29 August 2010

Common Reed - The Good And The Bad

Arguably one of the most common and widespread plants on the planet is Common Reed (Phragmites australis), a large grass (up to 15 feet tall) found in marshy areas throughout all but the most northern reaches of North America, as well as in temperate and tropical regions around the rest of the world. Known for its dense, erect growth form and showy inflorescence plumes, Common Reed is the target of land stewards across the continent, as it rapidly spreads by rhizomes, creating monocultures and outcompeting native vegetation. It is especially prevalent in areas with high nutrient levels, in areas of high salinity (such as roadsides), and in places where the soil has been disturbed. The rhizomes by which is spreads are particularly impressive; I've seen the plant coming up through asphalt under which its roots have spread. It was once thought that Common Reed did not spread by seed, but only by these rhizomes; we now know that Common Reed does in fact spread to new locations by seed, and that it then reproduces rapidly at that new location through vegetative reproduction.

As a result of recent research, three subspecies of Common Reed have been described. One of these, Phragmites australis ssp. australis, is the strain native to Europe that was introduced in ballast material in the late 18th century. This subspecies has since invaded wet areas across North America. Phragmites australis ssp. americanus is native to the United States and Canada, though it is being replaced in the eastern United States by the introduced European subspecies. The third subspecies, P. australis ssp. berlandieri, is known from Florida to California and south, but its nativity in the United States portion of its range is in question. It is definitely thought to be introduced in Arizona and California.

In most of North America, we only have to deal with two of the subspecies, P. australis ssp. australis and P. australis ssp. americanus. There are several morphological characters that can be used to distinguish between these two.

In the non-native P. australis ssp. australis (above), the inflorescences are dense, bushy, and often purplish or golden in color. The native P. australis ssp. americanus (below) has inflorescences that are more sparse and diffuse.

There are additional floral characters used to distinguish between the two subspecies, including the length of the upper and lower glumes. The native subspecies has longer glumes than the non-native subspecies (lower 3.0-6.5 mm, upper 5.5-11.0 mm in the native; lower 2.5-5.0 mm, upper 4.5-7.5 mm in the non-native).

Examining the culm can also help to tell if you are looking at the native or non-native strain of Common Reed. The non-native P. australis ssp. australis (above) has dull, slightly ridged culms that are mostly green. It also never has the characteristic black spots (formed by a native fungus that has adapted to the native subspecies) that are sometimes seen on the native subspecies. The native P. australis ssp. americanus (below) has shiny, smooth culms that are often pigmented red.

The sheaths of P. australis ssp. australis remain tight on the plant when the plant senesces, whereas those of P. australis ssp. americanus become loose and fall off of the stem rather easily. Stems of the non-native subspecies are often in dense colonies, and they persist through the winter into the next season. Stems of the native subspecies, conversely, are often more sparse and intermixed within other native vegetation, and they have a tendency to not persist into the following spring.

Leaf color can be used in conjuction with other characters to distinguish between the native and non-native subspecies of Common Reed. The non-native strain (above) has leaves that are more commonly dark green, whereas the leaves are more commonly yellow-green in the native strain (below). Ligule length is a consistent character, with longer ligules (more than 1.0 mm) on P. australis ssp. americanus and shorter ligures (less than 1.0 mm) on P. australis ssp. australis.

As additional research is conducted, there will likely be changes to the Latin names of these subspecies, and additional new subspecies may be described.

For more information, be sure to check out Phragmites Field Guide: Distinguishing Native and Exotic Forms of Common Reed (Phragmites australis) in the United States by Jil Swearingen and Kristin Saltonstall.

20 August 2010

Pine Station and Clark and Pine Nature Preserves

For each of the past several years, Shirley Heinze Land Trust has asked me to lead one of their member hikes at northern Indiana preserves. This year, my hike was at Pine Station and Clark and Pine Nature Preserves in Lake County. The hike that I led took place a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to post some of the highlights.

