Prairie Dropseed

Sporobolus heterolepis 

Post by: Wes Hauser ’15

The Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) is a fantastic member of the grass family, Poaceae, that can be seen in bloom in front of the Wabash College Fine Arts Center. Like other members of the Poaceae, S. heterolepis has quite the unusual floral structure and arrangement. Its flowers are organized into what are called florets which have 2 outer organs called the palea and the lemma with stamens and carpels (plant reproductive organs) housed within (see the diagram below, borrowed from floridagrasses.org). These florets are then organized along the grass’s reproductive axis (inflorescence) as a spikelet. Be sure to also check out the close-up pictures of spikelets from S. heterolepis! They’re pretty cool and look strikingly similar to those of Eragrostis, the genus of grasses I’ve been working with in Professor Ingram’s lab this summer. Unsurprisingly, Eragrostis and Sporobolus are closely related and are often confused for one another by amateur taxonomists.

Sporobolus heterolepis is a perennial plant that has a large native range in the United States– it can be found in most states in the Midwest and along the eastern seaboard. Like other members of the Chloridoideae, S. heterolepis undergoes C4 photosynthesis, where carbon fixation is spatially separated at the cellular level to make photosynthesis more efficient. This makes the Prairie Dropseed quite drought tolerant and a great candidate for prairie restoration projects. It is particularly useful in these situations because it is a great indicator of ecosystem vitality. Its emergence and success after a wildfire or control burn often signals the reestablishment of other prominent prairie flora such as the Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

Prairie Dropseed also has several other interesting uses– the seeds were once used by the Native Americans to make flour, it is continuously prized for its landscaping capabilities, and some even say the seeds smell like popcorn! So if you see this shrub growing in its usual bunching habit, try taking a whiff if you’re not entirely convinced!

 

 

 

 

 

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Eastern Hemlock

Tsuga canadensis (Eastern Hemlock)

Post by: Wes Hauser ’15

Eastern Hemlocks are delightful trees in the plant family Pinaceae and are a common sight in the Wabash College Arboretum. They can be identified by their flat sprays of short leaves (8-15mm in length) and small cones (12-20mm). They grow happily in shady areas and are surprisingly long-lived (with the oldest recorded tree being 554 years old!) Their geographical range is relatively localized, with populations of Eastern Hemlocks being found in states along the east coast (barring Florida) westward to Minnesota, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama as well as in eastern Canada.

Unfortunately for this species, they are currently facing an awful blight caused by what are called wooly adelgids (Adelges tsugae). Wooly adelgids are small insects that feed on the sap and needles of the Eastern Hemlock, decimating entire populations.  The little moochers burden trees with 2 generations of insects per year, which usually kill the trees in 4 to 8 years. Fortunately, there are some efforts in place to preserve the Eastern Hemlock and prevent the spread of wooly adelgids to unaffected populations. For example, a program in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee called “Tsuga Search” has been initiated to save some of the larger specimens for the public eye. Cold winters, dormant oil sprays, and insecticidal soaps have also shown some progress in halting the plague. But, with no prevailing method to manage adelgid infestations, the moral of this story becomes clear: enjoy these beautiful trees while we still have them!

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Christmas in July!

Ilex spp. (Holly)

 

Post by: Wes Hauser ’15

Happy Christmas in July, readers!  Ilex is the sole living genus in the plant family, Aquifoliaceae, and it is known by its evergreen, spiny leaves, bright red, pitted fruits (pyrenes), and 4-petaled, inconspicuous flowers. The aesthetic appeal of the genus has made Ilex a great candidate for cultivators and landscapers (but a nightmare for amateurs trying to identify the species of individuals!) It has also been used for the longest time in religious celebrations. The Anglo-Saxons originally adorned their homes with the leaves and fruits of this plant as they were quite eye-catching (check out the pictures), and they believed the trees to be holy. Christians later integrated the tradition, which explains why holly is commonly used to “deck the halls” and is often seen in wreaths around Christmas. Additionally, another member of the genus (Ilex paraguariensis)  has a more commercially-focused use in some South American countries. The leaves are utilized to brew Mate, a delightful, infused drink served in a large gourd (also called a mate). Drinkers can flavor their mate with a host of herbs and spices that can provide flavor and some medicinal benefits. So, hopefully this interesting plant can bring you a little “Christmas Cheer”  as you find its attractive features withstanding even this summer heat.

 

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Queen Anne’s Lace

 

Daucus carota (Queen Anne’s Lace)

Post by: Wes Hauser ’15

Queen Anne’s Lace is one of the few flowering plants that can still be seen flourishing in the Crawfordsville area after its most recent heat spell. This plant, originally introduced from Europe, can be found in a host of areas: from woodland edges to roadsides to waste areas, helping this species live up to its status as a “noxious weed.” Daucus carota is a biennial plant meaning it flowers in its second year and then dies. One of the most striking features of Queen Anne’s Lace are its numerous flat clusters of flowers (umbels) which help identify it as a member of the carrot family (Apiaceae). In fact, according to “The Plant Book,” a Dutch subspecies of Daucus carota actually resulted in the modern domesticated carrot! Another interesting characteristic of Queen Anne’s Lace is that the umbels of a single plant can often be found in various stages of maturity (see the picture above if you don’t believe me), making it a very persistent member of the local flora from June until September.

