Tagged with "Plants"
This post is about roots. It also marks the start of the new name for my Perfect Earth monthly posts: Radicle Thinking. The radicle, a root, is the first thing that emerges from a germinating seed, and the future of a plant depends on the radicle’s success. Seeds, miraculous tiny germs of life, are held in suspension until the world around them says, Okay, GO! A radicle then sets out to explore and engage with what it finds. It heads down into the soil to anchor the new plant, and then starts sending up water and nutrients so the plumule (the embryo’s shoot) can grow up towards the sun and start the true leaf growing process.
The radicle and the lateral roots that follow it form a root system of insanely intricate and mutually beneficial relationships with the microorganisms in the soil. These root systems form part of a two-way delivery system: nutrients and water from the soil flow up into the leaves, while sugar made from sunshine (photosynthesis) is sent down from the leaves to the roots to energize a vast community of busy soil-based lives. Roots+soil+leaves+sun = the essential building blocks of plant life.
My interest in roots and radicles makes me think about the fact that few of our commercially available plants are grown from seed. Most are cloned, propagated asexually by cuttings or tissue culture—they have no radicle. Instead, these genetically identical plants are created to meet the needs of the horticulture industry: easy to grow (compact, fast growing, unappealing to insects), easy to ship (short and tight “muffin-tops”) and easy to sell (big, bright flowers). These cultivars are often given cutesy, easy to remember, wince-worthy names, like “Incrediball”, “Pinky Winky”, and “Miss Piggy”. Many are patented, with the “inventor” getting a royalty for every plant sold. Specialty plant propagation of this sort has become very big business, encouraging lots of people to shop and plant varieties that would seem to be great for greening up the world. But how is it working for those plants and our ecosystem? We aren’t yet sure. Ecologically sensitive gardeners, especially native plant enthusiasts, are carefully watching to see how these plant clones will behave in the landscape, serve beneficial bugs and birds, and react to threats from things like pests and disease. Time will tell.
And what about the impacts of starting life without a radicle? Vegetative (seed-free) propagation relies on adventitious roots, which originate from stem tissue (not the radicle). They are fibrous, tangled, and often found circling the bottom and sides of the container in which they were grown. Can they do the same job as root systems with a radicle, formed by the natural process of seed germination? We know that asexually propagated plants will sometimes "revert" to their original species form, or otherwise grow out of the commercially driven traits that made them desirable to begin with. This is often not a concern for the breeders since replacing failing plants is good business. But it isn’t great for creating sustainable gardens, and it’s especially not great for trees, which are all about being around for a long time. I’ve been noticing clonal nursery trees, which have nothing but adventitious roots, showing signs of suffering as they age. Their fibrous, adventitious root systems have a tendency to wrap around and choke the tree (called girdling roots), which causes trees to die back a little at a time and weaken or even snap at the base. (Learn more about it here.)
Take a look at the trees in your yard, neighborhood, and community. How many of them were grown from seed right where they were dropped by their mother tree, assisted by her mycorrhizal network? Sadly, there isn’t much opportunity for this to happen in our managed lands.
So, if you find an acorn sprouting, save it. Try to plant trees grown from seed, no matter how small. Yes, it is a slow process, but think of them as your family. Don’t we love the process of raising our families from birth? The natural process of putting down a root and letting it grow is one that has evolved naturally and successfully for every life form. It connects us to nature and makes us happy and whole.
Resource: The Native Plant Trust's Go Botany is easy enough to hook beginners and deep enough to engage geeks. Learn how to identify plants and delight in the plant of the day.
Book: Forest Forensics: A Field Guide to Reading the Forested Landscape , by Tom Wessels (W. W. Norton & Co, 2010)
Quote: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it. So far remotely done power and glory—as via government, big business, formal education, church—has succeeded to the point where gross defects obscure actual gains. In response to this dilemma and to these gains a realm of intimate, personal power is developing—power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment, and share his adventure with whoever is interested." Stewart Brand’s statement of purpose, Whole Earth Catalogue , 1968.
Photo: Thale Cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) about two days after germination from seeds by BlueRidgeKitties.
To Nest or Not?