The two dedicated state nature preserves are on opposite sides of Clark Road, with Clark and Pine on the west and Pine Station on the east. The highlight plant at these preserves is the State Endangered American Blue Hearts (Buchnera americana, shown above), a plant of moist sandy prairies with a scattered distribution throughout the eastern United States. American Blue Hearts is considered "one of our very rarest plants" according to Plants of the Chicago Region (1994), and it is considered the plant responsible for initially bringing legendary botanist Floyd Swink to Chicago (be sure to see this link for an account on Floyd, including the story about him, the great Julian Steyermark, and American Blue Hearts).

Clark and Pine Nature preserve consists of shallow swell-and-swale topography, with aquatic plants such as Water Shield (Brasenia schreberi), White Water Lily (Nymphaea odorata), and Variegated Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar variegata) dominating the swales and mesic prairie plants dominating the swells. When standing at this site, it is always amazing to think of all of the development and destruction that has taken place immediately surrounding these preserves, yet that this kind of quality still exists on much reduced postage stamp parcels. In fact, Clark and Pine Nature Preserve is said to harbor more species of concern (plants and animals combined) than any other nature preserve in Indiana. Another of these state listed species, Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea, State Rare, shown below) is so common at this site as to form a purple haze over the swales in July and August.

One of our first field trip observations as people were arriving to hike the preserves was an enormous Polyphemus Moth (Antheraea polyphemus) caterpillar feeding on Sandbar Willow (Salix interior) along the road. This caterpillar, immortalized below, was nearly as large as my index finger, both in length and girth. And let me tell you... I have one hefty index finger!

As we were observing and photographing this caterpillar, we found another green caterpillar, that of and IO Moth (Automeris io) feeding on the same colony of Sandbar Willow. As I was telling those in attendance not to touch this caterpillar, shown below, because those bristly barbs may sting, someone assured me that yes, they do sting, as they had just rubbed up against it and felt its wrath.

Sand mining took place historically at Pine Station, leaving swaths of panne community in areas that were historically mesic prairie swells. Near the Great Lakes, when sand is excavated down to the water table, a unique and rare flora often results, yielding an expression of a seed bank that must be thousands of years old (see my commentary on this topic posted at Get Your Botany On!). The dominant plant species in the man-made panne shown below include Twig Rush (Cladium mariscoides), Golden-seeded Spike Rush (Eleocharis elliptica), Baltic Rush (Juncus balticus var. littoralis, State Rare), Hair Beak Rush (Rhynchospora capillacea), and Low Nutrush (Scleria verticillata). Plant species of conservation concern are common to abundant in this scrape.

One of the plants that often shows up in these scrapes but that occurs naturally in calcareous sands and fens is Kalm's Lobelia (Lobelia kalmii, below). This delicate plant is much more attractive to me than its more conspicous and gaudy relatives Cardinal Flower (L. cardinalis) and Great Blue Lobelia (L. siphilitica), which are much more generalist species in terms of where they will grow.

Another species of concern, Common Bog Arrow Grass (Triglochin maritimum, State Rare, below), is more abundant in this panne than I have seen it anywhere in the state. According to Derek Nimetz of Indiana Department of Natural Resources - Division of Nature Preserves, this species has done extremely well where recreational 4-wheelers have driven through the site. Species like this require periodic disturbance, as they need their space and don't do well in the presence of much competition. Thanks, illegal 4-wheelers!

While walking through the panne, I scared up a Great Egret (Ardea alba, State Special Concern, below), whose white feathered body made for a statuesque subject against a cloudless sapphire sky.

As expected, Pine Station and Clark and Pine Nature Preserves proved an excellent location for a late July field trip.

12 August 2010

What I Do

Friends and family not involved in the conservation field often ask me what I do at my job, and it is sometimes difficult to explain in words. In addition to conducting botanical inventories and endangered species surveys, my primary responsibility at JFNew is to monitor mitigation wetlands. But what does that entail?

A mitigation wetland is a wetland that has been created, restored, or enhanced to "offset" impacts to another wetland. In Indiana, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management regulate mitigation wetlands. My job is to sample vegetation and document water levels in these mitigation wetlands, and to write reports addressing the performance standards.

So what exactly is involed in sampling vegetation? Well, here's what it looks like...

