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Category Archive: Wildlife

  1. Ghost Plant, Kudzu, and Dodder, OH MY! 3 REAL Plants that Rival Halloween MONSTERS

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    by Carrie Brown, Engineering Technician

    From Vampires and Ghosts to Werewolves and Zombies, science fiction and horror writers have created many startling characters with terrifying, yet memorable, traits. With Halloween quickly approaching, let’s take a look at three science fiction inspirations…that are anything but fiction.

    Dodder

    With nicknames that include “Devil’s guts,” “vampire plant,” and “witch’s hair,” few plants hold the spook-factor that dodder does.

    Belonging to the morning glory family, 13 species of dodder can be found in Ohio. Common Dodder and Field Dodder are the two most common species that are native to our state, and both have been reported in Fairfield County.

    There are many characteristics that make this plant peculiar, the first of which is that most dodder species lack something we often think of as fundamental in the plant world: leaves.

    As a result, dodder produces very little chlorophyll, thus doesn’t quite have the “umph” to readily photosynthesize.

    Following germination a dodder plant, depending upon its feeble capacity to make food, only has the ability to power its solitary existence for up to 15 days….unless it finds a host.

    As illustrated in this video, a young dodder plant will mosey around until it is able to sniff out a suitable host. As an obligate parasite, it has no other choice, and it turns out it’s not too picky.

    From goldenrod, to Callery pear, to soybeans, dodder has a wide range of tastes.

    Once a host is detected, dodder will begin wrapping itself around the plant.

    Soon after, it develops small piercing structures called haustoria that penetrate the host plant, allowing the dodder to imbibe water, nutrients, and carbohydrates from its host.

    It turns out “vampire plant” is quite fitting.

    Since dodder now has a free source of goodies, it no longer has the need for roots. Once severed from the Earth, dodder is truly one with its host.

    Because of this fraternization, it is impossible at this point to terminate the dodder without also killing the host plant. As a result, dodder causes millions of dollars in crop losses worldwide every year.

    Learn more about this fascinating, life-sucking creature in Buckeye Yard & Garden OnLine’s article “Weaving the Dodder’s Tale“.


    Indian Pipe (a.k.a. Ghost Plant)


    Perhaps you’ve noticed this “ghostly” plant species while walking in densely wooded areas.

    Often confused for a fungus, Indian Pipe, also known as Ghost Plant, is indeed a type of flora.

    As you may have guessed by its pale complexion, this perennial wildflower lacks chlorophyll. This is the green pigment most plants use for photosynthesis, the process in which plants harness the sun’s energy to produce food.

    Instead, this species elected a different and somewhat unconventional evolutionary path.

    Image by 018, Indian Pipe, CC by 3.0

    Because it is not reliant on sunlight, the Ghost Plant has free range of shaded, thickly forested areas. And since it is not producing its own food, it must rely on outside sources. This is where things get interesting.

    Whereas many parasites feed directly on other plants, such as dodders discussed above, Ghost Plant receives its energy from….let’s say a food delivery service.

    Deep under the forest floor there’s a constant give-and-take proceeding between tree roots and a tangle of stringy underground fungus called Mycorrhizal Fungi.

    Like an intricate game of telephone, tree roots and fungi are relentlessly exchanging goods: the tree roots provide fungi with carbohydrates that the tree makes through photosynthesis, while the fungi swaps minerals & nutrients that are out of the tree’s reach.

    Ghost plant takes advantage of this bartering, stealing the newly gifted carbohydrates from the fungi, in turn stealing from the tree…and offering nothing in exchange.

    The term for this shifty embezzlement is scary in its own right: mycoheterotrophic.


    Kudzu

    With the ability to grow up to one foot per day, this green monster can quickly conquer natural areas and turn them into a green monoculture. There’s a reason this plant is known as the vine that ate the South

    Image by Katie Ashdown, Kudzu, CC by 2.0

    Kudzu is native to East Asia, primarily Korea, Japan, and China. It was first introduced at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition as an ornamental plant and was widely distributed in southeastern U.S. for forage and erosion control purposes until its wicked nature was fully comprehended.