I like learning about things that are obvious once I know how to look for them—things that were often common knowledge in the past. In spring, birds are telling stories about where they choose to raise their young, stories based in logic, with a dash of magic. Here’s what I’ve learned:
1) Birds don’t actually live in nests.
Well, I guess it depends on your definition of live. Birds lay eggs and raise their young in nests. But once the kids have flown away, the parents either renest with a new brood that season or abandon the nest for the wild. The nests you are probably imagining right now are most likely found hidden in a dense leafy shrub or in the canopy of a tree, where they provide shelter from weather and camouflage from the sharp eyes of predators. Different birds have different nesting strategies (form, technique, and material).
A simple cup-shape is the most common nest type. You can find them in any number of places, such as along branches in the tree canopy, perched in tree forks, or nestled on ledges.
Birds that Build cup Nests: Northern Cardinal, Barn Swallow, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Robin, varieties of warbler, as well as other passerines.
2) Not all birds make nests.
Or, rather, not our idea of a nest. Some birds can get by with just a depression in the ground called a scrape nest. Scrapes are popular nest types for terrestrial birds (birds that prefer grasslands and open habitats that lack trees), such as shorebirds or tundra species.
Birds that Build Scrape Nests: Bob-white Quail, Killdeer, American Avocet, Common Tern, Piping Plovers, and many other shorebirds.
Other birds are cavity nesters which take advantage of holes found in place like dead tree trunks. Some line their place with coziness, but many just lay their eggs in the space as is. There are varieties of Owl that return to the same cavity for many years to raise their young, building up a “nest” from their own poop and their kids’ poop, too. When they’re not raising kids, these Owls roost on a branch near their cavity. You can sometimes spot them by finding their pellets beneath the trees.
Birds that Use Nest Cavities: Carolina Wren and House Wren, Eastern Bluebird, all Woodpeckers, Sapsuckers, Nuthatches, Prothonotary Warblers, Chickadees, and Owls.
There are also platform dwellers (Ospreys and Eagles), mound nesters (Mallard ducks), tunnel makers (Belted Kingfishers, Atlantic Puffins), pendant builders (Baltimore Orioles), and those who chose no nests at all (Chuck-will’s-widow). It all depends on what quality habitats are available where they live.
3) Most birds don’t re-use their nests.
It all comes down to capacity and energy resources. Small birds often make their nests from delicate materials that don’t weather well. While some of them will reuse their nests to raise another brood or two in the same season, they almost always build new ones the following spring. Starting from scratch reduces the possibility of ectoparasites (mites, lice, etc.), which can negatively impact the health and survival of chicks. It also helps avoid predators who know the locations of the nests from last season. Big birds, like Bald Eagles and Ospreys, who can carry large branches and twigs, will return year after year to the same nest, adding to the old one and making it larger over time—unless another bird steals it first.
4) What about Birdhouses?
For cavity nesting birds, birdhouses replace lost habitat, like standing dead trees. So the answer is yes, birdhouses are good. In fact, they have helped restore populations of Eastern Bluebird and Prothonotary Warblers. They are even better when they are cleaned out each spring to reduce the populations of mites and other pests from the previous breeding season which can harm the newborn chicks. Don’t worry about doing it wrong, the birds will only select the ones you do right.
Birds likely to use birdhouses (nesting boxes): Wrens, Bluebirds, Titmice, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Owls.
5) What about the way YOU nest?Your garden lifestyle is intricately connected to the life of birds. Think about it from the birds’ perspective and relate it to your place.
- Leave a dead tree or two, for food (insects) and nesting opportunities.
- Plant shrubs in groups. Dense clusters of varying heights provide options and protection.
- Plant natives with lots of fruit.
- Resist the urge to prune shrubs. Instead let them grow into their original natural shapes: tall, short, dense, twiggy.
- Leave a matrix of habitats including places on the ground that you don’t mow or “tidy up.”
- Make habitat piles with fallen twigs.
- And yes! Put out some birdhouses.
6) What to Plant?