In the photograph above, you can see a one-square meter quadrat frame engulfed in green. At our mitigation wetlands, linear transects made up of a string of these quadrats are located throughout the site. At each of these quadrats, my job is to record all vascular plant species rooted in the quadrat and their respective percent cover values. When I say all vascular plant species, I mean all vascular plant species. Nothing goes unrecorded, no matter how young or small, flowering or sterile. To do this right, one must get on hands and knees, dig through the razor-sharp Rice Cut Grass (Leersia oryzoides) and annoying clinging seeds of Devil's Beggars Ticks (Bidens frondosa), and spend time really looking for seedlings and senesced vegetation that may someday comprise a much larger part of the overall vegetation community. For interesting and accurate accounts of quadrat sampling, be sure to check out the commentary by Justin Thomas at The Vasculum (here) and Allison Vaughn at Ozark Highlands of Missouri (here).

The site where the quadrat above was located was a wetland that had been illegally filled in, and the fill was then removed to restore wetland conditions. My job is to determine whether or not wetland conditions are returning at the site, and if the vegetation that has come back is meeting performance standards including total coverage, coverage by native species, and coverage by certain invasive species. Many times at new mitigation sites, I can only find 10-20 or fewer species in a sampling quadrat. At this site, my quadrats averaged near 30 species each, and this particular quadrat harbored 35 species. Plants that I found in this quadrat include: Common Threeseed Mercury (Acalypha rhomboidea), Swamp Agrimony (Agrimonia parviflora), Common Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia var. elatior), New England Aster (Aster novae-angliae), Hairy Aster (Aster pilosus), Panicled Aster (Aster simplex), Yellow Rocket (Barbarea vulgaris), Devil's Beggars Ticks (Bidens frondosa), Frank's Sedge (Carex frankii), Limestone Meadow Sedge (Carex granularis), Brown Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea), Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense), Cut-leaved Teasel (Dipsacus laciniatus), Eastern Daisy Fleabane (Erigeron annuus), Marsh Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), Hairy Grass-leaved Goldenrod (Euthamia graminifolia var. nuttallii), Green Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica var. subintegerima), Rough Avens (Geum laciniatum), Fowl Manna Grass (Glyceria striata), Virginia Sticktight (Hackelia virginiana), Soft Rush (Juncus effusus), Path Rush (Juncus tenuis), Torrey's Rush (Juncus torreyi), Rice Cut Grass (Leersia oryzoides), Common Water Horehound (Lycopus americanus), Monkey Flower (Mimulus ringens), Common Yellow Oxalis (Oxalis stricta), Curly Dock (Rumex crispus), Dark Green Rush (Scirpus atrovirens), River Bulrush (Scirpus fluviatilis), Tall Goldenrod (Solidago altissima), Alsike Clover (Trifolium hybridum), Swamp Verbena (Verbena hastata), and White Vervain (Verbena urticifolia).

Unfortunately, not enough quadrat-level sampling takes place these days. In twenty years when we look back and wonder what happened to our natural areas, we will realize that we should have spent more time documenting the changes to our flora that were occurring at a level that most people don't comprehend instead of floundering in the fields of genetics and molecular botany.

03 August 2010

Rock 'n' Roll!

This past weekend, Lindsay ran her second half marathon of the year, this time with approximatley 25,000 other people, at the Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half Marathon.

Joining Lindsay were several of her friends, including Amanda and her husband Steve, Diana and her husband Nick, Michelle, and Irma and her daughter Kristy. For those who enjoy lots of people, concrete, and music, Chicago provides a great backdrop for this race.

Thanks to the scenery (especially running along Lake Michigan) and the 13 bands along the way, Lindsay has never had so much fun being miserable in her entire life.

Although she couldn't keep up with Patrick Rizzo, who won the race in an astonishing time of 1:06:19, Lindsay did run the 13.1 miles in 2:17:50, around the same time as her first half marathon, the Sunburst, in June. She also had no problem outrunning the likes of Al Roker, Jason, Jake, and Molly of The Bachelor "fame," and Julianna Rancik (who apparently is someone else "famous" that I've never heard of).

We also had some of our friends there to visit and cheer on Lindsay during the race, including Mike, Ben, Alex (not pictured), Nick, and Jill.

Congratulations, Lindsay, and good luck next year!