Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Why does Every Bug end up on my Windshield?

So I found out something cool on the drive down to Hurricane Sunday evening. One of the downsides of Interstate highway road trips in Spring/Summer is bugs. Especially when a couple of big goopy ones splatter right in your eye-level line-of-sight and then petrify onto the windshield by the time you reach a gas station with a windshield cleaner.

Today around Fillmore my windshield got absolutely walloped by several dozen, large, yellow-gutted bugs. In Beaver I pulled over for gas and the attendant washed my windshield

Tangent: On trips South from Salt Lake on I-15 I always stop for gas at the Chevron at the Southern Beaver exit. They always wash your windshield and finish pumping your gas while you run inside (at self-service price), are super-friendly, and the restrooms clean.

The attendant and I recognized each other from last week, and we joked about the number of bugs on my windshield. I mentioned that I’d been hit hard around Fillmore, and he said that the bugs are actually baby Monarch Butterflies, which in the afternoon are attracted to the relative warmth of the air above the road blacktop, and unwittingly become windshield-kill in large number. He said he’d learned that years ago from another traveler- presumably someone with a bit of entomological knowledge.

Tangent: Monarch butterflies have a fascinating migration pattern, traveling from all over the US and Canada every Fall to winter in the mountains of Mexico, between Mexico City and Morelia. 2 years ago I happened to be in Morelia in February, a mere 3 hours from the Monarch preserve. But I had to be in Zacatecas by nightfall and couldn’t spare the time. Today I dearly regret my poor trip planning; I’ve heard the swarms of Monarchs are a sight to behold, and I wonder when I might ever again be back in the neighborhood of Morelia...

The attendant’s tidbit on the baby Monarchs made me wonder what else he’s picked up over the years from passing travelers. It’s not a benefit of the profession I’d previously considered.

Another Tangent: 20 years ago, a friend and I did a cross-country motorcycle trip. It was a fantastic month; we traveled from Boston to San Diego to the Oregon coast and back, making in effect a large triangle. In the West we avoided Interstates entirely.

On many days (the trip was in May) we hit many, many bugs. Bugs on our motorcycles, our helmets, our jackets and our visors. One day, around Vale, Oregon, the bugs were so bad as we followed a winding highway along a river shortly before dusk, that we had to stop every 10 miles or so at gas stations to pick up the windshield wiper/cleaner, and quickly swipe our visor free of bug guts.

On the very last day of the journey we mad our last stop at a rest area of the Massachusetts Turnpike. We spent a few minutes playing with some estimates of surface area, # of days, etc, and came up with a rough estimate (we were both electrical engineers at the time, a couple years out of school and still pretty handy at math) that between us we had killed roughly ½ a million insects during our month-long journey.

Oddly, I just realized that we began that motorcycle trip on April 28, 1988. Exactly 20 years to the day. How weird is that…

Today I revisited 2 of the locations I visited last weekend: the relic Ponderosas on Little Creek, and the flowering Blackbrush on Hurricane Rim. The Hurricane Rim ride was my best wildflower ride ever. I have a camera full of pics, but I'm at the hotel in Vegas, finally finished working, and am just to wiped to blog them tonight...

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Quick Look at the Yard, and I am Really Really Fast on a Bike

So just a couple things before I head out on my Monocot-Week-Adventure-Boondoggle.

I’ve included a couple pics of things blooming in my yard, which is really coming to life this week. Tulips pop up every year in our yard. We’ve lived here for 6 years, and have never planted a tulip bulb. According to conventional wisdom, they should be pretty well played out by now. But every spring, dogged and determined, up they come.

There are over 100 species of tulip, all belonging to the genus tulipa. Tulipa originated out of central Asia, were introduced to Europe by Ottoman traders in the 16th century, and from there to North America. They’ve been intensely bred and artificially selected for centuries, so the tulips in your yard today are about as “natural” as a Hereford Cow. Still, they’re beautiful and interesting.

Tulipa is member of the Liliaceae family, and so are related to lilies (and are also monocots). And like our resident Glacier Lily, the petals and sepals of a tulip are almost indistinguishable, so that the 3 sepals look almost identical to the 3 petals. In fact, some botanists refer to the combined Petals and sepals of tulips and lilies as “tepals”.

The other flower I’ve pictured is Common Periwinkle, Vinca minor. There are 5 different species of Vinca; one other, Vinca major, also is common in American gardens. (It looks just like Vinca minor, but the flowers and leaves are bigger. Periwinkle flowers always have 5 phlox-like petals, which together form a small tube at the base. Common periwinkle is native to Central and Southern Europe, but grows like a weed in North American gardens (including ours.) It’s considered an invasive species, and (depending on who’s doing the considering) somewhat of a pest. It spreads easily in gardens via stem-layering, which we talked about when looking at our old friend Bitterbrush.

This evening I’ll head down South to the Hurricane area again for the first leg of Monocot Week. I’m looking forward to it, but have mixed feelings about leaving the Wasatch for 4 days right now. This week, the last week of April/first week of May, is always a great week for blooming, budding leaves and wildflowers in the foothills. I’m excited to see the foothills when I return, but as closely as I’ve been watching the foothills this year, I just hate to miss 4 days right now.

Tangent: On another note, I mentioned before my Newfoundland Mountains adventure that doing a well in a bike race right before a solo adventure leaves one with a great feeling of confidence and optimism about the adventure. And as fortune would have it, I’ve got the same great 1-2 setup for Monocot Week. Yesterday I won the Cat 5 group at the East Canyon Road Race. In a year and a half of road racing, this was my first 1s-place finish. And it was made sweeter in the knowing that I did everything right- no mistakes, strong climbing, confident descending, organized a solid paceline, rallied and led a final break, and ate and drank just right. It was a fine day- my best race yet.

Nested Tangent #1: I’ve done about 7 road races now, and one of the interesting things is that each of the longer races is like a little drama, with good guys and bad guys, developing and shifting alliances and loyalties, and little challenges and victories throughout. And you never know how it will develop until it plays out. Each race starts as a mass of wary and stand-offish strangers. Each race finishes as a final duel between a handful of riders who over the past few hours, have built a measure of teamwork and respect for each other (and most often, know each other’s names). It’s difficult to explain to a non-racer, but the gradual erosion of anonymity in the lead pack over the course of the race enhances both the experience and the test of character.

Nested Tangent #2: My wife a great theory about middle-aged bike racers. She’s noted (accurately) that I, and so many of my riding/racing friends, were complete non-jocks in high school and college, and in fact we were very often the geeks. Now, we’re the lean, hard-core, hard-training, super-competitive jocks, while by and large, the former high-school jocks are fat and watching TV. It’s as if we’re trying to make up for our lost high-school opportunities for jock-hood, through the smooth, low-impact, friendly-to-the-middle-aged-body sport of bike racing.

Back to Main Tangent: In any case, this will probably be my last time on the podium for a while. I was just upgraded to Cat 4. My next race will be with the big boys.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Why Grass is Special, and my Upcoming Monocot Boondoggle

There’s probably nothing more mundane or predictable about Spring than the grass turning green. And as I mentioned yesterday, while the lawns in the valley have been greening up for several weeks, now the foothills are greening up as well. With intermittent Spring snowshowers still happening once or twice a week, the white-capped green hills are a pretty sight on the morning drive into work.

Of all plants, the grass family, Poaceae, is without a doubt the most important to human beings. And I’m not talking about lawns or golf courses; I’m talking about food. The vast majority of what we eat either is, was, comes from, or was fed on, grass.

The major grains- wheat, barley, sorghum, millet, oats, rye, triticale- all Poaceae. And corn? Poacea as well

Tangent #1: The evolution of corn is both a great case study of artificial selection and a bit of a mystery. We know that Central American Indians bred corn into pretty much it’s present form through generations of patient and deliberate selection. And we know that it’s related to, and probably descended from a type of Mexican wild grass called Teosinte. But we don’t know or have available the intermediate stages or steps of the selection process. In Michael Pollan’s book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, there’s a great section early on about how much corn is in the modern American diet.

Nested Tangent: Corn uses a special type of photosynthesis common to many warm-climate plants called C4 photosynthesis, so named because the CO2 the plant takes in is first incorporated about into a compound in which each molecule includes 4 carbon atoms, as opposed to a similar 3-carbon atom compound created through the “standard” c3 photosynthesis of most temperate plants (and most other stuff we eat.) This means that by looking at the frequency of the C4-based compound in a human body (or human feces), you can determine roughly how much of their diet is corn-based.

Back to Tangent #1: It turns out that the average modern American’s diet includes a higher proportion of corn than even pre-Columbian Central Americans. Our meat, our snacks, our sodas, our corn-syrup-laden pre-packaged foods, all leave tell-tale C4 molecules in our bodies…

Anywho… back to the point. Grass is super-important and super-prevalent. But what’s really interesting about grass is that although plants have been living and spreading and evolving on land for over 400 million years, grass has only been around for the 60-70 million years. So if grass is so widespread and so successful, why did it take so long to show up?

The short answer is that for grass to evolve, 3 things had to happen.

First, flowering plants or angiosperms had to evolve. As I’ve mentioned before, with over 300,000 known species, but any objective measure, angiosperms have conquered the world. By angiosperm reproduction, as effective as it is, is super-complex (and yes I plan to explain it- probably when I talk about oak), and it can take evolution a while to come up with such a sophisticated design, and as a result, angiosperms didn’t become widespread until around 100 million years ago. (Although the date of their origin is still very uncertain, possibly ranging back to 250 million years ago.)

Second, Monocots had to evolve. There are 2 major group of angiosperms- monocots and dicots. The names derive from the number of embryonic leaves in their seeds, called cotyledons. Monocots have 1 cotyledon, dicots have 2. There are other differences, but the most important difference- especially when thinking about grass- is this: dicots, which include most “standard trees”- like oaks, maples, poplars, willows, etc.- grow from the tip or edge of the leaf. Monocots- grasses, lilies, palm trees, yuccas- grow from the base of the leaf out. So while on a maple tree the oldest part of the leaf is at the base, on a blade of grass the oldest part is the tip.

There’s a lot more important stuff about monocots and their relationships with different groups of dicots, which I’ll get into a bit more next week when we visit The Coolest Monocot Ever.

Third, grasses are monocots that evolved in such a way that the apical bud, that is the part that’s doing the actual growing, is underground.

So grass has its dead, old tissue up above ground on the tip of its leaves, and it’s vulnerable apical bud safely underground, which means that it actually benefits from moderate grazing.

But the relevant part in all this to us is the second point, the evolution of monocots. Because not all monocots are grasses and lilies. Some are trees, including some of the freakiest, weirdest trees you ever saw, and the great news is that we’re going to visit a couple of these next week.

Tangent #2: Next week I’m traveling to Las Vegas for a trade show, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’m driving both ways, taking camping gear, mtn bike and hiking boots, and have a terrific week planned. And while I’m there, check out where I’ll be staying. For an adventure- loving outdoorhead/ amateur botanist/ closet-Osmia-sapiens who doesn’t mind a bit of luxury now and again, this is as close to a boondoggle as it gets.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

State of the Season, and Why I Like Osmia Bees

Today I have a quick 2-part season update, and new flower.

Down in the Valley

Spring is in full swing down in suburbia/office park land.

Tangent: years ago I had a sales territory in the San Francisco Bay Area (I’ve worked in technology sales the last 20 years.) Every week or so I’d fly out from dry, cold Denver to the warm Bay Area and go from one lush, beautiful office park to another, and there were always all these amazing plants there growing in the wonderful mild climate. I had this great idea to write a “Botanical Guide to The Office Parks of California.”

So many trees are in bloom every where you drive in the valley- pink, white, magenta. The valley trees are almost all non-natives, and without real leaves yet even tougher to ID than normal, but they’re still wonderful to gawk at. These pics are of a lovely looking (and smelling) tree by the state liquor store on Ft. Union Blvd.

Across the street, my neighbor has 5 Chandelier Pear trees in his front yard. For me, when these trees bloom, it's the wake-up call that Spring is really, finally here. They look lovely, but smell, strangely, like rotting meat.

Up in the Foothills

Yesterday I rode up in the foothills at dawn before work. 4 things worth mentioning:

First, Glacier Lilies are everywhere. They seem to do especially well in the woodland floor of the (still-bare) oak stands, such as in this photo. They’re so plentiful now, if only I could manage to dig up a corm intact I could probably live up here for several days…

Second, the maples are budding. Way back when, I mentioned that the foothills are dominated by 3 trees- Big-tooth Maple, Gambel Oak, and Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany (which is evergreen.) The maple and oak are both bare in the winter and green in the summer, but- from a distance- are easiest to distinguish in the early Spring and late Fall. The maples leaf out a ~2 weeks earlier and their leaves turn and drop probably 2-5 weeks later in the Fall. Why this should be I have no idea. I once asked Professor Chuck (whom I’ll introduce when I talk about oaks) what the reason was, he answered, that “they’re completely un-related, they have totally different physiologies. There’s just no comparison!” in an almost incredulous tone, as if I had asked him why ducks don’t play golf…

In the Wasatch foothills, the maples tend to dominate in the (comparatively) well-watered draws, wile the scrub-oak dominates on the open hillsides. As a result right now, the hillside branches are all still bare, while the draws are decorate with a light dusting of lime green. It’s pretty, and looks almost lush after the long winter.

Third, another “real” flower has appeared. And this one will soon dominate the hillsides above down in an explosion of yellow. This is Arrowleaf Balsamroot, Balsamorhiza sagittata, a decent-sized, very recognizable composite flower. Unlike a dandelion, Arrowleaf Balsamroot has both disk and ray flowers, more along the Sunflower model. It has a taproot that extends down as far at 8 feet deep and can grow up to 4 inches in diameter.

Arrowleaf Balsamroot flowers are pollinated mainly by 2 species of Osmia bee. Osmia is a genus of wild bees, typically black or blue in color. They hatch in the Springtime (males hatch first, for reason apparent in a moment.) They mate as soon as possible after hatching (lousy role-models for your teenagers) and the males die promptly afterward. The females spend the rest of the spring and summer collecting pollen for a “larder” they provision in their nests, which are typically little holes in soil or wood. Unlike honeybees, Osmia bees are solitary, not social, so there are no swarms or hives or sterile workers associated with these bees. At the end of the summer the females lay eggs in their nest larder. The female eggs are laid furthest back, and the male eggs closest to the entrance, which explains why the males hatch first the following spring. The female then dies, never knowing her offspring, who will repeat the cycle the following year.

Tangent: I’ve referenced the bizarre details of bee reproduction before, and it’s way fascinating. But it’s long and complicated, so I’ll save it for another post.

Whimsical Not-Very-Helpful Tangent: I love Osmia bees, and solitary wild bees in general, because they seem so “off-the-grid”. These guys are the bee equivalent of the guy (or gal) who just says “no” to the office job and the country club and church and PTA meetings and the whole rigamarole of society and just does his/her own thing. Yeah life may be a little tougher, but then again, unless you’re the queen, a honeybee’s life ain’t all that sweet either. (Yes I know that drones can laze around for quite some time. But after mating season, they’re typically driven out or killed by their worker-bee sisters.) I think deep down, I’m Honey Sapiens who wishes he were an Osmia Sapiens.

Serious, Helpful Tangent: The flower that’s most similar looking to Arrowleaf Balsmaroot and easiest (for me at least) to confuse it with is Mule’s Ear, Wyethia amplexicaulis, which is also pollinated mainly by Osmia bees. The way to tell them apart is that the leaves are remarkably true to their names: An Arrowleaf leaf really is shaped like an arrowhead, while a Mule’s Ear leaf is long, ovaloid (is that a word?) and pointy-tipped, like a… right, a mule’s ear. Also, Arrowleaf leaves are covered with fine, tiny hairs, while Mule’s Ear leaves are smooth and shiny.

The fourth and last thing is the grass, which has been green in the valley for a while, but is just now becoming really green on the foothills. And while grass may not sound very exciting, it’s important that we talk about it before the end of the week, because next week is Monocot Week.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Relic Ponderosas

If I had to pick a favorite place in the world, it might well be Little Creek Mountain. Little Creek is a flat-topped mesa about 8 miles wide by 6 miles across, roughly 5600 – 5800 feet in elevation. It’s covered overwhelmingly by Piñon and Juniper, but also features extensive shrubland and open expanses of rolling slickrock. It’s owned mostly by the BLM and features a fantastic network of unofficial mountain bike trails.

Tangent #1- Background: The nearby Gooseberry Mesa system of trails was built almost entirely by Morgan and Mike Harris of Hurricane, UT, twin mountain-biking grandfathers who built/marked most of the trails when they were in their 50’s. In April 1996, on my first trip to the area, I stumbled onto the (then unfinished) Gooseberry trail network and ran into the Harris brothers on the trail and again back at the trailhead. I ran into them again on my second trip a few months later, exchanged contact info, and was fortunate enough to ride with and be guided by them many, many times. In early 1997 they started talking about a new trail network they were developing on the next mesa to the South- Little Creek Mountain. In October 1997 I attended a company retreat down in Brian Head, took a day off afterward, and met Mike & Morg on Little Creek. At the time, fewer than 20 people had ridden the Little Creek trails.

The Little Creek trails differ from Gooseberry in that they’re a bit less technical, feature longer stretches of both singletrack and slickrock, and require much more focused route-finding.

Tangent-to-Tangent (Nested Tangent?): In 2006 Morg came across a couple who’d actually spent the night out on the trail, becoming lost on an afternoon ride.

The Piñon-Juniper woodland on Little Creek feels more “woods”-like, shaded and disorienting than on Gooseberry, mainly due to the ~300-400 ft higher elevation and greater rain/snowfall. Although it’s visited far more often than it was a decade ago, it still feels like a strange cross between Western desert and enchanted forest- the Southwest Uplands at its best.

There are so many wonderful things to go on about on Little Creek, but I’ll limit myself to just 2- one short and one long.

One Short Thing

The slickrock expanses on Little Creek feature many tiñajas, including this one (nicknamed the “Jacuzzi”.) Much of the year they’re dry, but in the spring they usually have water, and some- particularly deeper ones like the Jacuzzi- actually have water-critters living inside them. Check out this photo of one of the many tiny sea-monkey-brine-shimp-like crustaceans living in the Jacuzzi. What a strange, weird universe they must live in.

Tangent #2: If the “sea monkeys” (Tiñaja Monkeys? Let’s call them “T-Monkeys”…) If the T-Monkeys could think, what would their view of the universe be? Would they postulate the existence of anything outside their tiñaja? Of other tiñajas? Would they wonder whether their tiñaja had every been wet and full before the first rain and the infinite dryness that preceded it? Would they wonder if after the final end/evaporation of their universe whether rains would ever fill it again, bringing about another universe?

One Long Thing

So I mentioned that Little Creek is covered with Piñon and Juniper. I’ve already written about Juniper. I haven’t yet written abut Piñon, but I will, and it’s a tree near and dear to my heart.

Tangent #3 – a little background on Piñons: Piñons are pines, specifically soft pines, that grow in arid desert or semi-desert environments in the US and Mexico.In the US, Piñons generally grow in “woodlands”, most commonly occurring with one of two species of juniper. All Piñons have wingless seeds, or nuts, which means that Piñons require a dispersal agent to reproduce and expand their range. In the Western U.S., the most effective dispersal agents are Corvids, a group of birds that include Piñon Jays and Scrub Jays, and which we’ve talked about previously. Corvids harvest Piñon seeds, transport them some distance, and then bury them in underground caches. Because they cache more than they actually eat, some number of these buried seeds eventually germinate and grow into new piñons. After about 25 years, these new piñons develop nut-bearing cones, and the cycle is repeated.

Here in the U.S., the vast majority of Piñons are of two species: Colorado Piñon, Pinus edulis, and Singleleaf Piñon, Pinus monophyla. The two are easy to tell apart. Colorado Piñons have two needles per fascicle, while Singleleaf Piñons are the only pine to bear one needle per fascicle. There are other differences: Singleleaf nuts are a bit longer, have thinner shells, and are- in my opinion- a bit tastier. Singleleaf Piñon dominates throughout Nevada, Western Utah, California and Arizona. Colorado Piñon dominates in Colorado, New Mexico and Eastern Utah. In several areas in Utah and Arizona the two types grow together and often hybridize.

Paleobotanists believe that Singleleaf Piñon arose some 20 million years ago as a mutant offshoot of Colorado Piñon. The mutant population was somehow separated and thrived. Over millions of years the ranges of these two species ebbed and flowed across Northern Mexico and the Western U.S countless times, driven by changes in climate and topography, until reaching their present ranges within the last 5,000 years.

On Little Creek, and in the area as a whole, the Piñons are Singleleaf.

Nested Tangent: On both Gooseberry and Little Creek I’ve occasionally found either 2-needled Singleleaf Piñons or Piñons that on which a specific limb is 2-needled. They’re probably just unusual 2-needled individuals (they do occur), but I wonder if some hybridization has happened around there.

But as it turns out, Piñon is not the only pine on Little Creek. On one of the Northern “fingers of the mesa, in a broad slickrock bowl near the rim, is a scattered group of probably 40-50 Ponderosa Pines, Pinus ponderosa, (probably the most intuitive Latin name in botany). The Ponderosas grow only in crevices in the slickrock that appear to be much more well-watered relative to most of the mesa woodland. Many are quite large and old. There are no other Ponderosas that I know of in any direction for probably ~15 miles.

Though Piñons and Ponderosas are both pines, they only distantly related, not having shared a common ancestor in over 100 million years Piñons are “soft pines”, of the sub-genus Haploxylon, while Ponderosa are “hard pines”, of the sub-genus Diploxylon. The main difference: soft pines have a single fibrovascular bundle carrying nutrients along the length of each needle; hard pines have two. In short, Piñons and Ponderosas are about as closely related to each other as we are to wombats.

Since the ice age ended, the climate and vegetation in the Southwest has changed dramatically. We know that Piñons used to grow in Great Basin valleys that are now treeless, and that Ponderosas used to grow in the present-day Chihuahuan desert of West Texas at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains. As the climate warmed, trees that required more cold and wet retreated Northward and or upward.

It’s likely that Little Creek was covered with Ponderosa forest sometime in the last 10,000 years. As the climate warmed and dried, they were steadily out-competed by Piñon and Juniper. And with the flat-topped nature of the mesa, there was no “upward” to retreat to. But here, in Big Pine Draw (my name), tucked into the well-watered crevices in the slickrock, they’ve made their last stand, holding their own in a hostile environment against huge numbers, like the Spartans at Thermopylae, and for whatever reason, the Piñons just can’t quite edge them out.

I’ve visited the outskirts of the relic Ponderosas many times. But this time we dismounted and scrambled across the slickrock from pine to pine. In the crevices, the oldest biggest Ponderosas form shady mini-forest-pockets, with soft floors carpeted in long needles and duff. The slickrock here has a distinct pinkish hue, which adds to both the beauty and the strangeness of the draw. It’s an incredible place- a little remnant of an ice-age pine forest, set in the middle on an endless, slightly disorienting sea of slickrock and enchanted woodland.

Tangent #4: This area has a great archeological history. It was heavily visited by the Western Anasazi, and is today the site of Southern Utah University’s archeology school summer field digs. Several years ago I obtained a copy of the anthropology master’s thesis of James L. Heid from the UNLV library. Probably the most interesting part of Heid’s thesis was the discovery of sites dating clear back to the Basketmaker II period, indicating human presence dating back over 1500 years.

Nested Tangent: Mike and Morg Harris told me that when their grandfather was a boy, his father and his uncles would bring them up on Little Creek while they herded cattle. To pass the time, the Harris boy-grandfather and his cousins used to collect old Indian pots, line them up and throw rocks at them to break them. There are still numerous places along the trail network where potshards can be found.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spring Forward and the Bush That Saved My Life

My weekend down South was wonderful. Much of that was the same wonderfulness of pretty much every Southwest Utah mtn biking weekend with friends- tons of great, technical riding, amazing views, camping with good friends, and stumbling into work Monday morning sunburned, wind-burned, sore and exhausted.

But the other part of the wonderfulness was the catapult into Spring. The area we visited, the upland benches and mesa East of Hurricane , lie nearly 300 miles South of Salt lake, and as a result, by the 3rd weekend in April, Spring is in full blast. Even driving through Toquerville and Hurricane Friday evening it was light enough to see that the Cottonwoods were fully leafed out. Up on the mesas (5,200 – 5,800 ft) I don’t think I’ve ever seen it so green; the Sagebrush was almost lush with new growth, and so many things were blooming: Serviceberry, Manzanita, Claret Cup (Hedgehog) Cactus, Prickly Pear, Indian Paintbrush, Yucca, Tree Cholla. Even the shrub live oak, Quercus turbinella, was covered with soft, delicate new leaves and pollen-spreading catkins (male flowers) visible in the close-up photo.

This area- the Southwest Uplands- is one of my- if not the- favorite areas anywhere. Broad, widely spaced mesas capped with Pinon-Juniper woodlands are separated by rolling benchlands covered with Sage, Blackbrush and Rabbitbrush. At the lower end of the benchlands stands of Creosote start to appear, as the desert flora transitions from Great Basin to Mojave. If I could live out of my truck and just bike and hike and explore all day and sit in a lawn chair and watch the stars come out every night to the howls of coyotes, I’d probably do it somewhere around here.

In fact I could do a whole blog about this amazing area, but that would take me away from the task at hand, so I’ll highlight just a couple of favorite things down there. Today I’ll revisit two of our old friends, Blackbrush and Bitterbrush, and tomorrow I’ll talk about the Big Pines.

I’ve already talked about the amazing range of Blackbrush, but it’s worth mentioning again because down outside Hurricane it’s in full bloom. For a wind-pollinated flower, it’s a wonderful exception to the “lame-O” rule; the deep green, fresh leaves are complimented by dozens and dozens of little yellow butter-cup-like flowers. The flowers have many stamens, arrayed around a single pistil which is sheathed in a unique structure called a torus. The stamens are well elevated, exposed to the air beyond the “cup” of the flower, as makes sense for a wind-pollinated flower. The stamens and pistil are surrounded by 4 small yellow petals. Only they’re not petals- they’re sepals (which we discussed back when we talked about the structure of the standard blossom.) Blackbrush flowers are technically petal-less.

Semi-Tangential-Huge-Boner–Mea-Culpa: I rode through hillsides carpeted with flowering Blackbrush on Sunday afternoon, on our last rid of the trip (Hurricane Rim.) It was meant to be a quickie “bonus” ride, and I didn’t expect to see anything great, so I left the camera behind. Huge mistake (when will I learn??) The ride was carpeted with wonderful flowers, and the leaves of many shrubs- most notably the creosote- were the freshest and greenest I’ve ever seen. So these Blackbrush-flower photos are, sadly, not mine, but photos I picked up off the web. (I will try to amend this error, if possible, with a return trip inside 8 days- stay tuned.)

We’ve also talked about Bitterbrush before, and though it wasn’t in bloom down there, it’s worth mentioning again because down South it grows much larger, almost as small tree at times. And it’s worth mentioning that because it was in fact one of these oversized bush/tree Bitterbrushes that save my life almost 9 years ago.

Tangent- The Amazing- Bitterbrush- That- Saved- My- Life-Story: On October 9, 1999, some friends (including 2 of the same as this past weekend) and I were riding the “Windmill” trail on Gooseberry Mesa. The trail is a side trail used to access the main trail network, is a combination of slickrock and singletrack and includes significant exposure in many places. I was in the lead, in full view of my friends, when my front wheel hit a sand trap about 2 feet from the rim, and a sheer drop of ~40 feet. The sand trap caught my wheel and twisted it away to the left, pushing me and my bike off to the right. My bike landed on its side , but I, being higher, fell further right, on an arc to clear the rim.

On the very edge of the rim grows a 4 foot high Bitterbrush, with which I collided. The shrub’s branches bent under my weight, and in less than a second I was entirely suspended over the 40-foot drop. The branches stopped bending and I waited a split-second for the inevitable crack of wood, looking down, trying to determine my likely point of impact. Only there never was a crack, and slowly, impossibly, unbelievably, the branches rebounded back as if in slow motion, and as if it were the soft loving hand of God, the Bitterbrush of Continued Life laid me gently back in the sand trap.

NOTE 6/16/11: This post, written when I was still a total plant-rookie, was mistaken. The bush that saved me was a Cliffrose, not a Bitterbrush. I acknowledged/corrected the error in this post, later that same year. Two years following this post, I filmed a great stretch of blooming cliffrose in the last few seconds of this video.

My friends behind saw the whole thing happen and talk about to this day. The trail has since been re-routed several feet away from the rim, but I never ride past without stopping to water and thank my favorite shrub. A lot of people don’t think much of desert shrubs. Everything in my life since October 9, 1999- including my twin daughter and son- I owe to that Bitterbrush.

On October 8, 1998, a year and a day before my Bitterbrush Incident, I was hit by a car on my bike. I survived fine, but endured a 6-week rehabilitation (torn rotator cuff.) On October 10, 2000 I again went for a bike ride (Mormon Trail, Summit County) and I was extremely careful…

Next Up:
Big Trees in Cracks

Friday, April 18, 2008

Dandelions are Way Cool Part 3 - Where are the Natives?

So now that we’ve covered the cool structure and amazing genetics of dandelions, what are we seeing on our neighbors’ lawns? We’re seeing asexual triploid Taraxacum officianale, which has been introduced (always accidentally I assume) from Europe to North America multiple, multiple times since the mid-1600’s, so far as we can tell. We know there have been multiple introductions because there are a many, many distinct triploid lines of dandelions around North America. What’s interesting is that some of these lines are extremely localized, while a few are very widespread. If you’re interested, here’s a link to a PowerPoint that reviews T. officianale genetic variation across several locations in the U.S. (Thank you Jing Luo!)

But before the arrival of Europeans, there were already dandelions in North America, and the good news- for us plant freaks anyway- is that they’re still here. It’s thought that Taraxacum originally evolved in Asia, possibly near the Himalayas. In Alaska there are dandelion fossils over 100,000 years old, so we know they made it across either Beringia or the Bering Strait at least that long ago. Today there at least 3 native dandelion species that I know of in North America, all of which appear to reproduce sexually. I’ll describe them in this order: The Most Distant, the Rarest/Weirdest, and the Closest to Home

In the far North, spanning the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, is the Northern Dandelion, Taraxacum Pumilum (pictured left). I’ve included the range map (pictured right). I don’t think I’ve ever been within 500 miles of this guy, so probably not likely to see it anytime soon.

The Rarest/Weirdest dandelion is the California Dandelion, Taraxacum Californicum (pictured right). Rare, because it exists only in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California (which as it turns out is a way cool area botanically and one I need to engineer a trip to sometime.) Weird, because its chromosome number is 31. That’s right, it’s aneuploid, which means it has a chromosome number that is not a multiple of the haploid number for the species. Remember, the diploid number for a dandelion is 16, and the haploid number is half of that, or 8. And 31 is not a multiple of 8, which makes it aneuploid. Despite this, the California Dandelion apparently reproduces sexually, though how meiosis works with an odd chromosome number is beyond the scope of this blog. (Translation: even I have a dandelion-genetics information saturation point, and it’s right about here…)

And lastly, the Closest to Home. The Horned Dandelion, Taraxacum Ceratophorum (pictured left) occurs widely across North America, but it’s distribution within that overall wide range is very spotty. Its overall range is pictured here (right)- it’s in New England but then absent clear across the Mid-west, Plains states and Southeast (though it’s found clear across Canada) and then it pops up again in the Rockies. Some of the most detailed research around Horned Dandelions has taken place in Colorado, and apparently Hoosier Pass (only about an hour from where I used to live) is a great place to see them in summertime.

But T. Ceratophorum occurs here in Utah as well. And pictured here, courtesy of the Utah State Digital Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah (it’s really almost unbelievable what you can find on the web these days…) is a map indicated where it’s been found in Utah. Two of these locations- the La Sal Mountains near Moab, and the Southern end of the Deep Creeks in the West Desert- I’ve visited in summertime within the last 4 years, and may well have walked by them without knowing what to look for. Ah well, both are wonderful places to have reason to visit again, and with the Newfoundland Mountains finally crossed off, I have room for something else on my need-to-see list.

Side note: This has been a monster deep-end on dandelions. Kind of like what my 8-year old does when he gets into dinosaurs, or prehistoric mammals, or Yu-Gi-Oh! But when I get into and really understand a given plant or aspect of the natural world like that, it’s almost as if a part of my own awareness wakes up, like something was always there that I missed, and now my eyes have opened up in a way they never quite have before. I have a name for this sense of “waking up”. I call it the Beauty of the World, as in, if you go and look at a pretty plant or insect or mountain range or fish or whatever, you see that it’s beautiful and you enjoy it and that’s it. But when you see that same plant or insect or mountain range or fish and you understand what it is and where it’s from and how it works or was created or reproduces and how it connects to and interacts with the world around it, then you don’t just see the beauty of the thing, you see a little bit of the Beauty of the World.

Another side note: The trip to Gooseberry Mesa is pulling together. After some flaking/attrition, the core group is rallying. It should be a fine trip with fine friends. And a great change of scenery, with a completely different and very interesting flora as we spend the weekend biking and camping around the transition zone of the Great Basin and Mojave deserts. Tonight will be a busy evening of packing and helping friends with gear- one who needs to borrow a rear shock, one who needs to borrow a light. (We always work in a night ride on these trips... which while being almost totally tangential to the point of this blog is just so amazingly cool I will have to figure out a way to work it in sometime…)