Awesome Alpine Plants

Whipcord hebe flowering in the snow

My daughter and I went for a hike on Saturday after being cooped up in the house all day Friday by a rip-roaring southerly storm. The storm lashed us with rain and hail, but in the mountains, it brought snow. Saturday morning, the beech forest at Cragieburn Forest Park was a winter wonderland.

Climbing up out of the forest into the alpine areas, the intensity of the storm was clear—thigh-deep drifts filled the path in some places, while other areas had been blown clear down to the scree. Every tussock had a long train of sculpted snow on its leeward side, so you could almost feel the howling wind and the sting of blowing snow, in spite of it being a clear calm day.

Nestled among the rocks, we found this lovely whipcord hebe, flowering in spite of its slowly melting blanket of snow. And there were other plants peeking out of the snow, clinging to the scree.

Alpine plants are some of the toughest organisms around. They have to cope with intense sun, wide temperature fluctuations, drought, wind, and ice and snow. They have evolved a variety of adaptations in order to combat these dangers.

Short, cushion-shaped growth: A tight ball of branches and leaves resists damage and drying from fierce wind. The pinnacle of this growth form has to be plants in the genus Raoulia. Known as ‘vegetable sheep’, they form hard, tight masses of tightly packed leaves (akin to the texture of a head of cauliflower). Inside the mound, dead plant material builds up around the branches and acts like a sponge, soaking up rain when it’s available. Adventitious roots on the plant’s branches tap into this reservoir of water when the weather is dry.

Long roots: Unstable rocks and shifting scree make it difficult for alpine plants to stay put, and water is often far below the surface. To cope, they have long roots that anchor them deep into the rock. Some are also able to regrow from their roots if the top of the plant is snapped of by rockfall.

Drought-resistant leaves: Many alpine plants have leaves that are fuzzy on the underside, where the stomates (the breathing holes) are located. The hairs trap a layer of calm air against the leaf surface, slowing down water loss from the stomata. Other plants have narrow, vertically-oriented leaves that minimise exposure to the intense alpine sunshine, reducing evaporation.

Sunscreen: A waxy coating on many alpine plant leaves protects against intense sunlight and high temperatures.

Antifreeze: Ice crystals forming inside a living cell break the cell walls and kill it, so organisms living in cold environments have to somehow avoid freezing. Alpine plants protect themselves from freezing by manufacturing antifreeze from proteins in their tissues. The antifreeze prevents ice crystals from forming in the plant’s cells.

Energy conservation: The growing season in alpine areas is short, and nutrients are scarce. Many alpine plants respond by not reproducing every year. Instead of producing low-quality seeds that may not survive, they hoard resources until they have accumulated enough to reproduce successfully.

All these adaptations give most alpine plants a similar look—low, mounded, small-leaved and tough. But one plant in particular stands out as oddly showy and out of place.

Mount Cook buttercup (Ranunculus lyallii)

The Mount Cook buttercup (aka Mount Cook lily), is an unusual alpine plant, in that it has big leaves and large, showy flowers. But even so, it is well-adapted to the alpine environment. Most plants have stomates on the underside of their leaves, because the underside is generally shaded and cooler, leading to less water loss. But in the alpine environment, sun-warmed rocks radiate heat, making the underside of the leaves warmer than the upper side on sunny days. The Mount Cook buttercup and its relatives have evolved stomates on the upper side of the leaves, in addition to the ones on the underside. The stomates on the top open when the underside of the leaf grows too warm.

Kaitorete Spit: An Overlooked Gem

Earlier this week, my daughter and I hiked onto the Banks Peninsula from Birdlings Flat. The walk afforded us gorgeous views of Kaitorete Spit.

Kaitorete Spit is only about 6000 years old, but is an important natural and cultural resource. Te Waihora / Lake Ellesmere, formed by the spit, is home to or visited by 166 species of birds and 43 species of fish which support commercial fisheries, recreational fishing and hunting, and traditional food gathering. In spite of its harsh, exposed environment, Kaitorete Spit is home to a remarkable number of threatened plants and animals, including pīngao (a native sand sedge prized for weaving), a flightless moth, and the katipo spider. A variety of lizards also flourish on the spit. The lake and spit have been important sources of food and fibre for Māori since they arrived in the area. Fragments of the oldest known Māori cloak were uncovered on the spit, dating to around 1500 AD, and many other signs of early Maori use of the spit have also been found there.

In pre-European times, Māori used the spit as a convenient highway as they travelled up and down the island. Unfortunately, the shifting gravel of the spit and the regular opening of the lake to the sea mean the spit isn’t passable in anything but the most capable of four-wheel drive vehicles. Today, travellers make the long trek all around the lake, so our home near the pointy end of the spit is a 40-minute drive from Birdlings Flat, just 25 km away on the fat end of the spit. But I’m happy to leave the spit to foot traffic—it helps protect the unique plants and animals that live there.

On a windy, wet day, Kaitorete Spit is a miserable, exposed place to be, but visit it on a warm sunny day, and you’ll see why it is an overlooked gem.

