The last big push – wrapping up the phenotyping for AdapTree

One last experiment of the AdapTree project remained in the ground: the trial comparing natural and seed orchard seed lots. The roughly 6000 plants were kept for a third season to collect periodic height measurements for the pine, and cold hardiness data for the spruce. The spruce trees announced themselves ready for freeze testing by the end of August, so September was dedicated to needle chopping and conductivity measurements. Thousands of them. Three whole weeks. Those who stuck it out were by then thinking with fond memories of the days gone by when the AdapTree team was large and fresh. But we did it, and the resulting data were clean.

Fig 1: Pine heights, diameters, and harvesting for shoot dry mass

Fig. 1: Pine heights, diameters, data logging and harvesting for shoot dry mass

Nonetheless, it was the middle of October by the time we were performing the final height and diameter measurements on the pine, while simultaneously harvesting them for shoot dry weights. (Figure 1). Harvest time was preferred for diameter measurements because it gives us easy access to the stems. We had sun, we had fog, we had beautiful autumn days and we had rain. Now, we don’t exactly melt from a little rain. But shoving wet plants in wet paper bags which are marked with sticky labels of moderate stickiness is asking for trouble. And while the recording tablets are protected, raindrops beading on a screen are not ideal for visibility. So this became a long, drawn-out affair. Of course, we only take pictures on the nicest days!

Fig. 2: Gradual progress.

Fig. 2: Gradual progress

The ideal team consisted of three people, so we organized our schedules, waited for the rain to stop, and gradually made progress (Figure 2). We finished the pine and thought we’d just continue at the same speed with the spruce. (Figure 3). Not so. While the spruce plants were much smaller than the pine, the stems were thick and asymmetric, with multiple roots spreading horizontally almost before touching the ground. Individual diameter measurements were not very repeatable, so multiple measurements were taken. Rather than taking turns at measuring, recording and bagging, for consistency’s sake all twelve blocks were measured by the same person. The repetitive bending over proved fatiguing.

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Fig. 3 : Some large pine, and the first snowfall

If you wonder what I am holding up: it’s an old toothbrush, to clean the root collar of sand and mud before taking a diameter measurement.

Then we had frost and snow in November! And the frozen ground in combination with the frozen liverworts and moss did not make a good basis for reliable height measurements – who’d have thought frozen bryophytes could bring science to a halt? As the days got shorter and shorter, we completed the heights separately.

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Fig. 4: Dry weights – so many!

In the meantime, shoot dry weights were measured in the lab, to keep the accumulating boxes of dried plants under control. (Figure 4). We didn’t finish before Christmas as planned, and Ian had to wait and wait for his data. With mild weather in the first week of January, we made one last big push, and the last spruce tree was cut on January 9 (Figure 5), with the last dry weights gathered two weeks later.

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Fig. 5 : The last spruce tree is cut …

And now all the plants are gone and no more measurements can possibly be collected from them!!!

I am grateful to all those who helped out (you can see some of them in the pictures!), and for the hot tub in the swimming pool. Did I mention the guys who (re)built the raised beds in the first place (Figure 6) ? And the summer students who helped sowing, and the technicians and students who collected weekly height measurements (Figure 7) ?


Fig. 6 : Re-building the beds ...

Fig. 6 : Re-building the beds …


Fig. 7 : Sowing, observing, measuring, ...

Fig. 7 : Sowing, observing, DNA collection, measuring, …



Welcome to Beautiful Gavin Lake!

In early July, Tyler, Joanne, Ian, Sally, and I (the Aitken lab crew, a.k.a. the A-Team) were dispatched to the BC interior to liberate some pine and spruce tissue samples from the clutches of an army of berry-picking bear cubs.

The REAL A-Team.

The REAL A-Team.

The sneaky bear cubs defending their strawberry patch.

The sneaky bear cubs defending their strawberry patch.

Our destination was the Gavin Lake Forest Education Society camp (http://gavinlakecamp.wordpress.com/), which, among other things, serves as basecamp for many UBC research teams working in the UBC Alex Fraser Research Forest (AFRF) and an annual group of 4th year Forestry students participating in the education-veiled debauchery known as “Fall Camp” (one recent cohort saunaed so hard the sauna roof caught on fire).

The cut block where the two field trials were planted.

The cut block where the two field trials were planted.

Sampling the lodgepole pine seedlings.

Sampling the lodgepole pine seedlings.

Our elite squad of tissue wrangling researchers made the 8 hour trek north to collect lodegepole pine and interior spruce tissue samples from a field site in the AFRF. The field site was established on a recently harvested cut block in spring 2013, and contains two separate field trials, one of lodgepole pine (2200 seedlings) and one of interior spruce (3100 seedlings).  These two field trials are medium-term (10 – 15 year) validation studies for our current common garden experiment at Totem field on the UBC Vancouver campus that are part of the AdapTree project. Such validation studies allow for an understanding of how translatable our results are from a seedling trial conducted outside of both of the species natural ranges, to more realistic scenarios of reforestation in the BC interior. In other words, it will tell us if coddled seedlings in raised beds, experiencing mild Vancouver weather accurately represent the seedlings out there in the wild trying to make it on their own. In OTHER other words, it will tell our graduate students if they wasted the last 5 years of their life. Just kidding, but only just.

