Building Blocks of a Healthy Ecosystem

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As spring unfolds, much of the wildlife that has been dormant for months begins to emerge. The birds are singing a sweeter tune, the frogs are serenading our nights and the flies and beetles are abundant. It’s gratifying to see all the plants we have planted in previous years emerge.

A thriving ecosystem all starts with building blocks; like atoms make up molecules, insects and plants are the bottom layer that make up the wildlife pyramid. For example, there is the acorn weevil which drills a tiny hole into an acorn and lays its larvae. The larvae consume the nut and eat their way out. The next occupant will either be an acorn moth who lays her egg in the hole to finish eating out the inside or the acorn ant colony which can fit 50-100 ants in a single acorn.  The interdependence of wildlife is all on such a micro level.  As Dr. Doug Tallamy has observed, the relationship between native pants and insects that have evolved over time are essential for a healthy ecosystem.  And, we can contribute by providing habitat and critical resources in our own yard.

The best way you can help this food chain is to plant native plants that, in turn, support the best natural bird food there is – insects of course! There are only a few bird species that do not need insects as food at some point in their lives. Plants produce carotenoids, the same antioxidant you’ve read about in carrots.  This is a vital nutrient for birds who get it from caterpillars that eat plants.  The top five tree types that support caterpillars are oaks, native willows, cherries, plums, and birch trees. The most varied native perennials will support the most wildlife.  A few good choices include native asters (Astreraceae), blueberries (Vacciniu spp.), little blue stem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and milkweeds (Ascleipias spp.).  Focusing on a varied selection of native trees is important to feed the a variety of insects and provide the most habitat.

Most birds and insects will only feed on those plants with which they have evolved over time. For example, the evening primrose plant is the only genus the beautiful pink primrose moth will use as a host plant.  Some think that butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) is a great plant for pollinators because they attract so many butterflies; however, this is not true.  The nectar from the butterfly bush is not nutrient dense and is like junk food for humans.  Butterfly bush is also non-native, having been imported from China in 1790, and considered an exotic invasive by the USFS.

Another important sustainer of life is fresh water. You can provide this with a bird bath that is cleaned out regularly, a pond, rain garden, even a terracotta saucer with pebbles or sand to encourage bees and butterflies to take a sip.

Other common problems people often ask about when turning their monocrop lawn into a living natural landscape might be concerns about deer.  Deer do like native plants, but you can help deter them with natural sprays and other applications. If your neighbors have a corn feeder for deer, talk to them about how you are investing time and money into your landscape and prefer they did not invite the deer over for lunch!  At SHR, we use several different deer deterring methods including  high frequency solar powered devices that flash and give off sound when triggered by motion, deer deterring foliar spray and a granular application that is made of natural ingredients such as cloves, garlic, and dried blood.

We are doing all we can to provide habitat and food for the wildlife on our mountain by only planting natives, letting leaves decompose in as many areas as possible, grinding and chipping organic matter to put back into the landscape and leaving snags up, to name a few. We also have a wide variety of tree species, a pond and several different mini ecosystems to provide food and shelter to as many animals as possible.  Hopefully, this article has inspired you to plant varied native plants and to provide water for the birds and bugs that live in your neighborhood. The planet depends on all of us doing our part to support and enhance the ecosystem that was here long before us.

Gardener’s Corner with Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel

Posted Posted in SHR-News, SHR-News

 

Spring is a wonderful time in the garden; the pops of color just keep coming, teasing us with what will be blooming next.  We’ve been busy outside, cleaning up beds by removing leaves and adding fresh layers of shredded leaf mulch, removing remnant perennial stalks and pruning out any brown, winter-damaged stems of rhododendrons to help prevent borers. Like Sisyphus pushing the rock uphill, we continue to attempt to keep the deer and rabbits at bay by applying repellents like Garlic Sentry and Deer Scram to prevent damage to those perennials just emerging and flowering. We are always eager to increase our plant collection through our own propagation efforts and specimens donated from our many generous friends.  Thus far this season, we’ve planted Skunk Cabbage, American Columbo, Bog Orchids, Cumberland Azalea, Mountain Camelia, Chinquapins, various Magnolias, and yellow Buckeyes.

