Phenology Trail

AS IF Center has set up a Phenology Trail, so that our researchers, community members, and visitors can help us monitor the timing of events in our forests.

Phenology is the study of seasonal changes — if you study phenology in spring, you might observe buds breaking, birds migrating northward, and insects emerging from pupae; in fall, you might observe seeds or fruit forming, fruit/seed drop, and leaf color change. Phenology used to be considered a quaint activity from a bygone era. However, with climate change, it has become newly relevant to monitor whether, how, and to what extent the timing of our ecosytems is being disrupted.

Our Phenology Trail is set up to monitor 17 tree species and one species of shrub. Next year we will add a few sites where we can reliably predict there will be large patches of certain herbaceous plants like Trout Lily, Mayapple, and Golden Ragwort which bloom in spring, and Goldenrod, Aster, and Wingstem which bloom in late summer/ early fall. Our trail is set up to correspond with some of the tree species on Warren Wilson College’s Phenology Trail, which is also part of a partnership with ETSU and UNC Asheville. AS IF Center/ High Cove is at higher elevation that the other three sites, so we’ll likely see evidence of a later spring and earlier fall. Over the years, we hope that data collected at AS IF Center, combined with data from those nearby phenology monitoring sites, will help illuminate how climate change is affecting the timing of our Southern Appalachian forests.

WWC student Dru Bennett tags a Shagbark Hickory

Thanks to Alisa Hove, plant phenologist and chair of Warren Wilson College Biology Department, for getting us started with our Phenology Trail. We appreciate the work of Alisa’s Plant Physiology class in labeling our first few trees. We are grateful to WWC student Dru Bennett who came out several days to label the majority of our trees, and to Wofford College Environmental Studies Chair Kaye Savage, who helped take GPS readings for a lot of them. We are using protocols developed by Nature’s Notebook, a website of the National Phenology Network, and that website is also where we will upload our data.

Next time you’re at AS IF Center/ High Cove taking a stroll in our forests, ask us for a Phenology Data Sheet so you can help us keep track of bud-burst, leaf-out, flowering, fruit/seed set, fruit/ seed drop, and leaf senescence on our trees. If you’re a community member, you might consider “adopting” a tree species to keep track of during spring and fall.

Here is a list of the trees (and one shrub) we are monitoring:

Scientific nameCommon name
Acer pennsylvanicaStriped maple
Acer rubrumRed maple
Aesculus flavaYellow buckeye
Betula alleghaniensisYellow birch
Betula lentaBlack birch
Betula nigraRiver birch
Carpinus carolinianaIronwood / American hornbeam
Carya ovataShagbark hickory
Castanea dentata x molliissimaAmerican chestnut x Chinese chestnut
Cornus floridaFlowering dogwood
Fagus grandifoliaAmerican beech
Lindera benzoinSpicebush
Liriodendron tulipiferaTulip poplar
Ostrya virginianaAmerican hophornbeam
Oxydendrum arboreum Sourwood
Platanus occidentalisAmerican sycamore
Prunus serotinaBlack cherry
Quercus rubraNorthern red oak

Nancy’s Nature Notes: Winter Orchids

My creative process right now involves gathering some unusual materials. Today it was the stems of the fruiting bodies of mosses, an activity that reminded me somewhat of harvesting saffron. I spent hours up on the trail, not just doing the work, but really just because I wanted to be out in the woods. The trail was icy. In parts, the ice under the leaves released trapped air and let out a slow sigh when I stepped on it. Other parts were squeaky, and others were crunchy.

In a few spots, I found frost heave. This is caused by a “lens” of water in the ground — an underground puddle from previous rains, or from a spring. When water freezes and expands, it pushes up through small gaps between rocks, roots, and soil to make fingerlike projections. Frost heave loosens the soil and provides gaps for the tender roots that will sprout in the coming spring.

Frost heave on the trail

Winter is a great time to be in the woods. Far from being dead, the forest is alive and interesting, and it’s a good time for naturalists to focus on phenomena we might otherwise miss in the greener parts of the year. This is the first of several posts I’ll do on the joys of winter in the Southern Apps.

One of the great things about the chilly season is finding winter leaves. Forest wildflowers that produce leaves in winter make a trade-off — they expose themselves to cold temperatures, but they can make use of abundant light that reaches the forest floor while the tree canopy is bare. Three of our common orchids have winter leaves — two of which die back in summer.

The first of these, Crane Fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), has a purple surface on the underside of the leaf. It’s thought that the purple pigment may help reflect the light back up into the leaf, making the most of the winter’s light… but there is also a hypothesis that instead, it acts as a sunscreen to protect the leaf from too much sun. The orchid’s single leaf appears in fall and remains through the spring. The flowers that bloom in summer are delicate and spindly, somewhat like a crane fly.

The leaves of Crane-fly Orchid have a purple underside.

Puttyroot, also called Adam and Eve (Aplectrum hyemale), has a large leaf with distinctive pin stripes. Like that of the Crane-fly orchid, this orchid’s single leaf is only found from autumn through spring, dying back in summer. The underground corms produce a sticky putty-like substance, giving the plant one of its common names. The flowers that emerge on a spike in late spring/ early summer are yellowish-green with dark red tips on the petals. This coloration makes it difficult to see against a backdrop of green, and leads some to describe it as “ghostly.”

Puttyroot leaves appear to be pin-striped.

Unlike the other two orchids, the leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) are present all year round. Networked with a light colored pattern, these charming rosettes of leaves can be encountered in forests throughout most of eastern North America. They send up a spike of small white flowers in summer. The dried pods which follow are tightly clustered toward the tip, somewhat reminiscent of a rattlesnake rattle.

