Heterotrophic Plants

Parasites and Mycotrophs of the Klamath Mountains

By Ken DeCamp

Green plants are considered autotrophs because they photosynthesize—making sugar from water and carbon dioxide. The world of heterotrophic plants is complicated but all have moved away from total energy production from photosynthesis toward obtaining organic carbon either directly from other living beings or through a parasitic relationship with a fungus. Heterotrophic plants include directly parasitic and mycotrophic forms. The conifer forests of the western United States nurture an exceptional diversity of heterotrophic plants.

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Mill Creek Wilderness

Mill Creek Wilderness The main event has been on the calendar for the past eight years. I have heard stories from friends who have actually traveled around the world to see the phenomenon–and from that alone I knew if there was and eclipse practically in our backyard, we needed to go. We selected a spot in the heart of the Ochoco National Forest and literally on the edge of the Mill Creek Wilderness in a meadow complex. The Mill Creek Wilderness Twin Pillars Trail was our hiking destination the day before the eclipse event. The wilderness protects a harsh environment typified by ancient lava flows, fire-prone conifer forests, and the Mill Creek Drainage itself. We found wonderful views across central Oregon and a fire-scared landscape on our way to the Twin Pillars. In addition, western larch (Larix occidentalis), was the conifer highlight on this adventure.

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Shining Rock Wilderness

Quick Facts: The Shining Rock Wilderness is in Haywood County, North Carolina and is 18,483 acres.

Old Knob Butte – Shining Rock Creek loop

Southern Appalachian Mountain Ecology

Most botanists are familiar with the ecological similarities between the southern Appalachians and the Klamath Mountains. These two regions are the two most bio-diverse temperate regions in North America. Here is as excerpt from Conifer Country:

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Yellow-cedar in the Siskiyous

Yellow-cedar range in northwest California.

I have begun a collaborative mapping and inventorying project for yellow-cedar in California this summer. The species is a CNPS Inventory of Rare and Endangered Plants on list 4.3 (limited distribution) in the state, with only a handful of known locations. The majority of the stands are on the Klamath National Forest but a few are also on the Six Rivers. Over the course of the summer I will be visiting a number of these populations and collecting data on stand health, reproduction, and plant associates. I made the first stop of the summer at the Bear Peak Botanical Area.

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Torrey Pine Forest

Santa Rosa Island Torrey pine (Pinus torreyana ssp. insularis)

Torrey pine range map from Conifers of the Pacific Slope.

The first time Santa Rosa Island landed on my plant exploring radar screen was when I learned about the Torrey pine some time in the early 2000s. I had never even seen this tree until I took a trip to Torrey Pines State Reserve north of San Diego in early 2012. It is the rarest pine in North America with several thousand “mature” trees on both the mainland and island. My bucket list for understanding the ecology of this species is complete now that I have visited the island.

As mentioned in an early post, pigs were first introduced on Santa Rosa in the mid 1800s. By 1888 it is estimated, based on historical records, that there were only 100 Torrey pines on the island. Today, all  herbivorous megafauna have been removed (minus 5 sterile horses from the old ranch) and the Torrey pine are thriving–with an estimated 12,300 trees–one-quarter of which are saplings!

Researchers debate the arrival time of the Santa Rosa Torrey pine, estimating anywhere from 6,000 to over 1 million years. Disagreement also exists as to whether these two population represent subspecies or varieties of each other. Some argue the two populations are  genetically different enough to be considered a subspecies, others prefer distinction at the variety level. Regardless, it is a beautiful species and well worth seeing in the wild.

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The Cloud Forest

The cloud forest on Santa Rosa Island.

Santa Rosa Island

We passed five Orcas (Orcinus orca) on the passage to Santa Rosa Island

After a two hour boat ride from Ventura Harbor that included sightings of gray and killer whales, passengers disembarked onto a newly-built pier and subjacent white sand beaches. We had arrived. Once unloaded, the park ranger offered an orientation rejoicing in our good fortunes. The high winds and thick fog which had typified the previous few weeks had now subsided. The forecast for the coming days included sun, low winds, and perfect temperatures.