The cut block, now 18 months after being clear cut, was home to three black bear families that passed their time munching on the sea of wild strawberries that have since recolonized the site. They were very considerate creatures, always maintain a healthy I’m-not-going-to-eat-you distance.  We also saw several deer around the site.  This little guy was particularly handsome.

Handsome Jack.

Handsome Jack.

Mama and baby eating all the strawberries.

Mama and baby eating all the strawberries.

Seeing as the designated UBC research cabin had already been commandeered by another crack squad of UBC researchers, we were upgraded to the lakeside Prime Ministorial cabin, which was very nice, as you can see here. During our free time in the evening we took advantage of our gorgeous surroundings by swimming, canoeing, and hiking around the lake. I must admit, aside from the mild inconvenience of having to wake up at 7:00 in the morning, it felt like more of a vacation than work.

Work is so HARD sometimes.

Work is so HARD sometimes.

Our humble lodgings.

Our humble lodgings. Sally shows us how to assemble a ‘Glory Bowl’.


Oaks at the fringe

I was raised in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, in the heart of the Garry oak a.k.a Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana) species distribution. My early years were shaped by long afternoons spent wandering sere meadows, chasing lizards and snakes and tossing natural whiffle balls formed by Oregon oak gall wasps (Besbicus mirabilis), and always finding midday reprieve in the shade of mighty oaks. I hadn’t developed my current fascination with trees at that time, but my love for those forests was already engrained in me. If I’d been told then that I would move to another country and study a threatened tree that was considered a weed to farmers around my home, I surely would’ve called shenanigans. Yet here I am, many years later, with a much greater appreciation for the trees that surrounded me, doing just that.

Life amongst the oaks in Totem Field. Trees from high in the mountains of southern California down to the rocky shores of eastern Vancouver Island are planted side-by-side.

Until recently, my study of oaks took me no further than a short walk from my office, where a common garden spanning the species range had been established in 2006 by Colin Huebert, a former MS student of the Aitken lab. It was here that I first began nurturing a fascination with this species. I observed tremendous variation in growth, form, and phenology. Everything from shrubby, hairy, and spindly varieties from California to stout and stately forms from Washington and British Columbia could be found. Sharp-lobed leaves 3cm in length to deeply-sinused and rounded 15cm leaves could be compared on trees adjacent to one another. Although studying the population genetics of this species has been rewarding, I missed seeing these beautiful trees in their natural state.

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve had the pleasure of organising and executing a week of field collections: a whirlwind tour through four populations scattered across southern British Columbia at the absolute margins of the range of Garry oak. Of all the ecosystems to do field work in, rollicking oak meadows –free of the carpet burweed (Soliva sessilis) and poison oak (Toxicodendron diversilobum) characteristic of the familiar meadows in southern Oregon– must rank among the most hospitable.

Sampling locations.

Years of living in southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley (where Garry oaks reach their largest sizes) had given me much experience with oak savannahs in the core of the species range. However, my experience at the periphery was very limited. Here, little remains of the once-vast meadows maintained and cultivated by the First Nations. What oaks are left tend to be relegated to craggy bluffs or marginal lands with slightly deeper soils. As with so many dry ecosystems, the spectacular native flora has been largely replaced by exotic grasses and shrubs. Despite all this, the meadows still retain a majestic sense of place and awe upon entry.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from any of these sites as the only one I’d visited beforehand was Sumas Mountain (the location of the oaks there was not well-marked and I wanted to make sure they were worth sampling at all). Bright and early on the morning of 28 April, Sean King and I left Vancouver expecting poor weather and receiving nothing but blue skies and a gentle breeze. Despite how temperamental weather can be at this time of year, we were fortunate enough to hardly face a drop of water that didn’t come from our drinking supply.

Characteristic B.C. Q. garryana meadow. Twin Lichen Meadow, Crow’s Nest Ecological Research Area, Salt Spring Island.

The first stop on our trip was the Crow’s Nest Ecological Research Area on Salt Spring Island. This site was quite literally a walk in the park, complete with a road going most of the way through, with well maintained and signed trails beyond that. It was here we encountered the largest oak on our trip by far (pictured), as well as some staggeringly large Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) veterans. In addition to having the largest oaks, this was perhaps the most expansive of the areas we sampled. We collected samples from trees across five separate meadows and bluffs.

Huggin’ it out with a massive oak in Crow’s Nest’s Spring Meadow.

