15 December 2010

Spotlight On...Ponderosa Pine

Ponderosa Pine
Pinus ponderosa
Pinaceae (Pine Family)
Here's my promise:  Becoming familiar with this tree, the granddaddy of all pines, will most certainly lead to a richer, more fulfilling life.
Quick ID:  
Luckily, ponderosas are pretty easy trees to pin down.  They're giant, regal evergreens with thick, straight trunks.  Branches of older trees are clustered toward the top, developing a distinctively massive bole (the part of the trunk below where the branches start).  A ponderosa's branches are relatively short for its stature, and turn up at the ends.  Needles are 5-10" long, in fascicles, or bundles, of 3 (sometimes 2 or 5 depending on the variety).
From a distance, it's easy to distinguish long-needled ponderosas from other, shorter-needled evergreens.  Up close, you can recognize them by their orange puzzle-piece bark with its deep black furrows.  Be sure to stick your nose into these crevices in spring and sniff the rich vanilla-scented sap running under the bark.
Like all Pinus members, the female cones are hard-scaled, as opposed to the soft paper-scaled cones of conifers like spruce (Picea).  They're armed with a poky prickle and open in fall to release tiny winged seeds.
According to the Utah Forest News, the oldest ponderosa in the world is in the Wah Wah Mountains, and is at somewhere around 940 years.  The National Register of Big Trees says the tallest (of the interior variety) is right here in Lolo National Forest and was 194' as of 1997. 

Range:  This is the most common pine in North America, and is widespread throughout the west, from BC to Mexico and east through the Black Hills.  It covers 38 million acres across 14 states.  Interior ponderosa is most common around 6000-8500', found randomly spaced in open grasslands at lower elevations, with stands becoming denser as elevation increases.  Check out the USDA range maps and some details on regional varieties here.
What's in a Name?  Ponderosa is also known as Western Yellow, Bull, Blackjack, Western Red, Sierra Brownbark, Heavy, and Western Pitch Pine.  According to Flora of North America, "Its wood is more similar in character to the white pines, and it is often referred to as white pine. The taxonomy of this complex is far from resolved."  What we do know is this...  
1.  It was named for its heavy, "ponderous" wood in 1826 by the fascinating botanist David Douglas, from a specimen found near present-day Spokane.  
2.  The common name "pine" (and genus Pinus) ultimately derive from the Sanskrit pituh, "juice, sap, or resin", the Greek pitys, "pine tree", and Latin pinguis, "fat".  
3.  There are basically three varieties:  P. ponderosa var. ponderosa, found along the Pacific Coast, P. p. var. arizonica in the southwest, and the widespread interior variety, P. p. var. scopulorum (that's the one we have here in Montana, and the one I'm referring to in this post).  They differ in size and fascicle number, but also overlap in morphology and distribution, and vary by latitude.  As you can imagine...the taxonomy of this complex is far from resolved.
Ponderosa is the most commercially important timber tree in the west, and has played a huge role in the region's economic development since the early pioneer days.  The lumber was used intensively for building homes, railroads, telegraphs and mine bracing, and is still considered great for construction.  In 1949, the Montana Federation of Garden Clubs convinced the Legislature that the Ponderosa was the "King of the Forest".  It was adopted as the Montana state tree that same year, and we've all celebrated ever since.
Equally important is P. pine's essential role in the ecology of western North America.  The behemoths create a mosaic of open stands filled with understory browse, interior woodland food and cover, and snags for cavity nesters and hunters.
Next time you're standing by one of these old trees, think about how incredibly well-adapted it is to the surface fires that naturally occur in this area.  The branches prune themselves up and out of reach.  Even then, the needles cluster tight around vulnerable growing branch tips, and open loosely farther up to discourage flames.  The bark is thick and insulative, as are the scales covering the buds.  The roots are deep, the size of lodgepoles themselves.  Regular low-intensity surface fire opens the canopy to light and burns up the thick layer of plant debris that builds up on the ground, encouraging graminoids (grasses) to germinate in the nutrient-rich, ashen soil.  It also thins out young trees, particularly the less fire-resistant ones.  It may go without saying that trees in crowded interior stands where fire has been suppressed are much more susceptible to catastrophic crown fires.  In the competition for space, they develop thinner bark and more compact foliage, and the closed canopy creates a dense understory of combustible "ladder fuels".
Anthropogenic factors like dense stands and stagnated nutrient cycling in the absence of fires, coupled with prolonged drought, have led to supreme stress on interior ponderosa ecosystems.  As a result, P. pine is susceptible to a slew of pests including Dwarf Mistletoe, insects like Pine and Bark Beetles (Dendroctonus and Ips spp.) and wood decaying fungi like red rot and western gall rust.  The Forest Service has this to say:
"Besides unprecedented, large-acreage severe fires, other ecological consequences of fire suppression in interior ponderosa pine ecosystems include:
  • decreases in soil moisture and nutrient availability
  • decreases in spring and stream flows
  • decreases in animal productivity
  • increased concentrations of potentially allelopathic terpenes in pine litter
  • decreases in productivity and diversity of herbaceous and woody understory species
  • decreases in tree vigor, especially the oldest age class of pines, and
  • increased mortality in the oldest age classes of trees"