Fog and wind are omnipresent on Santa Rosa Island and play a major role in shaping the landscape. Any plants with a propensity for upward growth are restricted to canyons, particularly north sloping ones. Here they find refuge from the wind and often more available moisture provided by the meager 15-20 inches of annual rain. However near the highest island peaks–like Black Mountain at 1,300 feet plants have adapted to wind and fog in different ways.

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Santa Rosa Island

Santa Rosa Island

Channel Islands National Park

Santa Rosa Island overview.

In 1998 I first visited the Channel Islands. This was early in my naturalist career but I was struck,  none-the-less, by the beauty and isolation I found on Santa Cruz Island. On that trip I first saw the endemic island scrub jay (Aphelocoma insularis) and began to develop an understanding and interest in island biogeography. Twenty years later this experience brought me to Santa Rosa Island–in major part to see the Torrey pine grove–but also for the opportunity to explore one of the least visited places in Southern California.

Santa Rosa Island is separated from the mainland by over 25 miles of water. The next closest landmass is San Miguel, which is now isolated from Santa Rosa by three miles of water. Isolation has nurtured endemism on both a localized island level as well as on a unifying level between islands. Combined, all the Channel Islands are home to 150 species of unique plants and animals. Santa Rosa hosts 46 of those, including six endemic plants that grow nowhere else.

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Urban Wildlands of Los Angeles

The National Science Teachers Association conference brought me to Los Angeles and after two days, I needed to find some green space. Linking up MacArthur Park, Vista Hermosa Natural Park, and Whole Foods (to prep for a trip to Santa Rosa Island) defined a route for me to visit the urban wildlands of the city.

Stroll to the sparse urban wildlands near downtown Los Angeles .

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Obligate & Facultative Seeders

My elegant crossing Tule Creek. Photo by Josh Smith.

Last weekend, I hiked in Trinity County along a low-elevation, fire-prone section of the Bigfoot Trail between Highway 3 and Hayfork and was able to witness obligate & facultative seeding in action.

From Field Guide to Manzanitas, Backcountry Press, 2012

One-third of manzanita species are facultative seeders. These are species that regenerate post-fire by both seed and burl resprouting. The remainder are obligate seeders that lose their entire adult population in a fire and depend on a seed bank for regeneration. Obligate seeding is the current model in manzanita evolution.

To understand why, consider the climatic dynamics over thousands, or tens of thousands of years or more. In the case of the resprouting species, particular individuals can live for centuries, resprouting over and over, cloning new individuals as the burls expand with each fire cycle. But in that population, the rate of genetic change is limited, because most individuals live a long time by way of asexual reproduction. This suggests that populations may be unable to respond to rapid climatic changes that might occur in only hundreds of years. The obligate seeders, on the other hand, lose all adults in stand-replacing fires and new post-fire generations have to establish from more genetically diverse seeds. Those populations consequently have greater flexibility to shift and adjust as circumstances require; traits that might have been rare and less important in older generations can emerge through natural selection and become critical in the newer generations within the lifetime of resprouting manzanitas.

Much of this area burned in the summer of 2015. While evidence of the fires were everywhere, there are many signs of the next generation of plants returning to the landscape. This was particularly true on some of the south-facing slopes above Philpot Campground where two species of manzanitas were exploring different reproductive regimes– both obligate & facultative seeding.

Arctostaphylos manzanita is a  facultatative seeder. It can resprout by seed but also from dormant buds. When present, these structures are often prominent and are called burls (also ligno tubers)–seen in the middle of the sprouting leaves.

Arctostaphylos canescens is an obligate seeder and does not have a burl. Instead, genetically unique seedlings resprout from a well-stocked seed bank.

Nature Notes:

A large burned stand of the obligate-seeding hoary manzanita, above Philpot Campground on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.