Rosettes of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain are present throughout the year.

Nancy’s Nature Notes: Flocking bluebirds

This morning on the front porch of the Yellow House I noticed two interesting phenomena. One, a sun dog at about 9am. This is a bright piece of rainbow that appears about 22º to the right or left of the sun when ice clouds are present and the sun is low in the sky.

Sun dog 22º to the right of the sun, seen from the Yellow House porch

Then I heard what sounded like a chatter of bluebirds. Because I didn’t realize they can sometimes flock in large groups in winter, I thought it must have been some other species of birds that “sound like bluebirds.” I grabbed binocs but at first I couldn’t catch a good look — they just looked like some random drab passerines. So I spent the better part of an hour scouring through Sibley’s, reading the bottom lines of each page, trying out different sounds to see if anything was a fit: toowhiip toowip? Nah. feefee chr-chr-chr-chr? No, not really. What about tsi tsi tsi tsi ti ti ti ti seeee? Um, no. Oh, hell, I’ll go make breakfast.

But as it turns out, bluebirds DO flock in winter, and because they are not in bright breeding plumage, they can look a little drab and unremarkable. Finally heard them again at the end of the day, grabbed the binoculars and caught a really good look. Yup, definitely bluebird.

If you’re in a place that has some open woodland near a field, stand quietly for a while and if you’re lucky, you may hear their gentle chatter. Or in Sibley’s words, “Song a pleasing soft phrase of mellow whistles chit WEEW weidoo and variations. Call of similar pleasant musical quality; a soft, husky whistle jeew or jeew wiwi, also a short, dry chatter.”

The American chestnut returns to AS IF Center

If you were to walk among the forests of the eastern United States over a hundred years ago, you would likely be walking in the shade of Castanea dentata,  the American chestnut. It’s estimated that there were about 3-4 billion of these majestic trees in the east, possibly making up a quarter of the trees in the Appalachians.

Original range of the American chestnut

The trees could grow to a massive size and provided food for wildlife, domesticated animals,  and people. The wood was incredibly rot-resistant — historic cabins with chestnut siding still stand in our mountains today, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The chestnut seemed indestructible, until the first half of the twentieth century when chestnut blight arrived on imported Asian chestnut trees, wiping out entire forests all across the east within a period of about 40 years.

American Chestnut trees destroyed by chestnut blight, Chattahoochee National Forest, north Georgia, 1930. Photo courtesy of ChattOconeeNF.

Yet a few of the trees persist. Miraculously, the roots of some of the trees have stayed alive, producing shoots that leaf out and grow for about a decade, then when the sapling reaches reproductive age, it gets the blight and dies back, only to leaf out again a few years later. One of the most optimistic sights in the southern Apps is encountering one of these everlasting chestnut saplings on a summer hike.  You reach out to touch them, and you’re touching a sacred remnant of our past.

But you might also be touching the future. Is it possible we could restore our American chestnut forests one day? For over 90 years, there have been efforts to restore this beloved tree species, often using the genetic material of those brave saplings that persist in our woods. In 1983, The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF) was founded to continue restoration efforts, and has been using a backcross method with Chinese chestnut species to develop blight-resistant American chestnut trees. They have developed genetic lines that are fifteen-sixteenths American chestnut, with one-sixteenth Chinese chestnut for blight resistance.

To support the TACF research and restoration effort, and as a gift to High Cove community and to Carol Jacobsen & Marc Poland whose land and facilities make our art-science center possible, AS IF purchased chestnut trees to be planted in our community this spring.

The seeds arrived in late winter and sat dormant in the fridge for a few weeks, little treasures packed in moist sphagnum moss, sealed in plastic bags. As the spring weather approached, several community members gathered at the Yellow House to select planting sites that would be optimal for chestnut — dry ridges with loamy, well-drained soils. Lucky for us, a geologist happened to be in our midst (thank you, Kaye Savage!) who got out her soil maps and advised us about site selection.

At the Yellow House, selecting optimal sites for our chestnut babies. L to R: Olga Ronay, Carol Jacobsen, Richard Martin, Kaye Savage

We had a late spring this year. It snowed, it stayed cold, it rained cold rains, then snowed some more. And then it snowed. And again. When spring finally came, it lasted about a week — then suddenly it seemed summer would be upon us. So we waited and waited for the right moment, then a week later, we were in a hurry — time to plant! One hot late spring/ early summer day, Olga and I geared up to plant our seeds. To keep voles and other small mammals away, we cut the top and bottom out of a beer can and created a metal sleeve for the seeds, burying them about halfway into the ground. To protect for deer, we made cages of goat fencing. Such a lot of hardware for one little seed!

Olga adjusts the deer-proof fencing around our chestnut seed.

We also planted a couple of seeds in pots that we will be tending throughout the year — when they are strong, we will plant the saplings next to their sister trees. Wish our little seeds good luck!

Good luck, little seed!

Addendum: Read this article from the Washington Post about biotechnology and the American chestnut, also featuring an image of a giant chestnut tree from our county in 1914!

American chestnut tree in Mitchell County (where AS IF Center is located) from 1914.




Turkey Tail or False Turkey Tail?

On a walkabout with some folks from the High Cove community yesterday, we ran across some beautiful shelf fungi. I knew they were either Turkey Tail or False Turkey Tail. For years I’ve been wondering how to tell the difference and I finally just learned how to ID them. Can you tell which species it is? Here are your clues: