World's Largest Organism Lives In The Forest, But Is Not A Tree

This is Armillaria ostoyae, popularly known as the honey mushroom
- the visible part of the world's largest organism
Trees can get pretty huge on the Pacific coast, but they are not nearly the largest living things on earth. The following article describes a fungus (Armillaria) that lives in the forest, and has become the largest living thing science has described so far. At 2400 years old, it is doing well in the longevity category as well.

Often, in the forest, trees and fungus work symbiotically together, both benefiting from their association. Unfortunately, the giant colony of Armillaria discovered in 1998 is a threat to trees, and has been killing them in sizable numbers.

The Independent
By Jeff Barnard

Sunday, 6 August 2000

"The largest living organism ever found has been discovered in an ancient American forest.

The Armillaria ostoyae, popularly known as the honey mushroom, started from a single spore too small to see without a microscope. It has been spreading its black shoestring filaments, called rhizomorphs, through the forest for an estimated 2,400 years, killing trees as it grows. It now covers 2,200 acres (880 hectares) of the Malheur National Forest, in eastern Oregon. 

The outline of the giant fungus stretches 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometres) across, and it extends an average of three feet (one metre) into the ground. It covers an area as big as 1,665 football fields. 

The discovery came after Catherine Parks, a scientist at the Pacific Northwest Research Station in La Grande, Oregon, in 1998 heard about a big tree die-off from root rot in the forest east of Prairie City. 

Using aerial photos, Ms Parks staked out an area of dying trees and collected root samples from 112. She identified the fungus through DNA testing. Then, by comparing cultures of the fungus grown from the 112 samples, she determined that 61 were from the same organism, meaning a single fungus had grown bigger than anything anyone had ever described before. 

On the surface, the only evidence of the fungus are clumps of golden mushrooms that pop up in the autumn with the rain. "They are edible, but they don't taste the best," said Tina Dreisbach, a botanist and mycologist with the US Forest Service in Corvallis, Oregon. "I would put lots of butter and garlic on them." 

Digging into the roots of an affected tree, something that looks like white latex paint can be seen. These are mats of mycelium, which draw water and carbohydrates from the tree to feed the fungus and interfere with the tree's absorption of water and nutrients. The long rhizomorphs that stretch into the soil invade tree roots through a combination of pressure and enzyme action. 

In 1992, another Armillaria ostoyae was found in Washington state covering 1,500 acres, near Mount Adams, making it the largest known organism at the time.
"We just decided to go out looking for one bigger than the last claim," said Gregory Filip, associate professor of integrated forest protection at Oregon State University, and an expert in Armillaria. "There hasn't been anything measured with any scientific technique that has shown any plant or animal to be larger than this." 

He said scientists want to learn to control Armillaria because it kills trees, but they also realise it has served a purpose in nature for millions of years."


Metchosin's Pears Road Landmark Douglas-fir Trees

Landmark Douglas-fir on Pears Road, Metchosin
The main route, Highway 14, from Victoria to Sooke (and up the southwest coast of Vancouver Island) is very scenic. It twists and turns through tree-covered hills, with occasional water views as you get closer to Sooke. For the sharp-eyed passengers (drivers should keep eyes on the road) there are several outstanding big trees to discover.

But there are also many alternate routes between the two coastal communities that offer beautiful views and interesting trees. As an added bonus, the alternate roads are more tranquil than the main highway which can get busy depending on the time of day.

Companion tree with dead top
The drive I recently took is a deviation off of Highway 14 leaving the main route at Metchosin Rd by Victoria, and then returning to it at the intersection with Gillespie Rd near Sooke.

Along the way are rolling lands that have been farmed for many years. Most farms have areas of forest, which often include some great Douglas-fir, as well as Garry oak, and Arbutus. Keep your eyes peeled and you will see many such trees.

A couple of the notable holdouts are the landmark trees on Pears Rd near the Metchosin Golf and Country Club. The two Douglas-fir are outstanding in their age and character, and are right off of Pears Rd so are easily viewed. The tree closest to the road is the more robust, even with a broken top. Its companion tree is not doing as good and has a dead spire jutting above a small growing canopy.

These tree have been gracing this land for hundreds of years while battling Pacific storms coming off the Juan de Fuca Strait. The trees show their experiences in their twisted character-laden limbs and broken bits. Even more dangerous, they survived the dreams of land-clearing farmers and enterprising loggers. Today, the biggest threat is residential development.

The big tree and beyond: Juan de Fuca and Olympic Range
This alternate scenic route is a nice change to driving the faster, busier main highway. The route crosses the Galloping Goose Trail in several places. One can get out of the car and hike or bike a bit away from motor vehicles. The trail has stunning views of the area, forest, farm, and ocean.