As plants realize it’s time to start growing in the spring, we want to take advantage of that by giving their roots more room to grow.  The best time to pot up plants to minimize shock is before their leaves have emerged, once root growth has begun and top growth has not yet started. “Potting up” is a term that refers to transplanting a plant into a container, and we’ve been busy in the nursery doing just that.  I just potted up chinquapins that arrived bareroot from a nursery.  There are also red spruce seedlings that need their first pot, a two-inch rootmaker 32 cell tray where they will stay a full year and develop a good root system.

Seedlings that were repotted in early spring may be ready for another size up in pots.  And, as the growing season moves into summer, you can still pot up one more time. As a rule, six weeks between potting up allows for roots to become established.  If you can keep the root growth ahead of the amount of shoot growth, you will have a better developed, larger, and healthier plant. When a seed germinates it usually sends the radicle, or root, out first.  Yet, when a plant produces energy, it doesn’t distribute that energy uniformly.  First it gives energy to flowers, second to fruit, third to leaves, then to stems, and finally to the roots.  So, a reduction in energy affects roots first.

Recently, we received 340 ‘James Gold’ hybrid chinquapin nuts in partnership with Dr. Joseph James in Seneca, South Carolina.   Dr. James has worked to hybridize American chestnuts to resist chestnut blight while also crossing Chinese chinquapins with American chestnut trees to create a more blight and phytophtora disease resistant tree.  These trees were then backcrossed with American chinquapins to maintain American genetics, forming a 90 percent or greater American hybrid.  We are excited to be growing these and will offer them for sale in less than two years as mature, one-gallon trees.

Design Collaboration: Creating Naturalistic Solutions for Stormwater Abatement, Alex Smith Garden Design, Ltd. Kristin Landfield

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This morning, a spring storm is plundering the landscape. It’s a heavy downpour that’s lasted since early yesterday evening. As I hear it pummel the roof, I see the boughs of Beech trees weighted by the deluge. My mind quickly turns to places this substantial rainfall could impose some damage—active installation projects where I’m hoping the silt fencing will hold, plantings recently installed on steep slopes, and the culvert below my driveway that tends to back up. We needed some rain, but this 6-7 inches we’re getting today will overwhelm natural routes for sheet flow. On my morning walk, I noticed where a section of a stream has disappeared, even during this season of intense rainfall. It’s gone underground, not uncommon in this spring-laden locale. Torrents of water tearing down the bank have dislodged some portion of streambed and it’s now flowing underground.

Anyone who has witnessed a downpour in the Southern Appalachians recognizes the potency with which rainfall can travel down these rugged inclines. Water’s irrefutable force chisels a path into the landscape, demanding access to our abundant streams, rivers, ponds, bogs, and aquifers. Deep fissures and crevices score our local granite, signaling the unassailable power that can devastate a landscape when rainwater overwhelms the normal channels for runoff. In the wild, erosion can inflict irreparable injury to a stable ecosystem. When the natural rivulets and streams can’t support a rainfall, the banks collapse and uproot trees, thereby diminishing the forest’s natural defenses for the next big rain event, which further augments the problem.

Botanically, geologically, ecologically, this is an interesting phenomenon and aligns with climatology data that indicate Western North Carolina is receiving more erratic and intensive rainfall, with longer periods of drought in the interim. But these severe rain events create “downstream” effects, detrimental to our sensitive ecosystems, wherein one or two degrees in average stream water temperature destroys entire species of flora and fauna endemic to the Southern Appalachians. These intensive rains move too quickly to soak into the ground. Streambed silt decreases stream depth, thereby elevating stream temperatures. As torrents of rain strip the hillsides of topsoil and nutrients, our native trees and shrubs fail to thrive and reproduce the next generation of flora that would better moderate these effects.

So, this is the ecological and botanical backstory driving our collaboration with Southern Highlands Reserve (SHR) in a campaign to mitigate erosion and storm damage in their high elevation botanical garden. In 2019, SHR engaged Alex Smith Garden Design, Ltd. in a pruning remediation project. Since then, we’ve collaborated to assess and improve target areas in the Reserve with their talented team. SHR has been a sacred place for me over the last six years, since I first set foot on that enchanted property, so it’s been a great honor and privilege to be involved in such projects.

