Blast it all

Of all the wilts, blasts, declines, spots, blights (early and late), smuts, fires, and other types of plant maladies that I’ve gotten to tour this semester as a TA for Plant Pathology, it’s the rusts – as boring and creaky as they sound – that have captured my heart. They’re everything you want in a fungus: edgy, shape-shifting, clever, misbehaved, and mysterious. They’re also some of our most important plant pathogens, culturally and economically. It was the coffee rust Hemileia vastatrix and its devastation of coffee plantations in Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka) in the 1870s that pushed the Brits to acquire a taste for tea. A wheat rust, Puccinia graminis, has evaded our best efforts at breeding resistant varieties of wheat, and creeps ever closer to the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Here in the Northeast, Cedar-apple rust (Gymnosporangium juniperis-virginae) sprouts bright orange horns and adorns cedar and juniper trees with unmistakeable alien blobs. Do some googling – you won’t be disappointed.

So what makes a rust a rust? Many of them do indeed create a blistery, red, orange or brown spore-producing growth that coats the host plant. Wheat rust, for example, would be hard to describe with any other word.

Licensed under Public Domain via Common

Wheat stem rust, Puccinia graminis. Photo licensed under Public Domain.

But part of what makes the whole group of “rusts” so sinister is that most have two separate plant hosts. The organism hops from host to alternate host seasonally and under the guise of five different spore types – making them very hard to pin down.

Why five spore types? For the rust fungi, it’s a matter of movement: something that most fungi lack in any obvious sense. So instead of wings or legs or even flagellae to carry these fungi across from host to host, these fungi delegate these tasks to a number of specialized spores. Each spore performs a different type of movement or storage: there’s genetic movement, of course, which happens in two different spore types (one spore to split the genes up, another to recombine them); but also there’s a spore for waiting/overwintering, a spore to hop from primary to alternate host, a different spore to hop back from the alternate host to the primary host, and yet another spore to re-infect the same primary host plant over and over again. It’s this last spore, called a uredia, that often causes the “rust” effect on the host plants.


Teliospores of Puccinia graminis, viewed at 200x. Photo by the author.

Something that will never get old for me is the ability of microscopes to make a flake of a leaf or a speck of carpet dust into a visual Versailles under magnification. As a TA for the Plant Pathology lab, most of what we do is look at structures under high power – needless to say, I’m one happy clam. So today, as my fellow TA Emma and I were conducting the chaos of 40 students trying to trace out the steps of the life cycles of wheat–barberry rust and white pine–currant rust, I took a moment just to view a particularly lovely slide of teliospores – they’re the red blobs, roughly diamond-shaped, with a lateral cross-wall pictured at left– as they emerged from a telium on a wheat plant.

Maybe you don’t have a microscope, but you can still appreciate these creatures in many ways. An easy challenge to you all: go to any nearby apple tree (crabapple will do), and start looking at leaves with blotchy brown spots on them: turn the leaves upside down, and see what you see. If you find yourself starting suddenly at what looks like a mole sprouting thick tufts of wiry hairs – which I bet you will find if you look – you, my friend, are in the dear company of cedar-apple rust aecia. Who cares what exactly that means: you’re a guest in their world, so take a hand lens, get curious, and enjoy the alien beauty of these fungi.

To Brave the Cold

By Shelby Perry

The sun had been up for an hour and the day was already warming. As I sat down to a steaming bowl of cinnamon oatmeal, Bernd walked into the cabin and announced that it was -24 degrees Fahrenheit outside. This made the rest of the week seem balmy, with temperatures fluctuating between -5 and 28 degrees F. Soon we would head outside for an exploratory ramble. It was just another day in Bernd Heinrich’s Winter Ecology class.

When I tell people about winter camping their reaction is often one of shock; sometimes I provoke a chorus of “That sounds terrible!” People ask these experiences with comic incredulity, but their questions give me the chance to explain why braving the cold is worth it.

  1. Winter is beautiful.

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    Photo by Bonnie Richord

The landscape sparkles with snow, the late-afternoon sun paints the hills pink, and the tree silhouettes stand twisted against the sky. After a snowfall, the world is transformed, quiet, and peaceful.

  1. Wildlife!

While many animals are sleeping or have left town, the ones that remain can be easier to see against the backdrop of snow and bare tree branches. Below, check out an owl sighting from winter ecology. Continue reading

Kiss This: Mistletoe’s Higher Calling

By Bryan Pfeiffer


Great Purple Hairstreak (Atlides haleus) / © Bryan Pfeiffer

GET YOURSELF UNDER SOME WILD MISTLETOE this Christmas. Your gift might be a shock-and-awe butterfly called Great Purple Hairstreak.

