Climbed A Tree Recently?

Wouldn’t it be cool if you could live off of air, be up high on a perch to take in the world, and could cling in precarious places?  No, I’m not talking about mountain goats or my mountaineer friends (who wish they could be mountain goats- mostly).  I am describing the world of epiphytes.  They are amazing!

Tumwater Falls Park, Deschutes River, Tumwater, Thurston County, Washington State.

Recently, I was walking through a public park on the Deschutes River, just south of Olympia, WA.  I got to pointing out various things to a new friend.  Having grown up in the desert Southwest, I can never seem to get enough of mossy trees- especially the Big Leaf maples.  They always remind me of the famous Truffula trees of Dr. Seuss’s, Lorax.  It is amazing that this huge (sometimes up to 35 m/115ft) tree can be a home in of itself.

Now if you remember your basic life science from 7th grade, then you recall that most plants need some pretty basic things: water, carbon dioxide air, minerals and nutrients.  Now traditionally, you think of plants as getting that from the ground.  So how is it that mosses and ferns seem to grow up off the ground in the air?

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni speaks of epiphytes in a recent lecture for TED. She also speaks of what life in the forest canopy is like. (Click TED to hear the lecture)

If you spend enough time in the canopies of the Northwest you might notice it is a wet place.  Wet even when the climate is driest- the summer months.  These interesting plants are poised in a place to take advantage of the place where the moisture is- in the clouds.  This mist and fog clings to their fine leaves and is quickly absorbed.

What is also amazing is that they nearly generate their own soil as the cycle of life turns- plants decomposing and turning back into soil.

The sad thing the Dr. Nadkarni explains is that if the mosses are stripped, they take a long time to grow back.  Her research will help answer some really interesting questions about forest canopies and epiphytes.

What is amazing is that we still have some neat examples of this unique system.  I didn’t grow up climbing trees.  I hope that our kids are given the time to get out and explore our forests.

I can see special plants springing out the moss mat such as the liquorice fern- one of my favorites (yes some of it tastes like liquorice!). And there are many more.

Since there are plants, and there is soil, and moisture- then there surely must be diversity in habitat for creatures too.  My question today is what insects also rely on the epiphyte communities?  If there are insects, which birds regularly visit them?  Do some them nest in the mat?  I am already curious and want to go back and explore some more.


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