Getting There

The route can get complicated, so is best explored on the map below. Zoom in for a more detailed view. You can use the map to locate other interesting routes along back roads through the hilly semi-wilderness. Big old growth trees still hang on here and there throughout this region, despite the heavy alterations that have occurred since the arrival of Europeans. Drive carefully, watch for the big trees - and the deer, bear and cougar that live among them.

View Pears Road Landmark Douglas-fir in a larger map


First Day of Summer

Under a big Arbutus in Roche Cove Park, East Sooke
Yesterday at about 10:30 am we hit the summer solstice, and today is the first whole day of summer. I don't like to think about the days getting shorter now. Instead, I look forward to the sun and heat that summers bring to the coastal forest. And things are beginning to heat up.

You can smell it when out in amongst the trees. It smells dry, and distinctly like conifers. The heat carries the smell of sap and the full on growth that is taking advantage of having adequate water, sunshine, and heat. The biodiversity can be smelled on the breeze. It is rich here.
Sun by Joe Wilson, Duncan, BC

Large, downed logs in the forest that are saturated in winter rains will carry moisture through dry periods in the summer. Many creatures, salamanders included, will seek refuge in these vital habitats.

The coastal forest is always wild, but the summer is the most forgiving season. It is a good time to get out to visit the big trees. Enjoy, and let us know when you find big ones not mentioned here.


Natural Capital: Save A Forest, Fight Climate Change, Get Paid

"Canadians are coming to understand that the national environmental agenda can no longer be separated from the national economic agenda. Sustainable development, therefore, demands that we integrate social, economic and environmental considerations into decision-making in a way that enhances productivity and prosperity without compromising the integrity of the environment." - Natural Resources Canada

Intact, pristine, natural systems contribute over $33 trillion dollars of 'value' to our economy every year, as calculated in 1997. Traditional economics does not take these contributions into account, even though all life (and the economy) depends on them. The current biodiversity crisis, rapid deforestation, and global climate change is beginning to change that.

'Natural capital' is increasingly being acknowledged and  taken into account, and conservation, restoration, and sustainability are concepts that we are likely to hear a lot more about in the near future. This bodes well for all our forest lands including the precious, and dwindling, old growth.

Forests are one of the Earth's great atmospheric regulators, and they store more carbon than any other biome on the planet. In most cases our forests, especially pristine, untouched areas, are more valuable standing than cut for lumber or other uses.

Forest carbon projects recognize the value of the carbon-storage capacity of forests, and pay out credits to keep trees growing and sequestering to help mitigate industrial greenhouse gases.

The largest  to date in North America, and the first deal of its kind in Canada, was launched recently in Vancouver, BC. The Nature Conservancy Of Canada (NCC) signed a deal that saw them receive carbon credits worth $4 million dollars that mitigates 700,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

A forest is worth far more standing than it is when cut down to make stuff
The NCC is receiving the cash for its 55,000-hectare piece of land known as Darkwoods. The area, which has extensive virgin forest including trees over 500 years old, is on Kootenay Lake near Nelson, BC. The deal represents the beginning of a process that promises great benefits for the environment, biodiversity, trees, and forests.

The concept of natural capital is just beginning to take off, and there will be bumps in the road as it progresses. One complaint is that it is difficult to measure the value of nature's systems without some agreement on methods of valuating and auditing at least the global forms of natural capital (e.g. value of air, water, soil). We have not yet arrived at such agreement.

But we are moving in the right direction as we change how we think about, and value, nature. It may very well save what is left of our once vast forests, and reclaim and restore degraded forest lands so they may thrive again.


Pagoda Honours Contributions Of The Mighty Douglas-fir

Big Tree Pagoda in Beacon Hill Park, Victoria
We may have descended from the trees millions of years ago, but we still go to bed every night in homes built out of trees. In every way, shape, and form trees make our lives possible. Wood can be used to meet an amazing variety of human needs.

I thought of this while strolling around Goodacre Lake in Beacon Hill park and coming upon what I call the Big Tree Pagoda. It has been fashioned from a large Douglas-fir log set on end, and has cedar shake roof providing shelter for the circular bench below.

Douglas-fir pillar surrounded by a place to sit

Douglas-fir has been the premier tree since logging first began on Vancouver Island in the 1800s. It grows straight and tall, and is one of the fastest growing trees in the coastal forest.

On older trees, there are no branches for a major portion of the lower trunk. This makes for a great volume of straight, strong, knot-free lumber. More lumber than any other tree in North America.

