Category Archives: Plants & Wildlife

Trillium Trivia

By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide & Retired Research Forester

 

Western trillium (Trillium ovatum) flowers are a major attraction at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA).  I’ve already written three Naturalist Notes about this plant.  In the process I’ve accumulated a host of materials that didn’t fit too well with any of those previous notes; the time has come to share them.

 

How big do trilliums grow?

From May 4 through May 6, 2016, I conducted a survey of trilliums that were growing more than 10 feet from any trail.  The areas I surveyed were near the Equestrian and North Horse Loop Trails in the northern part of the park, Center, Big Fir and Old Main Trails in the central part of the park, and Iron Mountain Trail in the southern part of the park.  For each triple-leafed trillium I encountered I measured the distance from the ground to the attachment point of the triple “leaves.”  I also noted whether or not each plant was flowering.  The results are shown below.

 

Photo 1

 

Ten inches is about the height where the plants shift from non-flowering to flowering, although a couple of very short plants flowered, and a few fairly tall ones didn’t.

 

What happens to the trillium’s flowers and seed pods?

Ideally, the flowers are pollinated, the seed pods (or capsules) mature, then open and release their seeds into the forest.  Of course there are other possibilities.  Deer, it has been reported, sometimes eat the flowers.  The contents of the maturing seed pod are very nutritious, and researchers have reported that both deer and mice sometimes eat the seed pods.

To assess this, I conducted surveys in two different years.  The first survey was conducted between June 23 and 28, 2015.  Two groups of trilliums were surveyed.  “Trailside trilliums” were those growing within 10 feet of the trail.  “Mid-forest trilliums” were those growing more than 10 feet from the trail.  It should be noted that at this time the seed pods are well along the path to maturity.  The plants were placed in three categories: a) capsule intact, b) pedicel only, meaning the plant had flowered, but the flower/seed capsule was missing, and c) did not flower, as indicated by having no pedicel or capsule.  Illustrations of each class are below:

 

Photo 2

Capsule intact

 

Photo 3

Pedicel only

 

 

Photo 4

Did not flower

                           

 

The results are shown below:

 

Photo 5

Plants within 10 feet of trail

 

Photo 6

Plants more than 10 feet from trail

 

A statistical analysis (Note to nerds:  I used the Chi-squared test.) clearly shows that a significantly higher percentage of the trailside plants flowered compared to plants growing more than 10 feet from the trail.  The cause of this difference cannot be determined by this study.  The other statistically significant difference between these two groups is that a higher percentage of the “mid-forest” trilliums only had a pedicel (“flower stalk”), which means that either the flower or the seedpod was removed.  Animals likely ate these seed pods or flowers.  Perhaps the deer are more comfortable eating in the middle of the forest than trailside.

In 2016 I undertook a second trillium survey, this one was conducted May 4 through May 6, at a time when the last of the trillium petals had just recently fallen off the plants.  This time, however, the “trailside plants” I tallied were within 3 feet of the trail.  The “off-trail plants” were growing more than 10 feet from a trail.  At this time the seed capsules were small and immature.  The results are shown below:

 

Photo 7

Off-trail plants

                                                         

Photo 8

Trailside on Cedar, Red Fox and Middle Creek Trails

 

Photo 9

Trailside on Old Main           

 

Once again, the percentage of plants flowering was statistically significantly higher in the trailside plants compared to plants growing “off-trail”.  A slightly smaller percentage of the flowers/seed-capsules had been eaten than in the previous study, probably because there was a shorter period of time for the animals to eat them, or perhaps, being smaller, they were of less interest to the animals.  The one thing that clearly stood out in the data is that the percentage of reproductive structures missing was significantly higher along Old Main Trail than along the other trails.  (Geek note:  Statistically, there is less than a 1 in 10,000 probability that the higher percentage of missing capsules observed along Old Main was due to chance.)  The fact that Old Main is one of the most heavily traveled trails makes it tempting to speculate that people were picking these flowers, as shown in the picture below, but this study cannot prove that.

