Pando is Dying

Pando the world's largest discovered organism at Fishlake in central Utah Image courtesy USDA Forest Service J Zapell, Photographer
Pando, the worlds largest discovered organism at Fishlake in central Utah
Image courtesy USDA Forest Service
J. Zapell, Photographer

Pando, a sprawling aspen colony and the world’s largest discovered organism, is dying. On the lip of Fish Lake in Central Utah, Pando germinated from a seed the size of a grain of sand thousands of years ago. Now he sprawls over a hundred acres with approximately 47,000 trunks. The combination of the trunks and the extensive root system has Pando weighing in at around 13 million pounds. This giant male, which might be one of the oldest living organisms on the planet, is also prone to disease, wanted by humans to burn in stoves, and targeted by ungulates as a food source. And although Pando consists of literally tons of mature, geriatric trees, there aren’t many young volunteers replacing old trees that die.

Dr. Paul Rogers, a Utah State University scientist who’s trying to save Pando, explained the problem to me while we searched for new growth and deer scat on Pando. He said it would be like depending on a room filled with 90-year-olds to repopulate and save the human race—it’s possible, but not likely.

The age of the current mature trees that make up Pando is about 110-120 years. These ages are gleaned from a tree coring device called a borer. This information combined with others findings show that Pando took a turn for the worse about when Anglo-Americans showed up in central Utah. As they hunted apex predators like bears, wolves and mountain lions, populations of ungulates such as deer and elk increased. White settlers also added other ungulates—sheep, cows, and horses—to the ecosystem. Both domestic and wild ungulates feast on young, nutrient-filled Aspen trees. Which makes it so Pando can’t recolonize himself.

I asked Rogers if the reason he wanted to save Pando was because it was the superlative organism—the oldest and biggest on the globe, and he was quick to correct me. He questions the accuracy of age estimates for Pando based on current available science. And he believes there may even be larger aspen colonies, but we just haven’t found them yet. We know about Pando partially because a paved road goes right over his spine and partially because he almost touches Fish Lake. Rogers says he’s interested in saving Pando because the existence of this huge organism supports many dependent species and it likely holds lessons for sustainable cohabitation of this planet. As an afterthought he added, “If the colony dies on our watch, we’re doing something majorly wrong.”

There is hope for Pando. Aspen do two things really well: die and repopulate. In recent years, efforts have been implemented to preserve Pando. Paradoxically, some sections have been clear cut or burned to stimulate growth. Both techniques have produced positive results, but not enough. It seems the simplest solution to this problem might be the best—protect it from foraging ungulates. Eight-foot deer fences now encircle parts of Pando. Outside the fences, there are no new trees. Inside, however, green shoots can be seen pushing up from the dry ground.

This is Russ Beck for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, J Zapell, Photographer
Text: Russ Beck

Sources & Additional Reading

Pando-(I Spread), Fishlake National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/fishlake/home/?cid=STELPRDB5393641

Pando-The World’s Largest Organism, Holly Strand, Wild About Utah, Sept 3, 2010, http://wildaboututah.org/pando-the-worlds-largest-organism/

Utah State Tree – Quaking Aspen, Utah’s Online Library, http://onlinelibrary.utah.gov/research/utah_symbols/tree.html

WESTERN ASPEN ALLIANCE is a joint venture between Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources and the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, whose purpose is to facilitate and coordinate research issues related to quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) communities of the west. http://www.western-aspen-alliance.org/

DeWoody J, Rowe C, Hipkins VD, Mock KE (2008) Pando lives: molecular genetic evidence of a giant aspen clone in central Utah. Western North American Naturalist 68(4), pp. 493–497. http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/aspen_bib/3164

Grant, M., J.B. Mitton, AND Y.B. Linhart. 1992. Even larger organisms. Nature 360:216. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v360/n6401/abs/360216a0.html

Grant, M. 1993. The trembling giant. Discover 14:83–88. Abstract:http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3398/1527-0904-68.4.493

Habeck, R. J. 1992. Sequoiadendron giganteum. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [Accessed September 2, 2010].

Mock, K.E., C . A. Rowe, M. B. Hooten, J. DeWoody and V. D. Hipkins. Clonal dynamics in western North American aspen (Populus tremuloides) Molecular Ecology (2008) 17, 4827–4844 http://etmd.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/27665/1/IND44127848.pdf

Edible Weeds: Lambs Quarters and Purslane

Lambs Quarter Courtesy and Copyright Roslynn Brain, Photographer
Lambs Quarter
Courtesy and Copyright Roslynn Brain, Photographer
Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivores Dilemma”, called lambs quarters and purslane “two of the most nutritious plants in the world.” Weeding them would be a waste, both taste and health-wise!

Also called pigweed, goosefoot and wild spinach, lambs quarters is a common garden weed and is found with easy access in most urban settings. Sporting broad, green leaves and a powdery-white middle, lambs quarters can substitute as spinach in any dish, and is packed with nutrients too!