Because so much of our company’s design work integrates grading and drainage solutions, we’ve developed an aesthetic for achieving these erosion mitigation systems in a naturalistic way, the intent to provide both practical and attractive solutions with verisimilitude to the local topography. This endeavor dovetails with SHR’s mission to develop and steward a high elevation botanical garden in a way that refracts and interprets nature. With clear design intent and a light touch, SHR manifests aspects of these mountains that call out to visitors, accentuating the extraordinary features of the Southern Appalachian landscape.

Our joint focus has been aimed toward erosion mitigation using naturalistic boulders, streambeds, and channels to reroute and direct water in a way that supports and enhances the garden. Some of these solutions are underground, but many of these are visible, our intent being that these projects integrate seamlessly with the spectacular landscape that has been developed and tended over the last 20 years. SHR’s hydrology data and years of onsite observation have been pivotal resources to inform the areas we have targeted for grade remediation and erosion abatement. We love the challenge of simulating naturally occurring outcrops and rugged inclines with carefully placed specimen boulders.

So as this rain pours down, I reflect on the work we’ve done so far. It would be impossible to engineer a grading and drainage system for SHR that fully controls erosion without destroying the montane character that so defines the garden. At 4500 feet in elevation, receiving prodigious rainfall in single events, our shared goal is to suppress the detrimental and labor-intensive effects of storm damage and run-off, all the while maintaining the serene setting that infuses the land. This week, we will walk the tranquil property and let this latest storm be our teacher, advising and instructing on the work we’ve been so fortunate to perform.

Volunteer of the Year!

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We are thrilled to announce Robb Turner as SHR’s 2020 volunteer of the year.  This is Robb’s second year in a row to earn this honor and we are mighty fortunate to have him as a community member in Lake Toxaway and as volunteer on our SHR team.

Robb has been volunteering at the Reserve since 2018 and this year alone, he completed over 100 volunteer hours.  He is a PhD geologist who worked for Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Oak Ridge Associated Universities, studying and advising many federal agencies on energy and environmental issues, ranging from contaminant transport to conservation of endangered species.  Robb grew up gardening with his grandfather, developed a passion for plants, both native species and horticultural varieties, and developed a keen understanding of their place in diverse landscapes.  He retired to Lake Toxaway with his wife, Sybil, two dogs, and a cat.  He enjoys hiking, camping, and photography, and visits every garden and natural area he can.  Thank you, Robb!

In 2012, we begin developing our volunteer program by training a few volunteers.  Since then, we have built a steady team of volunteers that assist SHR staff in the gardens, at the nursery, and in the office.  We formalized our volunteer program in 2020, only to find ourselves cancelling and rescheduling most plans like everyone else on the globe.  In June, we were able to open up the gardens for visitors and volunteers to return, and return they did! Every Wednesday we host a volunteer day, and our docent volunteers work other days to help accommodate the increased demand for tours.  While last March may have looked scary and bleak, we soon realized that access to nature and community is vital to humans.  The success of our year is greatly due in part to the amazing support from our volunteers.  Thank you to everyone that helped the Reserve grow this year, our gardens ran on volunteer power!

If you are interested in joining the SHR team as a volunteer this season, please follow this link (https://southernhighlandsreserve.org/volunteer/) and feel free to email info@southernhighlandsreserve.org with questions.  We are planning our 2021 Volunteer training for March and look forward to seeing some new faces!

Outreach with TC Henderson Elementary

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Our partnership with TC Henderson Elementary (“TCH”) began in the fall of 2019 after we received a grant from the Pisgah Health Foundation.  Prior to the grant application, in the summer of 2019, SHR staff created lesson plans for students focused on environmental education such as the food chain and how energy passes through ecosystems.  Local Boys & Girls Clubs summer campers attended a half day of education at the Reserve, allowing SHR staff to implement and then refine the lesson plans.

In December 2019, SHR staff entered the classroom at TCH and worked with kindergarten through 5th grade students once a month.  Each month had a specific lesson plan tailored to each grade level’s STEM curriculum and included hands on activities such as finding items in nature to include in a personal discovery bowl for each student.  SHR also worked with partners from the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative in 2020 to bring an arborist to TCH and discuss the profession and the important role arborists play in conservation and landscape management.  Students and teachers from TCH enjoyed the activity of counting tree rings to determine the age of a tree; however, they may have enjoyed decorating the tree ring ornaments for their Christmas trees even more!

