When the cold winds of November tug the last leaves from the maples, basswoods, and elms, orchids probably are the farthest thing from most Kansans’ minds. However, fall, winter, and early spring are the best seasons to search for one of the state’s more secretive plants – the puttyroot orchid or Adam-and-Eve [Aplectrum hyemale (Muhl. ex Willd.) Nutt.]. The plant’s specific epithet “hyemale”, referring to winter, alludes to the plant’s habit of producing a winter leaf. The name puttyroot is a reference to sticky substance released from the crushed tubers, which usually occur in pairs (hence the name Adam-and-Eve).
Puttyroot has evolved a fascinating strategy to survive in the low-light environments of rich, deciduous forests. As forest canopies develop in the spring, light limits the ability of understory plants to photosynthesize. Consequently, many herbaceous species flower and fruit in the spring, before the canopy fills in, or in the fall, when the canopy begins to thin. Puttyroot takes this strategy to an extreme. Each plant produces a single, elliptic, dark green, pleated, 3-6 inch-long leaf in the fall. The ground-hugging leaf remains green and photosythetic from fall through winter and into spring, producing sugars needed by the plant to grow. From late May into mid June, some plants will produce a single, 10-20 inch-tall flowering, each bearing a dozen whitish purple or brownish white flowers near the tip. Ribbed, pendent fruits – each about 1 inch long – mature through the summer and persist into the fall, leaving another clue to the plant’s presence.
Populations of puttyroot are documented in 10 eastern Kansas counties (Anderson, Coffey, Crawford, Douglas, Franklin, Johnson, Leavenworth, Linn, Miami, and Wyandotte). Most occur in moist, maple-basswood forests or cottonwood-dominated floodplain forests along rivers and streams. Populations generally comprise a few, closely-spaced individuals, but large populations can contain several hundred plants.
The next time you head out to your favorite forest trail for a fall or winter walk, keep an eye to the ground. If you are lucky, you may spy the distinctive leaves of this forest gem. If you do find this rare Kansas orchid, plan a return visit to marvel at its amazing flowers and fruits in the dim light of the forest floor.
Last week's NYTimes article about roadkill (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/13/technology/13roadkill.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=roadkill&st=cse) got us thinking about how roads change the way scientists do research. Roads are in part a great research tool because they provide easy access to every region of the country but, as well as creating other issues, they can also skew data.
Craig Freeman, a botanist at the Biodiversity Institute, studies the flora of the Great Plains. His research often requires him to drive a lot:
"Not surprisingly, when we plot the collect locations of our specimens on a map showing the network of highways in the state, many occur at sites along or near roads, urban areas, and public lands," Freeman said. "Why? Botanists are more likely to see plants (or habitats) of interest from the roads that they travel and in areas where access is not limited. Consequently, there is a collection bias in our data."
This is particularly evident in the western quarter of Kansas, where there is very little public land and few urban areas. Many records documenting the flora of western Kansas come from roadside or near-roadside habitats. So, Freeman said, it's necessary to access lands away from roads to get a more accurate estimate of the diversity and abundance of plants.
Not only do roads change how we investigate the environment, but they also provide habitats for plants that wouldn't normally grow in the plains. Freeman continues:
"The use of salt to melt snow and ice on paved roads in eastern Kansas has permitted both alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster to spread eastward in Kansas, taking advantage of shoulders of highways where regular mowing elevated salinity limits competition from most other species. Alkali sacaton and saltmarsh aster can be found along I-70, KS Hwy 10, and other major highways through eastern Kansas into the Kansas City metropolitan area, places where they did not occur as recently as 40 years ago."
Next time you're driving to KC via I-70, keep an eye out for the salty intruders.
Some mysteries can be solved if you just know what you're looking for — and where to find it.
The July 2 edition of the journal Science features a profile on reseacher Dolores Piperno, who perfected microscopic methods to trace the earliest evidence of corn among early peoples of in southern Mexico. Rather than focusing on the plant evidence of corn cobs, which put the date of the earliest domestication of corn at about 6,200 years ago, Piperno and her team looked for tiny bits of evidence among tools that might have used with corn.
Piperno, a scientist with the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History and its Tropical Research Institute, and her team found grinding stones with traces of corn that dated to 8,700 years ago in the Balsas River Valley. This helped end a long debate about whether maize had been domesticated in the highlands or the lowlands, Science reported. Her techniques, while greeted with skepticism at first, were accepted by others in the field of archaeobiology.
Quoted the publication:
"That's exactly how you're supposed to do science," says archaeobotanist Deborah Pearsall of the University of Missouri, Columbia. "If you look at the corpus of Dolores's work, you see the power of a scientist who chooses her research topics on the basis of hypotheses she wants to test."
Read more about Piperno's work at Science (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/329/5987/28.full)