 

Photo 10

Freshly plucked trillium flower lying on the trail.

An alternative explanation for the empty pedicels is that the flower was defective and the defective bloom was aborted.  I recently saw a single dysfunctional bloom in the forest.  It appears that the plant started to produce a functional flower, but something bad happened along the way, as in the example below, where you have what appears to be an attempt at a flower, but no actual petals.

 

Photo 11

“Failed” flower on a trillium plant.

 

Does it really take 7 years for a trillium to recover after the flower is picked?

Many people believe that if you pick a trillium it will be 7 years before the plant flowers again.  I unexpectedly got a chance to test that theory when someone picked 6 trillium flowers on a plot of trilliums I had been studying for 5 years.  I concluded these had been picked, because the remaining stems did not exhibit the type of cut associated with animal browsing.  One of the stems from which the flower had been picked is shown below:

Photo 12

Stem from which trillium was picked.

 

Although very unhappy, I decided to capitalize on the tragedy.  (“When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade!”)  I carefully documented the exact location of the trilliums.  Based on the location of the six flowers, it appeared that all of them were twin stems, arising from a total of only three rhizomes (rhizomes are like a flower bulb).

In April 2017, one year after the tragedy, I surveyed the site again.  I went to the site and measured the location of the trilliums.  Based on their location, 2 flowering stems were within ½” of the location of the flowering stems that were decapitated last year.  Thus I concluded that only 2 out of the 3 effected rhizomes produced flowering stalks again this year.  However, whereas last year they were twin-stalked, this year they only had one stalk each.  At the location of the third picked trillium, there was nothing.  Scientists have determined that some years a trillium will occasionally just take a rest, and not produce an above ground stem.  So that is what this one did, OR it died.  I don’t know which.  Either way, for at least two of the plants, the “7 year” myth is debunked.

 

Does anything eat trilliums?   

Deer are commonly reported to eat trilliums.  But it turns out that isn’t the whole story.  This spring I ran across one of our slimy forest friends deeply engrossed with a trillium.  Note that this is not our native banana slug (Ariolimax columbianus) but appears to be one of the non-native species.

Photo 13

Slug in a trillium flower

 

You’ll notice that considerable chunks of the trillium petals are also missing, and these may only have been the prelude to the slug’s full scale attack on the heart of the trillium flower.

 

What pollinates trilliums?

Most of the plants we hear about are pollinated by bees, like our Pacific waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes), or by the wind, like Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii).  Trilliums are a little different.  A study of Trillium ovatum in southern Oregon determined that pollinators included several species of beetles, honey bees, bumble bees, crab spiders and geometrid moths1.  Since the trillium doesn’t produce nectar, at least some of these creatures are here to eat the pollen, and they spread the pollen as an unintended side effect.

 

Photo 14

Pollen-coated insect in a trillium flower

Photo 15

Pollen-carrying stinkbug in trillium flower

Photo 16

Unidentified insects (the “brown things”) converging on a trillium flower

 

 

The lesson…

The forest is endlessly fascinating, when a person just stops to observe.  Looking back on my old trillium photos, I now see lots of the “little brown bugs” deep down in the bloom.  How could I have missed that so often?  When you’re out in our forest, stop for a minute and look around.  I think you’ll be amazed, as I was, at how many interesting things are out there.

_____________________________

1Jules, Erik S. and Beverly J. Rathcke.  1999.  Mechanisms of Reduced Trillium Recruitment along Edges of Old-Growth Forest Fragments.  Conservation Biology 13:784-793.

Our Dynamic Forest

By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide & Retired Research Forester

 

This year January brought us an unusually wet, heavy snow.  In my Lake Oswego backyard, it amounted to just over 7-1/2 inches of the white stuff.  The snow at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA) was roughly similar.  As with so many other unusual events, it was a great opportunity to learn more about our forest.

 

The wet, heavy snow brought many changes.  Some that we humans, entranced with the visual wonder that is our forest, tend to regard as tragic.  But Nature may have a different view.  Let’s take a look at some of the things that happened.

