Saturday, July 26, 2014

What happens to Earth's Mycorrhizal Community when their Hosts fail above ground ?

"You don't have to inoculate because spores are  found everywhere in the Air."  Oh but I beg to differ, yes it does matter!
image: John Upton
It's almost impossible to believe that mycorrhizal Fungi themselves are in danger of massive deterioration and possibly extinction in some areas of the Earth, especially when the prevailing faith affirmation is that "Fungal spores are just everywhere in the air". In other words, don't worry, it'll be fine. I often hear this [mainly by native plant nursery experts who are supposed to be in the know] when I reveal to them that I always inoculate even when I suspect microbial life in the ground is healthy. I just refuse to not take a chance, and besides, there are some species of fungi which are superior in starting a plant out successfully than others do. I'm not trying to be cute here, but there's more to the story. Like everything else, Micro-organisms are not immune to human idiocy. So no it's not invincible as we once thought, or at least not anymore. Does it stand to reason that if plant life above the ground earth wide is suffering and in severe cases failing, that the conditions underground, just possibly the microbial community isn't doing so hot as well ? More and more there is scientific evidence that this just may be the case. It's always been a given that for the most part, where ever in the world's cities , Humans use massive amounts of science-based chemical Fertilizer solutions and other deep tilling practices have been employed, the microbial community is either limited or entirely gone. Further, when areas of an agricultural landscape are plowed up near the surface, this will often kill off the mycorrhizal network, and made even worse with the chemical fertilizer applications. In the post I did on the habitat restoration project at Thousand Palms oasis where it was necessary to physically remove Tamarisk trees, two types of method were employed in the removal and as noted, there were two stark contrasts in results of plant community response.
"Most areas were cut by hand, thereby selectively cutting out the tamarisk while leaving the native shrubs unharmed. Only a 7.5 acre (3 ha) section that was heavily infested (> 95%) was cleared using a bulldozer." 
"In the 7.5 acres (3 ha) that was bulldozed, natives established much more slowly than in the hand-cleared areas." 
(Source) "A Success Story Tamarisk Control at Coachella Valley Preserve, Southern California" 
Did you notice that the method in which the crews hand removed the invasive vegetation, but left the other native shrubs intact ? These regions were reported to have recovered faster. The Bulldozed land which was stripped entirely and replanted recovered far more slowly. This method is often employed by the US Forest Service in replanting Timber species Pine trees and success is much slower than leaving some chaparral intact. While they make no mention of the mycorrhizal grid, no doubt this was obliterated at the Bulldozed location at the time of disking and scraping. I also found this in my own case where I always hand removed only a handful of chaparral when planting trees and leaving much of the ecosystem intact. But something else is going on now that is causing the mycorrhizal network to fail in many areas. The really scary thing now is that this disappearance phenomena may also be happening in many of the Earth's wildland areas and not limited to those regions disrupted by Humans. But why is this ? 
Major Groundwater Deficit Out West Might Hold Some Clues
image: Earth Observatory - NASA
The people at NASA came out with a map just a couple of days ago referencing groundwater deficits especially out in the western states. Here is what they said:
"Long-term drought and aggressive seasonal wildfires have consumed property, lives, and farmland in the American West. The dry weather and blazes are battering regional economies and putting residents and agricultural businesses in several states on a path toward water restrictions. At least part of this story of water woes lies underground."
"The map above combines data from the satellites of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) with other satellite and ground-based measurements to model the relative amount of water stored in underground aquifers in the continental United States. The wetness, or water content, is a depiction of the amount of groundwater on July 7, 2014, compared to the average from 1948 to 2009. Areas shown in blue have more abundant groundwater for this time of year than comparable weeks over the long-term, while shades of red depict deficits compared to this time of year." 
Many Native wildland Plant Communities are in major decline or out right dying, Why is this ?