The dense wood is hard, stiff and durable. It has traditionally been available in large dimensions, making it useful for large structural projects. Besides shady pagodas, it has been used for a huge range of purposes, including pilings for piers, train trestles and bridges, ships masts, and framing.

Logs and finished products have been shipped around the world from the coastal forest for 150 years. San Francisco's piers were built (more than once due to fire) with BC Douglas-fir pilings.

Today, the large 125-plus meter (410 ft) trees, rather than being common, are increasingly difficult to find. Over 90% of coastal Douglas-fir forests have been logged, and in places the big trees continue to fall.

New research suggests these trees could have grown to a mind-numbing, dizzying height of between 130 m (430 ft) and 145 m (476 ft).

Douglas-fir - beautiful tree, beautiful wood

The mighty Douglas-fir, a tree that has contributed so much, has qualities that doomed the species - it was too useful, not to mention profitable. What could have been an endless source of good wood has been squandered for ignorance and short term gain.
Ancient Douglas-fir giants, and old growth forests are almost extinct.

We should see them and save them while we can.


World's Largest Douglas-fir - The Renfrew Red Creek Fir

Height: 73.8m (242'), Circumference: 13.3m (43.7'), Diameter: 4.2m (14')

The Ancient Forest Alliance recently released this video of Port Renfrew's amazing Red Creek Fir. It is truly a colossus, the biggest of the big.

The AFA website states that "the tree and a small surrounding stand of trees currently receive 'soft' protection through an Old-Growth Management Area, but legislated 'hard' protection is needed in the form of a conservancy, park, or ecological reserve that also encompasses a much larger buffer area."

To see a giant old growth tree that was common here in pre-European times, visit the big tree capital of southern Vancouver Island, Port Renfrew. The Red Creek Fir, which can be found along logging roads 45 minutes from town, is one of the last of its kind. In the area, there are several old, large Western red-cedar worth seeing, too.

The access route to the Red Creek Fir is not recommended for low-clearance vehicles. It is rough and slow even for four wheel drives. Drive cautiously on active logging roads, always giving the right of way to logging vehicles.

When you get home, visit the AFA's website and sign their petition.

Getting There

You can find more information on getting to the Red Creek Fir here.


Forest Creatures: Great Blue Herons

Endangered Great blue herons live in the coastal forest

It was on one of my hikes of Vancouver Island's West Coast Trail that I learned of an endangered species living in the coastal forest. Great Blue Herons, the largest North American herons, are year round residents. And they build their nests in trees.

We were hiking toward Nitinat Narrows when we first heard the primeval squawk of Great blue herons. As we approached, the noise was a discordant symphony of primitive vocalizations - it was the first heronry I had ever seen, or heard, and it was both chaotic and beautiful.

Heron chicks on the nest
It seems weird for these long-legged, large birds to be hanging out in the tops of tall trees. They seem more comfortable stalking prey in shallow water.

But for the part of the year when they are nesting, they make their large homes built of sticks at the tops of huge coastal trees.

Although herons are on the endangered species list, it would be hard to tell during a visit to the south island area. There are many herons around, including in my own neighbourhood. It is not uncommon to see up to 10 herons tolerating each other in rich, low tide seaweed beds of the Sooke River estuary. One can also find heron nesting sites in several locations, including one urban heronry in Beacon Hill Park in Victoria.

While herons are not social for most of the year, when it comes to breeding time, around March, these solitary birds come together in large groups. The Beacon Hill Park herons had established a large heronry in the 1980s, numbering up to 100 nests at its largest. It was a rare urban wildlife experience. Until 2007, when a resident bald eagle started to prey on the heron's nests.

Heron parents defending their nest from another Birdzilla attack in 2007, Beacon Hill Park

The eagle, nicknamed 'Birdzilla', quickly tore through the heronry, and within the course of a weekend had gone through 71 nests and consumed 39 chicks and 187 eggs. The herons, as herons will do when harassed by predators, bailed as a group, and abandoned their long-time nesting site. Some herons returned to the park in 2010 to establish new nests. Herons have been seen taking sticks from the old nests to build new ones.

Herons swallow food whole - some have been known to die in the attempt

Herons can be found in a range of habitats such as fresh and saltwater marshes, mangrove swamps, flooded meadows, lake edges, or shorelines, but are always found close to bodies of water. Their tree top nesting sites are usually always no more than a few kilometers from aquatic feeding grounds.

The primary food for Great blue herons is small fish, though it is also known to feed on a wide range of shrimp, crabs, aquatic insects, rodents and other small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, and small birds.

