Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Harvesting Draba Seeds

This could pass as a Martian landscape, but it is actually a portion of the seed I harvested today from my container grown Draba cuneifolia.

The container was so crowded with Drabas that the flower stalks had woven into one great mass.  Any attempt to harvest seed from one plant caused all of the neighboring plants to dump their seed load.  More than enough seeds had already fallen back into the container, so I had to find a harvest method that could effectively remove the remaining seeds from the plants without additional losses.

The Draba seed pod is divided into two halves with a thin, semi-transparent membrane running through the center.  Seeds are arranged in two rows on each side of the membrane.  When the seeds are ripe, the two outer coverings of the pod begin to peel back at the bottom, leaving the seeds exposed.  At this point, it doesn’t take much disturbance to cause the seeds to fall free.  In the past, I have harvested seed by simply bending the plant over a small cup and giving it a couple of taps.  The seed fell into the cup and that was all there was to it.  That method doesn’t work when the tangled plants all acted as one unit.

I decided to try using my shop vac as a harvester.  My shop vac is a bagless model, so I took a clean sweeper bag and modified it to fit the inlet pipe on the inside of the shop vac dirt chamber.  Then I directed the sweeper hose towards the plants and the seeds quickly disappeared.  The shop vac is not a high end model, so the air flow past the plants was really kind of gentle and did little more than pull away loose parts.  I just hoped everything was ending up in the bag. 

Fortunately, the sweeper bag stayed in place through the entire operation.  I sucked in a lot of seed pod covers, along with a little bit of dirt, but it looked like there was also some seed in the collection.

A closer examination revealed plenty of seed hidden beneath the seed pod parts.

I had to cut the sweeper bag in half to remove the seeds, but I was happy with the harvest.

Draba seeds are tiny things.  That’s a normal sized nickel beside the seed pile.

This is what I ended up with after sifting the mess through a screen to separate out the seed.  That’s five grams of fine Blue Jay Barrens Draba cuneifolia seed.  I couldn’t find any figures specifically for Draba cuneifolia, but similar Draba species average about 6,000 seeds per gram.  That means there are 30,000 seeds in this vial.  I’ll be scattering this seed back on the barrens in the same area from which I originally collected seeds for my container grown population.  I think I’ve repaid that loan of a few seeds with adequate interest.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Blooming Season Potato Dandelions - Three Days Later

It seemed likely to me that the Potato Dandelion flower buds seen a few days ago would be open today, so I made a trip into the woods to check.  I was suitably impressed by what I found.  All but one of the buds had opened.  On my previous visit to this site, the plant in the foreground of the above photo had three stalks topped by buds.  This morning there were two stalks with flowers.  The third stalk had disappeared completely.  I’m hoping the predator that removed that stalk has had its fill of Potato Dandelions.

The yellow bloom atop the tall stalk made it easy to find the plants.  I even found another cluster of plants that I hadn’t noticed before.

The ground wasn’t quite as bare around the new found cluster.  The leaf litter was only about one leaf thick though, so the plants had no trouble thrusting their leaves into the light.

I went down to the other end of the ridge to check on the original Potato Dandelion site.  This section of woods suffered a lot of damage from grazing cattle, and things are struggling to recover from that negative impact.  The cattle have been gone for over 30 years, but the Whitetail Deer are doing their best to take up where the cattle left off.  The deer have left a well developed browse line through the entire woods and are changing the composition of the forest understory with their overbrowsing of preferred food plants.

I was pleased to find blooming Potato Dandelions at the original site.  Four out of five years will find zero plants blooming here.  I noticed that the long term snow pack that existed in the woods this past winter had significantly compressed the leaf litter.  This may have made it easier for the plants to get their leaves out into the sunlight.

Whatever the reason, I counted 11 flowers at the time of my visit.  The only time this site has come near this number of blooming plants is when I’ve physically removed the leaf litter prior to the emergence of the plants.  It will be interesting to see if any of these flowers produce viable seeds.

This is how the plants look during a normal year.  Plenty of elongated leaves fall limply across the leaf litter like they were subjects in a Salvador Dali painting.

It looks like the flower count is destined to increase.  I found many plants that were just beginning to send up flower stalks.  When you are used to most years passing without a single Potato Dandelion flower, a year with an extended blooming season could prove to be quite overwhelming.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Blooming Season Potato Dandelions

Sunlight is a key factor in determining whether or not a Potato Dandelion, Krigia dandelion, will bloom.  Woodland populations receive much of their sunlight prior to emergence of leaves on the deciduous trees.  Even in mid-May, the tree leaves have not developed enough to completely block the sun.

Fallen leaves from previous years can also keep sunlight from reaching the developing plants.  Those plants that must push their way up through the leaf litter rarely bloom.  That’s one reason why I transplanted Krigia tubers into areas of sparse leaf litter.  Strong winds pushing over the ridge tops consistently push leaves away from certain areas.  It’s in these areas that the Potato Dandelions should prosper.  I should they could thrive if animals stopped eating them.  In this grouping of four plants, all have suffered some degree of damage from hungry plant predators.

This is the most common condition.  Leaves and flower stalks severely trimmed back.

This specimen lost nothing but a flower bud.  Since the flowers rarely produce any viable seed at Blue Jay Barrens, the loss of the flower does no harm to the plant.  As long as the plant is healthy, the roots will produce a nice collection of new tubers.

When I planted Potato Dandelion tubers into this location last summer, I placed them in groups of three or four.  This set of three plants represents the most successful grouping I could find this week.  All three have managed to grow without any predation.

The tuber planted here must have had exceptional vigor to produce three flower stalks.  The tubers produced from these three plants could easily result in 30 to 40 plants on this spot next year.

Judging by the amount of leaves being produced, the container bound Potato Dandelions are going to provide me with plenty of tubers to transplant to the woods later this summer.  These plants were caged a few weeks ago after some browsing animal ate all of the leaves.  The damage occurred prior to the development of flower buds, so there was no reduction in the number of blooms produced.

The original source of tubers for my container grown specimens was the ridgetop woodland at Blue Jay Barrens where the plants were found to be naturally growing.  By transplanting container grown tubers onto that same woodland ridge, I hope to expand the size of the population as insurance against some disaster destroying the original population.  I manage the plants and animals found naturally at Blue Jay Barrens and have made it a strict policy to not introduce any species from outside the property boundaries.  With luck, someday I’ll have clumps of these little beauties enhancing the entire 1500 feet of the ridge instead of just the current 100 feet.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Prairie Corridor Project

The final phase of a project intended to create an open corridor between two prairie areas has now been completed.  What was once a vicious tangle of invasive Autumn Olive and Multiflora Rose, now looks almost park-like.  A finish mower and a couple of picnic tables would make this a wonderful place to relax, but I have a different goal in mind.  My hopes are that this area will convert to prairie vegetation and act as a pathway to allow organisms to move freely between an existing prairie area to the upper right and a second to the upper left.  The only task left is to get rid of the few large trees.

I’ve chosen to kill the trees in place by girdling and applying herbicide.  Girdling is the act of removing a strip of living bark around the base of a tree.  This essentially stops the transfer of energy from the leaves to the roots.  Girdling alone will typically kill the top of the tree, but a forest of sprouts will emerge below the point of the cut and the tree will grow on.  To ensure the death of the entire tree, I have applied a 41% solution of glyphosate to the exposed inner bark at the lower part of the wound.  There should be no regrowth here.

The Allegheny Mound Ants that had been foraging up the tree were slightly befuddled by the loss of their path to the ground.  On some trees it took 15 minutes or more before they finally crossed the gap and went on their way.  These ants can be found on every tree in the more open areas of Blue Jay Barrens, but they do not go into the closed canopy woods.

Girdled trees included some growing in the Winged Sumac thicket.  Eventually, shade from the trees would have caused the death of the sumacs.

The dead trees should be a wonderful place for beetle larvae and woodpeckers.  Several of the trees are large enough to accommodate nesting woodpeckers.  Red-headed Woodpecker numbers have been increasing in the area over the past few years and I’m hoping that dead trees in a rather open setting might entice a pair to nest here.

Flowering Dogwood, Dwarf Sumac and a few oaks were left alive.  There are not enough of them to impede the growth of prairie vegetation.  Presence of these three species is consistent with the type of prairie typically found in this area and having them here is in keeping with the management goals of the adjoining fields.

The leafless dead trees will not block enough sunlight to slow expansion of prairie into the area.  In a few years, small limbs will begin to fall from the dead trees.  Larger limbs will follow and eventually, the trunks will come down.  Everything should be on the ground within ten years.  What happens to the fallen material will depend on how and where it falls.  Some will be left on the ground to decompose and some will be moved to facilitate future maintenance of the area.

This area to the west, just outside the trees, will be the primary source of seed for colonizing prairie plants.  Our prevailing wind is from the west and it’s that wind that carries seeds into new territories.  By the time the last tree falls, this area should be healthy prairie.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Black Rat Snake

Yesterday, I had my first Black Rat Snake encounter of the year.  I usually find them basking in the sun at this time of year, but the high temperatures have topped 90oF every day this past week, so there has been no need for snakes to seek the sun for warmth.  I think this is a good photo for people with a fear of snakes.  Who could be afraid of an animal that is powerless to stop a fly from riding along on its nose?  Oh, maybe some people didn’t stick around long enough to notice the fly.

