bloodroot

Native bloodroot started to bloom March 26 2020

 

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant.”

– Anne Bradstreet

This year, the winter here in Connecticut was warmer than usual and had little snow, but plenty of rain. Plants like star magnolias, forsythias and hellebore started to bloom early- here on the UConn campus a Hellebore bloomed the first week of March. A small snowstorm on March 23 brought two inches of snow in central Connecticut and was followed by enough rain to melt any snow cover off by the following day. Bloom progress on the star mags and forsythia came to a halt, but it should resume as flower buds were generally not damaged.

march snow 2020

March 23 snowstorm

Resident birds like turkeys are making their presence known as they go about the serious business of attracting mates. Their fanning of tail feathers and stomping around makes them hard to miss. Woodpeckers are also drumming to attract mates, and red-bellied woodpeckers send out their familiar call advertising what they deem the perfect nesting holes for potential females to check out. They often are inside these holes, just poking their heads out to call.

male turkeys fanning

Male turkeys fanning

Wood frogs and spotted salamanders have laid their eggs in vernal pools and they should be hatching any day now. Wood frog eggs tend to float to the water’s surface, while the salamander eggs are stuck on underwater stems. Both the eggs of wood frog and spotted salamander are sometimes invaded by certain symbiotic algae whose cells are transferred to the hatching generation of their amphibian hosts.

wood frog eggs floating on the surface of a vernal pool March 19 2020

Wood frog eggs masses on the surface of a vernal pool in March

An Eastern garter snake was encountered yesterday deep in the woods. This native snake can mate in March- early May and gives birth to live young in late June- August. This snake can tolerate cold weather and is commonly seen where there is an abundance of most vegetation where it will feed on toads, frogs, worms and other creatures.

garter snake in deep woods near a strem MArch 26 2020

Eastern garter snake in the woods

Lichens are an example of a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an algae or a cyanobacterium. The fungal part depends upon the other component to survive. The rock tripe is a lichen that resembles dead leaves and is found living on rocks. Umbilicaria mammulata is the most common rock tripe. Soft and pliable like leather in moist weather, when conditions are dry these leaf-like lichens will shrivel and become quite brittle.

rock tripe lichen Umbilicaria

Rock tripe lichens on a boulder in the woods

Bracket fungi, or shelf, fungi comprise numerous species of the Polypore Family in the class basidiomycete. These fungi obtain energy through the decomposition of dead and dying plant matter. The visible fruiting body can be long- lived and hard like wood adding a new layer of living fungal matter at the base of the structure every year. Fungal threads are within the dead or dying woody host where they obtain nutrients.

Phellinus robiniae shelf fungi on decaying tree trunk

Phellinus robiniae shelf fungus are hard like wood

Wooly bear caterpillars, Colletes ground nesting bees and mourning cloak butterflies are a few insects that are active in March. Often seen crawling across lawns in late March, wooly bears are looking to pupate soon, while the Colletes are looking for pollens and nectar sources to provide food for their young, which hatch singly in nesting chambers that resemble ant hills. From the ground level.

Early flowering plants are a good source of pollen and nectar for bees. These include the Japanese andromeda, native bloodroot, spring flowering witch hazel native spicebush, willows, daffodils, crocus and dandelions.

spring witchhazel flowers

Spring flowering witch hazel

As you hike about, check out stalks of plants and small branches of shrubs for mantid eggs cases. These eggs masses resemble tan styrofoam and Mantids should hatch by mid-May, depending upon weather.

mantid egg case keeney st pl March 22 2020

Egg case of a praying mantis

Native sweet ferns, Comptonia peregrina, are blooming and leafing out. These aromatic small shrubs are members of the bayberry family and can be found in dry open woods where there are sandy, acid soils. They are a good spreading plant for difficult dry soils and slopes, and they are one of the host plants for the gray hairstreak butterfly.

sweet fern flowering and leafing out March 22 2020

Sweet fern catkins and new leaves

 

The days are warming up and soon the landscapes will be full of color. But even when it is not so bright and cheery outside, as Charles Dickens wrote ‘ Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own”

 

Pamm Cooper

 

With spring in the air, many of us are starting to resume outdoor activities. Pussy willows are peaking out and minor bulbs are beginning to bloom but the landscape in many parts is still sporting the remains of winter. Without herbaceous growth and tree leaves, the rocks and tree trunks and fence posts are so much more visible. On them, what is quite noticeable now is an abundance of lichens.

crocus early

Early crocuses welcoming the first day of spring. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Lichens are rather curious creatures. They are a great example of a mutualistic association between two species – a fungus (called the mycobiant) and an algae (known as the phycobient). Fungi are a diverse group of organisms but none can produce their own food. So, they are dependent on another organism for survival. Gardeners are familiar with pathogenic fungi that attack their plants. Fungi that are decomposers break down organic matter. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with most species of plants.

