July 18, 2015 – Forest Restoration Workshop – High Rock

Forest Restoration Workshop #227 July 18,  2015

By Don Recklies,  Naturalist

It rarely happens,  but this day the weather didn’t seem to favor us: it wasn’t hot – and that was good – but the sky was overcast and a moderate rain fell constantly during my commute to High Rock Park. Dom picked me up at New Dorp and we arrived early so we had time to sit in the car and wonder who might show on such an unpromising morning. Hardy souls began to arrive; first Elaine who dropped off refreshments, then Richard, Sandra and Jillian. We lingered a bit to see if anyone else would appear, then took ourselves and a few tools down slope toward Loosestrife Swamp… and the morning became just fine. The overcast melted away and, as weather reporters like to say, we began to “experience periods of cloud and sun.”

Today we planned to pull more Oriental Wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) from the edge of the swamp close to the picnic tables. This wisteria has been resistant, it just refuses to lay down and die. Several years ago we noticed that it had gained a solid foothold there and had spread about 80 or 100 feet along the slope. At the west end of the patch wisteria had grown into the tops of several understory shrubs and was reaching higher. We pulled out as much as we could, and removed almost all the climbers from the that end of the patch. At the east end, however, the roots were deep and well entangled in glacial till underlying the soil, making it almost impossible to pull them out in one piece. Here the vines often broke, and we knew we’d have to come back again and again until the roots left behind had exhausted themselves and the plants died.

Then weather intervened and several trees fell in that precise spot making it impossible to get at wisteria underneath the tangle of fallen trunks and branches. We came back again and did what we could knowing each time that there were many root fragments left behind waiting to throw up new shoots. This time most of the storm debris had been removed, and we could get at most of the new vines. There was plenty of wisteria and also Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) as well, and we went after both. The soil was rocky but the bittersweet came out fairly easily; pulling wisteria, however, was still difficult, vines still breaking and leaving roots behind. Dom, who has been at every workshop at this spot said he didn’t recall it being so hard to get those vines out. We kept at it and made sure there were no vines left to blossom and seed next year.

Since this was a small spot we didn’t spend all our time pulling vines. For what remained of our session we set out with weed wrenches to uproot Devil’s Walking Stick alongside the road up to the administration buildings. We spent less than a half hour so we didn’t get all of these.

For the walk after we decided to make a loop from Lake Orbach to Pumphouse Pond and back. The clouds were back again, but no rain. There had been rain this week and last, so the woods were damp and fertile, apparently just the right amount of moisture in the soil to cause mushrooms to pop up. On the way we met lots of them: a variety of gilled mushrooms the most conspicuous of which were amanitas (the group that’s home to the most poisonous of our mushrooms) and russulas, and a number of boletes, the mushrooms that have pores beneath their caps instead of gills. We plucked one of these with yellow pores and watched how the yellow surface bruised green-blue when scratched or squeezed. If we were mycologists we’d use these various color changes as one of the clues to identifying the species.

We also saw a good number of ghostly white Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora), both newly emerged plants whose waxy-white blossoms hung toward the ground to keep out the rain (otherwise the pollen might be washed away) and older pollinated plants whose flowers were turning brown and upright. Those not in on the secret think that these are some kind of mushroom, but they are real flowering, seed-bearing plants that lack chlorophyll. Because they don’t have chlorophyll (which gives the green color to most other plants) to produce their own nutrients from sunlight and CO2 they must find them it their environment, and so they steal those nutrients from the threads of fungi in the soil.

But there’s where things get interesting; we’ve known for over 70 years that many fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees in which the tree manufactures carbohydrates with its leaves and provides carbohydrates to the fungus, and the fungus provides the tree with more water and minerals from the soil than the tree’s root hairs could acquire on their own. In fact, the general belief today is that well over 90% of all green plants have such a fungal relationship, and that these fungal hairs unseen in the soil are a critical part of our environment. Some years ago scientists performed an experiment in which they exposed trees to CO2 in which the ordinary carbon had been replaced with a radioactive isotope that could be traced with instruments. Then when they looked to see where the radioactive tagged CO2 would show up again one of the places where they found it was in the tissue of the Indian Pipes. The tree supplied the fungus with carbohydrates manufactured with the radioactive carbon, and the Indian Pipe robbed the fungus to obtain its food. Really, you can’t make this stuff up!

Indian Pipe wasn’t the only parasitic plant we saw. At Lake Orbach some of the emergent vegetation was draped with a net of a thin, golden-brown vine called Dodder. Unlike the Indian Pipe, Dodder has a limited ability – very limited – to photosynthesize. When the Dodder seed sprouts, it is green and has tiny, anchoring roots. As it grows the tiny vine twists about seeking an acceptable host plant and when it finds one it spirals up, piercing the plant with tiny hairs called haustoria that penetrate the conductive tissue of the host. This is a necessary accomplishment; if the Dodder doesn’t latch on to a host soon after sprouting it will expire. Dodder uses its haustoria to absorb water and nutrients from its host. As the Dodder has accomplishes this vampire-like deed (well, not exactly, we all know that vampires – the bats that is – lap blood with their tongues from incisions that they furtively make) it abandons its infant roots and previous green existence, and pursues its new life as a free-loader. If you look closely at the vines you might see what appear to be widely spaced tiny scales; these are vestigial leaves, not functioning, but not yet entirely abandoned.

While at Lake Orbach, Pumphouse Pond and Hourglass Pond we looked for water lilies, but all the impressive White Water Lilies (Nymphea odorata) were just beginning to open after the previous rain and just a little too far away for a good view without binoculars. At Pumphouse Pond a few of the globular yellow blossoms of the Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar lutea) stood out of the water on long stems. Unlike the White Water Lily, these yellow globes never unfold their petals but open only at the very top to admit pollinators. I wonder why they remain ball-like; are they, perhaps, trying to keep certain ravenous insects out?

We returned along the shore of Lack Orbach, ducking under dense tunnels of Sweetpepper Bush, Highbush Blueberry and I don’t know how many other riparian shrubs, getting showered with water every time we bumped a low spreading branch. By then it was getting warm, and I at least found the sprinkles refreshing. Back at High Rock, our Restoration was over; it was good.

A Northern Watersnake (Nerodia sipedon) hanging out by Pumphouse Pond. These aren’t poisonous – we have no poisonous snakes on Staten Island – but if annoyed they will defend themselves vigorously (i.e., they’ll bite you if you grab them).

A nice Cauliflower Mushroom (Sparassus spathulata) on the Yellow Trail toward Pumphouse Pond: a good edible for foragers if found in good condition.

Below left: Indian Pipes (Monotropa uniflora), flowering plants that lack chlorophyll so they have to parasitize threads of fungus in the soil.

Below right: Dodder (Cuscuta sp.), a parasitic vine that extracts nutrients from the plants it grows upon. If you look closely just left of the center of the picture you can see one of the haustoria with which it syphons nutrients from its host. (this photo was from October of a previous year)

Below left: the White Water Lilly (Nymphea ordorata)

Below right: a Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar lutea) [from NJ -I couldn’t get close enough to photo ours last Saturday] DfR 7-22-2015