Monday, September 8, 2014

In These Branches, Birds Once Sang

By Joe Mooney

Vast numbers of passenger pigeons thrived for millennia in North America, many of them roosting in our region’s native trees. It seemed impossible that a creature so numerous could be wiped out. What conservation lessons can we learn from this remarkable bird, and what parallels to the plant world can we draw? 

Martha is dead,” the Cincinnati Enquirer reported on September 2, 1914. Martha, who had been living at the Cincinnati Zoo for 15 years, was the last living passenger pigeon in the world and an example of a population that once numbered in the billions.

A wood carving of a passenger pigeon by Mike Ford of Midland, Mich. The carving is on display at the Chippewa Nature Canter in Midland.

By many accounts, passenger pigeons flew overhead in flocks large enough to blot out the sun’s light, or roosted in trees in branch-snapping quantities. John James Audubon himself calculated a flock in Kentucky in 1813 to be more than a billion birds. When Martha died, an entire species died with her.

The passenger pigeon still stands today as one of the largest examples of human action as a major cause of whole-species extinction. The pigeon didn’t stand a chance against the insatiable demand for the birds as food or sport, according to A Passing in Cincinnati, a pamphlet published in 1976 in Washington, D.C., by the Office of Communications, Department of the Interior:

All kinds of firearms were used, but traps and nets claimed the greatest numbers of those mild-mannered birds—often in the hundreds or thousands at one time. They were so numerous in the early 1800s that one farmer once caught more than 2,000 simply by closing the door of his barn after the pigeons flew inside.

American colonists used nets as early as 1640 to take pigeons, and the practice was continued until the pigeon population was virtually exhausted….

Ceaseless slaughter and lack of protection proved the final undoing of the passenger pigeon. By 1886 only two     flocks were known to exist. According to A Passing in Cincinnati, in the late 1890s and early 1900s a few states had enacted laws to protect the pigeon, including Michigan, and some individuals made an effort to save the pigeon, but it was too late.

The University of Chicago sent the Cincinnati Zoo-logical Gardens a female pigeon in 1902. When Martha died in 1914 she was “suspended in water and frozen into three hundred pounds of ice and shipped to the Smithsonian Institution. . . ”

A Cautionary Tale
In his book A Feathered River Across the Sky author Joel Greenberg writes, “Human beings destroyed passenger pigeons almost every time they encountered them, and they used every imaginable device in the process. . . . Whether a concerted effort could have reversed the decline and altered the outcome was a question asked far too late for any attempt to have even been tried. . . . It is hoped that this tragic extinction continues to engage people and to act as a cautionary tale so that it is not repeated.”

The implications of a keystone species—one that disproportionately impacts the structure of the ecosystem as a whole—going extinct is perhaps unknowable, observes Matthaei-Nichols natural areas manager Jeff Plakke.

“Probably the best illustrations of what can happen from over-exploitation in North America are the Dust Bowl and more locally, the Great Michigan Fire,” he says. (The Great Michigan Fire was a series of simultaneous forest fires in Michigan in 1871.) “Extinctions of a single species may be less dramatic, but could easily have cascading effects for centuries or millennia.” Plakke points out that the extirpation of beavers in southeast Michigan through hunting and trapping for pelts well illustrates that cascading effect. “Beavers are a prime example of a keystone species,” he explains. “They selectively harvest trees, build dams in creeks and streams, and create extensive acreages of open wetland communities. They significantly changed the hydrology and development of soils. Numerous species of plants, animals, birds, and insects depended on beaver to literally build these ecosystems.” Passenger pigeons were certainly a keystone species as well, continues Plakke. “Numbering into the billions, the pigeons must have had an enormous impact on the environment through their feeding and the movement of nutrients, nuts, and seeds through their migrations.”

Plant-World Parallels
Sheer numbers and the colorful spectacle of their flight made the passenger pigeon particularly vulnerable to exploitation. While plants don’t move in the same attention-grabbing way as birds and other animals, parallels can be drawn between their decline or demise.

A 225-year-old bur oak tree has lived on what is now the Matthaei Botanical Gardens since George Washginton was president. This tree, which would have been 100 years old in the late 19th centeury, likely provided food and shelter for the passenger pigeon.

Some groups of plants once constituted entire ecosystems unto themselves. “The prairies and oak openings of North America are good examples of ecosystems that have nearly disappeared,” says Matthaei-Nichols director Bob Grese. “Many of the plants associated with those ecosystems are now quite rare.”

A prairie and savanna management guide prepared by the Michigan Natural Features Inventory for the state DNR wildlife division cites a study estimating that just .02% of the Midwest’s original savanna remains, “declining from around 11 to 13 million acres to just a few hundred acres spread across a dozen states.” The report goes on to say that the loss of savanna in Michigan is most dramatic in the oak openings communities, which have declined from an estimated 900,000 acres to just 3, a loss of 99.9996%.

