Thursday, March 15, 2012

Gettin' Twiggy With It

A trip to the Chicago Botanic Garden this morning provided me with much blog fodder for this and the next few posts.  Spring is early this year, bringing a bounty of beautiful sights to the Botanic Garden. 

Greenish yellow weeping willows and orange willow shrubs on the left side.
Many trees and shrubs have responded to the spring weather, even if they haven't leafed out yet, by becoming quite colorful.  Their twigs have begun to manufacture photosynthetic pigments near the surface of the bark, making for yellow, orange, red and green twigs.  Forget everything you ever learned about plants - they photosynthesize using bark! (OK, don't forget anything, but you can add on.)  The picture above shows a lovely spring scene with willow trees and shrubs revealing their spring pigments.
Crimson tipped shrub willows.
The brilliant colors of the shrub willows drew me in for a closer look.  Up close, they have yellow stems with bright red tips.  The greenish yellow of the lower stems is probably a mix of chlorophylls and xanthophylls (here is an explanation of pigments in this earlier post).  The red is likely due to anthocyanins, but there is almost certainly chlorophyll also present in the twigs masked by the stronger red pigments.
Willow twigs with crimson tips.
Red is a common pigment 'choice' for plants that are active in cold weather.  The red may act to filter out some excess light and act as a sunscreen for the plant.  Plants can't photosynthesize as quickly when it's cold out, and too much light can overload the slow system.  Red pigments also tend to absorb more heat than other pigments, and even a tiny increase in temperature can increase the rate of photosynthesis.  In this crimson-tipped willow, the narrow tips would be especially likely to freeze, so red pigments there could help them be more active in the cold.  Alternatively, since this plant is growing in a botanic garden, it is likely the product of selective breeding for aesthetically pleasing but physiologically useless traits - so the colorful twigs could just be pretty and not useful at all.

Red dogwood twigs.
Above you can see entirely red twigs of a shrubby type of dogwood.  I can attest that many types of dogwood twigs are often red in the wild as well as in botanic gardens.  People and nature seem to favor red twigs for winter growth.  The overall effect (below) of these red twigs is startlingly beautiful.

Dogwood shrubs.
Many plants opt for green chlorophyll for winter twigs, as seen this variety of rose-related shrub below.  These stems can actively photosynthesize any time the temperature and light are favorable.  The tough, thick stems are able to survive freezing where leaves cannot.  When the temperatures rise to predictably non-freezing levels, these roses will leaf out and photosynthesize in earnest for the growing season.

Rose stems.
When we came to Chicago in October, forecasts said it would be the worst winter ever.  Instead, it's been a record-breakingly warm winter.  Spring seems to be competing to outdo winter's numbers.  It's been 80 degrees for days now.  Plants that use temperature as a trigger to emerge from winter's dormancy are already leafing out.  Those that use day length as the gauge for the start of spring still look like they should for this time of year - leafless and grey.  I suspect the day-length strategy will work better this year, since Chicago has been known to have freezes into April.  Trees that leaf out early stand a good chance of having to grow new leaves after their first ones get frozen off.  Late leaf growth combined with twig pigmentation is a good strategy for climates with unpredictable spring temperatures.  Using twigs to photosynthesize can give a tree a good head-start on the growing season without the risk of having tender plant parts frozen off.

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