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.
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide & Retired Research Forester
This Naturalist Note is dedicated to Phil Hamilton who passed away on June 12. Phil devoted more than 24,000 volunteer hours helping make Tryon Creek State Natural Area the wonderful place it is today. He played many leadership and resource roles, but is perhaps best known as the ‘King of the Ivy Pullers.’ He not only pulled a lot of ivy himself, but led hundreds of groups of ivy pullers out into the park. Every time I went out with him, he told me something brand new about the forest that I did not know before. He was a great role model, and helped many people get started on the track of volunteering at Tryon Creek. I, and I’m sure many others, will remember this dedicated, knowledgeable and hard-working man forever. Thank you Phil!
If there was a vote on the most despised plant at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA), ivy would win hands down. This aggressive, invasive plant outcompetes and displaces many native plants. In an area near the Red Fox Trail where the ivy completely covered the forest floor, I removed and measured the ivy in a three-foot by three-foot plot. In that plot there were 285.8 linear feet of the ivy vine. (Yes, it was really thick, in multiple layers!) If (and thankfully, it doesn’t) this density of ivy covered all of TCSNA there would be enough ivy to wrap around the earth at the equator more than 6 times!
Ivy’s habit of climbing up tree trunks makes it difficult to ignore. Not surprisingly, ivy has many special features that make it so successful.
Ivy: The ingenious climber
Ivy needs sunlight to grow. How does a plant get close to the sun? Most trees, like our Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) develop a thick trunk that lifts their leaves up toward the sun. Building the thick stem takes a lot of resources. A study in western Washington showed that for 47-year-old Douglas-fir, 87% of the above ground biomass was in the trunk of the tree. The major purpose of the tree trunk is to get the needles up into the sunlight where they can photosynthesize. The ivy developed the habit of just climbing the tree trunks that were already there. It saved itself all the energy required to develop a self-supporting stem.
I pulled down an ivy vine that was growing up the side of a tree. The diameter of the ivy’s stem at ground level was 3/4 of an inch. Twenty-one feet up the tree, it was not much smaller, as you can see below:
Since ivy doesn’t need a thick stem to hold itself erect, it uses its energy to grow taller.
In contrast, a western redcedar (Thuja plicata) only 10 feet tall growing along Old Main Trail had a basal diameter of 1.59 inches. The redcedar needs this thick stem to hold itself up, while the ivy doesn’t.
Not that ivy vines don’t grow large, especially when two or more vines merge together.
Ivy only had to develop a method of holding onto the tree. Voilà! The aerial rootlet, which adheres to the tree’s bark:
Using these aerial rootlets, the ivy manages to climb up the trunk of trees into the light without having to expend the energy to develop a big, supportive stem.
Creating a Home for Others
While we rarely envision ivy as a benevolent plant, other organisms may have a different view. As you can see in the photo below, sometimes the mass of ivy stems creeping up a tree is part of a community complex most frequently involving moss or licorice fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza). While removing ivy from a tree near the Red Fox Trail, I collected the sample (in cross section) shown below. It is a combination of primarily ivy and licorice fern, with a hint of moss.
The mass of roots, stems and miscellaneous dirt measured about 7 cm (~2-1/2 inches) thick.
How much water might this hold? I cut a 2-1/2” by 3-1/4” sample from the tree. I soaked it overnight in water. I weighed the wet sample and then let it air dry completely and weighed it again. I calculated that a square foot of this material would hold slightly more than 2-1/4 quarts of water. This is a mixed blessing. While some of this is a nice reservoir of water for the licorice fern growing in this mass, it is also a significant weight burden for the tree.
To find out how much water might be stored in the mass of ivy roots and licorice fern, I did some calculations. I measured the diameter of the trunk of a large fallen alder tree near the Middle Creek Trail at 10 foot intervals, up to 63 feet above ground, where it started branching out. Based on this data, I calculated the surface area of the tree trunk. If the entire surface of this tree trunk were covered like the sample above, the ivy/moss/licorice fern could potentially contain up to 1,520 lbs. of water. That’s three-quarters of a ton of water. Yikes!
Ivy: It’s Tough
Every species of plant contains nutritious chemicals like sugar, cellulose and dozens of others. This naturally attracts other species that don’t have the ability to capture solar energy to sustain themselves. One of the keys to a plant’s survival is to protect itself from these organisms, which range from molds and insects, all the way to humans. In the picture below, you can see the surviving remnants of leaves on one of TCSNA’s common shrubs.
