Substrate-associated Plants

Jane Forsyth lists many different types of plants as acid-loving that live in the eastern side of Ohio. The trees listed are chestnut oak, sourwood, scrub pine, pitch pine, hemlock, and mountain maple. The shrubs/ small woody plants are mountain laurel, huckleberry-blueberry, trailing arbutus, and greenbrier. The herbs are pink ladies’ slipper, ill-scented trillium, smooth Solomon’s seal, and bellwort.  Of these plants, I was able to find hemlock.

Eastern Hemlock

Eastern hemlock was historically often used to tan leather. Tannic acid could be used to soak the leather, and hemlock has plenty of tannins in its bark that can be used and made into a solution.  This prevents decomposition in the leather.  This use of hemlocks threatened the trees until better tanning methods replaced it. http://libraryexhibits.uvm.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/uvmtrees/eastern-hemlock/what-do-humans-use-it-for-

While searching for plants, I found many that also prefer acidic soil.

Royal Fern

Royal fern grows best in moist, rich, humusy, acidic substrate, and can also survive in less ideal areas (Missouri Botanical Garden). Royal fern is found all over the world. In Slavic mythology, the sporangia had magical powers that supposedly could fend off demons, grant wishes, reveal secrets, and help understand the language of trees. Seasoned royal fern has also been used in the Korean dish, Namul (inaturalist)

Green Dragon

Green dragon is related to Jack-in-the-pulpit and produces a similar bloom.  In addition to acidic substrate, it also prefers moist, fertile, and shady areas.  The fruit is eaten by birds but is very poisonous to humans if eaten raw, due to the calcium oxalate crystals and other toxins. (NC State University).

Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon fern grows tall, especially in moist areas where it can reach a height of 6 feet. Its stems have hairs that make it fuzzy, and birds can use them to line their nests.  The Kentucky Warbler goes even further by simply nesting in clumps of the fern. Cinammon Fern is also resistant to deer (NC State University).

Biotic Threats to Forest Health

Chestnut Blight

The American Chestnut, driven to be functionally extinct by this disease.

Chestnut blight is a fungus, Cryphonectria parasitica, that infects the bark of trees and produces cankers, or infected wounds.  If the cankers grow too rapidly, they will choke the life out of the tree until it dies and continue to spread.  This is the case when the American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, is infected.  The American Chestnut used to be the country’s most important tree and was abundant in eastern forests. The wood was resistant to decay and very durable and was made into many different products, and the nuts were food sources to both wildlife and humans (Forest Pathology).  Chestnut blight was originally from China and Japan, and the trees it infected were hardly affected thanks to years of evolving alongside the parasite.  However, when those trees were brought to America in New York City, the fungus went with them and spread to the American chestnut trees which were completely unprepared to deal with it. It spread extremely quickly, changed the landscape of every eastern forest, and drove the tree to be functionally extinct (Anagnostakis, 1997). American chestnuts are still able to produce sprouts and get to a “shrubby” size before being killed again, so they are not completely extinct, but they do not reach maturity.  This makes it impossible for the tree to evolve any traits that could make it more resistant.  Human intervention strategies have included breeding for resistance, studying a virus that results in less virulent fungi, and genetic engineering of the trees. Of these, genetic engineering has shown the most promise, but fears over GMOs and strict regulations have held it back from making a significant improvement (Forest Pathology).

Eastern Hemlock (pictured above)

Eastern hemlocks have a parasite called the hemlock woolly adelgid (Adelges tsugae). This is an insect that feeds on the sap of the trees at the base of their needles.  This feeding eventually causes the needles to fall off, and once enough needles fall off, the tree can no longer photosynthesize and will die within three to five years.  The insect is made “woolly” by the protective covering it makes and covers itself in.  This feature makes the infestation easily identifiable, as the base of the needles will look like they have tiny cotton balls on them.  This is another case of the threat being non-native and attacking trees that do not yet have traits to defend themselves. Hemlocks are much better off than the American chestnut; there are still many that are healthy and reproducing, but intervention is needed to prevent this threat from escalating and history repeating itself.  Chemical treatments like insecticides and oils are currently being tried, and they can be used either by spraying a tree or soaking the soil of the tree with an insecticide that the tree then takes up into the rest of its anatomy.  The method of spraying is very temporary and must be repeated regularly, but the soaking method has shown much promise and can help for around 5 years.  Another option has been releasing beetles that only feed on adelgids to hopefully lower their numbers.  The hemlock still has plenty of hope left (National Park Service).

Appalachian Gametophyte

Most fern species have both a sporophyte and a gametophyte stage in their lifecycle, and usually, the sporophyte is the longest phase. Some ferns do have gametophytes that are long-lived, but Vittaria appalachiana, the Appalachian gametophyte, exists solely as a gametophyte. This fern only reproduces vegetatively. This means that rather than releasing spores, a few genetically identical cells clusters called gemmae are released. Gemmae are much larger than spores, which limits their ability to spread long distances in the wind. The gametophyte is limited to disperse over very short distances via wind, water, or animals, and its range is small. The geologic history of Appalachia supports this idea. Appalachian gametophyte does not populate any area north of the last glacial maximum, the species has not spread extensively since the glaciers retreated, despite their ability to survive when transplanted. Given how poorly the species currently spreads, its range was likely a result of a previous sporophyte that was able to spread easily. It achieved its current distribution, and then lost the sporophyte afterward, before or during the most recent ice age. No tropical sporophyte could be sustaining Appalachian gametophyte through long-distance dispersal.  The range of the plant would be different in southern New York, and the species is monophyletic, so the movement from the tropics could only have happened once (Pinson and Schuettpelz, 2016)

Other Observations

My goal was to find plants that were good for foraging. This specifically meant plants that are actually good for eating, not just a tea, or a medicine, or edible but gross. I was able to find a few plants that fit my goal.

Spicebush

Unsurprisingly, spicebush berries can be used as a spice.  They should be picked when they turn red and taste like pepper and allspice. Drying and freezing the berries improves their taste and longevity, and they can be used to season a large variety of dishes (Back Yard Forager).

Common Barberry

The barberry produces its fruit in the winter, and that fruit is good for foraging.  They are very sour, so snacking on them directly will likely result in disappointment, but they can be added to any recipes that need a sour kick. They can be dehydrated and sprinkled onto dishes or turned into a sauce (Suburban Foragers).