What color is your Doug fir?

June 13, 2010

When you read the title of this post, did you say to yourself “Well, it’s green, of course, that is if it is alive.” Doug firs (Douglas fir, Pseudotsuga menziesii) have some parts that aren’t green, however, and those parts are a visual confirmation of an important property of life – genetic variation in a population.

If you look at the branch tips of a Douglas fir early in the spring, you may notice its cones. This is provided that it is making cones that year. These trees don’t make cones every year. Each year some will form a few cones, but in a cone year, almost all the trees in an area grow cones at the same time. I’m not sure how they manage this trick, but it is a good one for a wind-pollinated species.

The bright pink structures are the ovulate cones of this Doug fir. The pollen cones are the smaller ones below.

Like other conifers, Doug firs have pollen cones and ovulate (aka seed) cones. Both pollen and seed cones grow on the same tree – the species is monoecious. I’ve noticed that the Doug firs where I live have different colors of cones. Some of my trees have deep rose ovulate cones, while others have lemon yellow ones. The pollen cones on the tree match the color of the ovulate cones, but they aren’t quite as intensely colored.

This Doug fir has yellow cones. The ovulate cone is on the upper right.


As the ovulate cones develop, their characteristic three-pointed bracts protrude from between the cone scales. Most Doug firs around here have straight bracts, but some have curly bracts. The straight or curly feature remains after the cones have dried and fallen from the tree.

Why should Doug firs have different colors of cones and different types of bracts? I certainly can’t tell you the exact advantage, but I do know that variations in every population are important. They are that species’ library of solutions to life’s problems. Life tinkers – tries this and that. Some traits may work better for some situations, while others may be an advantage in different conditions.

Developing Doug fir cone with curly bracts.

Most Doug firs have cones with straight bracts, like this one. The photos of this one and the curly bract one were taken on the same day.

No organism can predict the future, so the best survival strategy is to have lots of genetic diversity. This is the reason for cross pollination and sexual reproduction. The species that shuffles its genes and deals them out in all combinations has the best change of continuing on, whatever the environmental conditions.

Certainly there are some species that don’t seem to change, at least on the surface, but they just change more slowly. I prefer the term “slow-evolving species” to “living fossil” because the latter gives the false impression that the species doesn’t have variations and doesn’t change. Today’s ginkgoes are not the same as the Triassic ones, even if the leaves look the same.

When you are out in the field with your children, point out the variations that you can see. There may be an albino among a stand of blue flowers or some that have different shades of color. These are outward manifestations of genetic diversity in the population. Many more traits that we can’t see have variations in a natural population, and that’s a good thing for long term survival.  Hurray for being different – diversity is an important characteristic of life.

This rose-colored sugarbowl or leather flower (Clematis hirsutissima) is very unusual.

This purple is the usual color for sugarbowls. It was growing near the pink one.


Pollen cones

April 13, 2010

I was so concerned with getting the photos of the seed cones (ovulate cones) into my last post that I forgot to show the pollen cones of the ponderosa pine. Here are a couple of views.

The young pollen cones of the ponderosa pine.


One pink seed cone and many pollen cones ready to release their pollen.

A pine cone tale

April 7, 2010

A major goal of Montessori botany studies is to help children learn to observe and understand plant structures. There are a lot of things going on in the plant world that take a sharp eye and careful observation to find. The life cycle of pines is one of them. It is important for the teacher/guide to show children inconspicuous plant structures such as pine cones throughout the year and explain to them what is happening.

Most people are familiar with conifer cones, although they tend to call all of them “pine cones.” Few have followed the development of a cone through the year – or two years in the case of pines – that it takes for a cone to mature. I have been photographing the development of pine cones and here’s a look at their life cycle.

Pines have two kinds of cones on the same tree, pollen cones and seed cones. The latter are formally called ovulate cones. The trees don’t usually form cones every year. In cone years, the cycle begins as the new shoots elongate in the spring. The seed cones form at the end of the new growth. They look like tiny pink-to-purple bristles.

