The Aftermath…

Hailstorm: The Aftermath

By Bruce Rottink, Friends of Tryon Creek Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester


This past June 16th a violent hailstorm hit Tryon Creek State Natural Area. Many plants in the forest sustained damage, but was it serious? How would the plants fare in the long run? What can we learn from this experience?

Some plants are tough!


Let’s take a closer look…

The most common type of damage was the shredding of plant leaves, and breaking of stems from the impact of the hail stones. In general, the leaves and stems that were going to die from hail damage, died quickly. For example, the severely injured leaves on the red elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. racemosa) shown below were already grey-brown and crispy within two weeks after the hail storm.


Dead hail-damaged leaves on a red elderberry bush two weeks after the hailstorm


The leaf shredding looked serious, and certainly didn’t do the plants any good. But, many of the “shredded” leaves persisted throughout the season. Two species that showed especially severe leaf damage were trillium (Trillium ovatum) and thimbleberry (Rubus parviflora). The photo below was taken 34 days after the storm. It shows a trillium “leaflet” which was brutally shredded by the hail. It hung on like this throughout much of the summer, finally turning brown on approximately a normal schedule.



A shredded but persistent trillium “leaflet”

Likewise, the photo below is a thimbleberry leaf taken exactly 5 weeks after the storm.


Hail shredded thimbleberry leaf 5 weeks after the hailstorm


The persistence of the leaf tissue in spite of the shredding, is a testimony to the effectiveness of networks. The leaves of broad-leafed plants are typically based on a vast network of veins.

What do these veins do exactly?

  • A) physically support the leaf

  • B) deliver water and minerals to the leaf’s cells from the roots

  • C) carry carbohydrates (“food”) produced by the leaf to other parts of the plant

If you guessed A, B, and C, you’re correct! The key is that there are more than one vein serving each small chunk of the leaf. Thus if any one of the veins was broken by hail, water and minerals could be delivered to a specific cluster of cells via a different path. This network makes the leaf very resilient. The photo below is a close-up of the network of veins in a jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) leaf.


Just for fun, on the picture below trace the number of vein paths you can find to get from the major vein shown in the photo to the cluster of cells marked with the red star. (Hint: The first four ways are pretty easy to find.)


Network of veins in a typical leaf

Persistent Petioles

The other major kind of impact damage was the breaking of stems and petioles (a petiole is the “stalk” of the leaf blade which attaches it to the stem). There were many amazing examples of stems and petioles that were broken, and yet survived. The broken petiole pictured below is on red elderberry.


Broken petiole of a red elderberry leaf

However, the leaf beyond this break remained green and alive, as pictured below.


Red elderberry leaf 29 days after it was nearly severed from the plant

Some plants have a backup plan!

Some plants sustained irrevocable heavy damage, and resorted to their “Backup Plan” which is to replace the parts that were lost with new parts. Two of the many plants that used this strategy were the skunk cabbage (Lysichitum americanus) and red elderberry.

The hail was particularly hard on the skunk cabbage. In the photo below you can see a skunk cabbage plant taken 23 days after the hailstorm. The blue arrow points to a severely shredded skunk cabbage leaf’s midrib, and the red arrow shows a new leaf sprouting after the hailstorm. This leaf was not visible 4 days after the hailstorm. To be honest, I can’t say for certain this leaf would not have sprouted up without the hailstorm; however the fact that the skunk cabbage had not produced any new leaves for many weeks before the hailstorm suggests that this leaf is indeed “a child of the hailstorm.” At the time of this picture, the new leaf was 15 cm (~6 inches) tall, but being nearly vertical makes it look less impressive. By mid-September, the new leaf grew to 32 cm (just over one foot) tall. A second post-hailstorm leaf appeared later, and grew to 9 cm (about 3-1/2 inches) long. Both stayed green longer than the leaves present at the time of the hailstorm.


A new skunk cabbage leaf three weeks and 2 days after the hailstorm

The elderberry plants exhibited a classical response to the destruction by the hailstorm, as illustrated in the photo below. As you can see, the tip of the elderberry shoot has been knocked off. In each leaf axil (the crotch between the leaf and the twig) there is a bud. Normally, the tip of the plant produces a chemical, auxin, which inhibits these buds from growing, and they would only sprout out the following year. However now that the tip of the plant has been knocked off, there is no more auxin to inhibit those buds. They are more likely to sprout immediately. For the elderberry, the recovery strategy, then, is to have buds which were being held for next year open early.


Elderberry shoot recovering 34 days post-hailstorm

The bud (red arrow) on the left side has not sprouted, but the bud on the right side has sprouted, which is facilitated by the death of the leaf (blue arrow) on that side of the stem. If you view the growing shoot tip as “the leader”, this is the botanical version of

“the king is dead, long live the king”.

Another interesting example of recovery from buds was Pacific waterleaf. The visible Pacific waterleaf shoots originate from a rhizome (essentially an underground stem). While there was no real recovery of the damaged above ground shoots, fresh new shoots from the rhizome appeared in many, but not all locations where the aerial shoots were severely damaged. At those sites where new shoots did not appear, perhaps the Pacific waterleaf decided to save its buds, and energy, for next year.


Non-recovering Pacific waterleaf shoot 5 weeks after the hailstorm


And for some plants, it’s the end of the line!

Some plants never did recover from the hailstorm. The best example is the jewelweed, an annual plant that grows mostly along the creek. The two jewelweed plants pictured below had their tops broken off, and were stripped of all leaves. While the stems managed to stay alive throughout the summer, this is not recovery!

Two non-recovering jewelweeds 5 weeks after the hailstorm

As annual plants that must start from seed each year, jewelweed did not have buds already formed for next year which it could call upon to elongate early. As mentioned in my earlier Naturalist’s Note, the jewelweed will have to rely upon two things; the fact that viable jewelweed seed can be “banked” in the soil for a couple of years, and the fact that not all the jewelweed plants were damaged as heavily as these two individuals.

From an overview perspective, there were substantially fewer jewelweed flowers this year than the last two years. Only more time will tell how serious this setback was for the species at Tryon Creek.

The Forest Survived!

Overall, the forest appears to have come through the hailstorm in good shape. Given the long run of history, this probably isn’t the first hailstorm these species have endured. The plants that couldn’t cope with this type of abuse died out long ago. It’s the old story, survival of the fittest! As you walk the trails at Tryon Creek, take pride in knowing that you walk among “Nature’s finest!”


Posted on November 12, 2014, in Plants & Wildlife, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Again, a wonderful essay and illustrations. Thanks so much Bruce. Carl

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