Making partnerships with nature
Recently, I got married. I mention this because our experiences are the lenses through which we see the world. As I gave more thought to how to live and grow with another human, I also found myself drawn to partnerships and communities in the natural world too. On a walk along Chautauqua Lake, I looked through the lens of connection.
I stopped at the Spicebush, a native shrub to this region, and look for curled up leaves. One day, I will find a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar rolled up in a leaf. This larval stage has mastered two effective forms of protection- shelter and disguise. When young, the caterpillar rolls up in a leaf to hide, coming out to feed at night. It looks like bird droppings, a quite distasteful meal to even to the hungriest of birds. As the caterpillar grows, its disguise changes to look more like a snake- a potentially harmful meal. I used to think that these caterpillars feed exclusively on Spicebush. But they do feed on other plants, including Sassafras trees. In the world of surviving, it is probably more helpful to not be such a picky eater.
Finding no caterpillars, I move on to the neighboring Hackberry tree. Strange growths on the leaves caught my eye. Some relationships between living things are very exclusive. Perhaps this is one, called a gall. Galls are a swelling or growth on a plant caused by the reaction to viruses, fugus, bacteria, or insects. If caused by an insect, the plant forms a gall, which provides protection and food to the growing larva. When the larva is ready to pupate or become an adult, it exits the gall, often leaving a hole behind.
There are thousands of different kinds of galls. Each gall is unique to the plant it grows on and the other living thing that caused it. Many common galls have names. It took only a few minutes of searching on the internet to find the name for the knobby bumps on the underside of the Hackberry leaves. Hackberry Nipple Galls form around the chewing larva of a little plant-hopper like bug called a Hackberry Psyllid.
Nearby, a White Oak tree stands tall. Oaks support a diverse community of creatures. Some say they support more than any other plant. Almost 900 species caterpillars have been found to eat oak leaves. This fall, the leaves will drop, returning nutrients to the soil as they are slowly decomposed by bacteria, fungus and other creatures.
There are also the seeds. One tree can produce 3 million acorns in its lifetime. Full of carbohydrates, fat, protein, acorns are food for turkey, deer, squirrels, bears, and more.
But from the plant’s perspective, why produce a seed that just gets eaten and digested? There’s not much left to an acorn after passing through a bear’s stomach. Oak trees depend on their seeds being stored and forgotten about. Yes, squirrels store acorns to eat as food over the winter. However, the more effective collector of acorns is the Blue Jay. As they store food, they also help plant new oaks, building a mutually beneficial relationship between tree and bird.
Blue Jays usually cache acorns in the ground one at a time. But, they can carry up to five acorns at a time: one in their mouth, one in the tip of the bill, and up to three in a specialized throat pouch called a gular pouch. Blue Jays can travel up to one mile to store food and cache several thousand acorns in one fall. Because of this, they are credited with the spread of oak trees after the last glacial period.
As I walk into the forest away from the lake, I start looking at the complex system of relationships between living and nonliving things in this ecosystem. Some relationships are easy to see. The branches that hold the bird nest, the hollow in the trunk for the racoon to sleep, the roots that hold the stream bank in place creating a space for woodland wildflowers to grow. Some flower seeds are wrapped in a sugary coating that attracts ants, who carry it off to their colony to eat and unknowingly spread the seeds that grow into new plants. The connections keep going.
Underground there is this symbiotic relationship between plants and fungus. Mycorrhizal fungus lives in partnership with the roots of plants. The plants supply sugar to the fungus. In turn, the fungus supplies more water and nutrients than the plant could collect on its own. Most plants, from trees to agricultural crops, are found to have this partnership.
New research is finding that plants connected by mycorrhizal fungi can use these underground connections to produce and receive warning signals. For example, when one plant is attacked by an insect, the plant signals other plants of the danger via chemical compounds that attract the insect’s predators.
Finally, I walk into an open area in the forest and spot plantain among the rocky ground. Recently, I stumped across a Yellow Jacket nest, getting stung multiple times on my sandaled feet. I was on a forest road, a mile from any medicine or ice. I frantically looked around and there is was. Plantain. I grabbed some leaves, chewed them, and placed the gooey, green paste on my stings.
The pain was gone in seconds. Dabbling in medicinal plants, I knew plantain took away pain and inflammation.
I started and ended with a personal story because our connection to nature is personal. We are part of this natural community too, both as a population of humans and as individuals. Stories, walks, fascinating facts, new research and even struggles help us to remember that.