Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring is Here

March 20th marked the first calendar day of spring, and this year nature is willing to follow along. Temperatures have warmed from the cold, snowy February weather. The hills are starting to green and soon wildflowers will be blooming. The sun peaks through the clouds and warms the air.
Picking a calendar day seems an arbitrary way to start a season, and it is. We choose to set our seasons by the solstices and equinoxes as a convenient way to mark the changing of seasons. Luckily we live in an area that they happen to coincide fairly well. But if you head north or south of our latitude the seasons start to follow a different path. I doubt spring in Alaska has really started yet, nor is winter a measly three months long. Head south to the tropics and the overall temperatures rarely change. Seasons there may be more accurately described as wet/dry. Head far enough south into Australia or South America and the seasons are opposite of ours. As we head into spring they head into fall.
Yellow Bell
Spring around Wenatchee is an amazing time of year. The hills lose their brown or yellow color they sport much of the year and show off their lively green. Green represents growth in the shrub steppe environment, both annual and perennial. Spring is often the only time of year there’s enough moisture available for plants to grow and thrive in our climate. The combination of melted winter snow and spring rain provides enough moisture for plants to survive the rest of the year in this two to three month period.
Not only do plants use spring as a time to grow. They also use it as a time to flower. One of the easiest to spot is the balsamroot, which sports large yellow flowers that seems to blanket portions of the hillsides. Lupine is quite prominent as well, featuring tall stems covered in purple flowers. Look close enough at your feet while walking between the sagebrush and you might notice yellow bells, bluebells, lomatiums, and buttercups.
Besides the prominent flowers are a variety of grasses. Much of the bright green you see comes from their spring growth. Most people consider grass a staple of lawns, requiring constant moisture to survive and thrive. That’s not the case. Native grasses thrive in our environment with no watering by us necessary. Even when the grass has lost its fresh, green look come June and July it’s still alive. Simply waiting to sprout again come the following spring when there’s plenty of moisture.

I encourage you to go out and enjoy the shrub steppe during the spring. In my opinion it’s the only time to truly appreciate the great variety of life present. Come summer and fall all that will be left is a dry, brown hillside with little shade to get out of the sun. Enjoy it in the spring when it’s still cool and the hills are alive and colorful.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Plant Structure

 Plants exhibit great variety. Cacti in the deserts, pines in the mountains, water lilies in a pond, and wheat in a field. Yet among all these different types of plants there are basic structures shared by nearly all of them. Almost all plants have a root system and a shoot system. Root systems are composed of roots (obviously) and shoot systems are composed of leaves and stems. Regardless of the overall morphology (form and structure) of a plant they all rely on these structures to survive and thrive.
Roots serve a few purposes. They anchor the plant in the ground. Roots allow redwoods to grow hundreds of feet into the air. They provide the support that keeps riparian vegetation from washing out during a flood. Roots also provide the entire plant with water. Roots pull the water out of the ground and transport it to the rest of the plant through its vasculature system. Roots are also responsible for the uptake of nutrients that the plant needs in large and small quantities.
Stems represent the (generally) aboveground structures that leaves sprout from. Stem structure is composed of a series of nodes and internodes. Nodes are the point where leaves sprout. The internodes are the space between. Stems have two types of buds present. (A bud is the point where new stem growth occurs.) A terminal bud represents the growth point of a stem. Usually a terminal bud is located at the furthest point along a stem or branch. An axillary bud is located between the leaf and the stem at the node. Axillary buds have the potential to form lateral stems, or branches. Rhizomes are a type of underground stem that travel under the surface and sprout up away from the original plant. Strawberries spread through rhizomes. Even though rhizomes grow under the soil they are not roots.
Leaves grow out from stems and for most plants are their primary site of photosynthesis (the process by which plants convert sunlight into energy). However, some plants, such as cacti, have modified leaves into needles, so most of their photosynthesis is carried out in the stems. Flowers evolved from leaves into the great variety we see today.

