The Big Trees

We hiked through the cool, majestic big redwoods of the Forest of Nisene Marks in the Santa Cruz mountains the other day. I’m always impressed with the immense change in microclimate that these big trees produce, growing along the coast and trapping cool, moist air from the ocean each morning. The light filters through dense branches high above the trail, and only a few scattered sunbeams actually make it to the forest floor. So photography is a bit challenging under dim light conditions.

This tract of almost 10,000 acres of coastal redwood forest was once clear-cut once to provide lumber for the growing towns of central California. The land was donated to the state by the family of Nisene Marks, a passionate nature lover.
Wildflowers, like this delicate Trillium, were in abundance on the forest floor.
But the forest was really quiet, except for the trilling warble of a few Pacific Wrens. This is not a place to find a lot of birds, but it is a serene wilderness with lots of beautiful hiking trails to traverse.
This Pacific Wren was elusive at first and then hopped up into plain view. Its song is similar to our Midwestern House Wren, and it pierces the quiet of the redwood forest stillness.
One of the interesting creatures of the redwood forest is the Banana Slug, so named for its resemblance to said fruit. This shell-less mollusk looks vulnerable because it stands out with its bright color on the dark forest floor, but only a very few predators can tolerate the tongue-numbing, viscous slime it secretes to retard dehydration.
Two pairs of tentacles on its head help the banana slug navigate its environment. The upper pair contain light-receptive cells on long, protruding stalks. The lower pair are used to sense certain chemicals in the forest litter so the slugs can locate their favorite food: tiny mushrooms. They also consume and recycle the vital nutrients in animal droppings and dead plant material, leaving behind rich fertilizer.
Other decomposers, like these fungi that resemble our Midwestern “Turkey tails”, add to the forest nutrient cycle. Redwoods that can live for thousands of years are resistant to decomposition, unlike the pine or deciduous trees present in this forest.
Looking up at the Big Trees, towering above us in the redwood forest.

the tiny garden

A taste of spring hit the backyard as temperatures soared into the 60s the other day, and major amounts of snow melted. When I walked into the wetland beyond the backyard I was greeted with signs of life awakening after the long winter — like this tiny garden on a rotting log.

A tiny one-inch across mushroom nestled in among several different species of moss. Spore capsules of moss tower above the green vegetation — the better to spread their tiny spores to a new site on the log.
A second, even tinier mushroom is growing beside the bigger one. If I knew something about moss, I could tell you how many different species there are here in this 4 square inches of log.
A veritable forest of mossy leaves support the towering trunks of the sporophyte part of the plant with its knobby capsules waving in the breeze.
Meanwhile, a pair of Mallard ducks, keeping a close eye on me as I walk by, is taking advantage of early snow melt to rest in a shallow pond.

A walk in the woods…

Usually one leaves the cold northland to bask in the sun on a sandy beach, but this time we are reveling in the rainy mist of the temperate rainforest of coastal Oregon.

Fog shrouds the lofty Sitka spruce in the temperate rainforest of Neahkahnie Mountain south of Cannon Beach, Oregon, making it look like a scene from the planet Endor. (Star Wars, VI)

Like its tropical counterpart, the temperate rainforest is so wet almost all of the year that plants are crowded together and basically grow on top of each other.  The big difference is the cool temperature that makes it a very quiet place almost devoid of animal life, at least in the winter on a rainy day.  The only bird life we saw on this hike was a Pacific Wren.

Typical vegetation in the Oregon coastal temperate rainforest: sword ferns, lodgepole pine, Douglas fir, and high on the mountains — Sitka spruce.

Moss drapes itself over pine branches. Lichens drip from tree limbs as well. Plants grow on top of plants.

Fungi and slime molds can be found on the few bare areas on downed wood that ferns and mosses haven’t colonized.

Hiking in this weather is perfect, because it’s not too cold, and you don’t get overheated or dehydrated, like we do in the Sierras. (I didn’t hear a single complaint from the grandkids about this trail up Neahkahnie Mountain.)

Can trees talk to each other?

How do trees talk to each other

Is this artists’ conception of tree communication real?

My apple trees are well synchronized with each other, so I have bumper crops of all 4 trees in alternate years.  Of course I want them to flower at the same time, so there is ample pollen for cross pollination of the different varieties.  However, this year, the trees were unusually productive…

Apple tree fruit production

There are hundreds of apples on my 4 trees, much more than can fit into my canning jars and refrigerator for long term storage.

Honeycrisp apples

Honeycrisp apples are reaching maximum ripeness, and attract passers by as well as the squirrels, birds, and deer that wander by for a sample.

Is it just coincidence that these trees are so well synchronized or do they somehow communicate with each other about their status?  A quick google search led me to a terrific article in Smithsonian magazine from March 2018 on this very question.

One way that trees, and plants in general, can communicate with each other is by way of the mutualistic fungi that entwine their combined roots.

How do trees talk to each other

Exchange of sugar (Carbon) and nutrients between fungi and roots and between trees.

The fungal strands search out and transport various nutrients that the plants need (nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, etc.) from the soil to the rootlets, and the trees pass photosynthesized sugars from the rootlets to the fungi in a very cooperative relationship.  But it goes beyond just the interaction between plant and fungi.

Research by Suzanne Simard (in a very interesting TED talk) has shown that individual trees in the forest are connected in a dense underground web of overlapping and intermingling roots and fungal associations, and this web consists not only of a “mother tree” and its seedlings, but trees of all ages of other species as well. Through these connections trees exchange carbon and other nutrients, paying a small tax to the fungi along the way.