In March with the onset of Covid-19, SHR was unable to reenter the classroom.  Yet, ever resilent, SHR staff then turned the focus toward improving the educational content and research.  Working with Professor Alfie Vick and PhD student, Joyell Hayley, at the University of Georgia’s College of Environment & Design, we began to develop a research component and refine the lesson plans.  Over the course of the next six months, the team created and expanded the lesson plans and teaching modules to include biophilic awareness, observing plant and human senses, the role pollinators play in the food system that humans depend on, and the importance of an ecological address.  Biophllia, a term coined by the legendary biologist E. O Wilson, is described as humans’ innate urge to seek a connection with nature.

This fall, SHR’s executive director, Kelly Holdbrooks, worked with TCH principal, Patrick Chapman, to determine a way to renter the classroom under Covid-19 protocols.  Both partners are thrilled to be working together again in the classroom and environmental education should resume this winter – fingers crossed!  We look forward to working with the students and teachers at TCH and sharing our progress with the community.

Gardener’s Corner

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Director of Horticulture, Eric Kimbrel

Now that we are officially in winter, all the plants in the gardens are slowing down their respirations and transpirations. I enjoy seeing the structure of the landscape that the trees and evergreen shrubs provide in dormancy. It feels less ‘busy’ as evergreens get more attention while perennials just ask to not be stepped on too much!

With the leaves now gone, we can make proper pruning cuts, eliminating bad branch structure in trees and shrubs.  Dead branches in rhododendrons attract borers, so we remove those. Now is also when gardeners can prune plants that have gotten too big and reduce them by one to two thirds to their desired size.

As we’ve done in years past, we ordered bulk delivery of aged horse manure this winter to be applied as a top dressing to shrubs and new plantings such as spruce, hemlock, chinquapins, and azaleas. Not all plants at the Reserve get the premium horse manure treatment; wildflowers and perennials tend to get leggy and top heavy when fertilized, causing them to fall over. We use aged manure over fresh to ensure the plant isn’t burned or over fertilized (plus, it doesn’t smell!).  A similar product that is more widely available at garden centers is Daddy Pete’s cow manure.  If that is not available, you can use any brand of mushroom compost. Black Kow bagged manure can also be used; however, it is heavier to handle because it contains sand in the mix.

Another important thing to do as soon as winter arrives, or at the end of fall, is to apply an anti-dessicant or anti-transpirant to your broadleaf evergreens such as rhododendrons, hollies, and mountain laurels.  Products such as Wilt-proof (which has a natural active ingredient) or Transfilm (a synthetic polymer) create a barrier on both sides of the leaves that hold moisture despite the wind and sun, for months at a time. You can also use those products on your Christmas tree, winter wreaths, and garlands to keep them looking fresh longer. At the Reserve we use the strongest application rate of anti-transpirant recommended to give us both the longest lasting protection and to avoid the need for secondary applications.  The most devastating thing that can happen to some evergreens like rhododendrons in the winter is that the ground can freeze, preventing water from reaching the leaves when the air temperature is warmer.  This causes the plant’s leaves and stems to eventually dry out and turn brown.  This is known as winter damage, or burn, and it can sometimes kill a plant completely .  Mulching or topdressing 3-4 inches will help keep roots more protected as well.

Winter is an ideal time to plan and or order what you want to plant in the spring.  Currently we are cleaning seeds from their husks and have begun stratifying them in storage bags with moist sand or sphagnum moss in a refrigerator.  This will last up to three months for many of the species.  This process mimics winter conditions which will enable the seed to wake up, or break dormancy, and germinate when warmer temperatures are introduced.  Some seeds have even germinated in the refrigerator after staying in there too long!  Another stratifying technique is to sow seeds in pots and leave them outside for the winter but protected from animals.  When spring temperatures rise, the seed will then germinate.

“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.” Josephine Nuese

Stewards of an Endangered, Prehistoric Tree

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Torreya taxifolia Safeguarding Project

It is our responsibility to the land and our ecosystem to do everything we possibly can to help endangered plants and animals find a safe haven here at the Reserve.  One project we have been working on since April of 2018 is safeguarding Torreya taxifolia seedlings.  Working with the Atlanta Botanical Garden, we signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) memorializing our commitment to protect this endangered species to the best of our ability. In 2018 we set up five 3’x3’ square raised beds and filled them with different substrates.  The boxes have a mesh bottom to prevent burrowing animals digging from underneath and a high arching fence to deter squirrels from eating the seeds before they germinated.

