"an ill wind", as they say

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#1)  "an ill wind", as they say

Postby Lucas » Wed Apr 27, 2016 1:58 pm

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https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160427095101.htm



Millions of native orchids are flourishing on the site of a former iron mine in New York's Adirondacks, suggesting that former industrial sites -- typically regarded as blighted landscapes -- have untapped value in ecological restoration efforts.

Grete Bader, a graduate student at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York, who completed her master's thesis on the site, said the plants are growing on a wetland that developed naturally on iron mine "tailings," the waste left over from the process of separating the valuable part of an ore from the rock that has no economic value. She said that in addition to six types of native orchids, some of which have populations estimated at a million, the location supports New York state's largest population of pink shinleaf, also called pink wintergreen, which is listed by New York as a threatened plant. The plant is rare in New York except at this location.

"The fact that this site restored itself from bare mine tailings to a diverse wetland plant community over the past 60 years is incredible, and the populations of orchids and pink shinleaf notably enhance its conservation value," Bader said.

The wetland of about 100 acres developed at a site that holds the aftermath of iron ore extraction at Benson Mines in the northwestern Adirondacks. The Benson Mines operations were most intense from about 1941 until the facility closed in 1978. During its heyday, it was one of the most productive iron mines in the country and the largest open-pit magnetite mine in the world, producing about a million metric tons of iron annually during peak operations.

Bader's major professor, Dr. Donald Leopold, a Distinguished Teaching Professor at ESF, said the number of orchids at the site -- with colorful names such as grass pink, rose pogonia and hooded ladies' tresses -- is "extraordinary."

"It's unlike anything I've seen in more than 40 years of research, often in orchid-rich habitats throughout the United States," Leopold said. "Until Grete did her research I had thought that there were hundreds of thousands of individuals of these orchid species here but Grete's more careful assessment suggests that there are actually a million or more of some species."

While people typically think of tropical species when they hear the word "orchid," there are about 60 distinct species of terrestrial orchids native to New York state. All of them are protected by state law because of their beauty; many are also quite rare. With their three-petal flowers and colors ranging from delicate yellow to rich purple, they are widely sought after by nature enthusiasts.

Bader's study suggests that several factors contribute to the number of thriving unique plant species at the site, including a range of soil and water pH, and a variety of mycorrhizal fungi that have a symbiotic relationship with plants. In general, mycorrhizal fungi colonize a plant's root system and increase the host's ability to absorb water and nutrients. In turn, the fungi benefit from the effects of the plant's photosynthesis.

Orchids and pink wintergreen are among the species that depend on mycorrhizal fungi for germination and establishment. The mycorrhizal relationship is unique in these plants because, as seedlings, they essentially act as parasites on their fungi.

Dr. Thomas Horton, an associate professor at ESF and an expert on mycorrhizal symbioses, said the site's industrial past might actually have contributed to the thriving wildflower scene.

"All the orchids and the wintergreen are dependent on mycorrhizal fungi for seed germination. Without the fungi, there would be no plants. Yet after the deposit of the mine tailings, the belowground system had to develop from scratch and now we see that all the elements have returned for incredible floral displays. Indeed, it could be that the plants and fungi are so abundant because of the disturbance history, and I feel this adds a wonderful element to the site's conservation value."

Orchids have a unique biology. Their flowers are highly adapted to specific insect pollinators, in some cases deceiving the pollinators into doing their job without a nectar reward. And they are among the most noted examples of the reliance of plants on mycorrhizal fungi -- for, in this case, the fungi are needed for seeds to germinate and seedlings to survive.

Industrial sites are typically regarded as blighted landscapes but this site suggests that these locations have tremendous conservation value. In addition to the extraordinary number of orchids, the site has an extensive cranberry mat and acres of lowbush blueberries. Additionally, the site is culturally significant because the mines were economically important to the region in the mid-1900s.

Leopold said there are benefits to adding properties like the Benson Mines site to the Adirondack Forest Preserve, the 2.6 million acres of state-owned land that lies within the Adirondack Park. "Everyone thinks about adding the beautiful, pristine land," he said. "But sometimes properties like this one can be more beneficial for the state to purchase. They have great value, both immediate and long term, for conservation and recreation purposes."

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The above post is reprinted from materials provided by SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.
We travel the Milky way together, trees and men. - John Muir
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#2)  Re: "an ill wind", as they say

Postby Erik Danielsen » Wed Apr 27, 2016 2:51 pm

There's a very similar site on Staten Island that was once mined for clay, called Clay Pit Ponds. The physical disturbance in combination with the site's native serpentine soils and acid sand barrens make it botanically quite unique, one of just two post oak/blackjack oak associations known (last I checked) as well as hybrid oaks from red, black, white, chestnut, post, blackjack, and possible scrub and willow oaks (a nearby forest also has Southern Red Oak hybrids apparently produced by pollen that blew over from a population in NJ, since there are none on the island), many blighted but still reproducing american chestnuts, virginia, pitch, and shortleaf pines, native sweetbay magnolia, atlantic whitecedar, and a bog with carnivorous plant species. There's Bayberry and highbush Blueberry tall enough for me to measure as trees for the site report I'll eventually post here! The diversity there is actually increasing, it seems- in the last two weeks I've documented at least two species of fern not known to the site (one uncommon moonwort and a NYS endangered woodsia) and there's a sizeable population of Spiranthes orchids, also previously unknown there. Spores and windborne seeds can easily disperse to the site from existing rich botanical sites just across the river in New Jersey. Sites with unusual soil conditions or particular nutrient deficiencies, whether naturally occurring or due to disturbance, often develop fascinating and unique botanical communities.
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#3)  Re: "an ill wind", as they say

Postby Don » Wed Apr 27, 2016 3:29 pm

While I have not been back since, in the late 80's I was on a crew that rehabilitated coal strip mines in SE Kentucky (Daniel Boone NF, Redbird RD). Annually we would shoulder bags of grass seed and bags of fertilizer, and apply to the sites by hand. After several years they were fairly lush in grasses, and the honey locusts planted (for nitrogen-fixing) around the edges were doing well.  They might be a good site after all !
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#4)  Re: "an ill wind", as they say

Postby Erik Danielsen » Wed Apr 27, 2016 4:31 pm

Don, the really interesting stuff develops when such sites are left bare- fertilizer, grasses, etc. kickstart the development of a pretty hospitable environment most common, generalist plants will get along in. Left bare, the species that specialize in less hostpitable conditions are able to move in over time and thrive, where they wouldn't be competitive against the generalist plants in more typical conditions.
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