Just as our own experiences shape our response to the future, trees remember their lives as seedlings and it shapes their responses to environmental stress.
Arborists had long suspected a “nursery effect” in which transplanted trees of the same species seemed to respond differently to the same environment depending on the nursery where they were grown. A 2011 study by the University of Toronto at Scarborough used poplar tree nursery stock to examine this theory.
Poplar trees (Populus sp) are propaganted clonally so a cutting grown from a parent tree is genetically identical to the parent. The study obtained stem cuttings from the same parent poplar tree regrown in widely separated nurseries in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They then regrew the trees in Toronto under identical conditions with half exposed to drought, the other half well watered.
Amazingly the clones from Alberta responded differently than those from Saskatchewan. They even used different genes in their response.
“The findings were really quite stunning,” said Malcolm Campbell, lead author of the study. “Our results show that there is a form of molecular ‘memory’ in trees where a tree’s previous personal experience influences how it responds to the environment.”
That’s why it’s unwise to transplant a tree grown in Somerset County, PA to a backyard in Pittsburgh. The origin and destination climates are too different. The tree’s triggers are incorrectly set for its new life. (Somerset is zone 5b, Pittsburgh is 6b, on the Plant Hardiness Map).
This applies to forest trees too, even though they aren’t transplanted. Their previous experience could help their survival in the face of climate change, diseases and pests.
As winter arrives this week, watch the trees respond with their own history as a guide.
It’s tree-planting season and a good time to remember that trees can be damaged by our good intentions. In the old days we staked every newly planted tree but we’ve since learned that for most tree plantings, stakes are a bad idea.
Tree trunks become strong from the ground up by swaying in the wind. When a tree is staked, it “thinks” it already has strong roots where it’s staked so it puts effort into growing tall instead of establishing roots. The trunk becomes strong above the yoke and remains weak below it. In addition the yoke may damage the trunk, further weakening the tree as shown above.
If your new tree has a big root ball it probably doesn’t need to be staked, though there are exceptions quoted here from the Davey Tree blog. You should use stakes on …
Bare-root trees or trees with a small root ball.
Trees planted in areas with lots of foot traffic, like a sidewalk or street.
New trees that can’t stand on their own or those that begin to lean.
Eucalyptus trees, mesquite hybrid trees, oleander trees and acacia trees.
Tall, top-heavy trees with no lower branches.
Young trees if you live in a very windy area or if the soil is too wet or loose.”
If you use stakes make sure to remove them at the next growing season. If you don’t, the tree will grow around them like this one did at Schenley Park. See more photos at How Stakes Hurt Trees.
Back in 2008 a team of scientists made an amazing discovery: the western conifer-seed bug uses infrared sensors to find his favorite food.
The western conifer-seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis) is a North American sucking beetle that resembles a stink bug, though he’s not in the stink bug family. Ornately marked and 1/2 to 3/4 inch long (16-20 mm), he feeds on the sap of developing pine cones. This causes the seeds in the cones to wither which is only a minor problem in western forests but a big deal at pine seed orchards.
The seed bug used to be confined to temperate forests of the Pacific coast but has naturally expanded his range all the way east to Nova Scotia. In the past 20 years he’s been accidentally imported into Europe, Chile, and Japan so there’s international interest in how this bug finds pine cones at a distance.
Pine cones emit infrared light because they’re warmer than the rest of the tree by almost 60 degrees F. These photos from the study, taken in normal and infrared light, explain: “The temperature bar to the right of the paired images reveals that cones are up to 15°C warmer than foliage under high-cloud conditions.”
To prove that the bug is attracted to infrared, researchers set up infrared emitters shaped like pine cones (photos below). Did the bug approach them? Yes, it did. Could the bug find the cones when his IR sensors were experimentally blocked? No he could not.
As the study explains:
Here, we show that the western conifer seed bug, Leptoglossus occidentalis Heidemann (Hemiptera: Coreidae), a tissue specialist herbivore that forages during the photophase and feeds on the contents of seeds within the cones of many conifers (Blatt & Borden 1999; Strong et al. 2001), uses IR radiation from developing cones as a long-range foraging cue. We present data revealing that (i) cones are warmer and continuously emit more near-, mid- and long-range IR radiation than needles, (ii) seed bugs possess IR receptive organs and orient towards experimental IR cues, and (iii) occlusion of the insects’ IR receptors impairs IR perception.
Apparently the world looks very different to a western conifer-seed bug. For him the pine cones really stand out while the rest of the world is boring.
postscript: NOTE that the western conifer-seed bug (Leptoglossus occidentalis) is not the scourge of our western pine forests. The forests are being killed by a completely different native bug — the mountain pine beetle (Dendroctonus ponderosae) — whose larvae make galleries under the bark and kill the tree from inside. Below: Pines killed by the mountain pine beetle, Galleries under the bark, and the mountain pine beetle.
photo credits: Click on the captions to see the originals. * Infrared images from study at Royal Society 2008.0742, Creative Commons license * Western conifer-seed bug photos from Wikimedia Commons * Mountain pine beetle row of photos: #5540352: Kill at Deadman Road, CO, William M. Ciesla, Forest Health Management International, Bugwood.org, #UGA1254003, Galleries, William M. Ciesla, Forest Health Management International, Bugwood.org, #UGA1306005, mountain pine beetle, Dendroctonus ponderosae, Ron Long, Simon Fraser University, Bugwood.org
If you were out in the UK today, this will not be hard to work out. Infrared shows the temperature difference between areas with trees, and those without. Thanks to Meg Caffin and the City of Geelong, Australia, for the insight. This is what’s coming and we’re not ready for it! pic.twitter.com/N5PrCvIhYB
It’s been hot in Pittsburgh lately but nothing like the heat wave that’s sweeping Europe with highs above 100 degrees F. @JeremyDBarrell tweeted a long term solution with a compelling image by Meg Caffin.
Meg Caffin is an urban forest consultant from Australia who provides guidance for cities looking to beat the heat. Her image at top used an infrared camera to show the temperature difference between a paved churchyard and the trees behind it. I’ve made a Fahrenheit translation below. Yes, it’s 113oF on the pavement and only 77oF under the trees.
Trees cool the air by transpiring. They take up water from the ground and release it from the stomata in their leaves. The release doesn’t usually drip from the leaves as shown below. Instead it evaporates and that’s what cools the air.
Evaporation — changing a liquid to a gas — uses energy. According to the Transpiration blog, “Energy is absorbed into liquid water. This reduces the temperature of the surrounding plant tissue and nearby atmosphere. To evaporate 1 gram of water 590 calories of energy is required.”
Meanwhile if you’re feeling hot right now, visit a local park.
Beat the heat among the trees.
(embedded Tweet from Jeremy Barrell; infrared heat image by Meg Caffin for the City of Geelong, Australia (Fahrenheit added); transpiring leaf from Wikimedia Commons; photos of Schenley Park by Kate St. John)
This flowering tree is a native North American but was so rare that few people ever saw it until botanists fell in love with it.
Originally found in small patches from Arkansas to Kentucky and Tennessee, the Kentucky yellowwood’s (Cladrastis kentukea) beautiful flowers, mid-story height, and tolerance for full sun in urban settings makes it the perfect ornamental.
On Sunday in Schenley Park, our group was awed by the profusion of vanilla-scented flowers at the Visitors Center. We didn’t recognize the species so I went exploring yesterday and found it both cultivated and wild.
Here are some other cool facts about Kentucky yellowwood:
Now that black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia) are leafing out in Pittsburgh we can watch their leaves do exercises.
According to Wikipedia black locust leaves fold together at night and during wet weather, a trait of the Legume family called nyctinasty. I’ve often seen nyctinasty in clovers but have never noticed it in black locusts because I haven’t been paying attention. This month I plan to take a look.
It will be a good week to get close to black locusts. They’re blooming now with a sweet grape-like scent. See photos and read more about them in last year’s article: The Sweet Smell of Trees.
A week ago I received a message from the USA National Phenology Network that hemlock woolly adelgids would hatch very soon in Pittsburgh and the southern Appalachians. This is worrisome because the nymphs are the active phase of this forest pest.
Originally from Japan, hemlock woolly adelgids (Adelges tsugae) kill eastern hemlocks in 4-20 years by locking on where the needle meets the stem and sucking the lifeblood out of the tree (closeup at top).
The adults are sedentary, attached to a tree. The nymphs, however, are tiny and mobile. They blow on the wind and hitchhike on clothes, equipment, birds and animals. They spread very easily just after they’ve hatched.
The message above says “You should see active nymphs” but you won’t. At 1/100th of an inch they’re smaller than a grain of sand, almost microscopic. And yet, their effect is devastating.
Hemlock woolly adelgids have already killed up to 80% of the hemlocks on parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway and in Shenandoah National Park. They are eating their way through the Great Smoky Mountains, shown below, and they’re killing hemlocks in Pennsylvania.
We won’t know how far they’ve spread this spring until they reveal their presence next fall when the females deposit woolly egg sacs on the undersides of hemlock branches.
Yesterday I noticed white flowering trees on the hills and swales near Robinson Town Centre (I-376 West). “How nice,” I thought, “Who planted those trees in the empty places?” No one. They’re invasive.
Originally imported from China in the early 1900s as root stock for pear orchards, USDA bred them as landscape trees in the 1950s and came up with a winning cultivar, the thorn-less sterile “Bradford pear.”
From 1960 to the 1990s callery pears were wildly popular as street trees in suburbia. They’re pretty in early spring, colorful in fall, and they grow well in the full sun and disturbed soil found in new subdivisions. The Bradford cultivar is also brittle so commercial plant breeders created other cultivars. That’s when the genie came out of the bottle.
In a single cultivar population the fruits are sterile but if two different cultivars are planted near each other, or even grafted together, insects cross-pollinate them and the trees produce fertile fruit. Birds eat the fruit and disperse the seeds. The trees escape to the wild.
Callery pears grow anywhere. A patch can start with a single tree that becomes a thicket in several years. Dense thickets push out all native species. To make matters worse, the wild trees can have 3-inch thorns! The best field-scale control measure is to brush-hog and then mow every year. They still come up!
This week the hillsides turned faintly red as red maples (Acer rubrum) bloomed across southwestern Pennsylvania. The city’s maples bloom sooner than the suburbs so I’ve had a preview of what’s to come.
In Schenley Park the ground under some red maples is carpeted with fallen flowers (above) while others retain flowers that are setting seed (below).
That’s because red maples are sexually complicated. They are polygamodioecious which means some trees have only male flowers, some have only female, and some have both (i.e. hermaphroditic). And they can even switch back and forth:
Under the proper conditions, the tree can sometimes switch from male to female, male to hermaphroditic, and hermaphroditic to female.