    Images by Pollinator (Kudzu seedpods) and Forest & Kim Starr (Pueraria montana var. lobata with flowers), CC by 3.0

    There are more than a few adaptations that give this green beast the ability to dominate both inside and outside of its native range.

    Kudzu is a legume, such as soybeans, and capable of fixing its own nitrogen. As a result, it can exist in poor soils that other plant species must pass up.
    Because of its ability to grow up to 60’ a season, it easily suffocates existing vegetation and literally crushes native biodiversity.
    Stems are lined with versatile nodes, capable of sending out tendrils when there is something to climb OR roots when there is soil to further anchor itself.
    This plant has a killer foundation. Thick storage roots can account for up to 40% of total biomass for the plant….meaning that what you see above the ground is only a bit more than what is under the ground.
    Kudzu has a sweet tooth for CO2. So increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will likely favor its spread.

    Kudzu is now present in Ohio and appears on Ohio’s prohibited noxious weed list. Although our shorter growing season and cooler winters help to suppress this monster, it still poses many threats to our woodlands and should be reported.

    Management techniques do exist, including manual removal, chemical application, and animal grazing & browsing.

  2. Engulfed in Leaves? 3 Options for Dealing with your Trees’ Autumn Offerings!

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    by Carrie Brown, Engineering Technician

    This week we wrap up our series on leaves by examining the methods and benefits of utilizing the fallen ones!

    I don’t know about you, but one of the keystone autumn memories I cherish from my childhood is raking leaves into an enormous pile…only to wreck my efforts by diving into them.

    Of course, this would happen repeatedly until my father would declare the scattered mess off limits and hurry me inside to clean up.

    As I got older, the task of raking lost its allure and became more of a chore, so as an adult, I’ve become a bit savvier when dealing with autumn’s leafy offerings.

    Engulfed in leaves? Here are some options!

    1. Leave the Leaves!

    Option one, and likely the easiest route, is to simply leave the leaves where they fall!

    If your yard is scattered with black cherry, locust, or other broadleaf species that have mostly smaller leaves, there may not be much action to take after they fall.

    In the case of maple, oak, and other trees with larger foliage, however, a bit of mulching may be in order.

    Use a lawnmower to shred the leaves into dime-sized pieces.

    There are several benefits to gracing your grass with this mulchy mixture:

    Provide habitat for wildlife such as frogs, turtles, bats & salamanders. Additionally, many moths and butterfly caterpillars overwinter in fallen leaves before emerging in spring.
    Increase your soil fertility and offer your lawn a nutrient boost! As leaves decompose, nutrients such as carbon, nitrogen, and potassium are added to the soil.
    Supply food for critters like earthworms, millipedes, and other essential decomposers.
    Suppress weeds in your lawn. Decomposing leaves cover the soil in between individual grass plants where weeds are most likely to germinate.
    Save your back! Mulching is far faster and much easier on the body than raking leaves.

    2. Compost to Feed Future Plants

    If your yard is rather arborous and fallen leaves are too thick to mulch with a lawn mower, it may be necessary to turn to plan B: Collect and compost leaves in a designated location.

    Composting is a process in which microbes break down organic materials into a nutrient dense, soil-like material.

    When done correctly, leaves and other fall garden debris can be composted and ready to use by late spring.

    This is a great option for gardeners with the desire to build their own rich planting medium.

    In the case of leaf piles, size and location matters!

    A pile that is 3’ x 3’ x 3’ is manageable and large enough to maintain the heat needed for the composting process. Make as many piles as necessary, choosing a shaded site with good air flow.

    “Feed” your compost pile throughout the fall season by adding freshly fallen leaves to a pile of older leaves.

    You can also supplement by adding other natural materials you may have laying around such as grass clippings, garden debris, and kitchen scraps. (It’s important to note there are a number of materials that shouldn’t be added to backyard compost piles, such as animal products, that will attract pests and take too long to compost.)

    Maintain your compost by keeping it moist and oxygenated.

    Water is needed for the composting process, so it may be necessary to add water to your pile. Additionally, compost requires aeration. This can be accomplished by occasionally turning the pile with a spading fork or other garden tool.

    Additional information on backyard composting can be found in OSU Extension’s Composting Series.

    3. Utilize a Leaf Pickup Service

    If you don’t have the space to compost your leaves and live in an area that offers leaf pickup, this service may be a good option. There are some important tips to remember when readying your leaves for collection however.

    Keep yard waste, including leaves, grass clippings and garden debris, out of drainage ditches and storm drains.

    If you caught our earlier article on stormwater, Only Rain Down the Drain, you likely remember that everything that enters a storm drain is ultimately outletted, untreated, into a local water body.  Leaves, in particular, can be very problematic for storm sewer systems so never leave them in the path of stormwater. Even if leaves are left behind, water filtering through can become rich in nutrients. When this “leafy brew” makes its way into rivers and streams it can cause an overgrowth of algae and wreak havoc on water quality.

    These same rules should also be followed in rural ditches and waterways.

    Avoid piling leaves, grass clippings, etc. in drainage ditches and grassed waterways. Doing so blocks the natural path of water and can result in flooding and erosion.  

    When bagging leaves and yard waste, use biodegradable paper bags.

    Paper is a better option, as plastic trash bags can take many years to break down. Better yet, designate a trash can for yard waste and mark it appropriately.

    Specific leaf pickup guidelines for Fairfield County communities can be found below:

  3. 4 Mysteries of Autumn Revealed

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    by Carrie Brown, Engineering Technician

    It’s that time of the year again. The air is getting brisker, the days are getting shorter, and the leaves are changing color. Join us this week for the second post in our series on leaves as we unravel the mysteries behind this brilliant display.

    1. Why does this explosion of color occur each autumn?

    It’s difficult not to become entranced by the majestic display tendered by changing autumn leaves. Offering an explosion for the senses, what we are really experiencing is chemistry happing right before our eyes! Let’s take a closer look at where these colors come from.

    Have you ever heard of the idiom, “showing one’s true colors”? During autumn, this is exactly what leaves are doing!

    In fact, the brilliant fall colors we are now experiencing are actually embedded in the leaf throughout the entire year.

    We simply don’t see these other pigments during the summer because they are overpowered by the surplus of green chlorophyll leaves produce for photosynthesis.

    The shortening days of autumn trigger plants to begin shutting down their chlorophyll production, and existing chlorophyll is slowly broken down. The result of this lack of green is the exposure of many other colors! These colors come from a variety of compounds found within the leaves:

    Orange

    Beta-Carotene

    Responsible also for the color of many fruits and vegetables, such as carrots, beta-carotene is a common pigment in most leaves year-round and assists with photosynthesis. In the fall, it gives leaves their orange hue by reflecting yellow and red light from the sun.

    Red & Scarlet

    Anthocyanins

    Unlike beta-carotene, the production of this pigment occurs primarily during autumn. Its presence acts as a sunscreen, shielding the leaf from damage caused by the sun’s ultraviolet light. During the growing season, chlorophyll does this job.

    Yellow

    Flavonols

    Flavonols are present in leaves all year. During the growing season, flavonols assist leaves in light absorption and energy production.  Their colors aren’t revealed until chlorophyll production begins to cease in the fall. Interestingly, they also play a primary role in the coloration of many types of flowers.

    While we bask in the beautiful changing colors of fall, trees are busy preparing for the approaching winter.

    Because the soft plant tissue that makes up broadleaves would certainly be damaged by the cold winter temperatures, many perennial plants have adapted to lose their leaves and enter a dormant state.

    Energy is removed from the leaves and the connection with the plant is slowly severed at the base of the leaf stem.

    Water and nutrients no longer move in or out of the leaf, and the leaf dies and eventually falls to the ground. Here, it decomposes to a rich humus that will help to feed the plant the following year.

    Nature is quite resourceful!


    2. Why are some Autumns more vibrant than others?

    There are many factors that influence the intensity of autumn leaf colors. Temperature, water supply, and light can all affect the duration and brilliance of fall color displays. This is why no two autumns are the same from year to year.

    Generally, the most dazzling autumn displays result from warm sunny days followed by cool nights. Low temperatures in the fall that are above freezing, trigger the production of anthocyanin. This is the pigment responsible for vibrant reds and scarlets and is abundant in species such as sugar maples. Early frost decreases this red color.

    Soil moisture can also have an effect. Summer droughts can result in the early onset of fall color due to stress. Oftentimes, temperatures aren’t adequately low for bright displays. Windy and rainy weather during autumn can cause leaves to fall to the ground prematurely and interrupt colorful displays.


    3. Why are some trees a bit more colorful than their neighbors?

    As discussed above, fall color is the result of multiple compounds. Different species of trees have varying compound makeups that can dictate which colors they display in the fall.

    “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.”

    -Albert Camus

    For instance, maples, sassafras, and sumac tend to produce high rates of anthocyanin, the compound responsible for that vivid red color. Anthocyanin production is triggered by sunlight, so the parts of the tree most exposed to sunshine will exhibit the brightest colors.

    Forest age can also have an effect on overall color. Due to forest succession, the composition of dominant tree species can change as forests mature.

    Early successional species, such as sassafras, sumac, and tulip tree, often reward viewers with brilliant colors of reds and yellows. More mature forests, especially those disturbed by fire or timber harvest, may contain more oak and hickory, offering displays of reds, browns, and yellows. Less disturbed mature forests may be dominated by shade-loving sugar maples, red maples, and beech and also offer a vibrant color presentation.

    Finally, some cultivars, such as the Freeman maple ‘Autumn Blaze’ and serviceberry ‘Autumn Brilliance,’ have been selected for their bright fall colors. These beauties are most often found in home and city landscapes.


    4. Why is my understory still green?

    You may notice a wall of green remaining in forests beneath those beautiful fall colors.

    This green understory is likely made up of non-native, invasive species such as bush honeysuckle, autumn-olive, and privet.

    These shrubs make their living on extending their growing season beyond that of native species. Fall is the perfect time of year to spot these invasive species and make plans for their removal. Visit the Ohio Invasive Plant Council’s website  for tips on invasive management.


    BONUS: Leaf Rubbing Activity

    Are you looking for a fun and colorful way to preserve memories of the brilliant display offered this autumn? Why not get out the crayons for a leaf rubbing craft! Pair this with a good tree identification field guide to add an educational component to this activity.

    Collect dried or freshly fallen leaves of all shapes and sizes. Ensure they are not wet and can be flattened easily.
    Using a flat, hard surface, sandwich a leaf between two white sheets of paper. You can use one leaf or use several as a mosaic.
    Holding the top paper steady, select a crayon you’d like to use to create your leaf rubbing. It is helpful to peel the paper wrapper off of the crayon. Turn the crayon on its side and gently rub over the top sheet of the paper.
    Remove the leaf from under the paper and admire your creation!

    Join us next week for our third and final installment as we explore the benefits and challenges offered by those many falling leaves!

    In the meantime, get the latest in fall color with ODNR’s Fall Color Update!

  4. Leave it up to the Leaves!

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    by Carrie Brown, Engineering Technician

    It turns out there are some amazing capabilities hidden amongst that beautiful canopy.

    If you’re anything like me, you treasure many childhood memories associated with playing outside. Maybe it was fishing in the watering hole on the back forty with Grandpa. Or perhaps you recollect swinging as high as the clouds on the neighborhood playground.

    Pondering those simpler times, there are a few reliable old friends that often come to mind: the line of dense white pines along our property border and a scattering of apple trees nearby. My sister and I would spend countless happy hours hiding out in the conifers, stocked only with apples and our active imaginations.

    I’m inclined to believe that many have a tree or two that we remember fondly.

    Trees provided a place of solace then and continue to today. From their deep roots to their stately wooden frame, they are an embodiment of comfort and sanctuary.

    However, what really catches the eye and provides differentiation among species is the canopy. The myriad of shapes, sizes, and colors of leaves is astonishing, from sycamore leaves the size of dinner plates to slender clusters of pine needles. (Yes, conifer needles are leaves! Read on to find out more.)

    Photosynthesis, Let’s Get Into This!

