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.
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