Backpacking through the Grayson Highlands of southwest Virginia, you can’t help but notice the vast display of lichens growing just about everywhere. As lichens are sensitive to atmospheric pollutants, they only thrive in the most pristine environmental conditions. You won’t find many growing in the city.
The fascinating, yet often overlooked, noteworthy feature is lichens are actual a composite of two unique species of organisms, living together in a mutualistic symbiotic relationship. The first organism is fungi, which provides structure, shelter and moisture gathering for the second organism(s), algae and/or cyanobacteria. In turn, the algae and cyanobacteria, through photosynthesis, provide food for the fungi.
This post features Crustose, Foliose and Squamulose lichens. Crustose lichens, seen in the center of the image below, have a encrusting form which spreads over the surface. Foliose lichens, seen above, have leafy lobes which attach by root-like threads to the surface they inhabit. Squamulose lichens have the characteristics of Crustose and Foliose lichens. They can be seen in all three compositions. If you do have lichens in your yard, then please welcome them. They pose no threat to plants and grow very slowly.
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For the longest time, I thought these thorny trees encountered in the Grayson Highlands, along the Appalachian Trail, were black or honey locust trees. While researching the locust tree for the post, I discovered these trees were actually hawthorns.
The locusts have long compound oval leaves, while the hawthorn has simple wedge shaped leaves. My Scout Troop enjoys backpacking in the area around late September. By this time of year the hawthorn leaves have dropped revealing the ripping berry fruit. Instead of berries, the locust fruit is long dark seed pods.
Because of its showy white spring flowers, the hawthorn is sometimes used as an ornamental planting. Its long, hard thorns also make it a desirable security barrier when planted as hedging. In the wild, hawthorns provide food and shelter for many birds and mammals. The fruit remains on the tree into the late winter, serving as an critical reserve food source.
My research also indicated there are hundreds of hawthorn variants which makes it particularly difficult to identify a specific subspecies. Additionally, several studies have shown hawthorn extract as a potential treatment for heart disease and heart health.
Several years ago, my Scout Troop arrived at a Grayson Highlands campsite on the AT, on a late, foggy evening. In the dense fog, I struggled to find a pair of trees to setup my camping hammock. I ultimately was forced to setup between two very thorny trees. Looking back, I can’t confirm if they were hawthorns or honey locusts (also has long thorns). Finally resting in my hammock that night, I used my backpacking first aid kit to treat several minor, but painful puncture wounds!
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Christmas Tree, oh Christmas Tree! Fraser firs throughout the Appalachian Mountains have been decimated by the balsam woolly adelgid, an aphid like insect. I captured these images on a backpacking trip to Grayson Highlands Virginia with my Boy Scout Troop last September.
This Fraser fir stands as a monument in a large open area between two balds on Wilburn Ridge along the Appalachian Trail. Despite the disparaging loss of so many of these beautiful trees, there is a haunting beauty found in these lingering ghosts.
Ironically, there is a thriving Fraser Fir Christmas tree industry in the surrounding highlands. While short-term chemical treatments protect specimen trees sold to consumers, there are several research efforts underway to develop long-term strategies to protect the Fraser fir. These include development of disease resistant variants which one day could be reintroduced to eastern highland forests.
For the best viewing experience, click on an image to view a high resolution version from my portfolio site. I hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas, Hanukkah and other holiday observances!
In my previous post, I spoke about the strikingly beautiful landscape at Grayson Highlands. Ironically, part of the character comes from dead or dying frazer firs & hemlocks, which have been decimated by the Asian wooly aphid. Variants of this pest have taken a similar toll throughout Southern Appalachia. Fortunately, most trees were able to produce extensive seedlings before dying. Scientists are not sure how the next generation will fare; research continues. The Tombstone in the Bald image seems to capture the plight of these trees, as well as their ironic contribution to visual landscape.
In the Fraser Fir Composition image, the sun bleached, weathered old wood of a dead fraser makes for a strong visual against the dark, dense foliage of the living firs. I tried a new filter in Exposure 7 which emulates Agfa APX 100 black & white negative film. With some minor adjustments to the filter settings, I get a pleasing boost in contrast, broad tonal range and subtle grain structure. Nice! This filter may replace my go-to Kodak Panatomic-X filter mentioned in previous posts.
Another attraction you’ll find among the balds is herd of wild ponies, they help maintain the open grass areas. Occasionally, you may find cattle also grazing among the balds. Signs in the Grayson Highlands State Park request you not pet or feed the ponies. However, it’s hard to resist as they seem quite comfortable around both humans and Boy Scouts. Wild Ponies at Massey Gap was taken towards the end of our last backpacking trip in an around the Grayson Highlands State Park.
The last image, Lichen Armour, features a young tree coated with a heavy layer of lichen. Since high school biology, I’ve also been quite fascinated by lichen, which is actually a composite organism formed by a framework of fungus fibers containing algae and/or cyanobacteria all living together in a symbiotic relationship. Pretty cool, eh?
My Scouts love to backpack in and around Grayson Highlands State Park, VA. The location is part of the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area and the Jefferson National Forest. Each time we backpack, I always bring my camera. On the trail, I’m always at the back of line taking pictures, or running ahead to catch our Scout Troop navigating the beautiful terrain.
Scientists tell us this area was considered an alpine forest during the last ice age. As the ice retreated, the alpine forest retreated to higher ground. A mix of evergreen firs, spruce and hemlocks mixed with Chestnut, Locust trees and mountain brush once covered the area. As a result of the great loss of the American Chestnut in the early 1900s, loggers came into the area to retrieve the dead trees for it valuable lumber. The impact of this event along with the well-drained rocky soil, weather, spruce-fir & hemlock loss to pests, acid rain, and wild ponies all contribute to this unique biome. The terrain is absolutely stunning, especially in the fall, offering a tremendous opportunity for beautiful natural photography.
The first photo, Hemlock & Birch Tree Composition, was taken just after sunrise in the early Fall. It features a dead hemlock on the left with a live birch in front, on the right. Only the green, and a slight amount of yellow, were left to highlight the lichen and add visual interest. As usual, I processed the image with a Panatomic-X filter in Exposure 7 to add old school grain, contrast and character.
One of our most popular backpacking trail routes is along the Appalachian Trail (AT), briefly cutting through the top of the park before looping northward out of the park along the western edge of Wilburn Ridge. The next image, Ghost on the RIdgeline, was taken along the AT on the western approach to Wilburn Ridge. It represents one of my favorite shots from Grayson Highlands. This dead, lichen covered hemlock appears as a ghost haunting the ridgeline along the dense, dark brush lining the rocky trail. The smaller image in this post appears a little darker than the normal preview on my portfolio site. Click on the image name to see a larger view from my site.
On a visit last September, I took Locust Tree Composition inside the park looking back at the western side of Wilburn Ridge. At some level, this image reminds me of a stain-glass window. Locust trees are to be respected, especially when you’re trying to tie your camping hammock between two of them after sunset!
I plan to have more images from Grayson Highlands next week. I hope you enjoy.