These are young seed (ovulate) cones on the new shoot of a ponderosa pine.

The pollen cones cluster at the base of the new shoots, beneath the terminal bud. Most of the pollen cones form on the lower branches of the tree, away from the seed cones, but sometimes they form on the same shoot as the seed cones. The wind usually won’t take pollen from the base of the tree to its upper branches, so the arrangement of seed and pollen cones encourages cross-pollination. 

These two cones formed in the previous spring. The one on the right died during the winter. The left one is starting to grow.


By early July, the living seed cone has quadrupled in size. Its scales are noticeably green.

Conifers use wind pollination, which requires a lot of pollen to work, and in cone years the trees produce an amazing amount of pollen. Pollen cones tremendously outnumber seed cones. After they release their pollen, most of the spent pollen cones drop off the tree. You can sometimes find dried ones in the branches later in the summer, however.

It takes careful observation to find the budding ovulate cones, even though they can be colorful. They hide among the new needles and are most easily seen from above, the bird’s eye view we don’t usually have. It doesn’t help that the ovulate cones usually form on the higher branches. You may need to pull a branch down so that the children can see the tiny new cones. The little cones of pines don’t grow much during their first year. In the fall, they have become browner and drier looking, but are nearly the same size as they were in the spring.

In the second spring the pine seed cones rapidly enlarge. A shoot I photographed had a pair of seed cones, but one of them had died. It provides a size scale to show how much the live cone has grown. Fertilization is a slow process in pines. It takes about 15 months for the egg cells to form and the pollen tube to grow and deliver the sperm to the eggs. The scales of the seed cones are green until late fall. By that time the seeds are mature. The cone dries and the scales spread apart, releasing the winged seeds. The dried cone may remain on the tree for months or years, until a strong wind brings it down.

In the fall, the seed cone has dried. Its brown scales spread apart and the seeds are released.

In case you need help finding your local pines, look for a conifer tree with needles in bundles of two to five. Other conifers, such as firs or spruces bear their needles singly. Their cones mature in one year, but they can be even harder to see because the seed cones form in the tops of the tree.

Take a look around this spring and see if you can locate some young cones to show your children and to follow through the cone life cycle.

The winged seeds of the pines blend in with the soil and rocks very well.

Seen any good grass flowers lately?

July 10, 2009

Our summer is rushing along, as summers usually do. With the abundant rains this year, grasses are growing profusely and the grass flowers have been a treat to see. If you ask most people, they will say that grasses don’t have flowers. It all depends on what you consider a flower. The common notion is that a flower has to be colorful and showy. That’s fine if the flower is pollinated by an insect or other animal, but wind-pollinated flowers don’t bother with all that extravagant use of resources. Their flowers are the most basic models – tiny petals or none at all, no scents, no nectar. The wind doesn’t work any better with those things than it does without. All it takes to be a flower is a stamen or a carpel, and grass flowers have both – one to three stamens and a two-carpellate pistil usually.

Here are typical grass flowers. The anthers are yellow and the stigmas are feathery and white.

Here are typical grass flowers. The anthers are yellow and the stigmas are feathery and white.

I’ve been asked what grass flowers look like, and that’s a good question. Without a hand lens or other magnifier, it is hard to see them at all. Basically grass flowers form within a series of bracts – small modified leaves, which are usually green. This little package of flowers and bracts is called a spikelet. Each spikelet can have one to several flowers + bracts stacked together. When the flower is mature, a pair of little scales (the lodicule) at the base of the ovary swells and prys the stack of bracts apart. The stamens, typically three of them, dangle out on long, flexible filaments. The anthers are large compared to the size of the whole flower. They have to be to shed enough pollen. Wind tends to scatter pollen and dilute it. The stamens are the easiest part of the grass flower to see. The pistil typically has two styles and two feathery stigmas. If you would like more details on grass flowers see http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_grass.htm

The feathery stigmas have a large surface area to snag pollen. Their structure may also alter air flow, making it more turbulent and promoting pollen contact with the sticky stigmas. The stigmas are often white, but there are many colors in various grass species. After the grass flower has bloomed, the bracts close back up and there is little of the flower to see on the outside of the spikelet. Sometimes the stamens remain for a short while after the bracts close. Inside, the ovary of the flower is developing into a closed, dry fruit. The layers of the ovary wall adhere closely to the seed, so the whole thing is commonly called a seed or a grain. A kernal of wheat, for example, is technically a grass fruit.
This switchgrass has orange anthers and pink stigmas - pretty fancy for a grass.

This switchgrass has orange anthers and pink stigmas - pretty fancy for a grass.

The grass family is one of the largest of the flowering plant families, so my photos show only a tiny fraction of the variety of grass flowers. It’s another good challenge for field work – find the grass flowers. Happy hunting!

Many flowers in this grass inflorescence are blooming. 

Many flowers in this grass inflorescence are blooming.

Stalking the wily slime mold

May 29, 2009
This slime mold aggregated under a juniper tree.
This slime mold aggregated under a juniper tree.

We have had a wonderful series of rains along the Colorado Front Range, and many moisture-sensitive organisms are showing up. The picture shows one of the less photogenic of the slime molds, probably from genus Fuligo. I was surprised to see this one preparing to form its spores in the thin duff under a juniper tree. The first time I saw it, it was a spongy, cream-colored mass. That day I hadn’t brought my camera – a lesson for me to be more prepared this time of year. I went back the next day and took this photo. The mass had shrunk and liquid pools appeared on its surface as it converted to spores.

Slime molds are incredible creatures that spend part of their life cycle as individual cells and part as a multicellular or multi-nucleate structure. They have a more attractive name – the social amoebas, but more information is listed under “slime mold.” The basic life cycle of social amoebas involves spores that germinate into individual cells. These amoebas eat bacteria from decaying plant materials. When food runs low, the cells send out a chemical signal that calls all of their kind to come together and make spores. The spore-bearing structures can be elaborate and beautiful, but they are small and easily overlooked. If you want to see a variety of them, go to this listing, http://www.uoguelph.ca/~gbarron/myxoinde.htm. For a story about hunting slime molds in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see this article from Smithsonian Magazine: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/phenom_mar01.html. The Discover Life website has good information and photos as well: http://www.discoverlife.org/20/q?search=Eumycetozoa.

It is easy to bring a slime mold into the classroom. To make its home, you need an empty Petri dish or similar container, some paper towel, and few flakes of old-fashion oatmeal. Scientific supply companies sell the dried form of the organism, Physarum polycephalum. It is a resting structure called a sclerotium. If a slime mold in its active state dries out, it can form a sclerotium and hunker until the moisture returns. To grow the slime mold, cover the bottom of the Petri dish with clean, white paper towel, sprinkle in about a half-dozen flakes of rolled oats, and moisten this well, but don’t add so much water that there are puddles. Place the sclerotium in the dish. Don’t worry if it looks like lots of orange flakes – the parts will find each other and come together. Place your culture in a re-sealable plastic bag to retain moisture and to keep the slime mold from migrating out. Put the whole thing in the dark to prevent the organism from forming spores. The yellow slime mold will become active and move around the Petri dish. When you are finished observing the slime mold, you can put it in the light and use a magnifier to look for the spore-bearing bodies – small black structures that give it its name, the many-headed slime. To see photos of this slime mold in several stages, see the first link above. Here’s a link to more culture information: http://www.educationalassistance.org/Physarum/EasyToGrow/PHYSARUM%20culture%20for%20web.html.

Slime molds are members of the unikont branch of eukaryotes and the amoebozoa branch of unikonts. They make up the mycetozoa branch of amoebozoa. The term “myxomycetes” is used for the acellular slime molds, those whose amoebas fuse together into one big mass. Older classifications placed the slime molds in the fungus kingdom, to which they are only distantly related.

If you want to stalk the wily slime mold, a magnifier is a great help. Wet weather, decaying vegetation, and patience are also needed. Happy hunting!