Monthly Archives: December 2017
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester
The plants growing at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA) require a supply of nutrients to stay healthy and keep growing. An important part of supplying those nutrients is the decay of dead organic matter like leaves and branches. This decay process releases the chemicals in the dead leaves and branches so those nutrients can be reused by plants that are still growing.
To study this process, I collected leaves, branches or cone scales of several species of trees found at TCSNA in September 2014. I only collected fresh materials which had recently fallen to the ground. Within two days I placed these in wire mesh (screen) “envelopes” and fastened the envelopes to the ground with nails. During the first part of the study I took photographs of the envelopes on a monthly or quarterly basis, but starting in September of 2016 I switched to once-a-year monitoring. The results after one and two years have already been published in earlier Naturalist Notes.
The one-, two- and three-year end results are presented here. While I had two envelopes for each of the materials, I only selected the most photogenic envelope for inclusion in this report.
Red Alder (Alnus rubra) Leaves
Red alder is a common tree at TCSNA, and is renowned for dropping its high nitrogen leaves onto the ground while they are still green. The results from this study are seen in the photos below.
One university research project studying the decay of dead red alder leaves indicated that 93% of the nitrogen in the alder leaves was released into the soil via the decay process the first year. The same study found that 91% of the calcium and 97% of the potassium (both key nutrients) were also released during the first year of leaf decay1. This relatively rapid decay of the red alder leaves was attributed to the fact that they generally contain higher levels of nutrients than most trees, thus nourishing the decay organisms.
Western Redcedar (Thuja plicata) Branchlets
In sharp contrast to the red alder leaves, the western redcedar foliage contains lower levels of many nutrients, thus making it a somewhat less attractive food source for microorganisms. In addition, redcedar foliage and twigs contain many terpenes. Terpenes not only give the tree it’s distinctive “cedar smell,” but terpenes also have anti-fungal properties. The major terpene in western redcedar (α-thujone ) is shown below.
No wonder that the cedar is decaying a little more slowly than some of the other samples.
Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum) Leaves
With no special chemical defenses against fungi, and a fairly high nutrient content, the maple leaves are another fast decaying material.
Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) cone scales
These Douglas-fir cone scales were already lying on the ground at the time of collection. The cones they came from had probably been chewed apart by a squirrel looking for the nutritious seeds.
Superficially, the cone scales after three years look almost exactly like they did the day I put them in the bag. Obviously the scales are made up of a very hard material, not too much different than the wood in the main stem of the tree. Mother Nature made the cone scales very durable to protect the precious young seeds, and as a result, they are being recycled very slowly.
Again, the Douglas-fir twigs and foliage contain some terpenes similar to the terpenes found in the redcedar, and thus, they decay more slowly than the alder and maple leaves. Notwithstanding the resistance to decay, all the needles have fallen off the twigs.
The End Result
The nutrients within each of the samples used in this study will be released and then absorbed by living plants and fungus, helping the forest to grow the next generation of life. This study shows the enormous differences in the decay times of different kinds of tree litter. The softer materials, like the alder and maple leaves also have the highest nutrient content, and lowest concentration of anti-fungal chemicals. But, as the old saying goes, “All in good time!” All these nutrients will once again join living organisms, ensuring the continuation of TCSNA’s forest!
1Radwan, M. A., Constance A. Harrington and J. M. Kraft. 1984. Litterfall and nutrient returns in red alder stands in western Washington. Plant and Soil 79(3):343-351.