This is my first blog post for the MMMILC Project. Why are we blogging? I hope this ain’t just for show. As this project gets bigger, I hope that this blog emerges as a useful tool for coordinating our research and education efforts. If it works, this blog will become a central repository of our digital field notes and a searchable record of all of the curious observations and odd logistics that go into a research project. Hopefully it will be useful for both research and education. We’ll be sharing photos from the field, and documenting the often messy, often unexpected and occasionally elegant process of science. Over the next few years, I hope to see more authors contributing to this blog – high school students, undergraduates, research assistants, grad students, postdocs – all of the people that I hope become part of the MMMILC Project. I am looking forward to learning more as this project emerges.
For the first time in my career, I’ve hired a full-time research assistant. I first met August Higgins when he was a student in my field ecology course way back in 2011, and he’s been a research assistant in the lab for several years, but this is the first time when he’s been able to work on a project full time. It is really great to have him back in Davis, and he has been a huge help though the long winter field season. August will be posting regular blog entries each week, documenting his activities and observations each week.
We’ve been working hard to get some new research populations of milkweed established for the coming field season.We’ve actually been trying to get these populations established for longer than I care to remember, and it feels like we’ve learned a lot about how to grow milkweed in the Central Valley through trial and error. We learned about the need for establishment irrigation at dry sites the hard way. We learned about the risks of gopher herbivory the hard way. We learned about the need to loosen up the local clay soils the hard way. There have been good days and bad days. We’ve been learning how hard it is to grow milkweed in California, without the deep fertile soils of the Great Plains beneath our feet nor lovely the summer thunderstorms of the eastern old fields above our heads. There are bound to be more mistakes in our future, but I’m cautiously optimistic about our plantings for this year.
We’ve planted research populations of milkweeds at the UC Putah Creek Reserve, on the margins of the Russell Ranch Long Term Research in Agricultural Systems (LTRAS) 100 -year experiment, at a native plant restoration site managed by California Audubon, and at the North Davis Riparian Greenbelt. I think we’ve planted more than 1500 milkweeds in and around Davis this winter, and we are going to have to fight to keep them growing through the hot, dry summer. We are really going to pull out all the stops to get these plants established this year.
In addition, we are continuing to work in a couple of natural milkweed popuations, located in natural reserves that protect our research from disturbance. Our main natural field sites are the Hastings Reserve, a UC Natural Reserve located near Carmel Valley, CA and the Bobcat Ranch, a California Audubon property located north of Winters, CA. We will be doing experiments at both sites this year, and hopefully long into the future. It is great to visit these sites and remind ourselves about what is happening in the real world.
What is happening out there? After the driest year on record in California, we finally had some late spring rains over the past few weeks, and the local milkweeds have just started emerging from the ground. I was surprised to see the narrow-leaved milkweed (A. fascicularis) emerging well ahead of the woolypod milkweed (A. eriocarpa) at Bobcat Ranch a few weeks ago (March 28, 2014). Some of the narrow-leaved milkweed is already tens of centimeters tall, while the woolpod milkweed is just starting to break the surface. The milkweed aphids (Aphis nerii) are already feeding on the emerging stems of A. fascicularis at Bobcat, but there is very little herbivory to report otherwise. I just learned about the Bobcat Ranch last year, and this is my first spring season out there, so it is pretty cool to see what is happening out there.
At the Hastings Reserve, most of the woolypod milkweeds are just starting to emerge from the ground (as of 4/4/2014), and the same patches that were early to emerge last year seem to be early to emerge this year. The patches that were late to emerge last year were still belowground on our last visit. But the most amazing observation was that the soil was downright soft, moist and cool. This soil is hard like cement in the hot, dry summer, but with a little rain, the large porous bits of parent rock seem to float in a light frothy soil with great drainage – no wonder the milkweed likes to spread their roots here. Since we followed several individually marked stems through the year last season, I look forward to seeing them re-emerge again this year. Watching the communities re-assemble this season will be like seeing familiar friends.
Of course, temperate milkweeds are long-lived perennials whose aboveground parts die back each winter. So it only seems like the plants we see emerging each spring are fresh and new; in reality, many of those plants are probably grizzled veterans with a lot of history behind them. Deciding to write the first entry of this blog feels similar; it feels like we are starting a new project, but it is hard to say exactly when this all began. We are entering a new phase of things, as we will be attempting to make the most of a 5-year National Science Foundation grant that began on October 1 , 2013. It has been 194 days so far, with only 1631 days left! Lots to do!