Monday, December 31, 2018


[October 2018: new two posts on experiments - please scroll down]

Since 2014 we have been observing and attempting to understand a dramatic die-off of the dominant understory sword fern species, Polystichum munitum, in the 120-acre old growth "Magnificent Forest" in Seattle's Seward Park

Please add your own observations at our iNaturalist project.

Extensive lab and field work, consultations with fern experts throughout the US, and recent reports of die-off from elsewhere in the Puget Lowlands of Washington state (see annotated regional map), lead us to conclude with considerable confidence: 

  • The die-off is caused by an (as yet unidentified) pathogen 
  • Climate change may be a contributing factor, but until the proximal cause of the die-off is determined, the role of climate change can not be known.  
  • Drought is probably not a cause (see rainfall records below).
  • Is unprecedented, not part of the P.munitum life cycle, in which ferns colonize open ground, do not reproduce under a closed canopy, with individual plants living for hundreds of years.
  • Holds implications for the forest at Seward Park, and for other forests in the region.

Some selected blog entries

Saturday, October 6, 2018

A small and informal experiment suggests that the agent/s of the die-off can be reproducibly transmitted from an affected frond to a healthy one

This informal experiment suggests that the agent/s are mobile in water, and will affect healthy fronds sharing water with a diseased frond, especially when the diseased fond is at the "crinkly phenotype" stage (which may be the earliest stage of the presumed infection).

Be warned!  This experiment is exceedingly preliminary, undoubtedly naive, suffers from small sample sizes, has not been replicated, and includes no quantitative data nor microbe-scale assays. They  have been carried out by an untrained enthusiast.  

If that is not enough to scare you off :} you can find lots of detail and time course photography in this report.

Early data on survival rates of 24 ferns at Seward’s Ground Zero versus 12 at the edge of the active die-off zone

Hypothesis:  the hypothetical agent of the die-off  does not persist in an affected area.

We planted 24 fronds at Ground Zero GZ) at Seward Park (where die-off was complete in 2014) and 12 in an active die-off  (AD) zone about 50 meters north.   I watered all 36 ferns throughout the summer drought.  The experiment will run five years and tests the hypothesis that survival at GZ will be significantly better than at AD.  We have possibly interesting results after only eight months.

Warning: this is informal science,  visual more than quantitative; it must be viewed skeptically.   The results are early and very preliminary,  and they may not stand up to either scrutiny or over the full five-year course of the experiment.

See the report 

Sunday, July 1, 2018

10 apparently long-dead ferns with miniscule fronds sprouting

Following the suggestion of Betsy Dowling of Zanzibar Landscape Design (Betsy contributed the earthworm hypothesis a few months ago) I today found and photographed ten barely resurgent ferns, at Ground Zero and to the south.   I will add these to my weekly rephotography round.  Perhaps some will survive the summer drought.

In this region there are perhaps 500 or 1000 dead crowns, like the one pictured below - a state they reach  roughly  two years after die-off.   The appearance of these few sprouting fronds might be explained by, or at least is consistent with, this model:

  1.  The die-off is an epidemic event: a widespread occurrence at a particular time
  2.  Some individuals (~2%?) though severely affected, previously judged dead, remain vital, making new small fronds, late in the season, several years after the initial infection.  That this spring has been long-lived, cool and with some rain, may contribute to this phenomenon.  I have noticed only a very few of these tiny sprouts in past years.
  3. The hypothetical infection may be cyclical.  Weak support for that possibility is provided by old stubbled fern crowns to the south of Ground Zero which we estimate (without metrics or dependable assays) to  be from about 20 years ago.

Port Ludlow Die-Off History 2008 - present

From:  Ellen Theisen and Ken Thompson 
We are writing to you in the hopes that you have discovered a remedy for the sword fern die-off, and to share with you some information about our experience and experiments, since we were the first to report the die-off to Jenny Glass and Olaf Ribeiro. 
We recently found your blog about the Seward Park sword fern die-off. For 10 years, we have been concerned about the die-off on and around our property, but until now, we didn't know of any others who shared our concern.
1990. The 2.5 acres of our land in Port Ludlow were covered with huge, gorgeous sword ferns, reaching up to nearly six feet high. The 160-acre forest surrounding us was also covered with big, healthy ferns.
2008. We began to notice that the ferns were dying in three or four areas of our property. Within a few years, an entire quarter acre held only dead fern root balls, and no weeds at all, with half an acre more showing severe damage.
July 2013. The die-off had continued to grow with many ferns dying or looking unhealthy. We cleared out a forest of blackberries and salmonberries and discovered another quarter-acre of die-off we had not seen before. 
August 2013. We sent samples of some dead and dying fronds, along with a document of many annotated photos, to Jenny Glass and Marianne Powell at the WSU extension, asking for a diagnosis. They responded that the cause was unknown, and that neither they nor other plant specialists at WSU had heard of any similar problem elsewhere.
April 2014. We contacted Olaf Ribeiro. He examined the ferns, and took soil samples to analyze. He found evidence of a spider-mite infestation, but he said that he had not seen this sword fern die-off anywhere else. We cleared up the spider mites by spraying with CG-Mite.
May 2014. We applied organic products that strengthen roots and kill fungus to the soil around approximately 1000 healthy, dying, and dead ferns. 
April 2015. We repeated the application. We also transplanted 34 ferns into a 1000 square-foot die-off area, and they are still alive and doing fairly well. 
2017. We transplanted 8 ferns into another 400-square-foot area, and they have grown fiddlebacks this spring, and most of them look healthy. 
Current. We have seen signs of improvement. Ferns are even beginning to grow in the first die-back area we observed.  However, an occasional fern still dies or looks unhealthy, and the 160-acre forest surrounding us is showing signs of severe die off. The 10 acres we have walked through are full of dead and dying ferns.
If you find any solution to the die-off, please let us know as soon as possible. We will, of course, be watching your blog and would be happy to send you any of our documentation.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

A proposal for experimental restoration of long-term bare ground die-off sites at Seward Park

Submitted to Seattle Parks & Verdant LLC on May 31st 2018

Here for your consideration and critique is my strawman proposal for experimental restoration in two small die-off regions at Seward Park. 

- Paul


1) We do not know the cause/s of the die-off, nor its expected duration
   and eventual extent.  Crucially, we do not know if this is a transient, cyclic,
   or endemic phenomenon.

2) We DO know that in Seward Park, die-off of formerly sword fern dominated
   areas are not, after four years, regenerating.   This is in marked
   contrast to post-disturbance regimes of natural restoration described
   by Swanson, Franklin et al (2002), "The Forgotten State of Forest: Early
   Successional Ecosystems on Forest Sites".  The cumulative effects, upon
   general forest health, of unregenerated bare ground, may be significiant.

3) The selection of restoration strategies may benefit from an evaluation of
   the differennce between S&F's intense disturbances(fire, volcano,
   clearcut, insects, wind) and the context in which their regeneration
   occurs.  Specifically, our sites have an intact overstory and
   a possibly reduced local seed sources.

4) Ground Zero is in GSP zone "MF4", with target forest type PSME-ARME/HODI/LOHI
   (doug fir, madrone, ocean spray, hairy honeysuckle).  "Extended
   ground zero" - across the Hatchery Trail to the north, MF7, has
   target forest type PSME-TSHE/MANE-POMU.  A good case can be made
   that ground zero is PSME-TSHE/MANE-POMU as well.

5) My immediate concern is with the previously sword fern dominated bare
   ground sites.  That fern dominance may not be a necessary feature of
   those bare ground sites:  this may have been a contingent assemblage
   produced by quirks in the plant geography and historical dynamics of the forest.
   Given that the (still unknown) cause of the die-off may be still be present,
   or may return, it is unwise to restore these areas to anything like the
   sword fern (near) monoculture which existed there before.


  1) To choose two small currently mostly bare areas (70' x 70'?), one north and
     one south of the Hatchery Trail for restoration planting and seeding, using
     the characteristic species of the PSME-TSHE/MANE-POMU forest type, as
     described in Christopher Chappell's DNR report, "Upland Plant
     Associations of the Puget Trough Ecoregion", 2004, page 109, as listed below.

   2) Perhaps conventional 1-gallon pot seedling planting can be accompanied by
      judicious experiments with direct seeding.

   3) There may be some urgency to returning these moribund areas to
      good health - made up from a heterogeneous community with complex
      food webs, nutrient flows and physical structure inspired by some of the
      intact heterogeneous late succession plant communities found elsewhere
      in the forest at Seward.  We may therefore wish to perform careful
      monitoring of survival rates for both seeds and plants, and to
      inistitute manual watering protocols through the first two summers,
      to maximize the chances of successful restoration, and to refine
      practices for reuse elsewhere.

Candidate Plant species

Douglas-fir                                                       Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii 100 48
western hemlock                                                   Tsuga heterophylla 87 38
western redcedar                                                  Thuja plicata 82 35
bigleaf maple                                                     Acer macrophyllum 60 19
grand fir                                                         Abies grandis 22 7

Shrubs and Dwarf-shrubs
dwarf Oregongrape                                                 Mahonia nervosa 100 18
red huckleberry                                                   Vaccinium parvifolium 80 3
trailing blackberry                                               Rubus ursinus var. macropetalus 78 1
salal                                                             Gaultheria shallon 73 3
vine maple                                                        Acer circinatum 49 15
beaked hazelnut                                                   Corylus cornuta var. californica 42 5
baldhip rose                                                      Rosa gymnocarpa 40 1

Coast Range fescue                                                Festuca subuliflora 33 1

Forbs and Ferns
sword fern                                                        Polystichum munitum 100 23
sweet-scented bedstraw                                            Galium triflorum 62 2
western starflower                                                Trientalis borealis ssp. latifolia 62 2
bracken fern                                                      Pteridium aquilinum var. pubescens 49 1
western trillium                                                  Trillium ovatum ssp. ovatum 47 1
spreading woodfern                                                Dryopteris expansa 42 1
vanillaleaf                                                       Achlys triphylla 36 3
twinflower                                                        Linnaea borealis ssp. longiflora 31 3
inside-out flower                                                 Vancouveria hexandra 29 5
threeleaf foamflower                                              Tiarella trifoliata var. trifoliata 29 1

Monday, May 7, 2018

Fort Worden Recovery

Darrell Howe reports on a recent visit to Fort Worden that the ferns we thought were dying in 2017 are in fact recovering, sprouting new fiddleheads.   See his iNaturalist report and photos.   Last year's blog post of what we then interpreted as die-off is here.

This suggests a few different possibilities:

  1. The putative pathogen which we think causes the die-off is not always fatal: it can also cause a die-back from which ferns can recover.  We may see this phenomenon at Ground Zero in Seward Park, where two ferns (out of ~100),  which I previously judged to be dead, are now recovering.
  2. Some other phenomenon lies behind last year's apparently dead ferns at Ford Worden.  
Whatever the explanation - and ongoing observation may clarify - this recovery is very good news.

This recovery at least partially fits the pattern reported by the Pitterman Lab describing sword fern die-back due to drought in the redwood forests of California.   See the blog post here.  In brief:  fern response to drought includes stomatal closure followed by xylem embolisms followed by die back.  The ferns return in successive years, but continued cycles of drought + embolism lead to die-off.

Note that the California drought was more severe and lasted longer than what we have seen in the Pacific Northwest.  See precipitation records and California comparion here.