While most edible weeds are best harvested in spring, lambs quarters thrive throughout the entirety of summer. While young, the plant can be collected whole, but as it ages and becomes tougher, only the tender tops are recommended. Try it raw in salads or green smoothies. Seeds can be collected as an excellent source of protein.

Nutritionally, lambs quarters is a close competitor with spinach. 1 cup of boiled and lightly salted lambs quarters has a whopping 6g of protein, more than double your daily value of Vitamin A, 66 mg Vitamin C and 120 mg Iron.

Purslane Courtesy and Copyright Roslynn Brain, Photographer
Purslane
Courtesy and Copyright Roslynn Brain, Photographer
Another common weed found growing between sidewalk cracks or in our gardens is purslane. Purslane is a succulent originally from India, but is now found as a wild weed in all 50 U.S. states. This plant grows low to the ground, contains slightly reddish stems and sports tangy succulent green leaves with a similar quality as okra.

The leaves, stems, and flowers of purslane can all be eaten either fresh or cooked. The health benefits rival many other green vegetables you work hard to plant and maintain in your garden, yet it grows effortlessly!

The fresh succulent leaves of this wonder weed contain more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant, and has five times the concentration than can be found in spinach! It also contains more omega-3’s than many fish oils in the grocery store. In a 100 gram serving of raw Purslane, you can get more than 1320 international units of Vitamin A, 21 mg Vitamin C, and a dense array of B-complex vitamins!

As Ralph Waldo Emerson rhetorically asked, “what is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”

For Utah State University Extension Sustainability, this is Roslynn Brain.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy and copyright Roslynn Brain, Photographer
Text:     Roslynn Brain, Utah State University Extension Sustainability


Additional Reading:

The Passion of Penstemaniacs

White River beardtongue Penstemon albifluvis Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, Photographer
White River beardtongue
Penstemon albifluvis
Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, Photographer
Penstemaniacs, the name affectionately given to members of the American Penstemon Society, will be gathering from all parts of the world to meet in Vernal, Utah, this June.

While here, they’ll be searching the Uinta Mountains for penstemons native to that area.
If you’ve ever hiked in the rugged, dry areas of Utah and come upon a vibrant flower with hues of red, purple, or blue, and wondered how such a beautiful plant could survive in such a desolate place – you may have found one of Utah’s native penstemons.

Over 100 full species or sub-species of the plant are native to the beehive state. They thrive in hot conditions and require very little water.

Robert Fitts hunting penstemons in the Unitas Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Robert Fitts
hunting penstemons
in the Unitas
Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
According to Robert Fitts, Botany Researcher for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, “Penstemons have adapted to very harsh places. Where other plants [couldn’t] grow they have grown.”
The common name for penstemon is beardtongue, due to the staminode that grows out of the center of the flower and looks like a hairy tongue.

In the spring, hikers can see beardtongue growing on mountain ledges, budding on desert floors, and rising from oil shale formations. Even people stuck in the city can see these native flowers blossom along urban roads since Utah Division of Transportation includes penstemon seeds in the mixtures used to restore vegetation along new and reconstructed roads.

Dr. Noel Homgren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the New York Botanical Garden explains, “Although penstemon distribution [stretches from] southern Alaska to northern Guatemala; Utah is the Center of Diversity for penstemon. There are more species of penstemon in Utah than any other state in the Union.”

Graham's beardtongue Penstemon grahamii Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Graham’s beardtongue
Penstemon grahamii
Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
To identify penstemon or beardtongue, ask these three questions while examining the plant: First, does the plant have opposite leaves growing out of the stem; second, is the flower a tubular shape, and finally, inside the flower are there four filaments surrounding one furry filament? If the answer is yes to all three of these questions, you have found and identified a penstemon.

With the increasing popularity of water-wise landscapes, many native penstemons can now be purchased in flower shops. You can have a little bit of native Utah growing right in your own back yard.
Firecracker and Wasatch are two popular penstemon choices. Both thrive in dry landscapes and require no fertilizer. Fertilizer actually shortens the life of penstemons.

Wasatch Penstemon and the start of Firecracker Penstemon in photographer's water-wise backyard landscape Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards, Photographer
Wasatch Penstemon and the start of Firecracker Penstemon in photographer’s water-wise backyard landscape
Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards, Photographer
The Firecracker blooms in mid spring and is cold hardy, it has a bright red tubular flower which hangs slightly downward – both these characteristics attract hummingbirds which can add entertainment to any backyard.

“If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird war where two or more hummingbirds fight over a plant it’s fascinating sight.”
The Wasatch Beardtongue has rich colored flowers with hues of purple, blue and lavender that bloom upward. It’s a favorite for the bumblebee. If you come close to these flowering plants you can hear the low humming of the bees hard at work.

Some native penstemons are quite rare and found in very limited areas. Two of these are the Graham and White River penstemons, found only in the oil shale outcrops of the Uintah Mountains.

To help preserve these rare flowering plants, Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, through the Division of Wildlife Resources, partnered with USU to use modeling as an aid to determine where the rare flowers grow.

By using survey data from the Utah Heritage Program, which tells where the rare plants have been found, the data is entered into the model and fined tuned so it can more accurately tell the researchers other locations where the rare plants may be.

Graham's beardtongue Penstemon grahamii In Uinta Shale Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Graham’s beardtongue
Penstemon grahamii
In Uinta Shale
Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Mindy Wheeler, the Rare Plant Conservation Coordinator from UDWR explains, “it’s as if we become detectives.” We gather the clues for the model, then go out into the areas where the model tells us the plants may be found.
Often when I come upon a rare pentsemon, I’m so relieved and happy that I drop to my knees and with my hands in the dirt examine it closely.

“Every piece of data we gather goes back into the model to refine it.”

Dr. Tom Edwards, Research Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, professor in the Department of Wildland Resources, and Principal investigator on the project, said – once we have the models and understand where the rare plants are, it allows management agencies to work with their stakeholders (who include tribal nations, energy groups and ranchers) to decrease the impacts they have on these rare plants.

Wheeler adds, “It’s been helpful to find…rare penstemons which are a conservation priority because it either helps with conservation actions or in a best case scenario finds enough plants so they no longer need as much protection.”

Utah residents who would like to add penstamon to their yards, can go to the Utah Native Plant Society’s website, to find the closest supplier in their area.

Edwards adds, “Penstemons bloom at different times of the year so if you plan carefully you can have vibrant rotating color in your gardens all summer long.”

To become a Penstemaniac simply go to The American Penstemon Society website and join.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Robert Fitts
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

American Penstemon Society: http://penstemons.org/

Utah Native Plant Society: http://www.unps.org/index.html

Loyola, Deena, Penstemon Conservation Agreement Finalized, Trust Lands Administration, State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, Aug 6, 2014, https://trustlands.utah.gov/penstemon-conservation-agreement-finalized/

Graham’s and White River Beartongues, Species, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region, https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/plants/2utahbeardtongues/

Penstemon grahamii D.D. Keck, Uinta Basin beardtongue, Plants Database, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PEGR6

Tree Talk

Quaking Aspen Sleek stands of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) grow in Zion's higher elevations Courtesy National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior
Quaking Aspen
Sleek stands of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) grow in Zion’s higher elevations
Zions National Park
Courtesy National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
The next time you take a walk in the deep woods or even a stroll through a local park, listen closely. You may hear the trees ‘whispering in the wind.’ We use this familiar phrase to describe the soothing sounds of a gentle breeze through the forest canopy; but it may delight and surprise many to know that this figure of speech is now a proven scientific fact. The trees are talking.

They don’t talk like you and I talk, of course. The spoken word is foregone by the plant kingdom, for now. Theirs is a much subtler form of communication. ‘The Wood Wide Web’, as the scientific journal Nature once dubbed it, is the woodland social network. Within it, trees send electric signals coursing through their roots in order to relay important messages to their neighbors.

Travelling at the speed of about a third of an inch every minute, these timber telegrams take quite a while to accomplish such a task; but what this system lacks in speed, it makes up for with complexity. A tree’s roots will often expand through the soil to an area twice the width of its crown, resulting in the ability of a single tree to grasp the roots of and pass messages to multiple far-away friends at once.

In undisturbed soils, these messages can be expedited symbiotically. Subsoil fungal networks, which intertwine with the roots of trees for nourishment sake, can relay messages much more quickly by connecting otherwise distant, unconnected trees to one another. This becomes quite important when the message pertains to danger: an invasion of damaging pests, for instance.

Usually, though, if a tree needs to get a warning out to its neighbors more quickly, it will do so by other means. When trees are attacked, they emit scent compounds through their leaves. These arboreal aromas can be registered by distant parts of the same tree, far-flung trees in the same grove, or, amazingly, even members of the animal kingdom, which trees will summon to their defense. Even more astonishing is that each scent is custom-catered. Trees will identify their attacker by its saliva and emit a corresponding pheromone meant to attract that attacker’s natural predators. Once they are warned of an invading pest, other trees in the grove may respond similarly.

The usefulness of a tree’s ability to communicate with its neighbors goes beyond emergency warnings or the spreading of other important information. Trees have developed a sophisticated redistribution system in which the strongest trees compensate for weaker ones by sharing their surpluses of sugar. In fact, this system is so efficient that, in the end, each individual tree is nourished at the same rate of photosynthesis. This means that every tree in a grove receives the same amount of sugar per leaf in its crown as every other tree, regardless of its own ability to photosynthesize. As it turns out, trees are highly sociable beings. They take responsibility for friends and family members and see to it that their loved ones are well cared for.

Not all groves are created equal, though. These natural behaviors can be inhibited by intensive thinning of wild groves or absent altogether in planted, monocultural forests. However, when granted enough space and time to be itself, even the most artificial forest can ‘return to its roots.’

So, whenever you find yourself following that wooded path into the forest, think of what secret messages might be coursing through the soil or floating invisibly upon the airwaves? Consider these possibilities, and your walks may now be a little more mysterious.

For Wild About Utah this is Josh Boling

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading