Deep Woods, the Appalachian Gametophyte, & Ohio Geobotany
Deep Woods – Hocking Hills, OH
Bellwort is a member of the Colchicaceae family, which is closely related to the lily family, Liliaceae. This specific type of bellwort features what are called “perfoliate” leaves, meaning the stems pierce directly through a portion of the leaf. The image above also shows, in great detail, the beautiful striations on the leaves that make the plant stick out amongst others. Bellwort is typically found in moist woodland areas with acidic to neutral soil. One thing bellwort is used for is to treat ulcers, wounds, and burns, according to naturalmedicinalherbs.net (http://www.naturalmedicinalherbs.net/). The root of the plant is also used to make a tea that aids with sore throats and coughing. Some even use bellwort as a substitute for asparagus when cooking! The bellwort pictured above is not flowering, but typically bellworts produce droopy yellow flowers around May.
Pink Lady’s Slipper
Pink Lady’s Slipper is a member of the Orchidacea (orchid) family and is known for its beautiful pink/purple petals. This species is known for its opposite basal leaves, that have unique striations on the faces of them. Pink lady’s slipper is also a monocot, meaning it have one cotyledon (embryonic leaf). This wildflower is also unique in that it depends on a symbiotic relationship with a fungus (Rhizoctonia) which grows in surrounding soil. This fungus functions to aid in the opening of the wildflower’s seeds, as well as providing nutrients to the plant. Pink lady’s slipper, similar to bellwort, has medicinal values and has been used by humans since the 1800s, according to the USDA (https://www.fs.fed.us/). In the 1800s and 1900s it was used alongside the herb valerian as a sedative for medical procedures. It was also used to combat muscle spasms, tooth aches, and nervousness/stress.
This species is known as the huckleberry and it is a native blueberry species belonging to the Ericaceae, or heath, family. This plant requires acidic and well-drained soil, medium amounts of sunlight, and moisture to thrive. The berries produced by this plant are edible and have a mild taste, resembling that of blueberries which are members of the same family! The huckleberry was used to create a juice that was used for an appetite stimulant/moushwash. It is also used, because it is edible, in many juices, jams, jellies, and wines according to Dr. Axe (https://draxe.com/). The berries are also very healthy, rich in flavonoids (type of antioxidant) that aid the body’s immune system. This plant is also consumed by some furry friends, including black bears, squirrels, and foxes!
Similar to huckleberry-blueberry, this plant known as sourwood, belongs to the Ericaceae, or heath, family. Sourwood is a deciduous tree that is known for its “droopy” branch appearance and large green leave that alternately arranged and are entire (sometimes with a slight serration). This species also produces bell-shaped, drooping, white flowers in the summer time. Sourwood prefers well-drained woodland habitats with acidic soil and sandstone substrate. Sourwood provides shelter and habitat for many wildlife creatures, and is also used by humans. It produces hardwood that was used by Native Americans to make cooking tools and other hardware. Sourwood also produces a sweet sap that has medicinal properties; it was used to treat digestive and urinary system conditions such as diarrhea and dysentery according to Casey Trees(https://caseytrees.org/).
Biotic Threats to Forest Health
This species is known as the butternut and belongs to the Juglandaceae, or walnut, family. This tree has bright green pinnately-compound and alternately-arranged leaves. The butternut produces a fruit, called the white walnut, which is a sweet nut that has been consumed for many years. Unfortunately, this tree suffers from a fungal disease known as butternut canker. The fungus, known as Ophiognomonia clavigignenti-juglandacearum (wow that’s a mouthful), prevents sap flow throughout the tree causing a lack of nutrient transportation. This disease was first documented in Wisconsin, in 1967 according to Wisconsin Horticulture (https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/). One can observe this disease on butternuts by looking for crevices of degradation within the bark of the tree. As of today, there are no known “cures” for the disease, and the trees that contract thee disease are most likely to slowly die.
The eastern hemlock is a species of conifer that belongs to the Pinaceae, or pinee, family. Native to eastern North America, this tree is actually the state tree of Pennsylvania (my home!). The hemlock is a perennial tree, producing flowers in the spring time, that eventually grow into cones that mature in the fall, eventually dispersing seeds closer to winter. Eastern hemlocks are typically found in areas of shade and cooler temperatures, with fairly acidic soil. According to National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/), the eastern hemlock is suffering from the attacks of a non-native insect known as the hemlock wooly adelgid (Adelges tsugae). This insect arrived in the United States around 1920 and has since been rapidly colonizing forests and feeding upon hemlock trees. To identify this disease on a hemlock, one must look for white, wooly-looking particles that resemble cotton balls. There are currently a few methods of treatment that include foliar treatments, systemic treatments, and predator beetles, in order to combat these insects. An interesting method of treatment, introducing predator beetles that specifically feed on adelgids has been around since 2002 and has aided in the rehabilitation of infected trees!
There are many types of ferns in North America, but none that are quite as peculiar as the Appalachian gametophyte (Vittaria appalachiana), more commonly known as “shoestring fern”. The Appalachian gametophyte is found in mocool areas (such as this sandstone cave), and Most ferns are known to have a long sporophtye phase and a short gametophyte phase, however there are approximately three species of ferns of which do not have a distinct, mature sporophyte structure; this is one of them!
Lacking a sporophyte phase, the Appalachian gametophyte must find other means of spore dispersal, in order to reproduce. Via asexual reproduction, this fern produces gemmae which are small cellular bodies/buds that develop into offspring. These gemmae are a bit larger than typical spores that are produced by sexually reproducing ferns, which comes into play with the means of their dispersal tactics.
Due to their size, gemmae are unable to experience long distance wind dispersal, creating complications when it comes to ensuring the spread and survival of offspring. In a 1995 publication by Kimmerer and Young, a method of vector dispersal is brought to attention. This method suggests that slugs play a role in dispersal through the use of their moist, slimey bodies that leave a trail when traveling. Other means of dispersal include short distance wind dispersal, and water. When water interacts with the ferns, it picks up a small amount of gemmae, which are carried and dispersed to wherever it travels.
Lacking a definitive “long distance” method of dispersal, the geological presence of Appalachian gametophyte is significantly limited, which is why it is an uncommon species. The fern is only present below the last glacial maxima, where it resides in less than optimal conditions (compared to other regions), suggesting its inability to travel far distances due to lack of long distance dispersal methods. There is also a limited presence of this species in New York, indicating their eventual loss in ability to produce sporophytes. These results elude to the existence, at one time, a fully functioning, mature sporophyte of Vittaria appalachiana.
Based on the 2016 research by Pinson and Schuettpelz, it is unlikely that the current populations of the Appalachian gametophyte could be sustained by long-distance dispersal from some tropical sporophyte source. There is a pattern of species distribution in Appalachia, proving that long-distance tropical sporophyte dispersal is unlikely, especially because of limited genetic variability. The reason behind the current wide range of the species is the possibility of a previously existing shoestring fern sporophyte that gave the ability for long distance dispersal, which eventually was selected against, resulting in the current genotype of the organism.
Kimmerer, R. W., & Young, C. C. (1995). The Role of Slugs in Dispersal of the Asexual Propagules of Dicranum flagellare. The Bryologist, 98(1), 149–153. https://doi.org/10.2307/3243652
Pinson JB, Schuettpelz E. Unraveling the origin of the Appalachian gametophyte, Vittaria appalachiana. Am J Bot. 2016 Apr;103(4):668-76. doi: 10.3732/ajb.1500522. Epub 2016 Mar 31. PMID: 27033317.
Miscellaneous Other Observations
RoundLeaf Catchfly is a gorgeous species within the Caryophyllaceae, or pink, family. This plant is commonly mistaken for Fire Pink, due to its significant red flowerings, but differs in blossom shape. Roundleaf catchfly, although not represented by this picture, has deep red blossoms with narrow, jagged petals. This plant is known to have a cyme inflorescence and its fruit is a capsule. Roundleaf Catchfly is a rather rare plant and is typically found in areas of high sunlight and moist soil, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (https://plants.usda.gov/).
Snakeskin liverwort is a member of the Conocephalaceae family and has a unique name due to its snake skin-like appearance. This plant is non-vascular and are similar, but to not be mistake for, mosses and hornworts. Snakeskin liverwort is known for its scent when broken apart; in my opinion, it was almost chocolate-like! This species is mostly found in areas of moisture and coolness, such as on rocks or in caves near water sources according to Central Coast Biovidersity (https://www.centralcoastbiodiversity.org/). Snakeskin liverwort is shaped like a liver, hence its name!
Reindeer lichen is a gorgeous frosty-white/green species of lichen found in the Cladoniaceae family. It is one of the slowest growing lichens. This lichen is commonly found in northern tundra and taiga ecosystems, where it is cold and desolate- which is why it is so rare to see here in Ohio. It also is a food source for reindeer, caribou, and moose. It prefers well-drained soil that is typically moist, so it can absorb the water! A fun fact about reindeer lichen is that is can be used to thicken soups, as well as to make bread and pudding, according to Original Outdoors (https://originaloutdoors.co.uk/).
Sword moss is a unique type of moss found in the Bryoxiphiaceae family. The leaves of sword moss are simple and elongate, and the species is known for its peculiar growth pattern- vertically out from the surface to which it is attached. This plant is most commonly found growing on sandstone in cool, dark, and damp areas such as the one pictured above. Sword moss exists in small populations and is rare, according to the Department of Natural Resources (https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/).