Anza Valley viewed north @ Thomas Mountain off
Mitchell Rd & east of Kirby Rd next to Agri-Empire Well (2014)
The photograph above was taken in a northerly direction from a commercial well head owned by Agri-Empire just north of the dirt road part of Mitchell Road and east of Kirby Road. What caught my attention here, and this had been seen elsewhere, the Parry Pinyon Pines are failing all over the place. Believe it or not I actually wrote about what was going to happen back in early 2013 before I came over that Spring. I already was aware of Parry Pinyon's decline and some of the efforts to help save these trees within the San Jacinto Mountain range. The account from the Press Enterprise falsely cursed and demonized Chaparral as hindering the successful life of Parry Pinyon. But the efforts of their chaparral clearing programs were less than successful, especially given the lack of knowledge by well meaning people who were in a position of authority to have known better how specific ecosystems [like Pinyon/Juniper woodlands] actually work. The leadership should have known better:
Little Did I Know at the Time, Parry Pinyon was only the Beginning! 
Any Pinyon and especially the Parry Pinyon,  has always been one tough tree. But like other living things, this tree also has limits as to what it will endure. Historically they have always germinated newer trees with great ease, especially on a steep southern facing slopes of Thomas Mountain to the Anza Valley floor which is dominated by Chamise or otherwise known as Greasewood. Not many trees would tolerate such a habitat. These trees in this area for example have always produced 1000s of pine nuts per year and it could be observed that 100s of seedlings emerged successfully after germination over Winter, whether they made it through the first year or not. The above photo isn't the best close up shot I could get, but I had a delicate Rental Car that was never made for the offroad. From a distance however you could see numerous skeletal outlines of the Parry Pinyon tree silhouettes. Many Pine trees will normally shed leaves or needles from oldest years to the newest during times of drought stress. Most of the pines at my old place still contain needles which go back 5 or 6 years, but many of these Parry Pinyon trees had only two years worth of needles which reveals their present drought stressed struggle for life. Some were outright dead which can be seen from a drive along Hwy 371 leaving Anza Valley heading to Paradise Corners. This unfortunate observation is just not normal, especially for these Pinyons up there around Anza. Of course all the Coulter and Jeffrey Pine are being effected as well. That entire southern face of the eastern end of the Thomas Mountain chain had always attracted my attention because the trees always stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding Chaparral plants. Now you can't even tell the difference. But one wonders what has happened to the mycorrhizal fungi community under the ground which normally is the foundational support of the above ground ecosystem. Why isn't it not up to the task of it's assigned  job ? Let's see how it works when all pistons are firing.

The foundation of every single ecosystem on Earth is the fungi community. Depending on the system, the variety of plants and animals living within that system are determined by the health of the microbial system of the fungi along with the right kind of beneficial bacteria. The foliage mechanisms of all plants that are above the ground act as factories which produce energy from the sun, manufacture food and allow the plant to reproduce. The mycorrhizal community under the ground draw off the nutrition the plant manufactures in the form of simple sugars or carbohydrates which the fungi are incapable of producing on their own. Obviously the Fungi provide generous amounts of raw materials in the form of water and nutrients in exchange for the food the trees and shrubs generously provide. An important factor in all of this working together and cooperation is available moisture which provide the major support in this cooperation. Look at any shrub or tree this way, think in terms of purchasing a factory stock muscle car from the 1960s. Certainly the vehicle has many outstanding qualities on it's own and will perform just fine. But this vehicle can be further enhanced by modification of the cars various mechanical components which relate to higher performance. The fungal community under the ground acts as just such a modification partner. They provide an energy performance to helping out the plants during the rougher  times. They provide an antibiotic system which protects plants root infrastructure from diseases which would otherwise wear down it's mechanical components. They create a sharing interconnection exchange of nutrients and moisture between the entire the plant community, and create a much larger resource base by which further moisture and nutrients can be drawn from a greater area. If any of the modified components shut down for any reason, then the entire system can be effected negatively.
It is the same with any vehicle. If the  header exhaust system, gears, or the high performance carburetor starts to fail for any reason, the entire system suffers. With the plant world, we are now seeing complete failure in many places. This is true for example in Anza California. Off hand I'd say it's the inconsistent rainfall totals I have been following throughout Southern California over the past couple of years. Totals are extremely uneven with some areas getting doused with rain and others receiving only a trace. This past rainy season especially, most totals are extremely way down throughout California and this downward trend has been getting worse over the last few years. Seasonal rainwater and other forms of moisture to an ecosystem are like what gasoline is to a car. Lack of water will also create and cause total shutdown in most plant ecosystems, and all other life will be likewise effected. People aren't the only ones with a stake in this water crisis emergency.