Some individual plant species are also at risk, notes Grese. “American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) is a good example of a plant popular in herbal medicine that has become quite rare because of over-collecting. It is currently listed as ‘threatened’ in the state of Michigan,” a status that offers some protection for the plant, he says.

University of Michigan students working on a geographic information systems (GIS) “grandfather tree” project several years ago mapped and measured over 50 oaks on the Matthaei property estimated to be more than 200 years old. One bur oak at Matthaei (Quercus macrocarpa, pictured at left) is 45 inches in diameter and approximately 225 years old, according to a method for measuring a tree’s age developed by the International Society of Arboriculture. By that estimation the oak would have already been 100 years old in the late 1800s. It’s very likely that this oak and others on our lands here provided shelter and food to the passenger pigeon.

Parts of a Whole
As the late Burton Barnes, professor in the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment once observed, “we are parts dependent on the whole earth for our existence.”

The demise of the passenger pigeon is a graphic reminder of the drastic impacts humans can have on the environment, says Grese. “To know that the most plentiful bird species in North America and the one most associated with the oak forests and oak openings of southern Michigan could go extinct within 100 years is a humbling reminder of the need for conservation.”

As we become more aware of the rare plant and animal species found on the properties managed by Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum we are working hard to steward the unique habitats that contain them, Grese continues, so “creating a greater understanding of the threats rare species and regional ecosystems face is clearly something key for an arboretum and botanical garden like us.”

Exhibits & Resources

Museums and institutions on the U-M campus and elsewhere in Michigan are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of the last passenger pigeon with special exhibits and displays. In the botanical realm, for an immersive experience of some of the special spaces that protect or recreate the region’s rare or threatened habitats and ecosystems, such as prairies or the Great Lakes Gardens, visit Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum. For a map of some of our “grandfather” trees, visit mbgna.umich.edu. Following is a list of organizations featuring passenger pigeon exhibits. For a full list, visit passengerpigeon.org and click on Michigan.

Passenger pigeon exhibits:

Passenger Pigeon Exhibit: University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, Fourth Floor Gallery  

Moving Targets: Passenger Pigeon Portrait Gallery, Enviro Art Gallery, University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, Dana Building  

They Passed Like a Cloud: Extinction and the Passenger Pigeon

Michigan State University Museum  

Recommended reading:

A Feathered River Across the Sky, by Joel Greenberg (Bloomsbury)

Passenger Pigeons: Gone Forever, by Vic Eichler (Shantimira)

Online Resources:

passengerpigeon.org, an international effort to familiarize people with the history of the passenger pigeon and its extinction, raise awareness of how the issue of extinction is relevant to the 21st century, and support respectful relationships with other species.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Maintaining the Plant Collections on the Laurel Ridge Trail and the Heathdale in Nichols Arboretum

By Amy Wells

I first fell in love with rhododendrons while visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The tall, dense shrubs boasted perfect evergreen leaves and were covered in clusters of large, showy flowers. When I began school at the University of Michigan three years ago, I was enchanted by Laurel Ridge Trail and the Heathdale in Nichols Arboretum because they reminded me of hikes through the Smokies. The Heathdale, apart from being one of the most peaceful places in the Arboretum, is also home to the Julie Norris Post Heathdale Collection. Many of the plants in the Heathdale are members of the heather family (such as rhododendron and azalea) or are found growing in the Appalchian mountains.

This summer, as an intern at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum, I had the privilege of helping to maintain the ericaceous plant collections in the Arb, as well as collecting data that will help Arboretum managers make better planting choices in the future.

I began the summer with a list of 422 rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurels in Heathdale and on the Laurel Ridge Trail. I was asked to find all of the plants, evaluate their health, and test the pH of the soil they were growing in so the plants would continue to thrive. And I sought to gather useful and complete information using methods that would be easily repeatable by future interns.

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)



To keep track of the plants in this large collection, maps and spreadsheets are used to catalog plantings and embossed aluminum tags give each plant a name and number. Despite the challenges and time required, it’s important for Matthaei-Nichols to keep track of the health of individual plants. Knowing where specific cultivars thrive or die can save time and money when new plantings are chosen. The Arboretum is also responsible to the donors who support the care and stewardship of its plants and plant collections.

To ensure that future plant health assessments would be comparable to mine, I worked with Arb and Gardens collections and natural areas specialist Tom O’Dell and fellow summer intern Emily Gehle on a key to describe and rank each plant’s health on a scale of one to five. Using pictures of archetypal plants from each category, I created a key to guide future interns. The health assessments will always have a qualitative aspect to them, since the line between any two ratings is a matter of opinion, but hopefully this key will impart some consistency into the process.