5 Simple Things You Can Do to Help Conserve Species

It’s Conservation Week here in New Zealand. Fittingly, one of the kōwhai trees we planted years ago has chosen this week to flower for the first time.

Conservation week is a good time to talk about backyard biodiversity. I’ve blogged more than once about biodiversity issues. It’s a topic near to my family’s heart, and something we strive to improve all the time.

Our yard is, unfortunately, home to a wide variety of non-native weeds, but it also sports native plantings (and even a fair number of native ‘weeds’). Here are just a few of the simple things we’ve done to improve the habitat value of our back yard for native organisms. You could do these, too.

  1. Plant natives instead of non-natives. Here in New Zealand this is especially important, but it’s a good rule of thumb wherever you live. Native vegetation will best support native wildlife, because they evolved together. Choose plants that provide food and shelter for local wildlife—shrubs with berries for birds and lizards to eat, dense grasses that provide hiding spots for invertebrates, and flowers that provide food for insects.
  2. Create lizard refuges. A pile of rocks or a stack of broken terracotta pot shards makes a nice refuge for lizards—the rocks and terracotta warm up in the sun, making a convenient basking spot for the lizards, and the little cracks between ensure a quick, safe get-away when predators appear.
  3. Just add water. Birds, insects, and other animals all need water to survive. Provide a bird bath, a small pond, or an attractive water feature, and you’ll find many more animals drawn to your yard.
  4. Kill non-native predators. Less important in some places, but here in New Zealand, protecting native birds and lizards requires controlling invasive predators. Trap out possums, stoats, and rats to give native birds a chance to nest successfully. Put a bell on your cat and keep it indoors around dusk and dawn when the birds are most vulnerable.
  5. Learn what you’ve got. No matter how small, your yard teems with species. Look closely, and you may be surprised at the diversity. Though our yard tends to be quite dry, we’ve discovered half a dozen species of moisture-loving slime moulds on the property. Once you know you an organism is present, you can tweak your planting and maintenance to protect and encourage it.

And that brings me back to the kōwhai tree, finally blooming. It’s not enough, yet, to attract bellbirds or tūī, across the vast stretches of agricultural land between us and the nearest populations, but someday, our kōwhai and flaxes, along with the neighbours’, may very well support a healthy population of native birds. All it takes is for each of us to care for our own backyards, and collectively we can improve the habitat for all our native species.

Sticky Feet! The Eucalyptus Tortoise Beetle

Hanging up the laundry this morning, I found this lovely beetle making its way along the washing line. It’s a eucalyptus tortoise beetle (Paropsis charybdis). I see them occasionally, but with only one eucalyptus tree in the yard, they’re not common.

I’m quite fond of tortoise beetles. This one isn’t much to look at, but many species are sparkling gold, and my first glimpse of them, as a kid, was a truly magical experience that I’ve never forgotten. What tortoise beetles have in common is their domed tortoise-like shape.

Their shape, combined with some pretty awesome feet is what keeps them safe.

Tortoise beetles have wide pads on their feet (this one obligingly sat on a clear surface and showed its feet under the microscope). The pads are covered densely in short hairs, like the bristles of a toothbrush. Each hair is moistened by oil, which helps it stick to the waxy surfaces of leaves in the same way two wet drinking glasses stick together if they’re nested. The oil bonds to both surfaces and acts as glue. When disturbed, the tortoise beetle presses its feet against the surface, employing as many as 60,000 sticky bristles (about 10 times more than other beetles have) to keep it attached. These sticky feet, combined with the dome-like shape make it difficult for predators to dislodge the beetle.

Entomologist Tom Eisner performed a series of elegant experiments with the palmetto tortoise beetle, attaching weights to the beetles to see how much force they could withstand before being pulled off a leaf. He found they could hold up to 240 times their body mass. Those are some seriously sticky feet!

So if their feet are so sticky, how do they walk? Eisner showed, by looking at palmetto beetle footprints on glass, that when they walk, they don’t let all the bristles on their feet touch the surface. Their full adhesive power is only deployed for defence.

I don’t think anyone has tested eucalyptus tortoise beetle grip strength, but it’s definitely impressive. I popped this one into a narrow jar, and it never hit the bottom—it reached out with one leg, like some movie superhero, and grabbed the smooth wall of the jar, arresting its fall. Then, when I tried to get it out of the jar, it stuck like glue to the side. I had to slide a stiff piece of paper under its feet, prying them up one by one. It was obliging for the photo shoot, but when I tried to let it go, it stuck itself to the paper. It took a few determined nudges, but eventually I got it to the edge of the paper and it dropped off.

The eucalyptus tortoise beetle is not native to New Zealand, and is considered a pest in the forest industry here. Still, I have to admire the beetles’ sheer tenacity, and am willing to share my eucalyptus tree with them for the opportunity to see those sticky feet in action.

Ice and Fire

One of the things I like best about springtime here is the juxtaposition of hot and cold, especially in the high country. The sunshine is warm, but winter lingers in the shade. I’ve gone hiking in shorts and t-shirt through 15 cm of snow in past years.