Shrubs and small trees that provide great food and nesting areas. Most of these fruits are delicious for you too, but most often than not the birds will get them first. Don’t worry about insects, birds will eat them too. In fact, caterpillars are the primary food for their young. Here are some of my favorite native trees and shrubs:
- Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)
- American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)
- Chokeberries (Aronia spp)
- Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
- Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
- Highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- American holly (Ilex opaca)
- Shad (Amelanchier canadensis)
Learn about the keystone plants, like oak trees, which support more than 400 species of insects and are vital to bird survival, in your area by visiting The National Wildlife Federation. Here is the list for the Northeast: Eastern Temperate Forests.
With thanks to Chris Gangemi and Matt Jeffery.
To learn more about birds:
American Bird Conservancy
Cornell Lab of Ornithology
The National Audubon Society
Types of Bird Nests (The Spruce)
Birds That Build Nests With Domes May Be Doomed (NYT)
Book: Love Letter to the Earth by Thich Nhat Hanh is a little handbook of consciousness to guide your relationship with your land. When you see it this way, you just can't use harmful practices.
Quote: “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art anybody could ever want.” – Andy Warhol
Podcast: For the Wild: TIOKASIN GHOSTHORSE on the Power of Humility. Thought provoking ideas about our relationships to nature and "saving the earth.” Try going outside with these ideas in mind.
American Robin on her nest, photo by wwing from Getty Images Signature.
Surely you have heard about leaving the leaves by now. So, of course, we want to take you to the next level—leaving pretty much everything. Every seed head of every tree, shrub, grass and flowering plant is a potential food source or shelter for wildlife. Standing (and resting) vegetation protects the soil and all that lives on or in it. There is a lot of life going on that you can help to make it through the winter.
So please don’t mow that meadow, don’t chop plants down and remove them from the garden. Every cut is a wound, and a loss. Why not see it all differently—less work and, in your newly winter watchful eye, a place full of beauty, and life, and wonder.
The Ten Commitments
If the dire news of the climate crisis is making you feel overwhelmed, why not make some promises to a piece of earth. If everyone made their property, or one they frequent, into a natural refuge, there would be much less to worry about.Here are some of our promises…send us one of yours.
1. I will think of my place as my friend, my family. I will work with, not against it, and do it no harm. It will be a sanctuary.
2. I will let this place keep all that it produces: no biomass will leave the property.
3. I will make a compost pile, even if I probably won’t turn it.
4. I will carefully consider everything I bring here—can it be used for a long time, can it be composted or repurposed, does it really need to be plastic?
5. I will use no toxic synthetic chemicals.
6. I will take a moment to learn about an insect before I decide if I really need to kill it.
7. I will plant native plants to provide habitat for insects and birds.
8. I will get to know the names of all the plants, animals and insects that live in this place, or at least the big ones.
9. I will reduce the size of my lawn to just what gets used.
10. I will let go a bit, let nature be my collaborator, and help me keep my promises.
KEEP OR KILL?
A friend called recently to ask for our opinion on a backyard situation. A large number of caterpillars were descending from webs in a tree and nibbling on his plants. He called in a tree expert who recommended that the offending tree be cut down and removed. Was this truly the only way to manage the problem?
Happily, we could tell him to do nothing: keep the tree, and not to worry about the plants. The caterpillars are Fall Webworms, whose webs start showing up in late summer.
The parents are pretty little white moths. They are native to the US; highly prolific, they lay their eggs in sunny spots on a large variety of host trees. The eggs hatch into the “worms” which weave the nest (same as silk worms). The nests protect them from predators, but they must come out to eat more leaves.
As it is late in the growing season, the leaves they eat have already done their photosynthetic job and losing some of them to the webworms is no real loss to the parent plant. Many of the caterpillars will in turn become food--for birds and predator insects who need the protein for migrating or overwintering.
So, just let them be.
Sadly, the people who don’t know about all this may be spraying, pruning, or even chopping down a whole tree. Compare that to what a few little caterpillars can do.
Note: Our last tip mentioned that milkweed doesn’t provide resources for anything but Monarch butterflies. This is not true, there are a large number of butterflies, bees and insects that benefit from milkweed, and I was quickly brought to task by some of our well informed readers, many thanks to them. Here’s more https://www.xerces.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/06/Wings_sp11_milkweed.pdf