    With so much diversity among leaves, interestingly they all serve the same major function: acting as solar panels for the plant they embody.

    Thinking back to biology class, perhaps the term photosynthesis comes to mind? We won’t get into the specifics, but basically plants have the amazing ability to chemically combine sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide from the air to make food! It’s really pretty incredible when you think about it.

    If you want to know more about the process of Photosynthesis, watch this video. But be warned, this catchy tune may be stuck in your head for days!

    Jack of Many Trades

    Leaves have also evolved to have a variety of interesting “side jobs.”

    Carnivorous plants, such as Venus fly trap, use adapted leaves to capture insects.
    Many succulents use their leaves to store water.
    Leaves serve as a foundation for many ecosystem food webs. For instance, oaks support over 500 species of butterfly and moth caterpillars – more than any other native tree! These insects are a principal source of protein for our migrating and breeding birds.
    Species such as stinging nettle equip their leaves with specialized hairs that deter disturbance by delivering an inflammatory chemical when touched.
    Plants such as dogwoods and poinsettias use colored leaves to attract pollinators to their tiny flower clusters.

    Conifers vs. Broadleaves

    As stated earlier, conifer needles are leaves! They perform the same function as broadleaves such as maple & oak, capturing sunlight and turning it into fuel.

    There are some fundamental differences between these two tree types, however. While broadleaf trees tend to shed their leaves each fall, most conifers hold their needles for a few years and lose them on a staggered basis.

    Needles have a thick waxy coating and diminished surface area that helps them retain water, which comes in handy in drier climates. And their tendency to grow in a conical form with slender leaves help conifers shed snow while still capturing sunlight.

    A Sneak Peak of Next Week

    You have likely noticed that many of our broadleaf trees are going out in a blaze color! In fact, the Autumn of 2020 is forecasted to be one of the more brilliant falls we’ve had in years (and goodness knows we deserve it!) Peak fall color in Ohio is predicted to hit in mid-October.

    With this quickly approaching, tune in next week as we explore the following:

    Why does this explosion of color occur each autumn?
    Why is it better some years than others?
    Why are some trees a bit more colorful than their neighbors?
    Learn about a fun, kid-friendly activity that combines leaf identification and art!
  5. Today’s Milkweed Supports Tomorrow’s Monarchs

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    by Carrie Brown, Engineering Technician

    What is Milkweed?

    Milkweed is a herbaceous perennial that grows in many different habitats, primarily throughout North, Central, and South America.

    It is named for the milky substance that most milkweeds exude when a leaf or stem is damaged. This sap contains cardiac glycoside compounds, making it toxic to most animals and insect species and protecting the plant from excessive browse.

    Interestingly, this mechanism not only defends the plant, but also the insect species that co-evolved with milkweed and are able to eat it. The most iconic of these is likely the Monarch butterfly. In its larval state, the caterpillar becomes toxic and unpalatable after eating its host plant, providing it protection from predators.  

    Image by USFWS Midwest Region from United States, Monarch caterpillar on common milkweed, CC by 2.0

    In total, Ohio sports 13 native milkweed species. While some species are extremely common and found in a variety of geographic regions (i.e. Common Milkweed, Asclepias syriaca), other species are quite a bit more exclusive, as they possess specific habitat requirements.

    One of the most peculiar and beautiful is Green Antelopehorn Milkweed (Asclepias viridis). Found only in extreme southern Ohio, this milkweed species grows no taller than a couple of feet and features large, green flowers.

    Other notable species include Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), known for its showy orange flowers, and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), a pink beauty found in many moist habitats.

    Image by Fritzflohrreynolds, Swamp Milkweed, CC by 3.0
    Image by Marion Doss, Asclepias viridis, CC by 2.0

    Why is Milkweed Important?

    Can you imagine relying on only a single type of food? This is exactly the case with the Monarch caterpillar! This species depends on milkweed as its one and only host plant.

    The adult butterfly lays its egg on a milkweed leaf, and once the egg hatches, the caterpillar eats and grows through a series of molting events until it reaches the point of metamorphosis. It forms its chrysalis on the milkweed, or more often a nearby plant or shelter, and emerges 8-12 days later as an adult butterfly, starting the cycle over again.