Web of connection between forest trees, Beiler et al. 2010

A diagram of potential connections of forest trees (Beiler et al. 2010).  Large dark green circles are the busiest hubs (mother trees), sending carbon to other smaller trees, as well as their own seedlings (yellow dots) which may be growing in deep shade.

Not only are trees sharing resources in this busy underground network, but they are communicating with each other through secretion of plant hormones and volatile secondary compounds as well.  For example, Giraffes that munch on the leaves of one acacia tree will stimulate the production of distasteful tannins not only in the other leaves of that tree, but in its acacia neighbors as well.  In fact giraffes have learned to forage on the acacias that are downwind in a clump of trees to avoid this kind of response to the volatile chemicals released by the injured tree.

oak forest, Berkeley botanical garden, CA

Oak trees also produce chemical messages when under attack from herbivores, so that nearby oaks get a head start on ramping up tannin content of their leaves. I might have enhanced the “face” on the mother tree a little.  Photo from the Berkeley Botanical Garden, in a Backyard Biology post on Magical Oak Forests.

This kind of changes the way we look at forests, or even small patches of prairie, or garden plants, or shrubs growing together in our backyards.  These plants aren’t as much competitors as they are collaborators, existing side by side, in a mutual quest for light, water, and nutrients.  We could learn a lot from plants about cooperative existence!

Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.


Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.


You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

a different sort of turkey tail

While looking for spring wildflowers the other day (none to be found) I was instead drawn to one of the most common sights in the hardwood forest — the brightly striped disks of color on rotting logs and stumps produced by the turkeytail fungus. Both the common and scientific names of this mushroom suit it well:  the color pattern does kind of resemble the striations of a turkey’s tail, and the species name, Trametes versicolor, (thin body with variable coloration) describes its physical appearance.

turkey tail fungus-

Dense clumps of fruiting bodies lined the bark and sapwood of some cottonwood logs.  I was struck by the variation in the color in this collection of mushrooms.  

Turkeytail is a common bracket (shelf-forming) fungus found through the world, but differs from other bracket fungi by having a smooth underside dotted with pores, through which the spores are broadcast.  Like other fungi, it is a primary decomposer of wood, especially the lignin fibers that give wood its rigidity and strength.

turkey tail fungus-

The zonation of color looks like growth rings, with its alternating light and dark bands.  The base color seems to be gray-blue, but bands of buff, rusty orange-brown, and darker brown-black alternate with the base color. 

The bands also alternate in rough vs smooth texture, with the rough areas coated with fringes that stick up vertically from the surface of the fruiting body.  What purpose could this serve, I wonder?  Are the fringes for capturing moisture?

Some patches of turkeytail bore light green bands.

Some patches of turkeytail bore light green bands, especially those bands with rough surface texture.

turkey tail fungus-

Ah, the green color is due to algae that have colonized the fringes in that zone.

There could be a mutual benefit to the co-existence of algae and fungi here, like their symbiosis in lichen, where the fungus benefits from the sugars manufactured by algal photosynthesis, and the algae benefit from the moisture and minerals harvested by the fungus.

turkey tail fungus-

Turkeytail is also variable in the distribution of fruiting bodies, sometimes forming long lines of mushrooms along the length of a rotting log or sometimes circular rosettes around a central point on the log.

It almost looks like a forest flower — well, it will have to do as a stand-in for spring wildflowers until the weather warms up here.

forest “flowers”

It’s too cold for spring wildflowers to add their color to the forest landscape, but I spotted some very colorful fungi that looked like good substitutes.  They were infrequent bursts of bright scarlet in the litter of a steep north-facing slope of a small creek that drains into the Minnesota River.

The bright scarlet color of the scarlet elf cup (or scarlet elf cap) mushroom made them easy to spot through the litter.

The bright scarlet color of the scarlet elf cup (or scarlet elf cap) mushroom made them easy to spot through the litter.

scarlet cup (elf) mushroom

They sort of resemble a flower with their smooth upper surface, bright gold-tinged edges and brilliant color.  These are quite small, with most of these “flowers” (i.e., fruiting bodies) measuring about 1-2 inches across.

scarlet cup (elf) mushroom

The only ones I found were firmly attached to rather small branches and buried well in the litter. They appear to start out as spherical cups that open into flatter, plate-like shapes. The interior is a bright scarlet, but the exterior is a dull orange that matches the leaves in which they rest.

scarlet cup (elf) mushroom

The mushroom (fruiting body that will release spores) is attached firmly by a basal stalk to a small, semi-decomposed branchlet.

scarlet cup (elf) mushroom

One branch had multiple scarlet cup colonists, showing the stages of development from cup-shaped to plate-shaped. It looks like the right-most mushroom has been nibbled on by some mammal, and it’s neighbor may have been almost completely consumed.

These small, saprobic fungi colonize decaying wood, especially beech,willow, elm, or hazel branches, and appear in late winter or early spring when temperatures are cool and litter moisture is high.  It is one of the first mushrooms to appear in the spring and may last as long as temperature and moisture conditions hold.  Being fairly rare in the forest, it doesn’t seem to be harvested as food, but rather as an ornamental decoration, although native Americans dried and ground it to use as a styptic agent to reduce bleeding.

Do you wonder why this little mushroom is so intensely red? (OK, so I did, and had to look up a good reason for its color.)  The red color is derived from carotenoid pigments (the ones that make maple leaves yellow and orange in the fall) and some believe that these pigments enable the mushrooms to trap light energy that then heats them above ambient temperature, promoting their growth on those cold spring days.