Torreya taxifolia was one of the first species to be federally listed as an endangered plant in 1984, in large part due to fungal and needle blights and logging.  This tree has been around for 160 million years!  It is estimated that there are about 500-600 trees left in the wild – only 0.3% of their original population – making them one of the rarest conifers in the world. Scale and root rot are other factors in their decline.  Planting seeds we acquired from Atlanta Botanical Garden in various substrates allowed us to determine how these soils affect the growth of the tree.  Although the common name for this species is Florida nutmeg or stinking cedar, North Carolina has claim to the largest living T. taxifolia at 45 ft tall and 35” wide.  All five of the trial bed substrates contain pine bark fines, sand, and lime.  The first trial bed had aged pine bark fines as the variable while the next two beds have fresh pine bark fines as the variable.

DieHard was added as the variable in the third raised bed. DieHard contains mycorrhizal fungi, bacteria, humic acid, sea kelp, vitamins and amino acids, all things that are important to a plant’s growth and development.  The mycorrhizal fungi rely on the plants to sustain their existence, so when the seedling is stressed, the mycorrhizal fungi kick into action, supplying nutrients to the seedling.

The last box has Biochar as the amendment. Biochar is found all over the world and occurs naturally from vegetation fires.  When biochar is added to the soil it acts as a moderator of soil acidity, helps with water retention, increases soil microbes and sequesters carbon in the soil.  There is research suggesting that the reduction in natural forest fires could be a reason why fungal pathogens are going unchecked and attacking T. taxifolia.  Thankfully, there are organizations such as The Nature Conservancy that offer fire management courses that talk about the beneficial effects of controlled burns. Biochar can be made at home too (think about a metal firepit at a campsite).  That solid ring around the pit excludes oxygen while the high temperature of the fire heats the wood.  If you put a fire out with water before the wood turns to ash, you have made biochar!

This year we measured the Torreya taxifolia seedlings in all the raised beds and found that the plot with the biochar is the tallest, averaging 7”, with one reaching a full 12”!  In second place is the plot with the well-aged pine bark fines at 6.8”.  Third is the plot with fresh pine bark fines at 6.5”.  Fourth place goes to the plot with the DieHard at 6.2”. Lastly, the second plot with fresh pine bark fines only germinated eight out of 100 seedlings with an average height of 5”.  These results do support the effects of biochar on Florida nutmeg seedlings (see Tables below).  The germination rate of biochar plot also performed best by far, with 80 out of 100 seedlings sprouting. Interestingly, between 2019 and 2020, five extra seedlings per plot germinated – we’ll take it!

Plot Height Average 2019 Height Average 2020
A (Biochar) 5” 7”
B (Aged pine fines) 4” 6.8”
C (Fresh pine fines) 4.5” 6.5”
D (DieHardÔ) 3.3” 6.2”
E (Fresh pine fines) 2.7” 5”

 

Plot Germination Rate 2019 Germination Rate 2020
A (Biochar) 75/100 80/100
B (Aged pine fines) 50/100 49/100
C (Fresh pine fines) 64/100 70/100
D (DieHard) 55/100 64/100
E (Fresh pine fines) 3/100 8/100

We plan to pot up all seedlings in April while they are still dormant and send our results to the Atlanta Botanical Garden.  Increasing the population of this endangered species by 271 new trees is important and allows us to continue our mission of research to help sustain biodiversity.

Leave the leaves

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Fall is the natural world’s swan song for the growing season. Colors from trees and shrubs glow brilliantly as they bid us adieu until next spring.  The beauty of fall color draws people from all over the world to great view sheds such as the Blue Ridge Parkway; however, leaves play a much more important role than just beauty. In the springtime, leaves absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, converting gas into organic carbon compounds.  Come autumn, trees shed their leaves, leaving them to decompose in the soil as they are eaten by microbes.  Over time, decaying leaves release carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon monoxide, all part of the natural cycle of a forest ecosystem.

