Jan. 21, 2016: In Act I, I introduced our antagonist, the bark beetle and the dramatic question -how will our forests be saved from this rapacious beast? In any good suspense story, I would now portray that villain in a most maleficent light so you would hate it and thereby root for the protagonists (the trees). When you look at how bark beetles interact with their prey, it's pretty tough to paint a black and white picture. For something the size of a mouse dropping , they are remarkably "clever" (if I may use that anthropomorphic term).

Our three biggest bark beetle pests, (the Ips, mountain pine and western pine beetles), are all native to North America. This is no alien invader introduction. They have co-evolved with western pines for millenniums. Why now are they such a plague? That is the dramatic question that will be answered in Act III.

Pitch tubesPitch tubesMany years ago I had a student, in my horticulture program in South Carolina (where they have southern pine beetles), that managed the grounds of a shopping complex. He asked me to come out and look at a group of Loblolly pines that looked like they were dying. They were located in a parking lot island surrounded by other healthy pines. Four trees out of that group of twenty or thirty were showing decline (browning and dropping needles) and little white irregular bumps, or pitch tubes, on the trunk. These trees were under attack by the southern pine beetle but why only four trees and not all the trees surrounding them? When I started questioning the groundskeeper, he told me that one of the trees had been struck by lightning in a storm two weeks before. Lightning often does more damage underground to roots than is exhibited aboveground and more than likely the four trees all had root damage due to the lightning grounding out. That explains why beetles attacked these trees but did not explain how they can detect stressed trees. When I'm stressed, I swear a lot and snap at people, but I've never seen that with trees.

The reason why bark beetles attack stressed trees is that stressed trees are less able to defend themselves. When a bark beetle attacks a pine, the adult must first chew through the outer bark into the nutritious inner bark, which contains the phloem, the food bearing "arteries" of the tree. The trees defense is to produce large quantities of pine pitch in an effort to drown the invading beetles. Those are the pitch tubes you see on an attacked tree. Healthy trees are very effective in this defense and any bark beetles that attacked healthy trees would not fare well in this world. So in the constant evolutionary cat and mouse game, the beetles have developed a way to sense stress in trees and thereby improve their success. That was something that was widely known, even by me, back in the stone . . . well awhile ago.

But how do they do that? How? How? That question bothered me for years. Alot! Not such that I lost a marriage or jobs or took to excessive drinking over it (though I think that would be a great idea for the protagonist in the movie), but I thought about it frequently. One day I was at a seminar, and an entomologist was talking about bark beetles and he revealed the secret . . . they hear it! Talk about a hosanna moment! And (this is even more amazing!) what they hear is cavitation within the tree! "Really?"you're saying"Cavitation? That's amazing! What the h. .. is cavitation?"

I'm glad you asked. There is cavitation in pumps and there's cavitation in the xylem (water conducting tubes) of the tree. Both types of cavitation, the pump kind and the tree kind, involve air bubbles getting into the stream of fluids. In a mechanical pump, it causes a rattling. In a tree, it cause causes a rattling, though not at a decibel that you or I or any animal can hear, but the bark beetles do. Trees that are healthy don't have air bubbles in their sap, trees that are drought stressed or having dying roots, say from lightning strikes, do. There is even a branch of science research called acoustic ecology.

For me, the answer to that long vexing question filled that void in my soul that nothing else before could, even the excessive drinking . . .well, forget that last part. (Note to Marvel: Final Climactic Battle Scene: Large army flatbeds pull up with huge megaphones mounted on them and atop them are mounted megaton bug zappers. Our sober protagonist hero/ine stands in front as the beetle horde approaches. Pretty dramatic, eh.)

Once the bark beetle detects the stressed tree what happens next is even more, or, at the very least, AS amazing. And this time, its involves the sense of smell. And that, most patient reader, I will reveal when next I blog : Pine Beetle Boy!!! Act II-B. Until then, don't excessively drink and go into the forest alone.



Jan. 12, 2016: I recently saw the movie Ant-Man on DVD. I'd like to say I watched it with the grandkids but I rented it and watched it myself. I got to thinking that there are very few insect based superheroes. Besides Ant-Man maybe the Green Hornet, but he had just the name and not much insect stuff about him. And yes, there is SpiderMan, but he is technically an arachnid and not an insect. There are even fewer insect based supervillains. Maybe The Fly, but that's it.

What Marvel Comics needs as there next blockbuster hit (which I'm willing to sell the rights to for reasonable royalties) is another insect supervillain. It will be insidious, deadly, wily and there will be legions of them perhaps lead by one insect criminal mastermind. Like any true evil they will be almost impossible to stop. The fate of humankind will hang in the balance.

That dread supervillain is Bark Beetle Boy!!!!! and his evil army of kagillions. Ravaging the forests of the West, nothing seems to stop them. No guns, bombs, sonic cannons, nor even kryptonite, affects them. What will the world do?? Who will save us??

Well, I haven't thought that far yet and until Marvel Comics comes up with a retainer offer, I'm probably not going to spend a lot of time developing storyline. The nice thing is the real storyline won't take much embellishing (that being said . . . Marvel, let's not waste yours and my time. We can start negotiating in the six figure area). The real storyline is chilling and the fate of Western treekind does hang in the balance.

The Real Story
There are several hundred species of bark beetles that are native to North America. A handful of species cause a lot of problems - to the tune of an estimated 46 million acres. That's about 100,000 trees killed per day according to the US Forest Service. The most predominant culprits are 3 species groups of beetles: the mountain pine beetle, the western pine beetle and the ips beetle. Their cumulative range is from the Rockies west to the Cascades and Sierras, from northern British Columbia to northern Mexico. They attack ponderosa, lodgepole, sugar, western white pine and other pine species - in other words, most of the forest type of the interior West. I have even seen pine beetle damage and death in ornamental pines, eastern white pine and Japanese black pine, here in the Willamette Valley.

My first experience with bark beetles was on the Western Slope of Colorado, where I was an extension agent. Whole sides of mountain were covered in huge blotches of rust (dying ) and grey (dead) lodgepole Beetle killed forestBeetle killed forestpine. It was surreal. I thought I would never see such an astonishing sight again, but unfortunately I have here in central Oregon. One of my favorite fishing spots, Dead Horse Lake, was a pristine high elevation lake surrounded by lodgepole pine. It was the classic high country beauty we envision of the Oregon Cascades. But the beetle found it. The Forest Service closed access to it for several years because of the hazard of dead trees and when it finally opened up and I went up to go fishing. I was horrified, aghast. It was a lunar landscape. It was a lake surrounded by stumps and snags as far as my eye could see. I went elsewhere to fish.

So, I'm seeing the opening scene of the movie. A happy family is having a picnic beside a beautiful high country lake. Suddenly, the ground begins to tremor slightly. There is the sound of rasping. At first low and then building until it becomes a roar. Trees tremble, needles begin to drop and then rain down upon the terrified family. The earth writhes as branches break and trees come crashing down. The family's minivan is crushed. They have no escape. The camera closes in on the terrified family huddled together as they stare focused on something the camera now pans to. There towering over the tree tops is Bark Beetle Boy(!!!), his dead multifaceted stare and shiny mandibles grinning and dripping with sap. Scene blacks out. Ominous movie score. (Note to Marvel: Can we get Aaron Copeland for the score? Is he still alive?)

As with any good supervillain, they garner a certain amount of grudging respect and admiration from the viewer for their evil genius . This tiny black insect (it's size compared to a grain of rice or a mouse turd) is remarkable in its ability to find and attack it's prey. In Act II, we'll explore the evil genius of the bark beetle and in Act III, we'll talk about controlling the beetle and the future of western forests (and how this can be spun into lots of sequels improving the profit potential of both production and merchandising. Note to Marvel: Don't wait too long to jump on this. I can always take this to DC Comics.)

Until then, don't go into the forest alone!



Dec. 20, 2015: And now to our fourth and last plant, the poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima. That beautiful plant we adorn our hearth with was developed from a roadside weed that grows in southern Mexico.

(Editor's note: If you have been following this series, as I unfortunately have, you may have noticed that the author started out with 12 Christmas plants and ended up giving us only four. Such web journalistic bait-and-switch tactics are insulting to our readers, at least those that can count, and are not condoned, nor sanctioned by this website)

The plant was used for medicinal and dye purposes and, in Aztec symbolism, the blood red bracts stood for the blood the gods sacrificed to create the universe and that blood debt we owed the gods through sacrifice. To me, that gives a whole new perspective and respect for the plant. As I sit at Christmas dinner, with family around the table, I can gaze at the poinsettia centerpiece and think, "Today someone will be sacrificed".

Of course, poinsettia was not its original name. Cuetlaxochitl was its name and it means . . . I don't know what. I looked it up on Google Translate and its says its Uzbek, but I'm pretty sure its Aztec. I don't think you can count on Google Translate when it comes to ancient languages and definitely not for Joel PoinsettJoel Poinsetthieroglyphics, unless maybe you've got a hieroglyphic keyboard. But, I digress. So it had this weird Uzbek like name that maybe the Aztecs could pronounce but the rest of us couldn't. In comes Joel Roberts Poinsett, first Uzbek GuyUzbek GuyUS ambassador to Mexico, who was also an amateur botanist. He took cuttings of the plant and sent them to his greenhouse in South Carolina. John Bartram, a famous (check out previous blog The Bartrams: The Not-So-Boring Botanists series, Dec 2012)) nurseryman in Pennsylvania is credited to have marketed the first poinsettia. Some say another nurseryman, Robert Buist, first introduced it, but he's not in my blog series, so he's notAztec GuyAztec Guy as famous. Poinsettia was named after Joel Poinsett and Cuetlaxochitl faded away with the rest of the Aztecs. Thank God for that! I mean that name, not the Aztecs. They could have given it a simpler name like Gul, which is Uzbek for flower.

To get those gorgeous fully flowered plants at Christmastime is not an easy growing feat. Poinsettias are very temperature and light sensitive. They are short day plants, meaning that flowering is initiated when daylight lessens. The plants actually measure the period of darkness. Starting in October (if you want plants you can sell for Christmas), the plants must have uninterrupted darkness for 14 hours a day. The plants are so sensitive to light that if a grower checks the greenhouse at night they must use tiny maglight flashlights lest they interrupt the dark period. I once had a friend that was starting out in the commercial growing business. His first year, he grew poinsettias and had a beautiful crop of them, two weeks AFTER Christmas. Several thousand dollars down the drain and he couldn't figure out why. Late one evening, he was in the greenhouse when the garbage company came to empty his dumpster beside the greenhouse. The lights of the truck shown through the greenhouse illuminating it for a couple minutes, enough time to break the dark period and screw up the flowering. Case solved.

I hope you enjoyed this Christmas plant series. With only four more shopping days left, I'm out of here. Xompaqui ihueyihuiuh acuetlaxochitl! (That's Aztec for "Have a happy great festival with poinsettia!)



Dec 13, 2015: I know I started out with 12 but, on reconsideration, I really think there's truly only eight.

Here in Oregon we have 2 types of mistletoe, a hemiparasitic (think semi-parasitic) evergreen one and a Evergreen mistletoeEvergreen mistletoeparasitic one, dwarf mistletoe. The evergreen mistletoe is what we use at Christmas time. In the Pacific Northwest, it's typically found growing on Oregon white oaks (Quercus garryana) and is spread by birds eating the white berries and then depositing their dung on other branches. Oddly enough, the name mistletoe is derived from the Anglo-saxon words for "dung stick". Standing under the dung stick just doesn't have the same je ne sais quoi though.

Our evergreen mistletoe (Phoradendron villosum) is called a hemiparasite because it taps into its host trees to obtain water. It manufactures its own food through photosynthesis (that's why its green) but Dwarf mistletoeDwarf mistletoethrough root-like structures called haustorium they penetrate into the branch and tap into the plant tissue to extract water and nutrients. The relationship for the host tree is not a beneficial one. It saps the tree of resources but does not kill it. Our native full parasite, the western dwarf mistletoe derives everything -food, water, nutrients- from the host plant. Dwarf mistletoe is not green (it's a sickly yellow-orange) and causes serious stunting and mortality to the trees it infects, which are Ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and western hemlock, in our area.

But enough of the biology stuff, you're saying, let's get to the symbolism. You guessed it. The Celts, Romans, Greeks, Christians and even the Norse all had symbolic and ceremonial uses for mistletoe. For the Norse Vikings, trees with mistletoe in them acted as ceasefire zones, a pillage free place of peace where truces could be discussed. It wasn't a far stretch then for warring couples to kiss and makeup underneath it and now to today where anyone, warring or not, can get a smack under the Kissing Bough.

Next Christmas party your newfound mastery of mistletoe trivia will make you a big hit. You'll bound to score quick standing under the dung stick. Trust me.



Dec 12, 2015: Ivy, the old Christmas associate of holly, is an evergreen. Most Christmas plants are evergreen. Deciduous plants have never figured big for the holiday season. I guess that's why they call it Christmas greenery and not Christmas twiggery.

The Celts used ivy as winter home decor thousands of years ago. Its winter greenery was a symbolism of resurrection and life to them. The Greeks, on the other hand, associated ivy with fidelity because of its propensity to cling to things. The Romans associated it with Bacchus, the god of wine, and wore ivy wreathes on their head to prevent intoxication. In Christianity, ivy had a more checkered past. At first, it was considered satanic as it grew in the shade and hence could be associated with deception and debauchery, but then somehow that view changed. It was reaccepted into the approved list of Christmas flora because ivy clings to things and hence reminds us of how we should cling to God.

I find all these botanical symbolic interpretations to be interesting but perhaps a bit dated and less relevant to our concerns today. I think it's time to start new plant symbolisms and I'm ready to suggest a few. From looking out my window into my yard, here's a few I can think of. The big leaf maple tree symbolizes to me bowel troubles. Every fall it drops its big leaves which clog my gutters and downspouts. My larch, a deciduous conifer that drops its needles every fall, symbolizes male hair loss. The old red alder tree by the creek, which has got crown dieback and heart rot and has fungus conks growing on it, symbolizes the gradual decay, yet tenacity, of old age. The . . . . you know, this is starting to sound a little too personal. Maybe it's best to stick with the take of the ancients.

F & P