After a “long, hard day” of sampling, we headed back to Vancouver Island and drove/ferried to our camp site in Fillongley Park on Denman Island. The next morning we hitched a ferry over to the irresistibly-charming Hornby Island, and made our way to Helliwell Park. Dense conifer forests, lush with waist-high salal (Gaultheria shallon) and towering salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) quickly faded into breathtaking wind-swept bluffs. Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) were commonplace and we were fortunate enough to catch glimpse of a massive golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). We sampled a small grove within the park and then headed just outside it to the High Salal Public Trail, where the major grove was located. Although still heavily invaded, this meadow had the most-intact flora of any site we found, with abundant blue camas (Camassia quamash), shortspur seablush (Plectritis congesta), and spring-gold (Lomatium utriculatum). We finished our sampling with plenty of time to hit rush-hour traffic on our way back into Vancouver. Yay!

Gorgeous blue camas (Camassia quamash) in Helliwell Provincial Park, Hornby Island

Sean King with bags upon bags of buds. High Salal Public Trail, Hornby Island








After a day of rest, we were at it again. This time, our goal was to sample two extremely isolated populations in the Fraser Valley, 52 and 128 km from the next-nearest oaks in Bellingham, Washington. The origins of these populations are unknown, although speculation abounds. Hypotheses range from rare dispersals within the crops of mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) or band-tailed pigeons (Patagioenas fasciata), to intentional plantings by First Nations, to the final relics from a broader distribution in times past. Either way they’re certainly oddities and I was very excited to visit them firsthand.

Chocolate lillies (Fritillaria affinis), an unexpected treat to find amongst the oaks of Yale.

Sean admiring the scenic Fraser River from our sampling site in the Garry Oak Ecological Reserve, Yale, B.C.

Once we’d arrived in Yale, we checked in with the local First Nations and were fortunate enough to catch a boat ride out and back from Chief Doug Hansen. Although we hadn’t brought a map of the grove’s location along the river, a short trip upstream revealed some oaks set high on sheer cliffs along the river’s eastern shore. We pulled into a rocky alcove and began scrambling up the boulders and into the forest. The flora at the Yale stand was particularly curious. Plants typically associated with coastal oak meadows such as chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) were found side-by-side with interior species like calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa). The oaks were healthier and more abundant than I’d expected, often sporting a thick coat of mosses and lichens. However, there were many large oaks that had established away from the rocky cliffs and were facing encroachment by Douglas-firs, suggesting that fire may have played a role in establishing and/or maintaining this grove in the past. This site was the most pristine of any of the sites we visited, with only a few patches of exotic grasses. The dense Douglas-fir forest with moss-and-herb floor, air thick and sweet, opening up into oaken glades and cliffs, gave the site a very mystical feel. There is some evidence that this site was once a First Nations burial ground; the uniqueness of the site would certainly lend itself well to sacred purposes.

Peeking out at the Fraser Valley from behind some of the larger oaks at the Sumas Mountain site.

As soon as we were back ashore we set out for Sumas Mountain outside of Chilliwack. As I was familiar with this site, I knew we would be in for some genuine work getting to the trees. The site is some way up a brutally steep slope, with plenty of Himalayan and trailing blackberry (Rubus discolor and R. ursinus, respectively) and stinging nettle (Urtica dioica) along the way. I had the forethought to bring gloves and pants this time around. Despite the scrapes and stings incurred on our way up to the site, the view and the landscape were well worth it.

Large cliffs and boulders overlook the Fraser Valley with some seemingly out-of-place oaks nestled on exposed rock spurs or in sunny patches amongst a matrix of mature Douglas-firs. There are still perhaps fifty mature trees at the site spread atop and below a complex network of sharp granite escarpments, with myriad saplings lining the cliff edges, though the landowners had told me the oaks were more numerous when the farm was established some seventy years ago. Fire scars on some of the veteran conifers and the presence of large oaks among a fairly even cohort of bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) and Douglas-fir makes me think that this grove may have established after a fire some time ago, with only the largest oaks still remaining amongst the fast-growing conifers and the remainder isolated to the driest and shallowest soils on spurs and cliffs.

Sampling an oak atop an isolated spur on Sumas Mountain.

Once we were back down the mountain and assured ourselves we were free of ticks, we got back on the road just in time for rush hour (again). Drenched in sweat and dirt, we were all smiles as we drove back to Vancouver at a crawling pace.

These outings have given me a wonderful perspective of Garry oak at its most marginal, eking out an existence in the face of human development and encroachment from competing vegetation. At every site, it was apparent that fire probably played a role in maintaining the meadows historically, and their persistence in an era of fire suppression is questionable. Some of the rockiest sites will probably persist for some time, but the deeper-soiled meadows are already shrinking and will certainly continue to do so without human intervention.

The samples I’ve collected on these trips will hopefully provide some insight into genetic diversity and gene flow at the absolute outskirts of the species range of Garry oak, far from other trees. Evidence of high levels of gene flow even at great distance in other areas of the species range suggests that, despite extreme physical isolation, perhaps these populations are staying healthy and viable with help from friends in far-away places.