Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Olivia Marvels at the Persistence of Plants

This post was written by Olivia Schouten, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Olivia is an excellent scientist, with strong expertise in plants and plant communities, as you’ll be able to see from this post.  

As a biologist with broad interests, I can usually find something to love in all living things, but I’ll admit that plants have a special place in my heart. This is probably a good thing, since I’ve spent the majority of my education and professional life cultivating my knowledge of plants. I’ve found that they are often underappreciated and often overlooked, which is a shame, because plants are some of the most amazing organisms out there (in my humble opinion).

Plants, in most places, not only form the basis of the food chain, but also provide the structure of habitat. A forest with towering trees is very different than an open grassland or a sparsely vegetated desert, and the animals that live there respond accordingly. Plants are eaten, trampled underfoot, exposed to the whims of the weather, and just generally beaten down by the world around them, all on top of competing with each other for resources and space. But while plants have it rough, they are also really good at persisting.

Trees are an excellent example of just how persistent plants can be. I was reminded of this earlier in the summer when I came across a grove of cottonwoods in one of our Platte Prairies while searching for musk thistles. At first glance I thought one of the cottonwoods had recently fallen and the leaves hadn’t died back yet. On closer inspection, however, I realized that the tree had probably fallen years ago, and instead of dying, the parts of the trunk that now contacted the earth had sprouted roots and continued on living. Branches had grown up from the trunk,and now looked essentially like three trees, all connected by the same fallen trunk.

This cottonwood, in true tree fashion, just refused to die. Photo by Olivia Schouten

Trees are clearly hard to kill, as anyone who’s tried to cut down a deciduous tree in your yard knows. Once the tree is cut you have to treat the stump with herbicide, otherwise the still-living roots will simply sprout again. Nearly every tree we cut here on the Platte to keep our prairies open needs to be treated with an herbicide. While it would be nice to not have to use chemicals in our stewardship work like this, that resilience of trees can also be a blessing. After the wildfire at our Niobrara Valley Preserve a few years ago, much of the forest along the river was killed. However, the oaks along the slopes are re-sprouting from their roots, as only the tops of the trees had been killed in the blaze. Because of this, these forests have a jump start on regenerating after the devastation of the fire.

It’s probably a good thing musk thistles are so showy, otherwise it would be much more difficult to find them.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Since I found that cottonwood looking for musk thistles, it’s probably worth talking about them and their own resilient strategies. As a biennial, these plants only have one chance to flower and produce seeds, so they produce thousands of them at a time. And they can fly. That’s not great for us, considering they are considered noxious weeds here in Nebraska, but as a strategy for this plant it certainly pays off.

But wait, there’s more! Even when uprooted or sprayed with herbicide, if the flowers on a musk thistle plant have been pollinated, they will still produce seeds! So when we control this plant, we not only cut off the root just under the ground and pull it out, we have to collect any flowers, or else nothing will actually have been controlled. This persistent ability of musk thistles makes things more difficult and time consuming for us to control, but you have to admit that it’s a cool adaptation, and in its native habitat, likely very useful.

We collected about three tubfuls of musk thistle flowers by the end of the control season. We let the flowers rot to make sure any seeds were destroyed before throwing them out.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

So far these examples relate back to land management, and how the difficulty in killing plants affects our ability to effectively manage invasive plants in prairies. But we rely on these same tenacious qualities in our native prairies species as well. Chris talks a lot about the resilience of prairies on this blog, and a lot of that depends on the persistent nature of individual plants.

Consider big bluestem, a favorite of both cattle and bison. It can be cropped down again and again to within an inch of the ground over a growing season, but while such trauma might kill another plant, big bluestem holds on until the herd moves on and it gets a break, coming back taller and stronger the next year, until it’s back to full strength within a few years. In addition, even in those years that it’s hammered by grazing, big bluestem will find a way to flower, since all that short and weak vegetation around them makes for a good place to put out seeds.

This patch of big bluestem has been hit pretty hard by cows this year, but that didn’t stop it from blooming.  Photo by Olivia Schouten

Other plants may just find that conditions in a certain year aren’t for them. Maybe it’s too dry, or too cold, or the grasses around them are just too tall. Perennial prairie plants don’t let that stop them, as many will simply take a break, growing very little above ground for a year, relying more on stores of energy in their roots than anything else. To some, it may seem like those plants have died and disappeared from a field. But just wait, when conditions become favorable, most of those plants will show up again, just as strong, and benefiting from that strategy of waiting it out through the hard times.

Now, just because plants are tough doesn’t mean they’re invincible. If put under too much stress even the most stubborn plant will eventually die. Knowing how plants are able to persist can help us more effectively target those plants we don’t want, but also help ensure that our desirable plants always have a chance to let their persistent nature shine!

The Great Drought (Again)

A warm and dry winter, followed by a hot dry spring and summer…  Temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit for weeks at a time…  Wildflowers blooming two to three weeks earlier than normal, and often for much shorter periods than typical…  Other plants withering and/or going dormant before they get a chance to bloom.

Sound familiar?  It’s a good description of the conditions across much of the central United States in 2012.  However, it’s also a description of eastern Nebraska back in 1934. The famous prairie biologist, J.E. Weaver and two colleagues published a 1935 paper detailing the response of prairie plants to the “great drought of 1934”, in which they describe the weather conditions and plant community responses in prairies near Lincoln.  The similarities between the drought of 1934 and 2012 are pretty strong.  The main difference  is that much of Nebraska actually had fairly wet conditions during the spring and summer of 2011, whereas in 1934 the extreme drought came on the heels of dry seasons in both 1931 and 1933.  Apart from that, a warm dry winter, very low rainfall, and extraordinarily long stretches of very hot temperatures characterized both 1934 and 2012. 

Most prairies look pretty dry this year.  In this burned and grazed prairie, only the most drought tolerant plants, including plains sunflower, western ragweed, and prairie sandreed, are still green.

The paper by Weaver, Stoddart, and Noll is interesting for a couple reasons.  First, it’s nice to see evidence that prairies have been through the kind of conditions we’re experiencing this year, and to know that those prairies rebounded.  We all know prairie communities are resilient, but with a high likelihood of more frequent and intense droughts in our future, it’s comforting to see some historical evidence that prairies have the capability to handle extreme weather (in fact, the drought of 1934 was followed by drought conditions for most of the rest of that decade).  Second, the authors describe the way individual plant species responded to the drought conditions of 1934, and it’s both fascinating and reassuring to see the same plant species responding in similar ways now.  Weaver and his colleagues describe the overall appearance of the prairie, season by season, and discuss the relationship between the ability of species to withstand drought conditions and their rooting depths and architecture.  Also of interest, Weaver published a follow-up paper in 1936, describing the way prairie plant communities looked in 1935 – one year after the big drought.

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