This weekend, we didn’t make it up to snow, but there was spectacular frost on our little Saturday jaunt. Hiking up the shaded side of a hill, we were treated to glistening plants as the first rays of the sun hit thick frost.

In addition to the frost, we crunched over a lot of needle ice. Needle ice can occur when the soil temperature is above freezing, but the air temperature is below freezing. Liquid water rises through the soil via capillary action and freezes on contact with the air. As more water is drawn upward, the ice needles grow in length. They’re common in the high country in springtime, when warm sun heats the ground during the day, but the temperature drops quickly after dark.

Ice needles are more than just a curiosity. They’re a significant factor in soil erosion, because they often push soil upward along with the ice. This loosens the top layer of soil, making it prone to erosion by wind and water.

The air was cold on Saturday morning, and as we started up the hill, we were well-bundled. But like all good tracks in New Zealand, this one started off by going straight up. Between the climb and the sun, we were soon stripped to our t-shirts, enjoying the crunch of ice underfoot and the warmth of the sun overhead.

Quake Cities

The old hall, post-quake.

It’s September 4. The daffodils are in full bloom, and I feel compelled to talk about earthquakes.

Eight years on from our M7.1 quake, the local hall is finally under re-construction. Its brick walls cracked and bowed in the quake, and it spent several years propped up by timber, then was razed completely. The site sat empty until about two months ago, when the walls began to rise again.

It’s a common refrain here. The damage done by the M7.1 on 4 September 2010 and the M6.3 on 22 February 2011, and the 15,000 or so lesser quakes in between and after is still visible. In the city, the Christchurch Cathedral still sits behind ‘temporary’ security fencing, it’s face crumbled away, weeds growing along the tops of jagged walls. A block of High Street remains closed, broken buildings frozen as they were when the shaking stopped. Throughout the region, churches remain truncated, their spires still gone. One church is still operating from a large tent. Houses are still undergoing repairs, and bare sections abound.

On a recent visit to Wellington, my son commented that Wellington seemed like such an older city than Christchurch, though they are nearly the same age. But Wellington hasn’t had a big quake since 1855. In that 1855 quake, many buildings were destroyed, and after that, most homes were rebuilt using timber, in the Victorian style popular at the time. Those Victorian houses give many Wellington neighbourhoods the quaint atmosphere they have, even today.

In Napier, the city-defining quake struck in 1931. The rebuild of that city followed the art-deco style popular at the time. The city retains the art-deco character today, and has become a popular tourist destination for its architecture.

Christchurch’s look has been affected by the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes, just as Wellington and Napier have been. Brick and stone have been replaced by wood, steel and glass. The new Christchurch includes more art, more open space (though some of those open spaces are slated to be filled with new buildings … eventually). Perhaps some day, visitors to Christchurch will view it as a product of the architectural styles of the 2010s.

Shining in the Dark

Not much to look at in the light, but spectacular in the dark.

I’m a morning person. I’m rarely in bed past six o’clock, and am often up long before that. But I will admit that even I get tired of getting up in the cold and dark at this time of year.

Of course, sometimes the most amazing things happen before the sun is up.

Yesterday morning, I stepped into the chicken paddock feed ‘the girls’. It was still dark, with just enough starlight to see my way. I bent to tip a scoop of feed into their dish and froze.

Something glowed on the ground—the eerie glow of bioluminescence.

I’ve seen bioluminescence while feeding the chickens before—a tiny sea creature whipped up and blown in with a violent snowstorm—but this was different.

I flicked my light on and saw something pink glistening on the ground. When I tried to pick it up, I discovered it was the head of an earthworm.

A brightly glowing earthworm.

I couldn’t get it out of the ground in order to bring it in and identify it yesterday, but I took the spading fork with me this morning when I went to feed the chickens, and I collected a little glowing earthworm from where I’d seen one yesterday.

I already knew that at least one of our native earthworms is bioluminescent—Octochaetus multiporus, which I’ve blogged about before. But O. multiporus grows to enormous size, and I’ve never found any worms in the garden that match its description. Doing a little research, I found that bioluminescence is quite widely employed by earthworms, presumably as a deterrent to predators.

Most earthworms produce light in much the same way that fireflies do, with a chemical known as luciferin that reacts with oxygen-containing compounds in the presence of luciferase to create light.

So, what species is my little glowing worm? There are about thirty New Zealand species within the genera where bioluminescence has been recorded. I’ve found record of only two of those species being bioluminescent: O. mulitporus and Microscolex phosphoreus, a small worm considered native here, but widely distributed around the globe. My best guess is that it’s M. phosphoreus, but data on that worm’s distribution in New Zealand is almost nonexistent (it’s been recorded from only one location), and data about any earthworm in New Zealand is scanty. Perhaps my worm is M. phosphoreus, but it might also be a worm in which bioluminescence hasn’t been recorded. After all, most people aren’t out in the garden at night to notice glowing worms.

Hopefully, I’ll be able to have the worm identified by an expert. If not, well, I still think it’s the coolest thing I’ve seen in a long while! And I won’t be grumbling about getting up in the dark and cold tomorrow.