To find out how effective ivy is in protecting itself, I conducted a survey in the fall of 2016. I examined the leaves of three species of plants, and counted the number of leaves (or leaflets) that were damaged. To minimize the possible effects of humans, I examined sites more than 10 feet from a trail. (Confession: I don’t actually know what caused the damage; it might have been insects, diseases, a hailstorm or whatever.) For each species, I examined leaves in two different places (for example, near Red Fox Trail and near Old Main Trail), to get an “average” value.
The results are presented below:
Number of Total leaves Percent of
Species damaged leaves examined leaves damaged
Red Alder 181 199 90.0%
Oregon grape 375 559 67.1%
Ivy 93 279 33.3%
Ivy has less leaf damage, whatever the cause, than either the red alder or the Oregon grape. Good for the ivy!
Ivy is a Persistent Grower
Every plant has a growing season, and for ivy, it’s long. To determine how long into the fall/winter this plant might grow, I measured the growth of an individual ivy stem along the Red Fox Trail. The data shows that ivy continues growing quite late in the year.
In contrast to the ivy, on September 28, one of the Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) plants I was monitoring in that area was completely bare of leaves, while the other Indian plum in that area had dropped about 98% of its leaves.
Ivy’s Secret Strategy
One of ivy’s secret strategies is that virtually every place along the stem where there is a leaf, there is the potential to grow roots. That is seen in the photo below:
Should the stem of this ivy plant be broken, no sweat! Every part of the stem has its own root system and can stay alive. This is in contrast to most woody plants which only produce roots at a single point in the plant.
English Ivy really isn’t that bad (a tidbit for geeks!)
It turns out that much, if not most, of the ivy that we have at the park really isn’t English ivy (Hedera helix); it’s Irish ivy (Hedera hibernica). Not that the other plants care!
The key reliable morphological feature that discriminates between the two species are the miniature hairs that grow in clusters on the plant. The Irish ivy hairs are in small clusters lying flat on the plant’s surface, while English ivy hairs are in larger clusters and stand erect. The microphotographs below of plants collected at TCSNA shows the difference.
To further complicate things, hybrids of English and Irish ivy have been discovered and…. Okay, I’ll quit now!
The Ivies: Green Success Stories
The ivies in the genus Hedera are very successful plants. They can grow tall without having to use their own stem to support themselves. When hacked into pieces, many of the pieces are able to stay alive and become a whole new plant. They also appear more resistant to disease and predation than many of TCSNA’s other plants. They have a longer growing season than many of our native plants. All of this spells success for the plant, and lots of work for our ivy pullers who are trying to encourage the growth of native plants by reducing the resource competition from the ivy!
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide & Retired Research Forester
Some strange things live in the forest at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA) but for my money, none is stranger than the organisms known as slime molds. Taxonomists, folks who specialize in classifying organisms, haven’t all agreed on how to classify slime molds. They do, however, all agree that slime molds are clearly neither plants, animals, fungi nor bacteria. Slime molds are fascinating creatures because they have a very strange life cycle, and a highly unusual “body”. This note focuses only on the plasmodial slime molds, which are the type you will probably see at TCSNA. [Important: The slime mold names used in this note represent my best efforts at identifying these creatures, based on their strong similarity to photos on the internet.]
Where do slime molds grow?
The best place to find slime molds at TCSNA is on rotting wood. Old logs, tree stumps, or dead standing trees are prime candidates. This is because the primary foods for slime molds are bacteria and fungi. These are abundant in dead wood. Experts say the best times to find these slime molds is either spring or fall, when the forest is fairly damp. The slime molds pictured in this note were found at TCSNA in April, July, September and November.
What’s so weird about slime molds?
The weirdest thing about slime molds is their dramatic changes in shape over the course of their life cycle. Let’s start with the point in the life cycle which gives these organisms their name. The most active adult stage of the slime mold is when it looks like (surprise, surprise) slime! This nearly formless stage is called the plasmodial stage. At the risk of being indelicate, the adult slime mold in this stage looks like someone with serious nasal congestion blew their nose onto a log. This stage looks a little “blob-y” and has a distinct “wet” appearance. The plasmodium stage of life is the diploid stage where the slime mold has chromosomes from both parents, just like you. The example pictured below was on a decaying tree trunk that was lying on the ground near the West Horse Loop Trail.
These blobs of life are unusual in that they are giant cells with many thousands of nuclei in each cell. For most life forms, one nucleus per cell is the rule. Also, at this stage, there is a thin cell membrane, but no rigid cell wall. The big advantage to having giant wall free cells is that these plasmodia can move by streaming the cell contents (cytoplasm) from one end of the plasmodium to the other end. The plasmodium will move in the direction that the streaming cytoplasm is heading. Laboratory studies have observed slime molds moving at approximately 1 inch per day towards concentrations of food.
When food starts to become scarce, the slime mold moves into the next stage of life. This stage is called a sporangium. The sporangium, as you might guess, is the stage that produces the spores. The forms of the sporangium differ greatly, depending on the species of slime mold.
How does the sporangium develop?
There are many different sizes, shapes and colors of sporangia, depending on the species of slime mold. Examples I’ve found at TCSNA are included below.
The series of photos below shows the development of a single sporangium found on a standing dead tree along the Trillium Trail is shown. Unfortunately, I found the sporangium when it was completely developed. This was formed by a plasmodial mass similar to the one pictured above. A tough shell develops to protect the developing spores on the inside. This sporangium is the species of slime mold called “false puffball”. Its scientific name is Enteridium lycoperdon. The most striking thing about this sporangium is that in my entire life I have never seen a natural object that has looked so much like plastic. Measured vertically along the trunk of the tree, it is about 3 inches long.
Just one day later, the surface of the sporangium has started to crack apart. The interior of the sporangium is filled with small brown spores. This particular sporangium was growing very close to the trail. I suspect the yellowish area which is oozing just a little yellow fluid is in fact a wound inflicted by a curious visitor to the park!
After three additional days, the surface of the sporangium is starting to seriously deteriorate, exposing even more brown spores.
In just an additional 3 days, the surface of the sporangium is almost completely gone, and many of the spores have been washed or blown away. Now the spores will germinate and produce single celled amoeba-like cells that crawl around. These cells are the functional equivalent of human egg and sperm cells. These amoeba-like cells will find and fuse with a compatible amoeba-like cell. Then this fused cell will grow to become a new plasmodium, restarting the cycle.
The photo below gives you an idea of what the interior of this slime mold sporangia contains.
While observing the above slime mold, I noticed some insects on its surface. As I approached quite close to take photos, the insects boldly maintained their positions. I sent this picture to Josh Vlach, an entomologist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture. He indicated this insect “looks like a Mycetophilidae possibly a species of Mycetophila”. Mycetophilidae is a family of insects, while the Mycetophila is a genus within that family. The common name for this group of insects is “fungus gnats.” This type of insects oftentimes lay their eggs in either mushrooms or slime molds. The developing larvae eat the mushroom or slime mold. One of these insects appears in the picture below.
Are there other kinds of slime mold at TCSNA?
Yes, I’ve spotted several other kinds of slime molds at Tryon Creek. Below is an example of a slime mold in an advanced stage of spore production. It was on the side of a downed log just off the Old Main Trail. The cluster of spore producing bodies seem to be resting on a thin sheet of shiny material that looks like dried slug slime. The entire cluster is 9 inches horizontally, and 6-1/2 inches vertically. The thickness of these spore clusters is less than 1 inch. When touched, they easily broke into a dark brown powder. These appear to be the species Tubifera ferruginosa, the red raspberry slime mold. In a younger stage, which I clearly missed, they are bright red.
In the close-up below, you can see more detail of the structure of this slime mold.
Next is the dog vomit slime mold. (I don’t name ‘em, I just report ‘em!) For once, you might like the Latin name better – Fuligo septica. Below is the sporangium of this colorful slime mold, which I found on a fallen log next to the Middle Creek Trail. The outer covering of the sporangium is just starting to break apart, revealing the brown spore bearing parts of the slime mold. On the moss just below the sporangium, you can see a few remnants of plasmodial strands that didn’t quite make it into the sporangium.
Below is a close-up of the surface of the dog vomit slime mold. It is substantially different in both color and texture from the first slime mold pictured in this note.
Slime molds are an amazingly diverse group of organisms, and the next species testifies to that. The photo below appears to be a slime mold in the genus Trichia. The plasmodium, the white slimy part, and the sporangia, the orange balls on a stalk, coexist. The orange blobs bear the spores for this slime mold.
Not only are the sporangia of this species dramatically different in appearance, they also differ in size. The next photo compares the sporangia to my thumbnail.
So what’s the lesson here?
The slime molds really are the weirdos of the forest, and trust me, this note only scratches the surface of that weirdness. They remind us that there are many ways to be successful. The slime molds eat the bacteria, and the larvae of the gnat fly eat the slime molds, and many things eat the gnat files. Every creature in creation is linked together, and we would be wise to remember that.