Habitat: Expect the Typical; Survive the Extreme

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

Redding and the rest of the North State got absolutely walloped by snow this week. Depending on the news source, anywhere from eight to thirteen inches of snow fell late February 12th and early February 13th. When I woke up at 4:30, I was shocked to find that not only had the power gone out, but snow had completely covered my backyard.

This created a few problems for me. First, my plants were buried. I had to clear the snow out of the pots while taking care not to harm the plants in the process. Most needed encouragement to stand up straight again after being buried in a botanical avalanche.

I also couldn’t leave my driveway. Snow is a very rare occurrence in Redding. The last time I encountered snow was one day two years ago, and we barely got enough powder for it to stick. The snowstorm we received yesterday was the largest Redding had seen in fifty years. Needless to say, neither of my two-wheel-drive vehicles were able to help me fulfill my duties that day.

Well, at least I tried...

It seems like I may need to upgrade to a more capable vehicle. To survive in Redding, I can’t just prepare for the normal weather. I need to prepare for the rare but possible extreme conditions I may face.

The same is absolutely true for flora and fauna. For a habitat to meet an organism’s needs, it must provide a survivable environment in even the worst conditions. If a creature will perish just one day in a two-year span, the area is still unsuitable for that creature. Honestly, many habitats don’t make the cut year-round, which is why many animals migrate. For the plants and animals that don’t move across the globe, they must adapt to thrive in both the typical conditions as well as the brutal ones.

Evergreen trees keep their leaves year-round. Only the most alpine-adapted evergreens (like these conifers) will do well in a snowstorm. But that's another blog for another day.

One way trees deal with brutal conditions is by dropping their leaves. As opposed to evergreen trees, deciduous trees drop their leaves starting in the fall, losing everything by wintertime. This adaptation may seem strange, but it is immensely beneficial. In the winter, conditions are not ideal for photosynthesis. Days are shorter, skies are often overcast, and there just isn’t enough light to justify keeping those leaves. Keeping leaves in the wintertime can actually cause trees to lose more water (due to small leaf-openings called stomata), and they also have a terrible disadvantage in snowy conditions. Those great, wide leaves with a ton of surface area, while great for capturing sunlight, also capture snow. If it snows like it did this week, non-adapted evergreen trees may crumple under the cumulative weight of all that powder.

And that’s exactly what happened in my new backyard.

Bekah and I recently bought a house; so recently, in fact, that we weren't even living there when the snow hit. Now our new backyard is littered with broken tree branches. These non-native, evergreen privet trees are not suited for this kind of weather. Sure, they survived for a couple of decades just fine, but all it took was one unusually strong snow event to take them out.

Privet is not native, but it's widespread in Redding.

But take a look at the deciduous trees. Both in my new backyard and at a nearby nature preserve, the deciduous oaks did absolutely fine in the snow. While the snow event was strong enough to damage even some deciduous trees, by and large those that dropped their leaves came out far more intact than their evergreen counterparts.

This was the only deciduous tree in the preserve that appeared damaged...barely.

Meanwhile, in my new backyard, this is the damage my three privet trees suffered.

This brings me to my closing point. If you are planning on enhancing the habitat in your backyard with plants, make sure that the physical and climatic habitat conditions in your area match the plants you choose. Not only is this better for the wildlife you will attract, but you will have to worry about your living habitat pieces much less. Think about it. A drought-resistant plant might do great in a Portland summer, but what about the wintertime, when Portland is getting most of its 40 inches of rain? Pick native plants and your region’s climate will work for them rather than against them. And when I say native, I don’t mean state native; I mean native to your local area. Joshua trees are California native. It doesn’t mean they would do well in my backyard.

Until next time, I have some cleanup to do!

Educational Sources:

Bai, Kundong et al. Leaf economics of evergreen and deciduous tree species along an elevational gradient in a subtropical mountain. AoB Plants. June 2015.

Chabot, Brian F. and Hicks, David J. The Ecology of Leaf Life Spans. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics. Vol. 13:229-259. November 1982.

Chute, Nate. Here’s how many inches of snow fell in Redding, Northern California this week. Redding Record Searchlight. February 13, 2019.

Cook, Bill. How do trees survive in the winter? Michigan State University Extension. March 9, 2013.

Reich, P.B. et al. Leaf Life-Span in Relation to Leaf, Plant and Stand Characteristics Among Diverse Ecosystems. Ecological Society of America. 1992.

Photo Credits:

All photos: Ewald, Jacob. Redding, CA. Various locations. February 2019.

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