Guest inquisitor reveals all

The odd oak in Friday’s photos is shin oak, or Quercus sinuata var. breviloba:


This trunk “puddle” is a really cool adaptation called a lignotuber (good job Matilija!) or burl.  These are common in woody plants found in wildfire zones.  New sprouts can arise after fires have roared through, or perhaps after heavy browsing by deer, as the park ranger suggested to Ginny, our guest inquisitor.

Thanks, Ginny, for sharing the photos and question.  If you have an interesting plant quiz topic, preferrably with pictures, feel free to pass it on for our Friday Question!

Friday quiz – guest inquisitor!

Reader Ginny Stibolt passed this one on to mull over the weekend:

“We stayed at the Llano River State Park in Texas where I spotted this weird growth pattern of a gnarly oak–it’s like a puddle of trunk from which the main trunk arises. The camp host, who seemed to be well informed, said that these were Spanish oaks in the white oak division and that a root disease causes the expansion of the base of the trees. About 1/4 of them, here in the camping area, have this malady and often new sprouts grow from the wide base. Spanish oak does not seem to be the “correct” common name, and in looking at the native oaks for Texas, I couldn’t readily identify it. So a mystery or two…”


So what kind of oak is this, and why does it have this weird trunk base?

Ginny has an update, and I’ll post it on Monday.

Invasive plants, politics and science

I’ve had a hectic week (taxes! financial aid!) and haven’t had a chance to think about posting.  Fortunately, yet another colleague just sent me an interesting link that’s worth sharing and discussing.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with how Master Gardener programs work, they are built on volunteers who receive training in garden-related sciences and then contribute a significant number of hours to outreach education.  Many MGs work in plant clinics, and others volunteer in public gardens.  Regardless of where they spend their volunteer hours, they are always representing their sponsoring university and therefore dispense advice and follow practices based on the best available science.

This will help explain why the Master Gardeners who volunteered at the Racine Zoo felt they had to resign their volunteer positions.

(Note that the zoo is losing out on 1300+ hours/year of donated garden upkeep, but the zoo president and CEO is confident that the zoo staff can pick that up.  Wonder if he’ll be out there weeding and watering?)

Why did the worm cross the road?

…To get to the other side. Of course.

All the rain we’re having is causing the earthworms to crowd the sidewalks and driveways. They fling themselves out of the ground and onto the pavement because they’re drowning, right?  Nope. Urban myth (by the way, why are there no Rural Myths?).  The punchline is not too far off: they can only move about above ground while it’s raining. They use rain events to safely relocate, and can allegedly live for a while in a puddle.  But we all know what happens when the sun comes out…crispy Ramen time.

I had just come in from flinging a bunch of worms off the pavement in front of our building – they were going to get mashed or eaten by robins otherwise. I probably put them right back from whence they came, against their earthwormy wishes.

Portrait of Two Worms
– by H.L. Scoggins

Then I read Bert’s post…it’s like reporting that the Easter Bunny has rabies or something. I’ve always been delighted to see earthworms, under any conditions. To the point of saving their squirmy little lives whenever possible.
Not sure what to think about this new bit of information.

Invasion of the killer earthworms

It sounds like a B-grade horror movie.  Millions of earthworms, moving silently beneath soil, wreaking havoc until the entire planet is uninhabitable.  Sound a little far-fetched?  Not to ecologists that study northern hardwood forests.  While most of us grew up thinking earthworms were ubiquitous, turns out they are not native in parts of North America that were covered with ice during the last glacial period.  Most of us also grew up thinking that earthworms where the good guys/girls (they’re hermaphroditic), churning up compacted soil and leaving nutrient-rich castings behind.  In many northern hardwood forests, however, exotic earthworms, have become invasive and ecologists believe they are having profound effect on ecosystems.

I have to admit I hadn’t paid that much attention to the invasive earthworm issue but I attended a seminar last week by Dr. Lee Frelich, Director of the Center for Forest Ecology at the University of Minnesota.  Dr. Frelich’s seminar touched on several areas of research, almost all of it extremely depressing, related to climate change and invasive species.  He and his colleagues have documented significant changes in soil ecosystem processes and plant succession associated with increasing populations of earthworms.  Nightcrawlers, in particular, cause a lot of problems because they consume fresh leaf litter causing it to decompose at a much faster rate compared to un-invaded ecosystems.  The net result of these soil changes is that few trees or shrubs can reproduce in the understory.  Over time this may lead to a very different looking forest than exists there today.

Of course, we may end up with a very different forest in any event, given some of the climate change scenarios Dr. Frelich presented.  One worst-case model predicted the climate of the Boundary Waters area of Minnesota would resemble that of present-day Oklahoma City by the end of the century.  But I try not to worry; I figure by that point I’ll be food for the earthworms anyway.



For more info on the earthworms that ate Minnesota, check out these links, if you dare…