    The ecological changes in Ponderosa forests that have occurred in the last century as a result of fire exclusion, overstory logging and heavy grazing are a well-documented, fascinating and perhaps scary story that everyone in the west should be familiar with.  
Fire rolls through a Salmon River ponderosa pine stand in the River of No Return Wilderness, Idaho
Wild Gardening:  
Despite the complicated (and controversial) state of ponderosa forest ecology, the fact remains the this pine is extremely well adapted to the soils, temperatures and moisture regimes of the west.  Try planting P. pine to establish windbreaks or as an impressive ornamental, if you have the space (they grow 60-150' in cultivation).  You can collect not-quite-open cones in late summer, and dry them on racks to release the seeds.  Sow your untreated seeds in late fall; you'll have better luck if you start them in containers before you put them out in the ground.  You'll be providing food and cover for all sorts of wildlife, and will be rewarded with the company of the most awe-inspiring of trees.
Volunteers help spruce up the Nature Adventure Teaching Garden next to our ten year old ponderosa pine
 You can read an incredibly detailed and fascinating account of ponderosa ecology here.
Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

10 December 2010

The Black-Capped Chickadee

Not all birds migrate south for the winter. Some stay here in Montana and bear through the cold winter months. One of these birds is the well-known black-capped chickadee. Chickadees may be seen in your yard all year long. In winter they will form foraging flocks with nuthatches, titmice, and even woodpeckers.

But how is it that chickadees can survive through the winter? The chickadee's greatest obstacle is staying warm. The trick to doing this is eating as many calories during the day as they can, which will be metabolized for body heat. If they do not find enough food during they day, they will not make it through the cold night. Black-capped chickadees have another trick for surviving the winter nights: they can lower their body temperatures by up to 14 degrees Fahrenheit at night to save energy. The bird is able to drop its body temperature because of its ability to decrease its metabolic rates. The fewer calories that the chickadee burns, the less energy it creates. Less energy means a lower body temperature. However, the black-capped chickadee only does this on the coldest of nights.

One challenge for chickadees is that along with an increased need for food comes a decrease in the types of food which are available. During the summer, a chickadee’s diet consists mostly of insects, fruits, and seeds. However, during the winter months, fruits and insects become scarce, forcing chickadees to rely primarily on seeds. Seeds are high in fat and are found all year round. For this reason, the chickadee has adapted its beak over time to become perfect at cracking small nuts.

Did you know that chickadees also scavenge for dead animals? Chickadees eat fat from dead animals whose bodies have been opened up by larger predators. The fat is an excellent source of calories for the bird when times get tough.

When it comes to surviving the winter months, chickadees are one of the most resourceful birds around. By adapting their diet, metabolism, and behavior, chickadees can survive in almost any region.  Make sure to look out for these little guys as you're out and about this winter!

15 November 2010

White-Tailed Deer

Odocoileus virginianus

Hunting season began several weeks ago and one of the primary animals being hunted is an animal we might just as easily spot in our backyards as in the woods—the white-tailed deer.  The white-tailed deer is beginning its rut soon (most sources estimate that the white-tailed deer population of Western Montana breeds from late November to early December).  During this period, bucks mark their territory with ‘scrapes’ and ‘buck rubs’ and compete with other bucks for territory and mating privileges.

White-tailed deer are the most widely-distributed and most common of the large mammals in North America, with populations occurring in Southern Canada and stretching into Mexico.  There are only a handful of areas in the United States in which white-tailed deer are absent—Hawaii, Alaska, and parts of the Southwest.  White-tailed deer populations nationwide have exploded.  In the early 1900s, there were roughly 500,000 white-tailed deer in the nation.  Current figures put the population at somewhere between 15 and 20 million.  The white-tailed deer population’s successful rebound has been contributed to the implementation of hunting regulations and the founding of federal agencies charged with managing and maintaining natural resources.  Furthermore, the elimination and drastic reduction of populations of key deer predators, such as grey wolves and mountain lions, has contributed to this rebound.  The white-tailed deer’s move from relative scarcity to such large numbers is now becoming problematic for people who find themselves struggling to keep deer out of their backyards or worry about possible deer collisions when driving.  According to Montana FWS estimates, the state of Montana’s population of white-tailed deer is 249,001. 

The distinguishing feature of the white-tailed deer (from which its name derives) is the white underside of its tail, which it sometimes displays while running.  Several hypotheses have been given for the evolutionary advantage of the white-tailed deer’s ‘flagging’ behavior—including that it communicates awareness to a would be predator, that is alerts fellow deer to potential danger, or that it can be a cohesive signal, particularly for a doe to keep her fawns nearby.  So far, there hasn’t been enough conclusive evidence to determine which of these hypotheses might explain the deer’s ‘flagging’ behavior. 

The male white-tailed deer have antlers which they shed and re-grow every year.  Antler growth begins in March or April and deer antler growth can reach astonishing rates.  Some bucks’ antlers will grow as much as ½ an inch in a single day!  The antlers continue to grow throughout the summer months and are covered in a soft skin called ‘velvet.’  In the fall, the antlers harden during the process of calcification.  During the fall, you might also spot bucks rubbing their antlers against tree trunks in an attempt to remove the velvet from their antlers.  Bucks also use their antlers to mark their territory with ‘buck rubs’ and as a weapon in clashes with other bucks when defending or fighting for territory.  The bucks lose their antlers in the dead of winter.  These antlers, rich in calcium build-ups and other nutrients, are understandably difficult to find in the woods.  Upon falling to the forest floor, they are quickly devoured by squirrels, mice, porcupines, and other small animals. 

Deer-Car Collisions        
1.5 million deer-automobile collisions cause an estimated $1 billion in automotive damages and 200 deaths annually.  According to State Farms, Montana has the 4th highest frequency of deer-car collisions, and 1 in 82 drivers in Montana will have collisions with a deer over the course of the next year.  The construction of wildlife crossings, such as those recently added to Highway 93 (read more in this article from the Missoulian) might reduce the frequency of deer and human fatalities resulting from automobile collisions.  Deer-car collisions generally peak during breeding season as males, in their frenzied competition, temporarily lose their cautiousness.  And, as winter sets in, deer come into our backyards in search of food, and are most active at dusk and at dawn.  Drive cautiously!  

12 November 2010

Wild Turkeys

It is the holliday season and soon families will be sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner.  But the wild turkey we usually see in photos or pictures is not the same as the domestic turkey that we serve at Thanksgiving. Domestic turkeys weigh twice what a wild turkey does and  most domestic turkeys are so heavy they are unable to fly.  The great majority of domesticated turkeys are bred to have white feathers because their pin feathers are less visible when the carcass is dressed, although brown or bronze-feathered varieties are also raised. Wild turkeys, while technically the same species as domesticated turkeys, have a very different taste from farm-raised turkeys as well. Almost all of the meat is "dark"  with a more intense flavor.

Males have iridescent red, green, copper, bronze and gold feathers. They use these bright colors to great advantage when attracting females during breeding season. Females have brown or gray feathers. They make great camouflage and hide hens when they sit on their nests.  

Males have brightly colored, nearly featherles heads. During breeding season the color of their heads alternates between red, white and blue, often changing in a few seconds. A hen's head is gray-blue and has some small feathers for camouflage.

Both males and females have fleshy growths on their heads known as caruncles. They also both have snoods, fleshy protrubances that hang over their bills and can be extended or contracted at will. The snood of an adult male is usually much larger than that of a female. No one knows for sure what these growths are for, but both probably developed as ways to attract mates.

A male turkey grows a cluster of long, hairlike feathers from the center of its chest. This cluster is known as the turkey's beard. On adult males, these beards average about 9 inches long.

10 to 20 percent of hens also grow beards.  The longest beard on record is more than 18 inches long.

Wild turkey legs are reddish-orange with four toes on each foot. Male wild turkeys grow large spurs on the backs of their lower legs. These spurs are pointed, bony spikes and are used for defense and to establish dominance. Spurs can grow up to 2 inches in length. The longest spurs on record are 2.25 inches long.

Wild turkey tails are usually 12 to 15 inches long and are banded at their tips. The color of the bands in the tail varies by subspecies.

Peacocks aren't the only birds who use their fancy tails to attract a mate. Each spring male turkeys try to befriend as many females as possible. Male turkeys, also called "Tom Turkeys" or "Gobblers" puff up their bodies and spread their tail feathers (just like a peacock).


The Merriam’s turkey is Montana’s newest upland game bird. A native of the pine-oak woodlands of Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, it was first introduced into central Montana in 1954.  Releases were made in the Long Pines of southeastern Montana near Ekalaka and near Ashland. As turkeys prospered in these areas, more birds were trapped and transplanted to other parts of the state. Since the early 1950’s, all areas of the state considered to be suitable wild turkey habitat have received transplanted birds. Merriam’s turkey habitat in Montana is generally restricted to open ponderosa pine woodlands in rugged terrain. Turkeys have been most suc¬cessful in woodlands where about one-half of the vegetative cover consists of ponderosa pine with the remainder grasses, deciduous trees, and shrubs in scattered openings and drainageways throughout the woodland.

Spotlight On...Skunkbush Sumac

Skunkbush Sumac
Rhus trilobata
Anacardiaceae (Sumac Family)
Quick ID:  

Look for shrubs with wide, dense crowns, generally no more than 4' high but spreading out to 8'.  The alternate leaves are downy, dark green above and pale below, and divided into three coarsely toothed ~1" leaflets.  In spring, beginning before the leaves appear, tiny yellow flowers cluster at the ends of the stems.  These give way to clumps of hairy little red-orange fruits around mid-summer, which hang onto the stems long after the leaves have dropped.  New twigs are covered with an ochre velvet much like new antlers.  It's easy to see the plant's progression of growth when looking at the branches; each previous year's wood is smoother, more inflexible, and colored differently.  Like counting tree rings, examining the length, form and character of branches' annual growth can be an interesting peek into recent history.  Call it another way of reading, or of listening, or call it a chilly botanist's daydream on a grey November morning....
               Here is the drought year.  That piece is the summer the giant Ponderosa Pine fell down, opening the canopy to let the sunshine fall through.  This is last spring, when a mule deer nibbled the soft spring growth, see how it branches out?  And here, this fuzzy tip is what has appeared since things woke up this spring.
And so it goes... 
There are at least four varieties of Rhus trilobata found in North America (some sources recognize six), most of which are mainly clustered in the deep southwest.  Rhus trilobata var. trilobata is the only one found in Montana; its range spans from the Pacific coast eastward to the tallgrass prairie states, from southern Canada to northern Mexico, up to about 7000' elevation.  Varieties tend to be more branched and compact in the southwest part of their range, and taller in the north.  Sumac can grow in a wide diversity of habitats, from dry to mesic (moderately wet) areas, on slopes, in thickets, canyons and stream banks.
What's in a Name?
The family name Anacardiaceae is in reference to Anacardium, the cashew, and its vaguely heart-shaped fruits (cardium=heart).  Rhus, in turn, is the Greek name for sumac, which itself is ultimately derived from the Syrian summaq, "red".  The specific epithet trilobata refers to the three-lobed leaves.  Skunkbush sumac is also known as Rhus aromatica, for its supposedly horrible, skunky-smelling leaves.  Me, I've squished and sniffed these leaves a thousand times, and don't think it's disagreeable at all.  They smell green, resinous, a little like acrid pine.  Some folks won't go near it though, so, as LB likes to say, "You don't have to take my word for it."  Best to sniff for yourself.
As usual, there are too many common names of R. trilobata to list here, but depending where you live, you might also hear it called sourberry, three-leaved sumac, fragrant, ill-scented or stinking sumac, squawbush, quailbush, lemonade sumac, basketbush, polecat bush or lemita. 
This is a plant with a long history of edible, medicinal and functional uses.  Like other sumacs, the berries are super-duper sour, and fun to pop in your mouth on a hot summer day.  They taste like lemony pine needles, and can be used in drinks, bread, soup, etc.  The leaves and inner bark can be used in teas and poultices for such diverse ailments as colds, itches, stomach problems and hair loss.  A black or orange dye can be make from the roots and berries, respectively, and the flexible young branches are good for basket-weaving.
The family Anacardiaceae is full of irritating or otherwise dangerous plants, including poison sumac, poison ivy, and poison oak.  (Thanks to Fabric Guy for the informative picture.)  Poison sumac doesn't grow in the west, and wouldn't be mistaken for skunkbush even if it did.  The ranges of poison ivies and oaks, however, do overlap, and the three-leaved nature of these plants can make them hard to distinguish from skunkbush (especially the shrubby poison oak).  In general, poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) and poison ivy (T. radicans) have a stalked middle leaflet, while R. trilobata's has no stalk.  They also have greenish flowers and white fruits, as opposed to yellow flowers and red fruits.  Even with well-honed ID skills, people who are super-sensitive to poison ivy should stay away from any member of the Anacardiaceae family.  Sadly, this also includes mangoes, which a lot of people are sensitive to.  I once ate so many mangoes my lips swelled up like a grouper, but that's a story for another day.
Wild Gardening:  
With its soft texture in winter, bold spring greenery, glistening red berries and brilliant fall color, Rhus trilobata is an absolute pleasure all year long.  It's fairly easy to find commercially, and naturalizes well to form windbreaks or shelterbelts.  Because of its strong root system, it's a good choice for erosion control.  Plants need full sun to part shade, room to spread, and good drainage, but will tolerate nearly any type of soil, cold, or drought.  
One of the joys of gardening with native plants is the opportunity it provides for observing backyard wildlife.  Keeping a list of birds and their arrival dates each year, discovering a cache of winter food or watching pollinators busy with their summer tasks are a delight in themselves, and knowing that you're helping conserve essential habitat by providing food and shelter is just icing on the nature-cake.  In this spirit, skunkbush sumac thickets provide great hiding and nesting cover for small mammals, and the persistent berries are an important source of food for winter songbirds and upland gamebirds.  Here at the Nature Adventure Teaching Garden, the golden Rhus, tawny chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) and evergreen mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) make for a fall display that just couldn't be prettier.    

    Spotlight On... features Montana native plants that are currently on display in our natural areas.  Have a plant that you'd like to see featured?  Let us know!

29 October 2010

Lovely Larchiness

Larches have become one of my favorite trees since my move to Montana five years ago.  My first autumn here, I took a drive east on Highway 200, and I remember asking my friend, "What's wrong with all those trees?" as we passed hillsides covered with yellow-needled larches.  I thought they were dying.  Little did I know!  Now I'm married to a botanist and naturalist whose favorite tree is the larch, which means I've learned lots about these amazing trees in the past couple of years.  And the more I learn about them, the more I am fascinated by them.

Alpine larches at Glen Lake
Though there are about 10 different species of larch worldwide, we have just two types of larches (or tamaracks) here in western Montana, the western larch (Larix occidentalis) and the alpine larch (Larix lyallii).  What makes these trees unique among conifers is that they are one of just a handful of genera that are deciduous.  In the fall the needles turn a glorious golden color that splashes across the landscape, a bright contrast to the deep greens of the pines and firs and spruces.  In the spring, that same bright contrast is evident, but this time the color is the vivid green of new growth.  Whether it be spring or fall (or, for that matter, anytime in between), the lovely larch is worth searching out.  

In Donald Peattie's A Natural History of Western Trees, he writes, "Concerning the Alpine Larch the fact which even most naturalists know best is that they have never seen it.  And so scattered is its growth, so wild and inhospitable its favorite haunts at timber line . . . that most people would not know where exactly to begin to look for it."

Yet here in western Montana, we can (comparatively) easily walk among the Larix lyallii.  If you haven't yet done so, I highly recommend you change that.  One of the easiest spots to reach, after just a two-and-a-half-mile hike, is Glen Lake in the Bitterroot Valley.  Carlton Ridge/Lolo Peak is another great spot for alpine larches.  This year my husband and I took our alpine larch pilgrimage to the Bass Creek Overlook, just as the colors were peaking at the end of September.  (A word to the wise:  this trail gets pretty steep--but the larches are worth it!)

Alpine larches at Bass Creek Overlook
Besides being a place that provides fairly easy access to the alpine larch,  we in western Montana are also near one of the very few places where Larix lyallii and Laruix occidentalis hybridize.  This happens not only because the ranges overlap here (there are quite a few places where this is the case), but because of of the unique geography of the area.  In places like Carlton Ridge (just below Lolo Peak), where there are steep, north-facing slopes, alpine larches creep down the slope while western larches creep up, and the two species hybridize.  Now seeing a hybrid larch is definitely worth putting on the bucket list!

Alpine larches, which are found at elevations of 4,000-8,000 feet, tend to turn golden and shed their needles about a month before their lower-elevation (2,000-7,000 feet) counterparts.   But if you missed the alpine larches changing color, do not despair!  You still have time to enjoy the changing colors of our western larches (which also  have the advantage of being much easier to get to).  There are even a few in various yards around Missoula, if you know where to look.  So now is the time to go take a walk in the Rattlesnake, or Pattee Canyon (see below--this was taken just yesterday, on on October 28th), 

Western larches at Pattee Canyon
or along the Kim Williams trail.  Or, if you don't mind a little driving, Seeley Lake has some spectacular old-growth larch stands, including what is claimed to be the largest Larix in the world.  

Aside from their deciduous nature, larches can be identified by their clusters of needles, which are found in groups of 15-30 on western larches and 30-40 on alpine larches.

alpine larch needles
western larch needles

Western larches have thin, scaly bark when they are young, but as they mature the bark thickens--up to 3-6 inches thick on old-growth trees.  As the trees age, the bark darkens to a reddish-brown, and comes to look very much like the puzzle-bark of Ponderosa pines (though without the intoxicating vanilla fragrance).  The thick bark helps protect the larch from fires, as does its ready ability to create new needles.  Larch trees are also able to sprout new branches from the side of their trunks, yet another unique adaptation that gives this species a high survival rate from forest fires. 

While there are a plethora of fascinating facts about larches, what may be most important to note is that they are here, in western Montana, and that we have the good fortune to be able to see them with so very little effort.  So don't just drive by their changing beauty at 75 mph on the freeway--take the time to seek them out, walk among them, and absorb their loveliness.  And if you want to share your favorite larch-viewing place, that would be wonderful!