 

Look out below! 

All kinds of trees fell down.  As shown in the photo below, the top snapped off from this red alder (Alnus rubra) growing near Red Fox Bridge.  You can see the top lying on the ground.  For the alder, this is a horrific setback, if not death.

Photo 1

Top of alder broken off near Red Fox Bridge.

 

However, the plants growing on the ground under this alder may have a different perspective.  I stood right over the alder trunk lying on the ground, pointed my camera upwards and took this picture of a significant hole in the canopy.

Photo 2

View of the sky where the alder fell down.

 

Do you suppose the plants growing on the ground are looking up and thinking, “Oh what a tragedy.  Now we’re going to be growing in full, life-giving sunlight, and we won’t have competition from the alder.”  No matter what kind of tragedy it was for the tree that fell down, many of the neighboring plants will be celebrating because of the extra sunlight they will be receiving.

 

And if the existing plants already on the ground aren’t able to jump in and take advantage of the newly sunny spot, rest assured that some new plants will.  The photo below shows numerous red alder seeds (two are marked with red arrows) on the Middle Creek Trail the very same day I photographed the broken alder.  Finding these tiny seeds in the forested area would be very difficult, but have no doubt, they are there!

Photo 3

Red alder seeds on the trail (green Douglas-fir needle at bottom provides perspective).

 

Death Cleanses the Forest

Perhaps you mourn the loss of so many good trees.  In at least some cases, your tears are wasted.  A storm like the one we had can be viewed in part as Nature cleaning up the forest.  For example, as part of a human cleanup effort, I spent some time cutting through the trunk of a western redcedar (Thuja plicata) that was lying across the Cedar Trail so the trail would become passable (see photo below).

Photo 4

Western redcedar stem lying across the trail (note pen for scale).

 

It was sad because it was a young tree, with potential to become one of the esteemed elders of the forest.  Or so I thought.  As I dragged some of the branches off the trail, I noticed the top of this tree (pictured below).

Photo 5

Dead top of the fallen western redcedar tree.

 

The top four to five feet of this tree had already been dead for some time.  So the real story was that this tree was already having problems of one kind or another, and the storm just ended its struggle.  Since it already had a dead top, its long term potential was not as great as I originally thought.

 

In another case, a very tall (about 115 foot) Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) fell down across the Old Main Trail.  This is another tree that I cleared off the trail (Note:  The clean-up work I did after the storm proved very educational.  You might want to give it a try!)  The top was forked due to some damage many years ago, as indicated in the picture below.

Photo 6

Fork-topped Douglas-fir on the ground after a heavy snowstorm.

 

But this is another example of a tree that was already in trouble.  The smaller branch on the right side of the picture shown above had been damaged many years before this year’s storm, as you can see below.

Photo 7

Broken, semi-rotten top end of one of the major stems on a Douglas-fir.

 

I sawed off the top 12” of this stub, and inserted a pencil into the soft rotten area in the center of the stem.  The results are shown below.

Photo 8

Pencil stuck in stub of tree trunk.

 

Photo 9

This is how far I could stick the pencil in.

 

I could easily stick the pencil a couple inches into the rotten wood.  I cut 2 more feet off the end of this stub, and was still able to stick the pencil about ½” into the rotten center of the branch.  Once the fungus gains this much of a foothold in a tree, it’s only a matter of time before it seriously weakens the tree.

So once again, the storm felled a tree that was already in trouble.

 

Dead Trees Can be Useful

And if you mourn for the dying trees, rest assured that not all of the forest inhabitants share your grief.  Bark beetles lay eggs under the bark, and their larvae start burrowing through and eating the soft nutritious tissues that are right under the bark.  Of the hundreds of species of bark beetles, at least some attack after the tree is dead.  These beetles leave the kind of tracks like those you can see after the bark has been removed from this branch collected at TCSNA.

Photo 10

Tracks left by bark beetles eating the soft tissues of the branches.