 

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Final weeks in Namibia

After collecting at Etosha, we headed west toward the coast again, this time to the Skeleton Coast (so named because of the region’s inhospitable climate and harsh coastline that has scuttled many a ship over the years.)  The drive over took us through some gorgeous terrain—hills that seem to be nothing more than piles of red boulders, petrified forests, lush deserts, and we had a great campsite in a dry wash in the middle of nowhere with a new moon and a sky full of stars.  The desert becomes increasingly stark as you approach the coast, and we saw some of the most barren terrain that we’ve encountered yet.  In spite of this, however, there are some green oases in the middle of the desert—rivers are flowing all the way to the coast this year, and these water courses are full of plants (and hence, the animals that eat them).  The Skeleton Coast is a really interesting area because access is strictly controlled, so between that and the fact that it’s not really on the way to anywhere, there are very few visitors.  It definitely felt like one of the most remote places we visited.  There’s not much going on botanically, but there are some interesting historical relics—for example, the remains of some shipwrecks are still visible.

After driving southward through the Skeleton Coast, we spent a couple days in the vicinity of Henties Bay.  This area is interesting because it is subject to a lot of fog thanks to the cold current coming up from the Antarctic (anyone who has visited the San Francisco Bay area knows what this is like).  It felt strange to feel cold in a desert in the tropics, but that fog is bone-chilling. And it’s amazing how much water can make it to the ground from a foggy morning.  My boots were soaked after wandering around in the sparse vegetation that can make it on fog drip.

There’s also a large seal colony on this part of the Namibian coast.  They’re very interesting animals—they live in tight quarters, so they’re constantly squabbling over space, and they have some formidable teeth, so they actually seem quite alarming when biting at each other.  The stench is also unbelievable—the combination of an all-fish diet and high population density does not have a pleasant result!

So, after seeing the seals and a slight delay after getting a flat tire on a rocky road, we headed back to Windhoek (or Rainhoek, as I’ve taken to calling it—every time we’re in the city, there is a drenching downpour) to collect a colleague from the national herbarium, Esmerialda Klaassen.  Esmerialda accompanied us on our excursion to the northeastern part of the country.  First, we zipped north to the Grootfontein vicinity where we began looking for a number of our remaining species that we needed to collect.  We were fairly successful in finding the plants, but we were even more successful in finally encountering some of the more alarming reptilian species found in southern Africa.  Late one afternoon, Travis was looking for a grass and came upon a shrub from which a loud hissing sound issued.  We never saw the source of the hiss, but it was almost certainly a puff adder, a notoriously aggressive snake with highly toxic venom.  Thank goodness it decided to warn Travis that it was there!  The next day, we were on a farm searching for a species called Tragus pedunculatus.  As we drove on one of the farm roads, an enormous black mamba slithered swiftly across the road in front of the vehicle.  These are intimidating animals—the snake we saw was over 2m long, and they are FAST.  This one zipped across the road and slithered on alongside us for 20 meters or so.  It lifted its head up as it traveled, which for some reason seemed really threatening.  I was relieved that our black mamba viewing was from such a safe distance—black mambas can release large quantities of a very toxic venom that acts as a neurotoxin, ultimately causing its victims to suffocate.

The next day we encountered one of the more interesting features of northern Namibia: The Red Line.  This is a fenced line arching across northern Namibia that was established during the 20th century to slow the spread of some devastating livestock diseases (including foot and mouth disease) from northern Namibia to the southern two-thirds of the country.  All vehicles passing these checkpoints are inspected, and no red meat can cross when headed southward.  This line also happens to demarcate an area of the country where property is communal, as opposed to the huge private farms common in the south.  Interestingly, areas north of The Red Line were apparently largely ignored by the South Africans during the years when they administered Namibia, so the northern areas lack some of the lingering influences of apartheid that you can experience in southern Namibia and South Africa (e.g., mostly white landowners, many blacks employed in low-paying, menial jobs).  These communal areas north of the Red Line are strikingly different from the sparsely populated south—there are people and livestock almost everywhere, most people live in traditional dwellings (often round buildings with thatched roofs), and there are far more field crops grown (in part because the area gets more reliable rains.)  Happily, the population density is still relatively low, which means that the plants are generally not experiencing too much grazing pressure from livestock or other human-related impacts.