Photo credit: all photos (except Beacon Hill eagle attack) from Wikipedia
Beacon Hill photo: Rhiannon Hamdi


Preserving Our Forests, Protecting Our Future

"It was strangely like war. They attacked the forest as if it were an enemy to be pushed back from the beachheads, driven into the hills, broken into patches, and wiped out. Many operators thought they were not only making lumber but liberating the land from the trees..."
[On the first logging of the U.S. Olympic Peninsula, Washington]
- Murray Morgan

June 5 - 11 is Environment Week in Canada, and the week's theme is of interest to tree lovers and the general public alike. Preserving Our Forests, Protecting Our Future is a theme that dovetails nicely with the UN's 2011 International Year of Forests. It gives a much-needed nod to the importance or trees and forests in meeting many basic human needs.

This is a step in the right direction considering the gravity of the situation in Canada, and globally. If we don't protect our forests, the future will be bleak.

Celebrate The Trees

You can take part in a tree-planting campaign during Environment Week. GreenWave is a multi-year global campaign that enables children and youth to make a difference - one school, one tree, one step at a time. Plant a tree and register it at www.greenwave.cbd.int.

Or go for a hike on a local nature trail and revel in the beauty and serenity we are trying to preserve for future generations. Visit a favourite tree or forested area.

Write a letter or email to our elected officials to tell them trees and forest are important to you, and you would like to see real action toward protecting our ancient forests for future generations.

"There can be neither civilization nor happiness if forests crash down under the axe, if the climate is harsh and severe, if people are also harsh and severe. ... What a terrible future!" — Anton Pavlovich Chekhov


Big Tree Art: Emily Carr

Lone Cedar

Post-Impressionist artist Emily Carr was born in Victoria, BC in 1871. At that time the early settlement was a few thousand souls surrounded by towering ancient trees. As can be seen in her art, they had a huge impact on her.

Among The Firs
Carr was fascinated with the coastal forest, and its original inhabitants. She spent much of her life in First Nations villages, and enjoyed the dark haunting forests, wild beaches and vast skies of Vancouver Island.

Odds and Ends

She enjoyed her adventures, and considered herself to be "the little old lady on the edge of nowhere" since many of her locations were, and still are, in isolated locations. Amazing artworks resulted from her repeated forest forays.

Painters and Painting
As Carr aged her focus changed from aboriginal themes toward landscapes, particularly forest scenes. Such scenes depict, probably better than any other artist, the grandeur, magic, and spirit of the coastal forest.

Tree In Autumn
Of her work, Carr said, "I glory in our wonderful west and I hope to leave behind me some of the relics of its first primitive greatness. Only a few more years and they will be gone forever into silent nothingness and I would gather my collection together before they are forever past."

Indian Church

Save Mary Lake Campaign

Emily Carr's words were prophetic, and her beloved and much-exploited forest is indeed fading into 'silent nothingness'. But small bits of the original forest hang on. The Mary Lake property is one such bit.

Carr is said to have frequented a cabin deep in the cool, ancient Douglas-fir forest next to Mary Lake, a short horse ride from her birthplace in Victoria. Here she found the solace and sanctuary required for her art.

This beautiful small lake, surrounded by 107 acres of forest, is currently slated for development, threatening the magic that provides inspiration for the artist within us all to this day.

Find out more about the Save Mary Lake Campaign by clicking on the image on the right.

We could consider saving Mary Lake as a gift to Emily Carr for sharing with us the special way she saw the trees and the forest. She knew how important they are to everything.


More Beacon Hill Park Giant Sequoias

Looking past a big Douglas-fir to a Giant Sequoia next to Goodacre Lake

 Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, BC is a 154 acre park that encompasses both natural and human-created landscapes. One thing both have in common is trees. The park has a wealth of natural and exotic trees, and because of this huge variety, is a tree lovers paradise. A favourite of many visitors is the collection of Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum), native to small parts of California.

Map Of Beacon Hill Park by Ken Lajoie

Giant sequoias are located on Circle Drive across from the Children’s Farm, near Park Way, as well as three more on the north side of Goodacre Lake near the Stone Bridge. These unique conifers are hard to miss as they tower above most other trees in the park.

One of the Circle Drive sequoias with bark worn smooth by climbers
The sequoia across from the Children's Farm is a park favourite due to the massive, low-reaching bottom branches which provide a scaffolding for curious climbers. This giant, gnarled tree, which would not be out of place on a fantasy movie set, was planted here in 1913, making it only 98 years old. It could still be here in 5511.

Another Circle Drive sequoia (we call it "Kite Eater"), framed by Garry oak

A short walk from downtown, and fronting the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Beacon Hill Park is a tree lovers treat, and a great place to have a picnic, rest, and enjoy nature.