The snake was emerging from the unmowed area surrounding the bird feeders.  This area is directly between the barn and the house, and is often used by the snakes as they move back-and-forth between the two structures in their constant search for mice.  This individual is making its way to the house.

The bright sunlight makes it easy to see the pattern on the snake’s skin.  So far, I have yet to see a Black Rat Snake that has grown large enough to completely lose the pattern of its youth.

The snakes enter the house through the garage door which is on the side away from the barn.  I’ve watched many snakes make the trip along the house foundation on their way to the snake access left open for them at the lower corner of garage door.  I’ve noticed some mouse activity near my bird feed storage area, so I’m sure the snake will find a couple of easy meals.  Using the bricks as a measurement aid, I think this snake could just make five feet long.

I’m still learning how to use the video features of my camera, so I have once again attached a video to my post.  The stairwell leading to an old cellar beneath the house acts as a minor obstacle to the snakes.  Instead of going around, they crawl down one side and up the other.  I filmed the snake as it left the stairwell and continued its journey towards the garage.  The video can also been seen on YouTube by clicking HERE.  I usually must reduce the size of the video file in order to post to Blogger, so the YouTube version is often has much more resolution.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Foggy Virginia Pines

While out working yesterday, I noticed periodic clouds hanging around a clump of Virginia Pines.  It was as though little wisps of fog were drifting from the branches.

Like many plants at this time of year, pines are in full bloom.  The flowers aren’t showy, but they stand out nicely against a background of green pine needles.

Pines produce separate male and female flowers that appear at different locations on the tree.  These are male flowers, responsible for producing large quantities of wind born pollen.

The slightest breeze carries clouds of pollen away from the flowers.

Giving the branch a light tap releases an avalanche of pollen.  As a child, I learned that tapping a pollen laden pine branch, beneath which my sister was standing, was a sure way to get caught up on the current disciplinary doctrines being practiced by my parents.

This is the female flower, the desired destination for all of that pollen.  It looks like plenty has found this particular flower.  Of course, most of the pollen never reaches this point.  It’s wind carried pollen that is the bane of many allergy sufferers.

There is a small area that I have allowed to grow up into a pine thicket.  The thicket grew up around a few large Virginia Pines that had managed to colonize the field several decades ago.  There are a few other single large Virginia Pines scattered around the fields, but the small trees surrounding them were all cleared away to make room for the prairie vegetation.  Since the Virginia Pine is a native species that arrived here under its own power, I thought that a miniature pine forest might be an interesting addition to the diversity of ecosystems found at Blue Jay Barrens.

Other than some refreshing shade and a wealth of pine cones, the pine thicket hasn’t produced anything of remarkable interest.  Solid stands of young pines are notorious for having an almost desert like floor.  I’ll give it a few more decades to see what develops.

In an area dominated by brown and green, this rough orange growth encircling a pine branch was easy to notice.

This is a fungal disease know as Eastern Pine Gall Rust or Pine-Oak Gall Rust.  The infection starts small, but in a few years can form a raised collar as seen here.  The gall can remain active for up to ten years.  In the spring of the year, orange spores are produced that travel by the wind to infect oak trees.  Infected oak leaves produce hair-like galls on their undersides which release spores that infect pines.  This two host system means that spores released by the gall on the pine cannot infect another pine and spores from the oaks cannot infect other oaks.  Without pines and oaks in close proximity, the fungus cannot survive.

The pines are host to many types of interesting small animals.  Whatever hatches from this egg will probably be a consumer of pine needles.

This exit hole was left by some insect that spent its larval stage consuming the inside of a young pine cone.  With its seed cavity cleaned out, the cone died.

As with most plants at Blue Jay Barrens, Virginia Pine serves as host to numerous aphid colonies.  Where there are aphids, there will be Allegheny Mound Ants.  It is uncommon to find any aphid colonies here that are tended by other ant species.

I found these large aphids to be particularly interesting.  When disturbed, the mature aphids would break from the pack and run up the branch.  Most aphids have a top speed that would be described as a fast walk.  These aphids moved just as quickly as one of the scurrying ants.  I believe these aphids are of the genus Cinara, AKA Giant Conifer Aphids, but if I was charged with the task of assigning an appropriate common name, I think I would to call them the Running Aphid.