Assessing the health and soil pH of each plant was like a game of hide-and-seek. Fortunately, I had a great pH meter. It didn’t require me to wet the soil before testing, and it only needed a swipe with a conditioning film between each test while I waited patiently for the needle to stop. I also took light measurements from each bed, marking the locations with green flags so that subsequent readings can be done in the same place.

The plant health assessments are important for creating a stewardship plan for this area. It was also a learning process for me. For example, I noticed that one cultivar of rhododendrons, ‘Yaku Princess,’ does less well in a particular location of Laurel Ridge Trail, while other cultivars like ‘Today and Tomorrow’ do very well there.

I know that continuing to monitor and amend plant records improves the vigor of the plant collections in the Heathdale and the Laurel Ridge Trail. I look forward to returning each year in May and June to see them bloom.

Amy Wells, from Orion, MI, is a senior in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts majoring in plant biology and minoring in multidisciplinary design in the College of Engineering.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of the Agave

Last April a volunteer with the Southeast Michigan Cactus and Succulent Society noticed an unusual stalk poking out from the leaves of the variegated American agave (Agave americana) in the conservatory at Matthaei. Turns out it was a flower stalk. Pretty soon it was growing six inches a day. Finally, around the first week of July, the agave’s flowers began to open.

A view of the agave from above when workers came out last August to collect flower buds for the U-M Herbarium.

We’ve seen agaves bloom in the past here but no others have quite captured the public’s imagination—or the media’s attention—like this one. Part of the appeal was the agave’s age when it finally bloomed. In nature the American agave usually flowers at 20 years or so.

Just as we wrinkle with age, so our agave began wrinkling later in the summer after it had finished blooming. Eventually, the parent plant will die when it's finished setting seed

Collected in Mexico in 1934 by graduate student Alfred Whiting, our 80-year-old plant for some reason picked 2014 as The Year to Bloom. The fact that the parent plant would die after blooming only added to the drama.

The agave as it looked on April 30, 2014. No drooping here!

Extensively covered in local, national, and international media, including USA Today, Smithsonian.com, Associated Press, and NPR’s Morning Edition, the agave drew thousands of visitors to the Gardens. So many that visitor numbers and total revenue for July 2014 at the parking kiosks, Garden Store, and donation box were double those from the previous year.

And as it looked on August 1. Exhausted.

As of this writing seed pods have begun to form and we're praying for a few pups—plantlets that are genetically identical to the parent—to appear. And one person even wants a part of the stalk to make a didgeridoo. Stay tuned for the final story of the Matthaei Botanical Gardens great American agave bloom of 2014.

A seed pod from the agave reveals hundreds of immature seeds neatly lined up.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Bonsai Challenge Matches Dollar for Dollar

Donors Jerry and Rhona Meislik are well-acquainted with the recipe for bonsai success. First, build a permanent home for our bonsai and penjing collection. (Done; the garden opened last year at Matthaei.) Then, because this living art form needs continual care, take steps to protect the health and beauty of the collection—a dedicated effort requiring significant funding.

Above: Jerry and Rhona Meislik (left) stand with Matthaei-Nichols director Bob Grese and Jack Wikle moments after the ribbon cutting at last year’s opening of the Bonsai & Penjing Garden at Matthaei. The Meisliks seeded the endowment fund for the garden and are inspiring others to continue the endowment funding effort with a special matching challenge.
Ardent supporters of our collection and bonsai aficionados themselves, the Meisliks announced a dollar-for-dollar match challenge at the June 2014 Ann Arbor Bonsai Society program. The challenge will fund an endowment for the ongoing care of the bonsai and penjing collection at Matthaei Botanical Gardens. The Meisliks, who already seeded the bonsai garden endowment last year prior to the garden’s opening, will give up to $10,000 to match gifts of at least $500 that are given or pledged before November 25, 2014. “Our dream is that others will feel as passionate about the Matthaei-Nichols collection as we do,” Jerry says. “Now that the trees themselves have a permanent home, the next natural step is a commitment to caring for them, so we hope to inspire others to help make that happen. A matching challenge is a great way to double that commitment.”

The endowment specifically funds the care and maintenance of the collection. The endowment goal is $800,000, which will fund a half-time horticulture specialist, materials, and work with leading bonsai practitioners on bonsai artistry and health. Currently we’ve raised nearly 25% of that goal, about $167,000. To make a donation to this special bonsai challenge visit the Matthaei-Nichols website or call our director of development Gayle Steiner: 734.647.7847.