 

And of course, once insects get into a tree, can woodpeckers be far behind?  The photo below shows a heavily “wood-peckered” long-dead tree along Old Main Trail.

Photo 11

Heavily woodpecker-ed dead tree along Old Main Trail.

 

And Some Weird Stuff…

The snow also brought at least one unique observational opportunity!  Down near the creek in one area, I noticed that the snow had patches of yellow color.  (No, it’s not THAT!)  There were no animal tracks in this area, so I seriously doubt the yellow patches were from dogs or coyotes.  According to reports on the internet, yellow snow in this context is frequently the result of pollen getting mixed in with the snow.  Sadly, I got a picture, but never collected a snow sample for microscopic examination.  The storm was roughly at the time that some hazel (Corylus spp.) would be shedding its pollen, but I have no proof that’s what it is.

Photo 12

Yellow patches of pollen (?) on fresh snow near Beaver Bridge.

 

Assuming this is pollen, I have no doubt that pollen is shed like this on the ground every year.  However, it takes a snow covered forest floor before we will ever notice it.

 

Our Ever Changing Forest

Our forest is an ever changing ecosystem.  If we could see this forest in 400 years, much of it would look unfamiliar.  Most often the change is very slow, but a catastrophic event like a dramatic storm puts the changes in a time context we humans can relate to.  Enjoy our forest today, because when you come back tomorrow, it will be different.

 

 

Nature’s Patterns

By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester

At the most basic level, the universe is orderly, although sometimes that order is not immediately apparent.  Albert Einstein famously remarked, “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Fortunately, in the forests of Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA) we have many wonderful examples of the orderliness of the universe.  For this article I will focus on the symmetry that we see in so many of the organisms in the forest.

 

The most common types of symmetry we can see at TCSNA are typically referred to as spherical, radial and bilateral symmetry.  Another way to think about these kinds of symmetry is symmetry around a point, symmetry around a line and symmetry around a plane.

 

Spherical Symmetry (Symmetry around a point)   

With spherical symmetry, there is one point in the middle of an object, and no matter which direction you go from that point, everything is the same.  If you’ve already guessed that all the examples are spheres, you’re right!  The seeds and fruits of some plants are the best examples of this at TCSNA.  For example, the picture below shows the fruit of a bedstraw (a.k.a. “cleaver”) plant (Gallium spp.)  The scar in the middle of the picture is where the fruit was attached to the stem.

photo-1

Bedstraw seed with spherical symmetry

 

Other forms of symmetry get a little more interesting.

 

Radial Symmetry (Symmetry around a line)

A second type of symmetry is radial, where there is a central axis to the object, and the parts all stick out equally in any direction from that central axis.  One of the best examples can be seen in this mushroom fruiting body.  Imagine the red dashed line going down the center of the stem of the mushroom.  At a given distance from the ground, if you travel out at any 90° angle to that red line the mushroom structure is identical.

photo-2

A mushroom with radial symmetry

 

The picture below is of the underside of the mushroom’s cap.  I’ve put in a red dot to indicate the central axis of the fruiting body.  No matter which direction you look out from the center, the structure looks essentially the same.  The edges of the gills that you see as lines, all point to the center of the mushroom.

 

Looking at the underside of the mushroom’s cap provides an additional perspective on radial symmetry.

photo-3

Underside of a mushroom cap, showing radial symmetry

 

 The mushroom above is an example of the simplest kind of radial symmetry.  But radial symmetry can be more complicated, and more interesting.

 

Spirals – A special case of radial symmetry

The mushroom pictured above is a very simple example of radial symmetry, but more complex examples can be easily found at TCSNA.  The most obvious are some of our native conifers.  For example, at first glance the scales on a Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) cone might appear to be arranged in a random pattern.

photo-4

Douglas-fir cone

 

In fact, the scales on a Douglas-fir cone are arranged in a definite spiral pattern around a central stalk.  The scales are actually arranged in multiple spiral patterns.  To illustrate this I painted the bracts (the three-pointed papery structure attached to each cone scale) to highlight these spirals.  Each spiral is a different color.  The results can be seen in the movie below.  Since each cone scale is actually part of three different spiral patterns, I have painted three different cones, each illustrating one of the three patterns.  A different color of paint was used to mark each of the spirals.  Watch first one cone and then the others to see these three different spiral patterns.

 

 

You can see in the movie that there are a set of three spirals of cone scales going in one direction around the cone axis at a very gradual angle.  There is a second set of five spirals going around the cone at a steeper angle in the opposite direction.  Finally, there is a third set of eight very steep spirals going about the cone in the same direction as the first set of spirals.  So each scale is part of all three spirals going around the cone’s central axis.

 

In any given plant, the number of spirals are a part of a set of numbers known as the Fibonacci sequence of numbers.  The Fibonacci numbers were described by an Italian mathematician more than 800 years ago (and Indian mathematicians had apparently described them even before that).  Starting with the number 1, each subsequent number is the sum of the two previous numbers.  Below is the start of the original Fibonacci sequence (the “modern” version starts with zero, which has no impact on the rest of the sequence):

 

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc, etc, ad infinitum.

 

In the botanical literature, it is traditionally reported that the number of spirals in any plant are always two consecutive numbers of the Fibonacci sequence.  With one exception.  The pineapple fruit is almost always described as having three spirals.  I present here the possibility that the Douglas-fir cone, like the pineapple, is composed of three spirals, not the traditionally recognized two.  But, whether it’s two spirals or three, it represents an example of order in nature.

 

Bilateral Symmetry (Symmetry around a plane)

Finally, there is bilateral symmetry, which is symmetry with respect to a plane (think of a sheet of glass).  The structure is identical on both sides of the plane.  The butterfly below is a beautiful example of bilateral symmetry.  Think of an imaginary sheet of glass running vertically through the butterfly’s body.  Each side of the body is an identical mirror image of the other side.  The easiest feature to see in the photo below are the patterns on the wings.

photo-5

Red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) near the Middle Creek Trail

 

Plants often exhibit bilateral symmetry, as exemplified by the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) fruit shown below.  In fact there are two different planes of symmetry.  The first one is centered around the red line drawn on the picture.  The second plane of symmetry is represented by the paper on which this picture could be printed.  The front and back sides of the seed are identical.

photo-6

Bigleaf maple seed with two planes of bilateral symmetry

 

But wait… Not everything in the forest is symmetrical!

My favorite example of a non-symmetric organism in the forest is the banana slug (Ariolimax columbianus).  Below are two pictures of the same slug.  One picture is of the right side of the forward part of its body, and the other is of the left side of the forward part of its body.  As you can see, the slug only has one breathing hole, and it is on the right side of its body.  Thus, the slug does not display symmetry in this regard, it is asymmetrical.  Every slug has its breathing hole on the right hand side of the body.

photo-7

Photo left: right side of slug’s body (arrow points to breathing hole). Photo right: left side of slug’s body (no breathing hole)

 

But that’s not the only way a slug is asymmetrical!  Look at the coloration on the body of the slug pictured below.  A black spot on one side of the slug is not matched with an equal sized, or shaped black spot on the other side of its body.

photo-8

Banana slug showing asymmetrical coloration patterns

 

Why symmetry?

Symmetry is often useful, such as birds having one wing on each side of its body.  Imagine a bird trying to fly with both wings on the same side of its body.  But In truth, while nature has intended many things to be symmetrical, oftentimes the symmetry is not perfect.  These imperfections may result from mutations during development, or accidents.  So what you ask?  Scientists have discovered that some animals, like female peahens and barn swallows, prefer males with symmetrical tails.  To the birds, symmetry could be proof of a potential mate’s normalcy, which is often the safe choice.

 

The symmetrical patterns that we see in much of the flora and fauna of TCSNA provide some reassurance in the orderliness of the universe.  It suggests that perhaps Einstein was correct!

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