At the Reserve, we practice adaptive management, a systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes.  Fall is a bountiful time of year for resource management at the Reserve in our high elevation forest.  Just like other species in the landscape, we spend our days gathering and collecting resources for the winter and spring.  Our main focus in the fall is collecting leaves and branches.  These leaves and branches are a crucial part of our carbon management program.

Once leaves are collected in a large storage area, we then shred them with an attachment on our tractor to create brown gold, otherwise known as leaf mulch.  This allows us to speed up the decomposition process for garden rooms, using the natural resources from the forest as mulch.  By keeping nutrients on site, we reduce costs, labor and the need to bring foreign materials onto the landscape.  Healthy soil equals healthy plants and ecosystems. Using leaf mulch instead of hardwood, pine needles, or pine mulch creates a more natural look to the woodland garden.  It’s best to shred the leaves as needed; shredded leaves left for an extended period of time tend to grow mold. Leaf mulch is also a favorite food of worms so your soil will be improved with the aeration their boring creates and the castings they leave behind. At home, you can make leaf mulch by using your lawn mower. Laying the leaves in a one-foot-high pile spread on a concrete parking pad or other flat surface is a good method. Be sure to use dry leaves, wear a dusk mask, gloves and other protective gear.

Cleaning forest floors by removing branches and deadwood is not considered a best practice for the forest ecosystem.  However, we go a step further in our resource management.  After collecting the branches, we then chip them back into the forest floor, speeding up the decomposition process and keeping nutrients on site.  At the Reserve, we strive to balance how humans and ecology intersect.  Taking these extra steps in gardening our woodlands is both important to the health of the ecosystem and to the aesthetics of the garden.

Fall Gardener’s Corner

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Fall seemed to arrive quickly this year. Cool temperatures twenty degrees below average always get my attention.  But guess what?  The plants were expecting it! The shorter daylength was already beginning to occur and the plants were tracking its progress, slowing down photosynthesis and storing up sugars for energy in the spring.  Evergreen plants will continue to take advantage of the sunlight on warmer winter days and sporadically continue to photosynthesize. While most plants will be dormant, don’t ignore your newly planted evergreen shrubs and trees in the winter if there is a dry spell. Some evergreen plants, such as boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), actually do grow most of their roots during in the winter months.

When the green chlorophyll is gone, the compounds that are left give leaves their different hues. Those compounds are anthocyanins, carotenoids and flavonoids. There is also fall color that most of us don’t expect to see – white. We have several species of plants that exhibit white fall color, due to a lack of chlorophyll in the leaves. Since no other color compounds remain once the chlorophyll has been broken down and absorbed into the plant, only a white leaf is left.  Examples are Hayscented fern, Mountain Angelica, and Mountain Holly.

Did you know Rhododendrons exhibit fall color too? The oldest leaves turn orange and yellow before they drop, so don’t think something is wrong with your rhododendrons in the fall when they shed a few leaves – this is normal. The Pinkshell Azaleas we enjoy, grow and sell in the nursery exhibit a stunning red fall color and Flame Azaleas tend to have beautiful orange fall color.  Autumnal foliage is a wonderful way for the plants to say thank you for the growing season and give us one last hurrah before their winter hibernation.

As the leaves fall, I am already thinking about new leaves grown next year. Recently, I experimented by sowing seeds of Baptisia tinctoria and Thermopsis vilosa I had just collected.  I sowed the seeds before they dried out after the seed pods (fruit) had turned black.  The reason was to see how successful freshly mature seeds, not yet dormant, would germinate without an extended cold wet period or stratification, which brings the seed embryo back out of dormancy.   About three weeks later, both species were beginning to germinate, but in low numbers.  Out of 160 seeds only 29 Baptisias germinated and survived.  Thermopsis did a little better, with 15 out of 30 seeds germinating.  While successful, the seedlings will have to be taken care of till next spring as, more than likely, they will not go dormant during winter since they are assuming it is spring!  We will keep them indoors under artificial light and give them a diluted fertilizer now that they have made their first set of true leaves.  Next spring, we will plant them or pot them up for sale later.

Another important fall horticultural task is deadheading aggressive species before they release seeds. Some of the bigger ones we focus on are Joe Pye weed and Solidago. Food sources for wildlife become harder to find as the dormant season of winter approaches.  Therefore, we leave the seed heads on all winter long for certain species like rudbeckia lancinate (cutleaf coneflower) and echinacea purpurea (purple coneflower) as food for the birds.

