An Alien-ish Invasion

Spotted something while out on a walk, had to make sure I got pics. Because… well.

It looks kind of like a land-squid, no? But… it’s possibly even weirder, if you think about it.

These are actually pine seedlings. In the very beginning of their “grass stage”. Which is… exactly what it sounds like. Southern pines, especially longleaf, spend a couple of years as grass-like tufts, storing lots and lots of nutrients underground, so that in the space of one year they can sprout up about 6 to 7 feet or so and start looking like actual trees.

Why don’t they look like trees from the very start? Because this is a fire ecology. Typical wildfires are cool, low-level fires that burn off grass and rarely reach above about 5 feet over the ground. So long as the pine seedling hugs the ground and pretends to be grass, the most a fire will do is burn off the outer needles, leaving the bud inside (and taproot of nutrients underground) intact. This can actually be beneficial, burning off mold-infected needles so the rest of the plant is healthy.

So the tree bides its time, lays up resources, and then shoots up in less than a year, counting on luck to get it out of the frying range. It mostly works.

(A pine seedling that’s lost the seed coat and so looks even more alien.)

But what’s even more sobering is the story behind those seeds. The conditions needed for good male pine pollen cones and good female seed cones are different. Ecologists estimate you only have a good year for both every 5 to 7 years, on average. And it can take most of two years for seeds to mature. Meaning this crop of seedlings implies the conditions were just right in… oh, about 2020, for pines to reproduce.

And now we have tiny little land squid pretending to be grass. Fascinating!



17 thoughts on “An Alien-ish Invasion

    (oh, wait… they *like* fire. And I like pine trees. Okay, false alarm, too many memories of the Chtorr novels)

    “Fascinating”. (Hey, Vathara, Spock called, he wants his catchword back)
    Indeed. (What? C’mon, Tea’lc, I’m just borrowing it for a moment!)

    I’m in Michigan, but we have a very big Blue Spruce in our backyard that we blame for all the baby pine trees that pop up without warning on the unmowed sections of the property. This does explain why they seem to turn up “overnight” when we’re not looking, though.

    Liked by 4 people

      1. Well, IIRC, squirrels (and chipmunks, and kangaroo rats, and and and) tend to leave some % of their seed stashes uneaten every year, which helps the spread of trees whose seeds they like to eat.

        Which… if the trees evolved to have tasty seeds to get this “help”… we joke about cats and dogs training humans to take care of them. But what about plants? We saved bananas (well, one strain) from extinction because they’re tasty — what if some plants ‘decided’ that ‘tasty to humans’ was a pro-survival trait? Apples are a clear winner, here….

        Of course, then you have to think about cows… I think I should stop here.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Fun fact: pre-1950 or so, there used to be more than 20,000 varieties of apples. Today, there’s maybe 7,500, with some estimates being as low as 2,500 varieties, and only about 100 are grown commercially. The loss of genetic diversity has been deemed so important that there’s dozens of groups all over the US attempting to track down and save “lost” varieties. Sometimes it’s down to a single tree in some old person’s back pasture that he hasn’t been to in decades.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Apples do not breed true. Every “variety” is, from one point of view, the same apple tree, with its branches having been snipped off and grafted into a new root set.

        Most of the variety stemmed from planting apple seeds and seeing what came up.

        OTOH, even if most of the genes remain the same, the limited set from clones might be worrisome.


      4. :excited bouncing because someone seems to actually CARE about apples:

        The cool thing is that the ‘today’ of that estimate is about the ’80s, and it was American apple growers (along with some folks in the UK) who started getting folks really excited about how this is a bad thing.

        Today, there are individual orchards that commercially grow 100 varieties, in the US, and a lot more support for trying new ones. It’s no longer the 80s-ish “an apple is an apple” thing, there’s even some very pretty posters of apple varieties that are modeled on wine tasting.

        Back in ’99, a guy started a website to help “discover” and preserve old varieties– they’ve gotten over a thousand so far.

        If anybody reading this knows about an apple tree that doesn’t taste like other apples, you can contact them here:

        There’s similar groups for roses, and I think pears, both of them get support from smart growers because they’re really good resources for developing new apples.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. @Mary

    Yes? I’m aware apples do not breed true. You can’t take seeds from an apple and get the exact same tree as the apple the seeds came from. Each seed, should it sprout, grow, thrive, and produce fruit would become a new variety. You can, as you said, cut a limb from an existing apple tree and graft it onto new rootstock, but it will remain the same variety as the tree the limb came from. Being placed on new rootstock does not make it a new variety.

    I was strictly speaking of scientifically identified varieties that have distinct genetic differences. For example: Golden Delicious and Dorsett Golden. They have similar color, golden yellow blushed with red, but different shapes, textures, flavor profiles, and growing conditions. The advent of monoculture farming and industrial level production, in which few varieties of apple have truly thrived, has done a great deal of damage to the genetic diversity available for crossbreeding to achieve new variants, and has become an issue of great concern to many orchardists.

    I would presume, based on the lack of organized human intervention, that there were an even greater breadth of variety in apples when horses were evolving. In all honesty, most apples grown from seeds are not edible by human standards, although they would be perfectly fine for animals like horses. Crabapples are technically true apples, they are simply a more ancient strain than what we consider apples today. Yet, no one would consider eating a “sour” apple like a crabapple. The primary reason the crabapple is still cultivated today is because they have high levels of natural pectin in them, so they often get used in lieu of store-bought processed pectin like Sure-Jel.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yup! Like Tremblett’s Bitter and Yarlington Mill. They have a sharper flavor and more acid content than eating and cooking apple, plus they also tend to be a harder, crunchier apple. Some of them are actually decent eating apples if one prefers eating apples like Granny Smith instead of Red Delicious. Red Delicious is one of the varieties that initially thrived as a monoculture orchard, and they truly lived up to the name, but in more recent years the quality of the apple has declined significantly, becoming less sweet and gaining an off-putting mealy texture. Red Delicious apples from old trees likely retain the original flavor and texture, so I’ve no doubt the real Red Delicious apple can still be found, but the red apple found at grocery stores across the country is only a “Red Delicious” because the store says so.

        I will (hopefully) soon have a acreage necessary to have my own orchard, and the varieties I want are: Winesap (not to be confused with the Stayman Winesap, which is a cider apple), Newtown Pippen, Baldwin, Spitzenburg, Lamb Abbey Pearmain, Duchess of Oldenburg, Sierra Beauty, Opalescent, and Sops-n-Wine. All of these varieties are multipurpose, and can be used for cider, baking, cooking, and fresh eating. I also want a couple of crabapples, for pollination purposes. Plus cherries, peaches, plums, pears, and various other vines, canes and shrubs.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. These remind me of the pine trees common in Yellowstone. They have to have fire or extreme heat in order for the pinecones to even open to drop the seeds. And I bet you can imagine the issues that suddenly became a problem during a long period of time where they were trying to stop/prevent ANY wildfires completely in the Yellowstone area. Because one, stop wildfires fast enough for long enough in a fire ecology and eventually things are going to go boom. You can still see the massive amount of burned trees covering the ground if you visit, and it has been long enough since the massive wildfire that was the result that you can’t find the info posted anywhere inside Yellowstone anymore. This is despite the fact that they used to have a special building at old faithful explaining exactly what caused the massive fire and what they learned about the pine trees as a result. Because after the fire, they discovered a incredible amount of new trees sprouting everywhere the fire had spread. 😇 I find these kind of trees fascinating, as well as other fire ecology plants.

    Liked by 1 person

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