Mistletoe is a plant that grows on trees or shrubs. And it’s a bit of a leech, a hemiparasite, which means mistletoe draws minerals and fluids from its host. But mistletoe is also photosynthetic, generating some of its own energy demands from sunshine. Oh, by the way, there is no one mistletoe. The world has more than 1,000 mistletoe species. I’ve got one of them in a cottonwood next to my cabin here in New Mexico. Mistletoes grow flowers, have pollinators, and produce fruits like many other plants.

In Arizona this past weekend, among thousands of butterflies, I encountered a single Great Purple Hairstreak. That’s usually how we find them, sluggish and alone, about the size of your thumbnail, crawling among flowers and lapping up nectar. But the business side of this butterfly, at least when it comes to mistletoe, is the caterpillar. Great Purple Hairstreak caterpillars eat mistletoe species in the genus Phoradendron (and maybe others). Continue reading

Freshwater Sharks

Snorkeling in frigid waters for a species at-risk

By Levi Old                                                               

Salvelinus confluentusOn a dead-still summer night, I army-crawl upstream.

“We have a large adult!” says Jen.

I rise to one knee and pull the fogged snorkel mask off my head. “A big one?” I mumble in a haze.

“Yeah, really big. Much larger than I’ve ever seen this far up the creek,” she replies, pointing to where it kicked its caudal fin gently against the downstream flow. “It’s right there beside you.”

I cinch the mask on my face, place the snorkel in my mouth, and dunk back into the frigid water:

Twenty-six inches of wildness.

Jen pops her head out of the water and says, “Isn’t that just a beautiful creature?”

She snorkels one side of the creek and I snorkel the other. An assistant in waders walks the creek, tallies our fish sightings and makes sure we do not go hypothermic. Continue reading

Doing the Runway Strut: Fall 2014

By Ben Lemmond

Not unlike humans, fall fashion is a major event in the fungi kingdom. The theme this fall is retro-seventies blend of yellow, red, tan, and faded orange. Here are some of the superstars I’ve spotted out and about this week. Also, watch the instructional video below on lending a helping hand (or stick) to a puffball in need.

Inside Studying the Outside

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By Kathryn Wrigley

Colors burst forth from the trees.  It is fall.  Or so my Instagram feed, chocked full of apple cider donuts and flaming red trees, portends.

I am soaking in the beige and pale yellow of my desk in the University of Vermont’s Aiken building.  The first-year Field Naturalists appear sporadically to study, still in the midst of their first-semester field courses.  I’m square in the mid-semester of my second year.

My field work from the summer seems like a dream as plot data fills in the squares of Excel spreadsheets – the ostensibly dull side of the field ecologist’s life.  Yet I gain a certain excitement from all the numbers. I’m a detective, a quantifying detective.  I see patterns on the landscape during the summer.  Will they emerge from my data?  Will I find an unexpected pattern?

Since I do not have the brisk fall air to keep me alert and awake, coffee and classical music fuel me.  Oddly enough, this inside work is why I am here at school.  At age 15, I swore to myself I would never work inside.  I worked outside for the next 15 years.  During my time in recreation management, I wondered about the ecological aspects of low-impact recreation.  What were the effects of backcountry rock quarries?  What were the impacts of mountain bike trails?  Were rock climbers threatening rare plants?

For my masters project I delve into low-impact recreation as I explore whether glading, clearing in the trees where skiers can make multiple linked turns, has an effect on wildlife habitat suitability.  I am inside, studying the outside.  Working for all those years outside led me to realize that humans and landscapes cannot be managed separately.  In the spring, I hope to leave this beige and yellow world to work for an organization that focuses on the importance of the ecological and social aspects of conservation.

A Deadly Drink


Photo by Jessie Griffen

By Emma Stuhl

An insect death trap resides in our local wetlands. It’s a grisly tale of plant versus animal, with an unusual twist. Using a modified leaf to create a snare, the Northern Pitcher Plant is one of Vermont’s most unusual and sinister herbs.

Pitcher plants live in wetlands where the peat soil is low in nitrogen. Instead of using extensive root systems or relationships with nitrogen gathering fungi, pitcher plants have evolved to lure, catch, and digest insects to meet their nutritional needs.

From inside its columnar leaf, the pitcher plant emits a sweet smell that attracts insects. Curious bugs fly into the leaf, where they realize that there is no delicious nectar awaiting. When they try to fly out, downward pointing hairs impede their escape. In the pitcher, the insect eventually drowns in a pool of digestive enzymes, insect larvae, flesh flies, and bacteria. This slurry of creatures and chemicals break apart the insect, allowing the pitcher plant to absorbs the precious nutrients that the body contained.

So head on out to your local bog and watch the saga unfold. Witness the demise of a moth or a gnat. You might even see something unusual, like a salamander in a pitcher (photo below), that will make you leave with some new questions and a wild story.



At the bog. Photo by Jessie Griffen

A salamander in a pitcher plant!

A salamander in a pitcher plant. Look for the tail. Photo by Jessie Griffen



Emma Stuhl is a first year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program. She is glad that meat eating plants are generally quite small.

Making Time for the Leaves


The changing leaves in Shelburne, VT

The changing leaves in Shelburne, VT

I was afraid that this year, like so many others, I would lose track of time.  I was afraid I’d spend all of the fall foliage season behind a computer or buried in a book.  I was afraid that in grad school I would have too much homework to do to be able to spend much time outside. But I promised myself: this year I’ll make time. This year I won’t let the seasons change without admiring the gradient between them.  This year will be different.

As it turns out I needn’t have worried.  This year everything is different.  In the Field Naturalist program the brilliantly colored trees form the walls of my classroom, the shimmering late summer sky its ceiling.  We bask in the changing seasons, taking advantage of days warm enough to slog barefoot through a bog and roll up our pants to wade in the cool lake.  We catch salamanders, admire worm holes, and request the name of every plant we come across.  Oh, and everywhere we go we dig a hole.

Our days meander beautifully through each place we go, carefully choreographed to tell a story.  We learn how bedrock affects plant communities, how soils here are different from those in the tropics, and how deep the peat is in Chickering Bog (23 feet!).  This kind of learning is new to me; learning in which we immerse ourselves in our subject matter completely.  I go home each night somehow exhausted and energized at the same time, filling my notebooks with lists of things to investigate further.

As I promised myself, I do make time to go out and enjoy the changing of the seasons outside of class.  I take long rambling walks through the woods with my dog every morning and some evenings.  The only difference is that now I get to justify it as studying.

Shelby is a first year graduate student in the Field Naturalist program.  She enjoys catching toads and salamanders, admiring bugs, climbing talus, and all other explorations of nature.  

Seeking The Witches

witch-hazelBy Kat Deely

As the maples put on the fireworks above, witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) buds are ready to pop open their spindly, yellow flowers. Given a basic understanding of seasonal growth, it is curious that this plant is flowering in the fall.  Is this some invasive plant, out of sync with this ecosystem?

Witch-hazel is where it belongs, but has an unusual adaptation to attract pollinators.  To avoid competition spring ephemeral plants go through their complete reproductive cycle before leaf out, and witch-hazel has taken a similar approach.  While the ephemerals jump the gun and offer food to the early emerging insects, witch-hazel in the forest until the asters and the goldenrods have said their piece, and then puts on a show for the pollinators.  By this time the availability of nectar is limited and moths are only too happy to oblige.  Witch-hazel is a more southerly species, so up in New England you find it beneath canopy trees of a similar heritage.  These oaks and hickories warm themselves on south-facing mountain slopes, in sheltered coves, and along temperate valleys.

This shrub offers qualities beyond its fragrant bloom that explain the origin of its name.  Traditionally used for locating water beneath the ground by Native Americans, witch-hazel diving rods were even exported to Europe.  “Wych” is from the Anglo-Saxon word for “bend”.

As autumn emerges around us, admire the brilliant hues our hardwoods showcase, but remember to drop your gaze to mid canopy and seek the spindly celebration of fall around you.


Kat is a second year Ecological Planning student constantly seeking answers to the mysteries found within the natural world.  Being an FNEP student has exponentially increased  her number of questions, and actually answered a handful of them.

Graphite Terrarium

By Ben Lemmond

“Be not concerned,” Dr. Cathy Paris advises us, in a soft, lilting voice that could outsparkle Glinda the Good Witch: the twenty-page packet on graminoids that she’s just handed us is “mostly diagrams.” In it we see the somewhat archaically-classified “tribes” of grasses. One can imagine them roving across the land in waves, heads nodding in some ancient agreement (“May our lemmas always be longer than the lowest glume…” “Yes, yes, it is so.”) Every Wednesday, which is Field Botany day in my world, my cohort and I spend a full, 9-5 day with Cathy Paris and Liz Thompson addressing the nuances of the botanical world with direct, unabashedly precise language, squinting along as we’re steered from spikelet to achene to tubercle in an ever-zooming lens of detail.

This is the class that feels most like learning a foreign language. Specifically, there’s an overload of new terminology with no real-life reference points: words you simply have to memorize, because they only attach to one, very specific meaning that exists nowhere else except deep inside the maze of plant anatomy. To actually retain this language requires a little reinforcement, a task that I’m sure we’ve all approached differently. I’ve taken to drawing everything in class because it’s the only way to add dimension to the detail, to take its foreignness and make it familiar. I tried to do that in a different class, our Friday “Field Practicum” class, where we visit sites and decipher the whole story – and it just didn’t work to turn into images. The puzzles of the sites we visit may be bigger in scope, but the way we solve them somehow doesn’t necessitate the translation of a sketch. Perhaps it’s because patching together narratives from imperfect fragments is what social creatures like ourselves are expertly designed to do. At any rate: a few images of class and sketches from my botany notebook, a world I’ve made for myself to remember: