Birds or plants? Birds or plants? Which to blog about today? So much is happening with both right now, I hate to wait a day on either. Let’s do plants today, birds tomorrow.
Side Note Teaser: I’m choosing plants because of the timing and changes right now, as we’ll see in this post. But I’m all wound up because Friday afternoon I saw the Coolest Bird Thing Ever, which unfortunately will have to wait till tomorrow.
Tangent: Aren’t I awful? The above reads like those stupid teasers they do for the local news. “Tonight at 10, on EyeWitness News- find out what happened at City Hall!” (Really, I have to wait until 10? I have to get up at 4:45 to blog and ride, I don’t think I can stay up that late. Couldn’t you just tell me real quick right now?) Of course the absolute lamest teasers are the weather teasers. The weather guy appears and says, “Will it rain this weekend? Find out at 10!” OK, so this is a binary question, with a monosyllabic answer: “Yes” or “No.” Are you really telling me I should tune in in a couple of hours and watch your 30 minute broadcast for that one syllable?? Seriously, who is falling for that pitch? Probably 4 old guys in Magna who don’t have Internet access and just have to know what the weather will do…
Nested Tangent for Utahns: I miss Mark Eubanks; at least he’d do the snowstorm teasers in his white temple-blazer, so as to give you a clue. I haven’t watched the TV news in a while- does his kid (Kevin?) do the white-blazer thing now?
Anyway, make sure to tune in tomorrow for my amazing bird story!
Review and Catch-Up
Things are changing fast in the foothills. It’s already May (wow- when did that happen?) First, let’s catch up on stuff we’ve already talked about. The Glacier Lilies are all but gone down in Dry Creek, and their wilting fast up at the 6,000 foot level. (But they’re still going strong up around 7,000 feet- I checked them out yesterday while biking up Big Mountain Pass.) The Arrowleaf Balsamroots (pic left) are now common from 5,000 to almost 6,000 feet, but my last week’s prediction was premature; the full-on explosion hasn’t hit yet. I’m optimistic it will by this coming weekend though.
But the most interesting catch-up is the very first-appearing native flower I blogged about: Long-Stalk Spring Parsley. In that post I mentioned how the plant was unusual for it’s well-developed “false stem” or pseudoscape. Now, already, just 4-5 weeks later, that pseudoscape growth is clearly obvious. In the photo below (with my fingers for scale) you can see how the entire plant is being lifted off the ground, as the pseudoscape elevates it to optimize temperature and moisture for photosynthesis. I’m reproducing the graphic from that post here, just so you can appreciate how freaking SPOT ON I was…
I know I blog about a lot of geeky plant stuff, but this is both cool and easy to check out- well worth getting off your bike and lying on your belly in the grass for 2 minutes to check out. And besides, if you’re ever going to lie on your belly on the grass, why not now? It’s lush and green and lovely (pic left, 5,900 feet), and all the high spiky, brushy stuff (woad, thistle, etc.) hasn’t yet grown up over it. And as long as we’re talk about green grass, make sure to look up at the foothills from I-15 this week- look how green they are! They’re only like this for maybe 6 weeks tops; by late June they’ll be sun-burnt and brown, so get your green-fix now.
More New Wildflowers!
Last week also saw several new flowers pop up in the foothills. First is this guy (pic right), It’s a Cryptantha, a member of the Borage family, and a little guy, like the other borage, M. brevistyla, we saw last week. This one occurs several hundred feet lower though; it’s common right now along Shoreline trail at the 5,000 foot level, behind the U. of Utah hospital.
There are dozens and dozens (over 100?) Cryptantha species, several of which occur in Utah, so species ID is a bit tough. My best bet for this guy based flower, leaf and range match is either Roughseed Cryptantha, Cryptantha flavoculata, or Scented Cryptantha, Cryptantha utahensis, but I’m not certain.
Tangent: The genus ID was made for me by another blogger over at A Plant A Day, whose excellent blog I’ve added to my blogroll. Gretchen aka “Desert Survivor” has blogged for some time at her Desert Survivor blog, and has recently embarked on a new blog project at A Plant A Day. She lives in the Baker, Nevada area, a fascinating and beautiful part of the Great Basin, and blogs about many of the animals, plants and geological features of that area, as well as further afield.
Side Note for Mountain Bikers: Nearby Ely, NV has an excellent and growing singletrack network in Cave Lake State Park (pic right, from last August), and another in-town network which (supposedly- haven’t yet done it) now links into the Ward Mountain trail complex. I don’t know that it yet merits a weekend-trip from Salt lake just for riding, but if you’re going to be within an hour of Ely, it’s well worth bringing along the bike.
I am always in awe of bloggers like Gretchen, Ted, and Sally who are able to maintain multiple blogs. It is all I can do to keep up with this one, and even then, I find myself constantly challenged to stay on topic.
The second newbie last week was this guy, a Phlox (pics left & below, right.) There are over 60 species of Phlox, which come in various shades of pink, white, red and blue. I’m thinking this fellow is Longleaf Phlox, Phlox longifolia, but it could also be Stansbury’s Phlox, Phlox stansburyi. All phlox flowers are characterized by 3 fused carpels (ovaries), 5 petals, 5 sepals, and 5 stamens. Phlox thrives in sandy, generally dry areas with wet Springs (I mean the season, not the hydrological feature…) It flowers in the wettest time of year (which is RIGHT NOW in case you haven’t noticed- seriously, is this rain driving anyone else totally crazy? I’ve been rained on during 3 of my last 5 bike rides…) and then goes to seed in the hot, dry summer. The flower’s nectar is located at the base of the floral tube, and so its main pollinators tend to be long-tongued insects, like butterflies and moths.
