Car in a Tree at McDaniel Lake, described in the NewsLeader.

Andrew Jensen - Newsleader
"Also, up by McDaniel Lake, there is part of a car high up in a tree. It is in my Christmas Bird Count area so I have always been interested in it and last year there was an article about it in the News Leader. It is believed to have come from a Ford Model A and has been there at least 70 years."


* On a final note of irony, Wikipedia says the Barb wire is sometimes called Bob wire.

More on Axel Erlandson and views of his other inosculation creations is at this link

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Rove Beetle


It was a dreary rainy day with little hope of finding things of interest until Barb was cleaning a batch of winter oyster mushrooms and out raced a rove beetle.  "Quick bring a bug box!" she cried and soon it was ready for photography and its few minutes of fame.

A quick trip to INaturalist identified it as Philonthus caeruleipennis (PC).  I couldn't find any details on the web but it had an entry in Evans' Beetles of North America.  Adults are active in the summer and are "associated with fungi, compost and decaying vegetation."


PC is a member of the Staphylinidae family, aka rove beetles.  Their distinguishing feature is their short elytra (wing covers) that typically leave more than half of their abdominal segments exposed.  In this case PC has iridescent blue-green elytra covering less than a third of the abdomen.

We were fortunate that PC was so distinctive.  Rove beetles are the largest beetle family with 63,000 species in thousands of genera.  Most rove beetles are predators of insects and other invertebrates that live in decaying plants and leaves.  They have a wide variety of other lifestyles including living in ant colonies, as parasitoids, and even a few that cling to animals to eat fleas and parasites.

The winter oyster mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, is a cool find also.  It is firmer than the summer P. pulmonarius and its gills run down the stalk all the way to the base.  While getting its nutrition from dead or dying trees, it likes the occasional protein of nematodes which it attracts and digests with its hyphae.  The gory details are in this blog.

Pleasing fungus beetle, Triplax thoracica
Our PC rove beetle lives on the little fungus beetles that are found in the gills of all our oyster mushrooms.  They range from 3-5 mm and we find them in the gills of every batch, even though the host trees may be a quarter mile apart.  Pleasing fungus beetles specialize on oyster mushrooms.  How they find this ephemeral food source when it briefly emerges and how they survive without eating for so long remains a mystery.


The next night Barb fixed an oyster stew with the remaining oyster mushrooms. Just before sitting down to eat she glanced at the empty mushroom container and found these critters crawling around, having escaped the mushrooms and the frying pan.

The mushrooms had been cleaned initially and inspected again before cooking. The obvious question is how many of these do we miss and consume.  I think of it as a health food, just a matter of marketing like the "cholesterol free" sticker on a banana.  Look at the positive side.

Protein enhanced
Vitamin enriched
Gluten free
No preservatives
All natural ingredients

Bon appetite!

Sunday, November 15, 2020

In Touch With Nature

The illustrations of our late friend Linda Ellis that fill our basement includes this one which was the design for a tee-shirt for MONPS.  It summarizes the collections we make while hiking through the Ozarks.  It also raises the recurring question we get as Master Naturalists, "What good are ___________? " You can fill in the blank but it can range from mosquitoes to to annoying seeds.  I will focus on beggar's lice, also called tick trefoil.  Those names highlight the negative so I will use their lyrical genus name, Desmodia.

Pause for a moment to read aloud to yourself this poem by Mary Elizabeth Mahnkey, poet laureate of the Ozark  Hills.  I have extracted it from the Ozarkswatch Magazine published by Missouri State University, a great resource for all things Ozarkian.

Desmodium flower 1/4"
So beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Where the eye rests can vary widely.  Viewed at just the right time of year, it has tiny 1/4" purple flowers.  Your eye will have to be on the ground and then crawl up close with a macro lens to capture this beauty.  Mark Bower sent me this picture several years ago.  You can see more in the picture below.  As the poet says, most people will need to see it in a crystal vase to appreciate its delicate beauty.

These Deesmodia blossoms attract a wide variety of long-tongued bees.  With the blossom long gone, September is the time that they start to spread the seeds.  I know that all plants have their place, I just wish that my pant leg wasn't one of them.  Desmodium is also called tick trefoil, beggar's lice, stick tights, hitch hikers, and occasionally"@*%^$#".  There are 19 species in Missouri which can only be identified by getting close enough for their seeds to grab your clothes.  

 Seed pods - Missouri Extension
Their seedpods grow in strings that break off individually to increase the challenge of picking them off.  They act as triangular magnets attracted to cloth and hair, grabbing on with their tiny dense hairs.  They look and feel smooth except under magnification or my wife's watchful gaze when I return home.  Some can be scraped off with the back of a knife, others require individual picking.  They even sealed Smokey's eyes shut after a walk.