Plants have three main types of tissue. Most of these tissues are present in all plant structures, but their function and morphology varies from the roots to the leaves. The three types are ground, vascular, and dermal tissue.
Dermal tissue is all the tissue on the outer layer of the plant. This tissue is responsible for protecting the plant from physical damage and pathogens. Leaf dermal tissue helps regulate the loss of water and the intake of CO2. Root dermal tissue helps capture water and minerals in the soil. Non-woody plants are covered in an epidermis. In woody plants the epidermis is replaced by periderm in older parts of the plant.
Vascular tissue is responsible for transportation of materials within the plant. The flow usually goes from roots up to shoots, and from the shoots down to the roots. Xylem is the vasculature responsible for transporting water and dissolved minerals and nutrients throughout the plant. Phloem is vasculature responsible for transporting organic nutrients that are produced in the photosynthetic areas of the plant (generally the leaves) and to the roots or sites of new growth.
Ground tissue is all the other tissue in the plant. This tissue is responsible for most plant functions: photosynthesis, storage of nutrients, growth, and support. Ground tissue in the leaves is mostly responsible for photosynthesizing. Ground tissue in the stems, branches, or trunk is responsible for much of the plant support. Ground tissue in tree trunks is often dead and is strictly there to support the outer part of the trunk that is still alive and filled with vascular tissue.

When it’s broken down to the basic level a plant is built from three basic structures: roots, stems, and leaves. These three structures are composed of three types of tissue: ground, dermal, and vascular. These six things make up the basics for almost all plants. That’s amazing when all the variety of plants are considered. 

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Plant Diversity

This week I want to start a series of articles spanning the next few months delving into the world of plants. I've written briefly about different species of plants, their uses, and some of their importance in a healthy ecosystem, but now I want to dive into the different structures, types, and functions found across them. Most people understand that trees, bushes, grasses, ferns, mosses, crops, and flowers are all considered plants. While many of these look vastly different from each other they share many common visible structures and internal mechanisms. This week I’m going to start with an overview of the variety of plant classes in the hopes of giving a basic intro.

Moss (Bryophyte)
Hornwort (Bryophyte)
First, let me provide a definition of a plant. Plants are embryophytes. The name comes from the way they protect and nurture the embryo inside the parent structure. This definition excludes algae and other things that may have been included with a less specific definition. Most plants are terrestrial (living on soil), but some species have evolved back into the water (such as water lilies and duckweed). All are complex, multicellular organisms. All plants are non-motile (they can’t move). Photosynthesis is their primary means of producing energy, but a small number are parasitic. Plants also display an alternation of generations between a haploid gametophyte (a multicellular generation with a single set of chromosomes) and a diploid sporophyte (two sets of chromosomes present).

Quillwort (Lycophyte)
Clubmoss (Lycophyte)
Plants can be further divided into two groups, those reproducing and spreading through spores: bryophytes (liverworts, mosses, and hornworts), lycophytes (clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts), and monilophytes (ferns and horsetails); and those reproducing and spreading through seeds: gymnosperms (conifers, cycads, gnetophytes and ginkgoes), and angiosperms (flowering plants). Plants can also be divided into those with vascular tissue (specialized tissue in the plant the transports water and nutrients around): lycophytes, monilophytes, gymnosperms, and angiosperms; and those without specialized vasculature: bryophytes. (Don’t worry about understanding the ins and outs of plant reproduction or tissue yet. I’ll make sure to cover them in detail in later posts.)
Fern Frond (Monilophyte)
Horsetail (Monilophyte)
Bryophytes include mosses, hornworts, and liverworts. They are grouped together based on their lack of vascular tissue, and are therefore referred to as non-vascular plants. However, they do not form a monophyletic group (a group made of an ancestor species and all its descendants). Instead they are more likely a paraphyletic group (a group made of an ancestor species and its descendants minus one or more monophyletic groups). In this case they are made of embryophytes minus the tracheophytes (plants containing vascular tissue). Bryophytes lack true leaves, stems, and roots. They are among the most primitive of land plants. They require almost constant moisture to keep from drying out as they lack many features that more advanced plants use to keep from drying out.
Lycophytes are represented by clubmosses, spikemosses, and quillworts. They still reproduce primarily through spores, but they have vascular tissue, and therefore; leaves, roots, and stems. They are more advanced than the bryophytes.
Monilophytes are made up of ferns and horsetails. They reproduce through spores, have vascular tissue, leaves, roots, and stems. They are the closest relatives to the seed plants.
(Gnetophyte, Gymnosperm)
Ginkgo (Gymnosperm)
Gymnosperms are composed of four different groups: conifers, cycads, gnetophytes and ginkgoes. Gymnosperms are more advanced than the previous groups because they produce seeds instead of spores for their primary reproduction. Gymnosperms are known as naked seed plants because their seeds are not enclosed. Even though they’re typically in cones for general protection, the seed itself is not encased. Conifers are made up of many common and important species including pines, firs, cedars, and junipers. They represent many of the largest plants on earth. Cycads generally have stout, woods trunks with a crown of leaves at the top. They can be confused with palm trees, but they are not closely related. Gnetophytes have some characteristics, such as vessel elements, not found in other gymnosperms. Ginkgoes are represented by one species of plant, Ginkgo biloba, and have been present on earth for millions of years virtually unchanged.
Quaking Aspen (Angiosperm)
Rose (Angiosperm)
Angiosperms make up everything else. They are the most common plants, representing some 250,000 species on earth. They have flowers, vasculature, stems, roots, leaves, and enclosed seeds. Orchids, maples, oaks, roses, apples, grasses, and many other common plants are all angiosperms. It’s important to keep in mind that not all flowers are showy and easily noticeable. When’s the last time you looked at a field of grass and pointed out its flowers? I assure you they are present, and when I get to the post on flowers I’ll cover it in much more detail.