The 3rd newbie is this showy looker, Tufted Evening Primrose, Oenothera caespitosa (pic left & below, right.) I love this one: elegant, languid, sensual- it is the Selma Hayek* of Wasatch foothill wildflowers. There are ~125 species of Oenothera, all native to the New World. The genus is thought to have evolved in Central America several million years ago, and spread northward into what is now the US. During the last 4 ice ages and interglacials, the genus repeatedly migrated, retreated and hybridized with other Oenothera species, leading to the large number of species today.
There are a bunch of really, really cool things about Primroses. First, they all have a common and very recognizable structure, with an X-shaped stigma and 8 (I think always, but not sure) big, honking stamens. Second, the pollen seems “sticky”. This is because the grains are held together by little teeny-tiny threads, and it means that most bees can’t effectively collect the pollen. Instead, Primroses are pollinated by moths and specialized bees who can handle the sticky/stringy pollen, which leads us to the third cool thing about Primroses: they are pollinated at night. Primroses open at night and wilt in the morning. The best time to see and photograph these flowers is at dawn (when I snapped these photos) and their pollinators are nocturnal.
The fourth cool thing is supergeeky- it’s a chromosomal thing, called Ring Meiosis, which is way complicated, but is probably the weirdest/coolest thing about these flowers. If you’re interested I described Ring Meiosis last year in this post, while blogging about the closely-related Yellow Evening Primrose, down in the desert.
Foothills Tree Action
But as exciting as all these new flowers are, none of this is the Big Plant News of the last week. No, the Big News is this: the Scrub Oak is flowering and leafing out.
Scrub Oak, or more properly Gambel Oak, is the dominant tree of the Wasatch Foothills. I’ve blogged about it repeatedly in the past- you can check out this post for the basics, and I also used it to explain How Angiosperms Work*. But this is a good week to take a closer look, because this is the week it blooms. Already it’s leafed and blooming down around 5,000 feet, and over the coming 2 weeks the bloom will rush upwards to 6,000 (and by around 5/15 – 5/20 or so) 7,000 feet. And if you’re going to pay attention to any tree in the Wasatch, I submit that this is the one, for the following reasons:
*I still believe this was my absolute best- if least-read- post.
1- It’s all over the place. Super-common, easy to observe.
3- Even if you don’t live anywhere near Utah, if you live in the Northern hemisphere, there’s a good chance you live near Oaks, and much of what is cool about Gambel Oak is cool about all Oaks.
5- Here in the Wasatch, as plentiful and common as it is, we are at the very brink of its Western limit (range map right). A mere 20 miles West (and ~50 miles North) it stops cold, and no naturally-occurring Oak is to be seen again till the far shore of the Great Basin.
6- Its cool side-story of past hybridization with Shrub Live Oak (which I blogged about extensively last Fall) is probably the clearest, coolest*, easiest to check out story of past climate change in Northern Utah.
*Well, coolest botanical story anyway- it’s hard to beat the terraces of Lake Bonneville.
In short, I really don’t think you can get the living, natural world of Northern Utah until you get Gambel Oak.
The Bigtooth Maples have been leafing out for a couple weeks now (pic left = new leaves, flowers), and are well ahead of the Oaks; the difference is super-clear when viewing the foothills from a distance (pic below, right.) But now the Oaks are catching up. A couple of months back I blogged about Gambel Oak buds, and how they’ve been set and ready since last Fall. Right now you can catch them in the moment of unfurling, that enigmatic, almost-momentary transition from bud to leaf. In the photo below (below, left) you can see the tiny, expanding leaf primordia swelling, expanding and pushing aside the bud scales. Even as they unfurl, the leaflets bear the distinctive lobed form of an Oak leaf, and in the coming weeks their chloroplasts will kick chlorophyll production into high gear, darkening as they expand and firm up.
Already the flowers have bloomed. All Oaks are monoecious, with imperfect flowers, meaning that each tree bears 2 types of flowers- male and female*. The flowers are wind-pollinated, which means the male flowers (pic below, right) are catkins, like on Cottonwoods, and therefore not much to look at compared with the nearby Balsamroots and Primroses, but when you start noticing them, they’re everywhere. Their anthers don’t appear quite open in these shots; in days they will be, and if you find yourself sniffling and sneezing over the coming weeks, these guys may well be the culprit.
*Actually, sometimes Oaks just bear male flowers, often when stressed, but let’s stick with the classical story for now.
Once leafed out, the character of the foothills will be altered for months, and the trails we bike and hike will be transformed into little green corridors. But all of the really exciting stuff- the flowering, the blast of pollen, the incredible improbability of wind-pollination and the resultant successful fertilization of female flowers and the beginning of the summer-long development of the next crop of acorns- it all starts right now, and it all happens this month.
Last year when I was blogging about hybrid oaks in the Wasatch, I mentioned that the first time I met Professor Chuck he said to me, “People who are interested in plants tend to be nice people.” And as I’ve highlighted time and again in this blog- from Rudy Drobnick to Tom Ledig to Lloyd Stark to Larry St. Clair to the Pintero Brothers and Miguel Lara down in Zacatecas to Sally on the other side of the Rockies, this has absolutely been the case in my own experiences with plants and people.
And now I’ll go one step further, with this corollary: Learning about and understanding something- even a little- about plants will make you a nicer and even better person*. So maybe, if you can find time this year, you might just consider checking out a tree or two.
*No, I’m not- for once- kidding around.
If you’re going to pay attention to just one tree in the Wasatch, make it this tree. And if you’re ever going to pay attention to it, do so this month.