Plants live in tight association with microbes, especially belowground where fungi and bacteria live on and inside the roots of plants. The relationship can be beneficial or harmful to the plant. Some microbes cause plant diseases by decomposing roots. Others trade nutrients with the roots in return for sugars produced aboveground by leaves.
We investigate two main aspects of the relationship between plants and microbes in the soil. First, as it pertains to weeds, we want to know if soil microbes can help or hinder plant invasions. Three highly invasive weeds of contrasting life history strategies; cheatgrass, knapweed and leafy spurge, co-occur with remnants of native plant vegetation. This creates a unique opportunity to observe, characterize, and manipulate interactions between plants and belowground microbial communities. We outline a number of short, intermediate and long-term research projects that will significantly enhance our knowledge regarding plant microbe interactions and soil processes, with the overall goal to better understand, predict and counteract plant invasions, and to restore and manage invaded ecosystems.
Second, we seek to understand how the relationship between plants and soil influences the function of ecosystem processes. Soil microbes are responsible for organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling between the atmosphere and the land. On this project we collaborate with the Earth Microbiome Project (EMP). The goal is to map and understand the diversity of microorganisms in habitats around the world. We mapped microbial diversity and function across gradients of weed invasions.
It is that time of year again. The mosquitos are back on the floodplain, and so are the flowers on the elderberry plants (Sambucus cerulea). A couple of days ago, I picked as many clusters as I could manage before the mosquito bites became intolerable. We made jam of the berries last fall, but I must admit that the juice from the flowers is my favorite. It is very popular in Europe, especially Scandinavia and Central Europe, but it has yet to be discovered and appreciated in the United States. While the elderberry plant has a number of medicinal properties and may alleviate allergies and improve respiratory health, it is the unique taste that draws me.
Elderflowers on the floodplain on MPG Ranch. Photo: Jeff Clarke
Making the juice, or cordial as it is called, is easy. Because the stems and leaves are toxic, most of those parts should be removed before infusing the flowers in syrup. I highly recommend adding a pinch of citric acid and a couple of cut lemons for flavor and tartness. After a couple of days in the refrigerator, this concentrate can be mixed with water to quench the thirst, or added to gin for a tasty martini. Regardless of which, I store it frozen until I need to be reminded of summer during the long winters of Montana.
Our two interns Mariana Satterly and Tanner Humphries enjoying (non-alcoholic!) elderflower juice. Photo: Ylva Lekberg
Ylva graduated from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences with a M.Sc. in Biology and Horticulture in 1996 and a Ph.D. in Ecology from Penn State University in 2004. She received the Alumni Association Dissertation Award for her work in agroecology and subsistence farming in Sub-Saharan Africa. Post-doctoral positions at Montana State University and later at Copenhagen University as a Marie Curie Fellow have allowed her to explore the role of mycorrhiza, a root-fungus symbiosis, for geothermal plants in Yellowstone National Park and coastal grasslands in Denmark. Her research has been published in journals such as Ecology, Journal of Ecology and New Phytologist.
Ylva currently works at MPG Ranch as a soil ecologist. She explores the role of mycorrhiza in the success of exotic plants and examines the use of specific pathogens to combat invasions. In her spare time Ylva mountain-bikes, plays soccer, and maintains a large vegetable garden.