What I noticed this past rainy season is that even if an area was officially recorded as receiving an inch of rain, other storms that followed were few and far between. An inch of rain doesn't soak very deep, especially when it's not followed up by other rain amounts. The sun and wind dry up what was made available and the pores in the soils seizes up tight once again. No amount of moisture build up is allowed, which explains why invasive weeds didn't even do well in these areas this past year. The ground water availability chart above provided by NASA bears this out. Most of the chaparral I saw on my trip hadn't even put on a new season's growth, which tells me they are in survival mode at any cost. When this happens, plants and trees will either restrict or hinder altogether giving any carbohydrates to their mycorrhizal partners in life. The plants right now are in extreme survival mode when they shut down and don't produce. Many go drought stress deciduous. For the past decade I have not once found PT Mycorrhizal Truffles in either my favourite wild collecting spots not specific places within cities which were colonized.
image: Roger Gosden
In every ecosystem around the globe there are ecological switches that exist which push the system through a succession of changes until maturity is reached, and the same could be true in reverse when the ecosystem begins to collapse as a result of disturbance from the norm. Reverse engineer anything and you notice a gradual breakdown. Seriously, look at Earth's Climate mechanisms. If we go back to our automobile comparisons, fast forward to our present computerized run modern cars which are loaded with sensors which send instantaneous signals to the computer's programming brain which continually monitors temperature, timing, fluid levels, etc, etc, etc, this mimics beautifully what goes on in the plant world deep down inside on a very molecular level which is controlled by sophisticated sensors & on/off switches on the genes located within the plant's DNA which constantly monitor the surrounding environment for change. The signals the plant genes receive from this feedback by means of chemical signaling which require a response for the organism's next move. This makes more sense to me now, given the info I read a while back from the 2005 report by the US Forest Service which came out admitting that Pisolithus tinctorius does work within chaparral plant community & likes to colonize Chamise. Note the quoted text below where Chamise will allow itself to be colonized, but only & especially during wet years like the El Nino event of 1978 thru 1984. This would also account for the Parry Pinyon's healthy establishment successes within the Thomas Mountain ranges above Anza California which were always productive truffle collection hot spots for me for over two decades. From 2003 onward however I found no truffles [even signs of older mummified ones] in all areas north of hwy 371 on the old Dune Ranch now owned by Agri-Empire. If even the Chamise or Redshank are under stress as a result of drought conditions, it makes sense that certain sensing mechanisms detect environmental ques picked up by the plant's epi-genome, then this must certainly require a disconnecting signal which means the chemical that allows and encourages the colonization process with mycorrhizae must be shut down and may be a survival strategy for these chaparral. Even this year was a bust when I visited Anza, UNTIL => my Julian visit June 30th 2014. Below here is a paragraph explaining & documenting the Chamise PT Truffle association.
"Greasewood or Chamise ( Adenostoma fasciculatum ) normally forms arbuscular mycorrhizae with all genera found in the region. However, during wet years (El NiƱo), we found EM associated with its roots and EM fungi in the stands (Allen and others 1999b). There was a high diversity of fungi ranging from Cenococcum and Balsamia spp. (ascomycetes ) to a variety of basidiomycetes such as Pisolithus species." 
Wow, what an awesome surprise before returning to Sweden. Truffles, Humbolt Lilies and more 
image: Elisabeth: Desert View Inspiration Point
It was June 30th 2014, my wife and I were returning back to El Cajon after staying at my brother's place in Ranchita, California for a few days. We stopped in Julian for a chocolate malted milk shake, then pushed on south to see what Cuyamaca State Park looked like now. This photo above is the desert view turnoff on Hwy 79 south of Julian called "Inspiration Point. Years ago someone planted Cuyamaca Cypress all around the parking area and median island. They spread out into the chaparral in the old days before fire swept through here. I recall finding seedlings everywhere in the 1970s. I know, it's faith shaking shocker when a much worshiped doctrine gets blown out of the Fire Ecology water, but life is like that. There were some small narrow unmarked trails where persons who visited have created through the chaparral so I followed a few, but something curious caught my eye as I veered off trail an in between Manzanita and Scrub Oak I found what for me is the glittering of gold, a mother load of sorts. Stone-like truffles of Pisolithus tinctorius. 

photo Mine Inspiration Point Hwy 79 south of Julian
The above image has been manicured a bit so that viewers get the full flavour of what they actually look like. Here I have pulled back some of the dry grasses, leaves, dirt and other debris for the camera. To most people hiking in the outdoors, they look rather like small stones. But I've always got my nose to the ground every time I go out, just a habit I guess.
Photo Mine: Now on my FB page
Here is the same image of the above truffle with another I've cut or broken in half to reveal what's inside of these gems. Unlike normal puffballs most folks might be familiar with which explode in a cloud of dust when opened, these have a compartmentalized interior. Mocha brown inside and gives off the scent of caramelized sugar of English Toffee in my opinion. Often referred to as the Dog Turd Truffle, it is a main pioneer fungi for most all ectomycorrhizal plants which are just getting started. Below here is a picture of a truffle which I have not removed the debris around. You can understand why most people wouldn't notice such a gem.
Image Mine
But now look below here, they do come much bigger

Image Mine
Two images of the same truffle above and below here. The lower one allows you to view the American Quarter coin much more clearly which I used for scale. Almost the same size of a Swedish Kronor. I've seen these things get much bigger before, often on my own property in Anza in the past. Once on the backside of Palomar Mountain in 1983, a friend of mine and I went up the forestry road behind Aguanga off Hwy 79 and up near the top in a previous years wildfire burns and after the monsoon Thunderstorms had dumped rain over the last several weeks, we saw large white Puffballs larger than the size of a Basket Ball all over the blacken landscape with which it contrasted beautifully. I really wished back then I had thought to carry a camera.