mushroooms by door

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi. Photo by dmp, UConn

In all these examples, the fungi derives its food from other organisms, living or dead. The same can be said for lichens. In this partnership between the fungi and the green or blue-green algae (or sometimes both), the latter photosynthesizes providing food for itself and its fungal partner. In exchange, the fungus allows the algae, which can only survive in fresh or salt water on its own, to live practically anywhere when the two form this dual living organism. The fungal structures also serve to protect the algae in harsh environments, which is why lichens can be found on all continents as well as in dry, hot deserts or frigid, polar regions.

Lichens are often confused with mosses, which are actually a separate group of non-vascular plants. They do often inhabit similar sites and since mosses are able to retain moisture, lichens that live near them may be able to use this water to extend their growth cycles.

moss

Moss in a woodland area. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Unlike plants, lichens have no leaves, stems or roots. The algal part of them can photosynthesize but lichens get all their water and nutrients from the air and precipitation. They attach themselves to substrates either by fungal filaments called rhizines or a holdfast, which is an extension of the body (thallus) of the lichen.

lichens 2

Lichens covering rocks along old stone wall. Photo by dmp, UConn.

There are at least 40,000 known species of lichens and reportedly, it is much more difficult to identify species of lichens than species of vascular plants. They do have 3 distinct growth forms though that can help start the identification process. Foliose lichens have two distinctive sides, usually a top and a bottom. They come in a variety of forms – lettuce-like, ridge-like or bumpy or even convoluted.

lichens 4

Ruffled lichens on rock. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Often fruticose lichens are found hanging from trees or other perches. They can be thin strands and pendant, or upright and shrubby or cuplike. Some have flat branches that appear to be matted.

Lichen Dixie Reindeer fructose Cladina subtenuis www2.crms.uga.edu

Fruticose lichen – Dixie Reindeer. From: www2.crms.uga.edu

Crustose lichens, as the name implies, form crusts on rocks or on soil, often in proximity to mosses and cyanobacteria. They appear flattened or pressed against the substrate and these crustose lichens can be brightly colored.

lichen colorful crust www.nps.gov

Colorful crustose lichens in Utah. From: http://www.nps.gov

Just like plants, lichens have certain requirements to grow and survive. Not surprisingly, these include light, water, air, nutrients and a substrate. Since lichens need to photosynthesize, they need sunlight. Various species have adapted to different light levels, some high and some low. Often species growing in hotter environments are more pigmented, and hence, more colorful.

Lichens can absorb both water and water vapor through their cortex (outer layer). When moist, they start photosynthesizing and growing. Since lichens do not have a mechanism to retain water, during dry periods, they enter into a dormant phase often becoming dry and brittle. Once rain or fog remoistens them, they will become active again. Since they can absorb moisture from water vapor, lichens are often found in foggy coastal regions.

Nutrients are absorbed from water, air and sometimes the substrate they are growing on, especially if it is soil. Lichens need nitrogen to form proteins and other substances, just like plants. The blue-green algae (sometimes called cyanobacteria) part of the lichen can convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that both parts of the lichen can use. This process is called nitrogen fixation. Excess nitrogen can be leached by precipitation and enter the ecosystem for use by other living organisms.

Lichens 1

Lichens on tree. The rain will wash any excess nitrogen fixed by the cyanobacteria into the soil where plants can use it. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Air quality is key to a healthy and diverse lichen population. In fact, lichens are used in two ways as indicators of air pollution. The cleaner the air, the more diverse the population of lichens will be. Typically, the number of species declines with proximity to urban or industrial areas. With time, often more tolerant species will replace the more sensitive ones. Monitoring the species over time provides a picture of the change in air quality. As air quality improves, more sensitive species may recolonize some areas.

Lichens absorb not only water and minerals but pollutants, like heavy metals and other contaminants, from rain and dust. Because of this property, lichens are often collected and analyzed for these various pollutants and the results can tell us much about air quality.

Many animals depend on lichens for food, shelter, nesting material and hiding places. People have eaten certain species of lichens but many other species are poisonous so identification would be crucial. Lichens are also used as dyes, for medicinal purposes and in some natural personal care products.

They can start the process of soil formation. As they attach themselves and colonize rocks, lichens very, very slowly cause the rock to weather releasing its minerals and particles into the surrounding soil system. Get a glimpse of lichens on your forays into the woods, down the street or around your own yard. Perhaps you’ll look at them in a different light – at least before the trees leaf out.

Dawn P.