Editor’s Note: Miss the Pacific Northwest rain? It’s been 48 days (June 21st) since measurable precipitation at Tryon Creek State Natural Area. Enjoy this post about rainfall in the forest!
Article by Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester
Mention “water” to anyone at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA), and they will probably think of either the drinking fountain at the Nature Center, or Tryon Creek itself. However, we may need to consider other things in the park when someone brings up the topic of water. We can start by looking at the water cycle in the forest.
Here Comes the Rain
We are fortunate to be in an area with a pretty good rainfall. Sometimes it just drizzles, and sometimes it pours down. The first question is “where does the rain go?” Well, that depends on how heavy the rainfall is. This past April, I temporarily set up rain gauges at TCSNA when the forecast called for a rainy period for the next couple of days. I set up 2 rain gauges several feet apart under a large western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and then placed a third rain gauge in a clearing less than 50 feet from the tree. I repeated this process with a large western redcedar (Thuja plicata). I checked the rain gauges after about a day of rain, and then again after 3 total days of rain. The results of both the redcedar and hemlock are combined and illustrated below:
It was astonishing to me that during the first 26 hours of rainfall totaling more than a third of an inch, that almost none of the rainfall penetrated the canopy of either tree. Okay, yeah, I know that when it starts to rain you head under a tree for shelter. But, I was surprised at how effective these under-tree shelters were. Even in the following two more days of rain, only a small portion of the water penetrated the canopy. For this three day event, only 18% of the total rainfall penetrated the canopy. No wonder there are few plants growing under mature trees of these two species.
I checked 2017 daily rainfall data collected by the City of Lake Oswego2 in downtown Lake Oswego, just a few miles from the park. The total annual rainfall was 53.13 inches. Based on my measurements during that one rain event, let’s assume that any daily rainfall of less than 0.35” will never hit the ground under these mature trees. In 2017, these light rains amounted to 25.9% of the total annual rainfall. Based on the information gathered in this study, none of that ever made it through the canopy. These means that plants growing under the canopy of redcedars and hemlocks experience a much different rainfall environment than other plants.
However, there can be lateral water movement in the soil once it hits the ground. To check that, I collected soil cores from beneath both the hemlock and the western redcedar. Under the redcedar the soil contained less water than in the surrounding areas beyond the redcedar’s canopy. For the hemlock, there was no difference between the under-the-canopy and outside-the-canopy soil water. This may have been due to the fact that the hemlock was growing on a significant slope, and the redcedar was growing in a flat area. Any rainfall uphill from the hemlock, probably traveled through the soil downhill to the hemlock.
And these aren’t the only species of plants that intercept the falling rain. Even our native Indian plum (Oemleria cerasiformis) seems to keep a lot of rain from ever hitting the ground, as seen in the picture below.
However, all is not lost. Numerous documents in the scientific literature point out that many plants can absorb water not just through their roots, but also through their leaves and needles.
An important function of the soil is to hold water for the plants to use. The forest at TCSNA is growing on soil that includes a significant layer of clay about 2-1/2 feet below the surface. Thus we see in some toppled over trees that the roots don’t go deep into the soil, but rather, tend to hit the clay layer and then begin to grow horizontally.
To determine how much water the soil holds, I used a soil corer to collect samples of only the top foot of soil at 21 locations at TCSNA. Thus this estimate of total water in the soil is VERY low, perhaps less than half of the water in the entire soil structure found at TCSNA. The approximate sampling locations are indicated on the map below.
I took the soil samples home and put them in plastic bowls to air dry. I weighed them periodically until they stopped losing weight. Then I calculated how much water was in the top 12 inches of soil at TCSNA. Then I carefully recalculated it 5 more times, because the answer astonished me. At the time I collected the soil samples, there was enough water in the top 12 inches of soil at TCSNA to fill 68 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
All plants need water to stay alive. As in humans, water is a key, and most often the dominant component of every plant. With the permission of TCSNA personnel, I collected the above ground parts of some plants, or parts of plants, and determined how much water they contained. The process was that I collected the plants in the forest, stuck them in a plastic bag, and immediately took them home and weighed them. Then I let them air dry in my garage. I periodically took the weights of each drying plant until the weight remained constant. Then I calculated the percent of water in the fresh plant. In a few cases the results were frankly surprising.
Latin Names not already noted: (Oregon grape, Mahonia nervosa; thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus; swordfern, Polystichum munitum; horsetail, Equisetum sp.; red alder, Alnus rubra; English ivy, Hedera helix; waterleaf, Hydrophyllum tenuipes; jewelweed, Impatiens capensis;)
Plants contain a lot of water. Based on some samples I collected near the creek, if the entire park were covered in jewelweed about 4 feet tall (a typical mature height for this plant, the amount of water in the jewelweed would be more than enough to fill 1-1/4 Olympic sized swimming pools.
Both waterleaf and jewelweed will, under moist conditions, exude water from the edges of their leaves, especially on cool mornings. This is illustrated below (and no, it didn’t rain just before I took this picture).
The flip side of this is that waterleaf tends to wilt fairly easily on hot, dry days, as illustrated below.
In another spate of plant drying activity, I included the leaves of three species, and measured them on a schedule to compare how fast the leaves dried. The results are presented below.
The salal dried dramatically more slowly than either the elderberry or vine maple. This is not surprising because the salal leaves are much tougher than the other leaves. Salal is the only species of these three that holds its leaves over the winter.
It’s a wet, wet world
Water is unquestionably the dominant component of life on earth. The prominence of water in plants is documented above. Human beings, like me, and hopefully you, have been reported to contain somewhere between 55% and 60% water, with higher levels for infants. It is an amazing fluid that dissolves important nutrients, makes our cells turgid, and performs many other useful functions. Next time you see a rain cloud coming, be sure to step outside and say thanks.