Desmodium 40, Smokey 0 - REK

When I scrape a cluster of seed pods off my legs, I try to tell myself that they are a great native plant.  They are eaten by quail, turkey and white-footed mice.  The plant serves as a food source for deer, rabbits, groundhogs and birds  Lots of insects such as weevils, beetles, leaf eating larvae and aphids eat them, many of which are then eaten by quail.  When dry in late season, you can open the seedpod, exposing the tiny seed that has a pleasant nutty flavor.
Eastern Tailed Blues - Jon Rapp
Eastern Tailed Blue

Best yet, Desmodia sp. are the host plants for caterpillars of the Eastern Tailed Blue, Everes comyntas, and the Gray Hairstreak, Strymon melinus.  This is beauty you can behold for most of the summer without getting on your hands and knees.  One more reason to get in touch with nature and forgive plants and animals with annoying features.  All native species have a place.  We just have to understand that place to answer the question "What good are _______?"

You can see the In Touch With Nature shirt design full size here.

Thanks, Linda.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Junk Bugs


At the end of the WOLF School field trip, Courtney Reece (WOLF Teacher) pointed to a tree trunk and said, "Look at the little trash bugs."  There were 10 of these 5-6 mm white clusters scattered around the bark among the green moss and lichen patches.  They were stationary but when picked off into a bug box they started to put on a slow show.  You can see one in action in this video by Ben Caruthers.

Click to enlarge

Trash bugs (aka junk bugs) are also called aphid lions for their favorite food that they stalk like any other carnivore.  These are the larvae of green lacewings that we had discussed in a past blog but these were smaller and completely covered with bits of lichen.  Even when I flipped one on its back it was hard to believe it was a live insect without using a magnifier.  

You can just make out the legs and fangs by enlarging the photograph above.  They are easier to see in this recent find sitting on my fingerprint.  These are serious and can put the hurt on their tiny prey.

Naked green lacewing larva with aphids

 Green lacewings are members of the Chrysopidae family.   Many species have "naked" larvae, fearsome appearing predators with exposed curved hollow mandibles which inject digestive juices into prey before sucking out an aphid slurppy.  They look like a tiny alligator that is bulging in the middle from swallowing a pig whole.

"Naked forms do not construct a packet and tend to rely on swiftness and ambushing when hunting. On the contrary, debris-carrying forms use stealth and crypsis to capture their prey. Debris-carrying chrysopid larvae can be selective towards the collection of one or more materials for the construction of the debris packet. These materials may include victim's waxy flocculence, arthropod exoskeletons, fragments of dried leaves, wood, lichens, mosses, trichomes, snail shells, silk, particles of sand or soil, frass (excrement of herbivorous insects), or the larvae’s own exuviae."

Blue=legs, red = jaws

The "decorated larvae" like Courtney's are rounder with long bristles with knobs on the end sticking out the sides.  They collect debris such as lichen as well as the bodies of their aphid victims, a morbid display of recent meals.  

Many ants farm aphids for their honeydew and will attack their predators.  Studies have shown that a decorated larva can sneak by the guarding ants to collect a tasty meal and a few more trophies.

So what is with the debris piled on it back?  Is it simply messy grooming of a larva with a bad haircut? Maybe a macabre example of a psychopathic killer keeping trophies of it victims. Actually it is an important part of its hunting strategy, as described in Bug of the Week.

 "A fascinating study by the famed biologist Thomas Eisner shed light on this unusual behavior. In a previous episode, we learned the tale about ants as guardians of aphids. Aphids provide ants with honeydew, a carbohydrate rich food, and ants protect aphids from insects that would like to eat them, such as lacewing larvae.
By removing the debris from the backs of the trash collecting lacewing larvae, Eisner discovered that lacewings attempting to enter an aphid colony for dinner were immediately detected by the shepherds, the ants, and tossed out of the colony and sometimes off the tree. However, when the lacewing larvae disguised themselves in aphid debris, products made by the aphids such as wax or skins, they easily snuck past the ants and enjoyed an aphid feast much the same way Æsop's wolf snuck past the shepherd for a tasty lamb dinner. "

Lacewing on my arm

Many adult lacewing species are vegetarians, feeding on pollen, nectar and honeydew with the help of symbiotic yeast in their guts to break down these nutrients.  Some are more generalists, spicing up their diet with the odd aphid or other arthropod.

Lacewing eggs - Tom Murray

Another "fun fact" (note to self; spending too much time with the 5th grade WOLF Class.)  They produce eggs that are suspended individually from tiny threads, usually on the under side of leaves in the vicinity of an aphid colony.  These are very small but a rewarding find for a naturalist with curiosity and a camera.

You can watch our little junk bug walk upside down clinging to the lid of a bug box as well as do back flips in this video.