Of course this is just the tip of the tree when it comes to all the fascinating aspects about plants. I realize that not many things are explained in detail here, but that’s not really the point for this post. The importance here is to understand the great diversity found in the world of plants. They started as very simple organisms, basically land versions of green algae. From there they evolved up to giant redwoods and flowering roses. There are many common characteristics, of course, but also a great deal of differences in them. Over the next few months I hope to introduce and explain features found in plants, and explain the differences. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Daylight Savings?

The new Month brings us fully moved out of our old office in the Wenatchee-Okanogan Forest Headquarters and into our new office in the top floor of the Wenatchee World building. There are still a few boxes that need to be unpacked and a few cables that still need to be plugged in, but we're just about up and running. The last week of February was crazy busy as we finished packing, loaded the moving truck, drove to our new office, unloaded the truck, and drove back for another load. Everyone at the office pitched in to help wherever they could, and we were able to get through the bulk of the moving in just a few days. Most of us are happy to be in downtown Wenatchee. There are more services and amenities around us and some of us have shorter commutes as well. Visit our webpage to view all of our new contact information.

Daylight savings time is this weekend, so come Sunday we’ll have an hour less of daylight in the morning and an hour more in the evening. There are various reasons why it was originally proposed and implemented. When “daylight savings” first began it was thought to save on power by giving people an extra hour of light in the evening. Essentially an hour that people were generally up that they now didn't need to use lights during. Whether there’s any power savings from it is inconclusive. Some say yes, others say no. Data can be used to support both arguments. Personally I don’t really care about the power savings. I really like the extra hour of light after work. But on the other hand, I don’t like losing the hour of light in the morning. (I may be getting up too early if I notice the light in the morning at this time of year.)  Regardless of how we feel about the change it’s coming.
It’s interesting to look at how the time change affects different people. For many of us that work a normal 9-5 job or some variant thereof the change is nice. We can get more done outside on any given day, or have more time to go out and enjoy the sunshine. For the agricultural based communities or cultures the change is less noticeable. Their daily schedule is governed by the daylight present. They could care less about the “hour” when that light comes. They’re still going to be up with it and out in it until the sun goes down.
Another interesting thought is that the natural world doesn't care about our time standards. One sunrise is the same as any other to a plant, deer, or fish, even if it changes by an hour to us. Most of nature runs off the sun cycle and the temperature changes that come with it, so animal and plant activity levels depends on the time of year and the amount of light or, for nocturnal creatures, the amount of dark. Think about someone going hunting, they don’t get to go hunting at a time that’s convenient for them. If an animal is most active at dawn the hunter better be out at dawn, whether the clock reads 4:30 a.m. or 7 a.m.

This post hopefully makes you think about how we run our lives off a clock, but the rest of nature doesn't. We put so much pressure to set deadlines, but a tree grows when there’s enough light, water, and warmth. A deer goes foraging when the sun comes up, it doesn't care if it’s at 5 or 7.