1”Water, water everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”
—- from The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1797-1798
2 Thanks to Kevin McCaleb with the City of Lake Oswego for this data.
All photos by Bruce Rottink.
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.
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.
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!
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Weather and Climate: Looking Back and Ahead
By Bruce Rottink, Volunteer Nature Guide and Retired Research Forester
Talk about a double whammy! The Portland area, including Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA), has set an all-time record for December rainfall, and the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference has just wrapped up in Paris! Lots of people are thinking about the weather and climate now!
The growth, survival and distribution of the plants at Tryon Creek State Natural Area (TCSNA) are affected by a host of factors. These factors include climate and weather, but also things like soil chemistry, soil depth, the steepness of the slope the plant is growing on, and soil moisture holding capacity. Probably the two most important weather variables are temperature and rain fall. Most of the discussion around climate change has to do with increases in the mean annual temperatures. This is a good place to start, but perhaps inadequate to explain all the changes we might see.
So how might climate change effect our forest?
Climate change might affect TCSNA in many ways, for example, altering the species composition of the forest. I am in my third year of monitoring the growth and development of a variety of plants in my phenology study at TCSNA. In my monitoring I visit the same plants every week to ten days and record their status. Perhaps looking at some of the results might provide a peek into the future. One of the species that I am monitoring is Pacific waterleaf (Hydrophyllum tenuipes). As the waterleaf tends to form dense clumps, I am monitoring approximately a 3-foot diameter circle of plants at each of four separate areas, rather than just trying to track a single stalk.
Pacific waterleaf is a perennial plant, which sends new shoots up every year from rhizomes. Think of rhizomes as “underground stems”. The above ground shoots die back in the “off season” and only the roots and rhizomes persist from year to year. At TCSNA waterleaf is generally from 40 to 60 cm (16 – 24”) tall at maturity. These shoots die back sometime in the summer, generally after they have produced a crop of seeds.
Reviewing the phenological records, the last two years have seen a lot of variability in the behavior of the Pacific waterleaf at TCSNA. The chart below indicates the presence or absence of waterleaf leaves at each of the four monitoring sites on a weekly basis.
Weekly Presence/Absence of Pacific Waterleaf at Four Locations at TCSNA over Two Years
Key: Yellow = Waterleaf Absent; Green = Waterleaf Present;
Week 1 = first week in January, Week 26 = end of June, Week 52 = last week of December
The late-winter through early-summer growth is the time when the waterleaf is making the vast majority of its sugar to support the plant, AND when the plant is producing seeds. The second emergence of leaves is around weeks 40 to 45 (roughly October thru early November). This “second leafing out” produces leaves that tend to be fairly small and I’ve never seen this second leafing produce flowers, much less seeds. And, as you notice, there is a certain amount of “now you see it, now you don’t” with this second leafing out. In at least some cases, the second leafing out leaves are eliminated by a serious frost.
It is interesting to note that on the Middle Creek Trail, there is never a “second leafing out.” The major difference between the Middle Creek waterleaf patch, and all the others is that the Middle Creek patch is on a significant slope, and is more exposed to direct sunlight. All the other patches are on flatter sites. Thus, it may dry out sooner than the other patches, and not have the late-season water it needs for a second set of leaves.
Why are these years so different?
- One thing that you can see immediately is that the green bar (indicating the presence of waterleaf plants) consistently ends earlier in 2015 than in 2014 for any given site. In 2015 the leaves disappeared on average 7 weeks earlier than in in 2014. This is a significant amount of time.
- The seeds of the waterleaf mature approximately in mid-June, so in both cases the plants survived long enough to produce seeds, and nothing more. It is likely that the leaves which persist after seed production are producing sugars to help support the plant for the next growing season.
What could have caused that difference?
The contrasts in weather between 2014 and 2015 are dramatic. I think the weather data probably goes a long way in explaining this year-to-year behavioral difference.
First let’s look at the (Portland) air temperatures maximum and minimum for the years. In each chart, the highest average minimum or maximum air temperature is highlighted in color. Where the temperature for any month was more than 5° F higher than any other year, it is highlighted in red.
Average Daily Minimum Air Temperature – Portland
(In °F; higher year highlighted red)
You can easily see that for most of the spring and early summer months, the minimum temperatures were higher in 2015 than in 2014. But that’s just the start. The next chart tells us even more.
Average Daily Maximum Air Temperature – Portland
(In °F; higher year highlighted in red)
Again, for most of the spring and early summer months, the average maximum daily temperature was higher to dramatically higher in 2015 than in 2014. The yellow-highlighted months are more than 5°F warmer than the comparable month in 2014. The average high temperature in June 2015 was almost 10° F higher than June 2014! This higher temperature would probably cause the plants to lose more water, produce less sugar, and grow less in 2015 than they did in 2014. But the icing on the cake is yet to come. Just take a look at spring/summer rainfall data (from the PCC Sylvania rain gauge station).
February through June Rainfall
Wow! The early growing season rainfall in 2014 was nearly twice what it was in the comparable time in 2015.
The “growing season” for Pacific Waterleaf in 2015 was both hotter and drier than it was in 2014. The result was that the above ground waterleaf shoots disappeared on average 7 weeks earlier. Yikes! A seven-week difference in leaf persistence is not trivial.
I can’t wait to see what kind of impact this has on waterleaf in the 2016 season.
Think of all the linkages that there may be between waterleaf and the other organisms in the forest. Possibly less food for waterleaf-eating insects, less cover for mice scurrying around looking for food, fewer waterleaf seeds for food, and possibly increased soil erosion from late summer rainstorms.
This is the story of just one species of plant, but it might foretell the challenges we face if climate change continues unabated.