    Without milkweed there would be no Monarch butterflies.

    Image by Sid Mosdell, Monarch Life Cycle, CC by 2.0

    Learn more about this unique symbiotic relationship in ODNR’s publication, Milkweed and Monarchs.


    Of course, there are many other insects that are reliant on milkweed as a source of food, such as the milkweed bug, milkweed longhorn beetle, and milkweed tussock caterpillar. Like the Monarch, these species sequester the plant’s toxins in their bodies, utilizing them for defense against predators.

    Image by Katja Schulz, Red Milkweed Beetle, CC by 2.0

    Additionally, milkweed flowers are an important source of nectar. From bumble bees and wasps to moths and butterflies, milkweed flowers offer a buffet of nectar to many of our important pollinators. With numerous individual flowers in each cluster, milkweeds are gifts that keep on giving.


    How Can I Help?

    The Monarch butterfly has been in decline over the past 25 years, largely due to a decrease in the availability of milkweed. You can help by participating in the Annual Milkweed Pod Collection. Coordinated by the Ohio Pollinator Habitat Initiative and Soil & Water Conservations Districts across the state, we are accepting Common Milkweed seed pods through October 30th, 2020. Below are tips on Common Milkweed seed pod collection:

    • Collect seed pods when they are beginning to dry and are gray or brown in color. If the center seam pops open with gentle pressure, they can be picked.
    • Collect pods in a paper bag, rather than plastic, so they can continue drying.
    • Wear gloves while you are picking and handling milkweed pods.
    • Always ask permission when collecting pods on anyone’s property but your own.

    Common Milkweed pods can be dropped off to our Milkweed Pod Collection Station, located in front of the Fairfield County Agricultural Center at 831 College Avenue, or other participating Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Place pods in the large green bin in front of the building.  


    Additional information on milkweed pod collection can be found in the Annual Milkweed Pod Collection brochure or by calling us at 740-653-8154.

  6. ‘Tis the Season for the Hover Fly

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    by Carrie Brown, Engineering Technician

    Does the hover fly have you “hovering” near the brink of insanity every August? If so, take a deep breath and know they serve a purpose.

    If you’ve spent any amount of time near a corn field in the past couple of weeks, you have likely encountered a bee-like insect that seems to take a special interest in invading your personal space. Though often confused with a sweat bee, this lingering flying insect is actually a species of fly, specifically a hover fly.

    Image by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren, Toxomerus politus, CC by 2.0

    Also known as a flower fly or syrphid fly, these curious critters are often misunderstood. Unlike sweat bees, hover flies are completely harmless to humans and have no ability to bite or sting. In fact, they share a mutualistic relationship with the crop they are raised on! In the case of the Maize Calligrapher (Toxomerus politus), commonly known as the corn fly, their presence is important for plant pest control. The hover fly larvae, as small, nondescript maggots, readily feed on soft-bodied nuisances such as aphids, helping to rid the corn plants of these sap-sucking parasites. In return the larvae receive a nourishing meal.

    Image by Melissa McMasters, Maize calligrapher, CC by 2.0

    The adult hover fly feeds exclusively on nectar and pollen. If you happened to have caught my article in the last edition of the our newsletter (Getting Frisky with Corn), you’ll know that corn plants produce a surplus of pollen grains (14 million to 18 million per tassel), so there is more than enough to go around. This also explains why the adults tend to hang out around crop fields.

    In addition, hover flies are considered “incidental” pollinators. This means that when they seek nectar from plants that depend on insects for pollination, they happen to brush up against pollen and spread it from flower to flower. In fact, next to wild bees, hover flies are often considered the second most important group of pollinators worldwide.

    Both hover flies and sweat bees tend to loiter nearby for the same purpose: they are attracted to the sweat and moisture on your skin. Unlike sweat bees, hover flies have only one set of wings and have a brightly colored, hairless body. They possess no stinger and their heads are dominated by very large, compound eyes.

    So the next time you see a hover fly, feel your personal space being invaded, and have the urge to swat, take one for the team and just walk away.