Note: Before we get started with today’s post, make sure to check out the latest edition of Berry-Go-Round over at Greg Laden’s blog. It’s a great edition, with several excellent links. Plus, if you haven’t checked out Greg’s blog, you should. It’s one of the best evolution and life science blogs out there.
Sunday I took the Trifecta for a hike in the foothills between Emigration and Parleys, parking near the big “H”, and working our way up the series of informal trails behind it to the minor peak at 6,300 feet.
Right now is a wonderful time to hike in the foothills. While all the “serious” Wasatch hikes up at altitude are still snowed under, everything below 8,000 feet is melted out. Of course, the foothills can be hiked all summer, but in another 3-4 weeks they’ll be brown, dry, dusty, shade-less and hot. With our wet Spring they’re green, cool and lovely.
I mentioned last week how late the Scrub Oak’s been leafing out, and our 1,200 foot climb really showed the range of leaf development. The early leaves have a light green color that appears to “soften” up the large clonal thickets carpeting the hillsides.
Even down at the trailhead, the almost full-sized leaves are still soft to the touch; over the coming weeks they’ll darken and toughen up, becoming almost leathery to the touch. The wildflowers are now out in force. Arrowleaf Balsamroot is blooming everywhere of course, but on the slightly wetter North-facing slopes it’s now joined by the similar-looking (and closely-related) Northern Mules Ear, Wyethia amplexicaulis (pic right). Their flowers are (at least to me) indistinguishable, but you can easily tell them apart by their leaves. Arrowleaf Balsamroots have broad, spade-shaped leaves at the end of a stalk, and the leaves are covered with fine, soft hairs. Mules Ear leaves are ovaloid, clasp the stalk of the flower at the base, and are smooth and hairless, appearing shiny in contrast to the Balsamroots.
Side Note: There’s a closely-related and similar-looking third flower, Cutleaf Balsamroot, that’s blooming up higher now, as low down as upper Emigration canyon, just above the Killyon Canyon turn-off. 2 years ago I did a post describing the relationships of these 3 flowers, and the genetics and possible origins of Cutleaf Balsamroot. Twin B*, BTW, calls all 3 of them cookie flowers, as she claims they all smell like cookies. I can’t quite pick it up, but there is something vaguely “doughy” or “mealy” in their distinctly un-floral scent…
*Twin B has an amazing sense of smell. If you ever meet her I am warning you right now: do not attempt to sneak out a fart within 50 feet of her; she will out you faster than you can say “stinky”.
Crane’s Bill and Carpet Phlox still abound, as well as the diminutive Pale Madwort, Alyssum alyssoides (pic left), which has been out and about for a good month now. Just beyond the cell tower we came across the first Death Camas, Zigadenus paniculatus (pic right), of the year. And along several stretches the Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.) is out in force. Paintbrushes (there are several species, in Utah*, most of which I can’t tell apart) are probably the easiest flower to ID (at the genus level) in the American West, and they’re interesting in that they’re hemi-parasitic, attaching themselves to the roots of a nearby host-shrub, from which they siphon off water and nutrients. Around here the host is almost always Sagebrush, and if you pay attention you’ll notice that Paintbrush in the foothills almost always occurs in its shadow. The hemi-part means that they’re not entirely parasitic; Paintbrushes perform photosynthesis on their own, as opposed to holo-parasitic plants, (like Dodder) which perform no photosynthesis.
*Out of some ~200 total.
Paintbrushes are part of a larger family, Orobanchaceae, the Broomrape family, which includes things like Broomrape, Tooth Wort, Bird’s Beak, Glandweed and whole bunch of other things you never heard of, some ~2,000 species total, all of whom appear to be descended from a common ancestor species that was, presumably, parasitic, in that all 2,000 species are either holo- or hemi-parasitic*.
*One exception- genus Lindbergia, 6 species, all Old World. In botany it seems like whatever the rule, there’s always an exception.
Side Note: Speaking of Sagebrush, now’s a good time to take a closer look; the leaves are full, healthy, and the plants are positively lush compared to their dull winter sheen of just a few weeks ago. Sagebrush is one of those plants that’s easy to overlook, particularly in Spring when there’s so much else blooming and leafing to catch the eye, but the distinctive gray-green sheen of Sagebrush is at its loveliest right now, and well worth checking out. Part of the reason Sagebrush looks lusher now, BTW, is because it really is leafier. In the Spring, Sagebrush sprouts it’s largest leaves. As the summer progresses, it sprouts additional, smaller leaves. The smaller leaves are generally the ones that are persistent, hanging on through the winter. So even though Sagebrush is leaf-covered year-round, it’s rather leafier in the warmer months.
There were even a few welcome spots of blue along the hike: Wasatch Beardstongue, Pentemmon cyanthus, down just below the H rock, and up at the peak, a few clumps of Bluebells. There are about 40 species of Bluebells, 3 of which account for most of the Bluebells you in Northern Utah. These are Sagebrush Bluebells, Mertensia oblongifolia (pic left), which you can ID by the broad, smooth ovaloid leaves. The other foothill Bluebell, Short-styled Bluebell, M. brevistyla, has narrower eaves covered in fine hairs. In about a month, up in the mountain forests, you’ll see Mountain Bluebells, M. ciliata.
Up around 6,000 feet, we passed a couple of Serviceberry bushes, probably the lowest I’ve ever come across them on an exposed slope. They were in full bloom (pic right), a good 2 or 3 weeks ahead of those up the canyons.
It’s fun to recognize flowers I haven’t seen in a year, but I also made a new ID from this hike . Over the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed this guy popping up in open spots here and there, with small, dull yellow flowers, the 5 petals fused into a tube at the base, and narrow, pointy leaves. It’s Western Stoneseed, Lithospermum ruderale (pic left) also known as Western Gromwell. Stoneseeds are so named for their small, hard seeds, and belong to the Borage, or Forget-Me-Not family, Boraginaceae. Probably the most interesting thing about Western Stoneseed is that its leaves were brewed into a tea by several Native American tribes, including the Navajo and Shoshone, for use by women as a contraceptive.
I’m often skeptical of native/herbal remedies, but this one seems to have some legs. Tests with mice back in the 1940’s showed about a 50% reduction in both female and male fertility when fed the plant. The plant produces estrogen-like compounds, specifically Pyrrolizidine alkaloids, which disrupt the female estrous cycle, not unlike, that’s right, birth control pills*. But lest you get any ideas, this isn’t your classic “gentle” herbal remedy. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids have some pretty significant hormonal and glandular side effects, including decrease in the weight of sexual organs and pituitary glands. In sufficient amounts they can also cause liver damage or even live cancer.
*To be clear, Birth control pills do not contain Pyrrolizidine alkaloids. The active ingredient in most birth control pills is a combination of estrogen and progestin, a synthetic steroid hormone. Pyrrolizidine alkaloids just happen to have some structural similarities in their chemistry that cause similar estrus-disruption effects.
Extra Detail: A European species, Field Gromwell, Lithspermum arvense, is supposedly still used as an oral contraceptive in parts of Europe. I don’t have details. (So I guess this isn’t really much of an “Extra Detail” section after all…)
Tangent: I hesitated over whether to include the contraceptive info in this post. One the one hand, I always like to include interesting factoids related to the plants I blog about. On the other hand, one of my long-time pet peeves is Half-Assed Contraception, and 50% is definitely half-assed.
I am, in many ways, somewhat of a slacker. I’m inept around the house, and generally muster only half-assed performance in many aspects of my day-to-day life, including home maintenance and yard care. I’m terrible with thank you notes and reciprocal invitations. I use duct tape to repair everything from cable-housing to torn car-seats to broken sunglasses*. But I believe that there are certain things in life that should not be done half-assed, of which right at the top of the list is contraception. Seriously, do contraception right, or have a baby, but don’t do it half-assed.
*Which is particularly pathetic in that I buy all of my sunglasses at Maverik for about $7.99. But I really do use duct tape to repair just about everything. Right now our hot tub is busted and we are on a 3 week wait for a repair guy. I keep thinking there must be some way I could fix the thing with duct tape.
Speaking of hot tub repair: Hot tub repair guys are one of a class of repair guys- garage doors, sprinklers, washer/dryers, with whom my relationship as a homeowner always makes me think of what it must be like to be an abused spouse. They promise they’ll show up, and you wait around, but they never do. You call and plead, and they make lame excuses- “Something came up”, they always say. They promise not to miss the next appointment, but of course they do. Eventually they stop returning your calls altogether, like a neglectful spouse/SO who can’t even do you the courtesy of dumping you to your face…
Lest it appear that I am being preachy, know-it-all or throwing stones from my glass veranda, let me own up right here and admit that I in fact am the product of half-assed contraception, specifically the “rhythm method”. I can’t say “method” in rhythm “method” with a straight face, since the “methodology” involved is specifically having unprotected sex and hoping you don’t get pregnant. That’s not really a “method”, so much as it is Blowing It Off. A few years later, the rhythm method produced my little sister, meaning that around the same time human beings were orbiting the moon in spacecraft, our otherwise exceptionally bright and college-educated parents were employing a 10,000 year-old, ~50% effective, “method” of birth control.
The flowers were pretty, but what really caught my eye was what wasn’t blooming: weeds. Though there were a handful of Musk Thistles here and there alongside the trail, and a stand of Toadflax (pic left) by the trailhead, the hillsides were devoid of the Woad that practically carpets the foothills a couple of miles to the North, and I saw not a single stem of Myrtle Spurge the entire hike, and this in turn got me thinking again about trails and seed-dispersal. Most of my time in the Wasatch foothills is between Emigration and City Creek Canyons, and this area is pretty well trafficked via the Shoreline Trail. The foothills between Emigration and Parley, though regularly hiked, see only a fraction of the traffic, and- probably as a result- the vegetation is far more native*. I think I’ll be doing more of my foothill hiking in this area in the weeks to come.
*The obvious exception is all the Crane’s Bill, but these clearly pre-date any modern-day trail access/traffic issues, and possibly Euromerican settlement of Utah, as we saw in this post.
Side Note: Though I’ve done little hiking on this side of the Emigration-Parleys foothills, I’ve hiked the ridge separating the 2 canyons a couple of times from Little Mountain Pass, picking my way Westward to the high point overlooking the valley at about 7,500 feet. This trail-less peak actually does have a name- Perkins Peak- and though it involves some route-finding through thick, scratchy stands of scrub oak, it’s worth doing both for the perspective and the solitude.
Our hike culminated at a minor peak called Jack’s Peak (pic left), named for a toddler who died 15 years ago of leukemia. His parents released his ashes from the peak, and installed a couple of peak mailboxes, where hikers leave messages and well-wishes. It’s a nice spot, and a touching way to remember a lost child. The air was clear, scoured by recent storms, and hawks soared on updrafts from the valley floor below.