As we embrace the changing of seasons there is much to reflect on and enjoy. Each day brings new wonders in the natural world from white fall color, to seeing seeds sprout or the landscape opening up to blue skies as the leaves fall. I’m ready to see what wonders the next season will bring.

Fabulous Fungi

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Visitors to the Reserve this season have noticed an unusual abundance and variety of mushrooms popping up everywhere, given the increase in rainfall this season.  In addition to enjoying their delightful shapes and colors, our staff have feasted on chicken-of-the-woods, chanterelles, oyster and black trumpet mushrooms. Fungi play an important role in forest ecosystems and are the largest living organisms on earth. By definition, they are a diverse group of eukaryotic single-celled or multinucleate organisms that live by decomposing and absorbing the organic material in which they grow, producing fruit, called mushrooms, which provide food for wildlife.

Not all mushrooms grow above ground. For instance, truffles that grow on the roots of red spruce trees provide an important food source for the endangered Carolina northern flying squirrel, found in the high elevation spruce-fir forests of the Southern Appalachian Mountains. These truffles (Elaphomyces spp.) have a strong odor when mature, allowing the squirrels to locate dense areas of truffles by scent. (Loeb et al., 2000) Southern Highlands Reserve partners with federal and state agencies as a founding member of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (https://southernspruce.org) to restore the habitat of Carolina northern flying squirrel and many other species by growing red spruce trees from cones collected on public land.

A mushroom you are more likely to see this time of year is the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius). Its bright orange and poisonous fruit can be found growing around tree stumps in the fall. One interesting fact about this mushroom is that it is bioluminescent, meaning that it glows in the dark, emitting a color similar to a firefly. The purpose of this chemical reaction is to attract nighttime insects that then spread spores, using compounds similar to those fireflies use. The difference is that bioluminescent mushrooms contain enzymes that have the ability to create other glowing colors.  This could prove useful for bioluminescent imaging and other, not yet conceived, uses.

Mushrooms help our native animals and enchant our minds.  Staff at the Reserve have found ways to incorporate mycelium into projects and best management practices.   For example, we add a powder containing endomycorrhizal, ectomycorrhizal and Trichoderma fungi to our potting mix for red spruce trees. This helps with water and nutrient uptake for the new seedlings. This spring, we implemented a composting project in the greenhouse. Staff were introduced to the idea of using mushrooms as a composting component that Diana Hiles, our horticulturist, learned from Max Dubansky of Backbone Farm, in Maryland. He uses wine cap mushrooms (Stropharia rugoso-annulata) to speed up compost on his organic farm. With further research, our staff have started a mushroom composting simulation in a 33-gallon barrel, filling it with wood chips and fresh green debris from our compost pile. Then, second-generation grain spawn of the wine cap mushroom are layered into the mix, creating a mycelium lasagna. Yum!

The goal of the experiment is to have the mycelium decompose the contents of the barrel and produce fruit. The barrel is kept in the green house because the mycelium need warm temperatures to colonize the barrel; the mushrooms it will produce are edible and might interest more than just hungry gardeners! Once fully colonized, the barrel’s contents will be mixed into the large compost pile. Wine cap mushrooms have been found on site prior to this project so we can verify that they are endemic. The spent mycelium will aid in the time it takes our debris to compost and add nutrients to the compost that can then be used in the landscape.  Caring for the old and fostering the new are an important part of what we do to keep SHR the special ecosystem it is.

Not all fungi are beneficial to us or other plants as many of you know from seeing azalea gall on your native azaleas or powdery mildew on your roses. In fact, the largest organism in the world is a fungus, Armillaria solidipes or A. ostoyae. This honey fungus causes Armillaria root disease, killing conifers and creating more food for itself along the way. This single fungus, with an identical genetic make-up, resides in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, encompassing 2,384 aces. It’s estimated to be about 2,400 years old due to its growth rate but could be as old as 8,650 years old! (Casselman 2007)

At the end of the day, fungi are only one component of our ecosystem.  It takes many other organisms to make the cogs of Mother Nature turn, including all of us. The everyday choices we make impact the world we share.  Thank you for supporting organizations like ours, being environmentally responsible and trying to leave the world better for the generations to come.