Our first few days in far northern Namibia were spent driving across the Caprivi Strip, the strange little piece of Namibia that juts out on the northeastern corner of the country.   The Caprivi Strip (and the rest of northern Namibia) is also home to some tremendously large rivers (like the Zambezi, pictured here), which are alleged to be laden with crocodiles and hippos.  I was just as glad we didn’t happen to see any of those animals.  The rivers are exceptionally large this year thanks to the record rainfall in the area, and in many cases have spilled over their banks to cause dreadful flooding.  It had been dry for a few days by the time we went through the region, so the worst of the flood waters had received, but there were obvious water lines several feet up on the sides of many buildings, and many roads were still impassable, like this one. Clearly this has been a devastating rainy season for many people in this area.  On the bright side of things, it appears that these flood waters are teeming with fish—all along the central part of northern Namibia, we saw all varieties of people out in the water catching fish with nets, lines, or baskets.  There were fish for sale at every bridge, and people were making what looked to be fish biltong (jerky) in great quantities.

One of the more memorable experiences of our trip was a failed attempt to find a locality in northwestern Namibia among some Himba villages.  The Himba are a group of people who are frequently featured in Namibia tourism publications thanks to their…striking style of dress.  The women who dress in the traditional style are bare-breasted with ruffled skirts and quantities of jewelry, wear their hair styled in elaborate braids with a topknot, and smear their skin and hair with an orange-brown pigment.  It seems like very few men actually stick to traditional dress, but those who do wear loincloths and not much else.  It’s very picturesque (but sorry, I didn’t take any photos), but I personally prefer a little more protection from the elements in the tropics!  Anyway, we sought a grass known from a very small area in northwestern Namibia, and we had what seemed to be a reliable locality that we found along a road on one of our maps.  We set out to find the road, but it was not a simple matter—we had a GPS to help us navigate, of course, but the map’s roads really didn’t correspond well with the “roads” (tracks, really) that were actually still in existence on the ground.  We made our way through a maze of tracks and got near to where we needed to be (after passing numerous Himba villages and an assortment of solitary and not particularly friendly-looking men with bows and arrows), but the road had disappeared!  It was very frustrating, but at least we got to see some interesting scenery along the way.

After our northern adventure, we headed back to Windhoek, collecting along the way, and spent a final two days in the rainy capital before heading home.  It was a long journey home, but my specimens made it home with me, so now I can settle into the many months of data collection that will come next.

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Mud, cats, and grasses

Our final weeks in Namibia were spent taking a whirlwind tour through the northern half of the country, which is quite different from the south both biologically and culturally. The first part of our northern adventures involved heading to Etosha National Park, which is an incredible park that preserves the land surrounding an enormous pan (a low-lying, water-accumulating area). Pans are important sources of water for game in desert regions like much of Namibia and are the site of many of the thrilling moments you might see in nature documentaries. Etosha Pan is really quite large—it’s the largest natural feature if you look at a map of north/central Namibia, and it is really impressive when viewed on Google Earth. Go take a look!

Anyway, our Etosha visit was amazing. The plants were pretty spectacular and were in great shape because of the healthy rains the region has been getting. My favorite grass that I saw at the park was Eragrostis sabinae, pictured here. It’s unusual for the genus because it forms long stolons (above-ground stems that root and form a new plant, much like what you might know from strawberry plants) and grow in some pretty tough soils (heavy, alkaline). These soils are very common around Etosha, and when there are good rains, it all becomes a sticky, nasty, muddy mess. Vehicles that do lots of driving in the park all end up white, regardless of the paint color applied at the factory!

We also saw some pretty great animals at Etosha. Because it’s the rainy season, the animals aren’t clustered quite as much as usual around the watering holes, so I suspect we saw far fewer animals than the average Etosha visitor, but we did see some really awesome things. One of our campsites was situated next to a small watering hole that was actually lit at night so that you could see the animals passing through. Here we saw lots of giraffes (who never cease to strike me as the strangest animals alive—they lumber around, rarely looking hurried, but actually covering a lot of territory) and a variety of ungulates grazing. On our second day in Etosha, however, we were very excited to see two male lions laying around under some trees. They had just eaten some prey that morning and were napping off their big meal. The third day was even more thrilling, though—first we saw two cheetahs basking in the sun, and then we drove past where we had seen the lions the day before and discovered a lioness nibbling on a freshly killed zebra! She was probably only 50 meters from the road, so we got quite an amazing view. Not only did we get to see just how incredibly strong and powerful she was, we also got to see some interesting interspecies interactions—the jackals and vultures were hovering around, trying to get up the courage to swoop in and steal a bit of the carcass. The lioness would periodically put them in their place, but I think she was so full that she was only half-heartedly trying to keep them away. They definitely managed to snag a few treats here and there.

After the lioness, we also managed to see some rhinos, a couple elephants, and some massive herds of springbok and impalas. They’re beautiful little animals, and all of the herbivores are fat and healthy this year thanks to the plentiful grass. We also saw lots of my favorite ungulate, the gemsbok, which has some really impressive horns and striking coloration. We also saw our first Namibian warthogs. Later in the trip, warthogs were a very common sight, and like here, we almost always saw a mother with two little ones in tow. The babies were quite charming—as you can see here, they knelt down on their knees to eat. Cute!

Next: back to the coast.

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