Image Mine
Other things discovered at "Inspiration Point"
Image Mine
Okay now time to pay attention here for a moment. This is looking south from the "Inspiration Point" area and the hill where some trees are recovering from the 2003 Cedar Fire which took this place out almost completely. I still have nightmares of watching Ed Lenderman of KUSI over dramatizing the high winds at this spot live. As you can see there are some pines trees and even Cuyamaca Cypress growing back. Although for a recovery that is eleven years in restoration, it's clear that even rain here has not been in great abundance. Okay anyway, is there any colour that stands out place and jumps out at you in this photograph ? I'll give you some hints, it's not any shade of green, nor sky blue. It also has nothing to do with the reddish brown soil at the bottom foreground of the picture.

The chaparral here at "Inspiration Point" was the healthiest and most beautiful in all of San Diego County, something I had not seen anywhere, but a few places like Palo Colorado Canyon up in Big Sur California off of the Cabrillo Hwy 1. Okay, to the right here is a Humbolt Lily which was growing up out from a medium sized California Coffeeberry Shrub. Not what most people would consider ideal gardening conditions for any kind of Lily. But that's the native chaparral ecology. Fungi makes many things work when all pistons are firing properly. I have some more pics and more stories of things I did here. Like planting Native Plants in hot weather, inoculation and watering properly under harsh conditions. Some natives can be watered and others not. Inoculation is always a must if you want to succeed in the urban landscape or garden. However, unless things weather and climate-wise change radically, I do not believe any remote wildland area restoration will succeed, even if you inoculate with a great mycorrhizal blend. You need rain, not necessarily heavy rains, but back to normal rains will work. There is so much going wrong in the outback environment. To much to ponder. Get outdoors and discover how different Nature is from what the textbooks insist is truth. You'll be amazed.


  1. I am in London and a huge fan or organic gardening and make massive quantities of compost from the garden rubbish of the surrounding houses. 5 years into my surface feeding of the soil with 2 inches or more of home made compost every time plants are mature enough to cope with the extra soil depth I have seen an explosion of small fugas growing all over the garden. My plants are stronger and growing faster and standing better. I have more worms than I have seen anywhere and the soil paradoxically seems to drain better and hold moisture longer.
    Thankyou for this article - you have given me an insight into why this is so.

    1. Thanks Karen

      I've always been interested in ALL mechanisms that make any type of plant ecosystem work and function, then taking that knowledge and replicating the basic fundamental and principles into the urban landscape and home garden. To the extent I've been successful, I've helped establish woodlands in areas I was told never would succeed and created pest free landscapes at the properties I managed in the past.


  2. I appreciate the tie-in of soil health and the importance of retaining native vegetation, or not scraping everything off the land. I also hear that even when the "slash" of removed vegetation is used as cover, some of the mycorrhizal bacteria remains and can start to help soilbiology again. I did miss the Humboldt Lily until the next photo.

    Did you read the article on mycorrhizal bacteria in the landscape in SW Trees and Turf? Some truth, some dismissal and misunderstanding - lots of traditional speak, too.

    There must be something helping pinyons to stay alive that long in such a place.

    Many things in this post to save.

    1. The photograph of the Parry Pinyons dying all over Anza reminded me of the scenes of dying Pinyon-Juniper Woodlands over in Jimenez New Mexico if I've got that name right. What a tragedy.

      As far as SW Trees and Turf, I actually thought they were gone. Is she still running the paper ?

    2. Close - it would be the Jemez Mountains! Though pinons are dying all over the highlands and mountains of NM, all directions. Most grew thickly in recent wet periods, which appear to have ended. Then drought stress, then beetles attack the stressed trees. Even those isolated from woodlands (like the lower, drier areas I used to hike) are dying, probably repeated severe drought, lack of winter rain / snow and unreliable monsoon seasons.

      Yes, it is back - Helen Stone and some others reorganized, and now another company is running SWTT, but Helen is the editor.

  3. Are mushrooms part of the mycrorizil structure?

    1. Well whether pretty or ugly, they are the fruiting bodies of the organisms, but only for Ecto-mycorrhizae. Endo-mycorrhizae great tiny underground propagules which contain the spores or seeds for regeneration. Ecto-mycorrhizae can only produce mushrooms or truffles if they are connected to a host plant and feeding of the carbon from that host. Otherwise the main body of the organism (mycorrhizae) is the fungal grid or network. And I have no idea what it is that triggers epigenetic responses to producing a mushroom or anything else the organism does, it doesn't exactly have a main brain center, but never the less is information driven like everyhing else.


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