Friday, May 30, 2008

A Brief Review of My Current Ailments

So 3 things before I begin today’s post. First, my Poison Ivy bout has cleared up nicely. It was really only problematic for about 3 days.

Second, I already had a good post idea kicking around for today about a couple of new interesting wildflowers popping out along the foothills. But I’m postponing that post in favor of something more real-time and self-absorbed.

Third, I hemmed and hawed a bit about whether to do this post. I just finished whining about my run-in with Poison Ivy in Twin Corral Box Canyon, and now I’m about to go off on two other health-related problems, only one of which is related to the whole point of this blog anyway. And worst of all, whining about one’s various health problems is like the classic ultimate stereotype of old-person complaining.

But since this is my blog, it is arguably is an appropriate place for me to complain a bit, and there is in fact an interesting botanical aspect to the 2nd injury. And to spice things up a bit, I’ve included a fine RLHG (Really Lame Home Graphic) and a video to boot.

Injury #1: Rib. Causative Agent: 8 Year-Old Boy

So Wednesday night after work I was “fighting” with my 3 kids in the back yard (actually they were already out back playing, and I was crawling around on my hands and knees, doing search-and-destroy again on D. sanguinalis, when they lured/challenged me into “combat.)” Our “fighting” is a sort of play-fighting/wrestling that we started roughly 3 or 4 years ago, when all 3 kids were much smaller, lighter, weaker and less coordinated. I’ve known for some time that I really ought to scale back the intensity of the “fighting” (or at least not “fight” 3-on-1) before someone gets hurt.

Wednesday night, that someone was me. While I was occupied with my twins, my 8 year-old (whom I’ve previously profiled both as canyoneer and peanutbutter-dispersal-agent) rammed me from behind and the side, impacting my left side with his elbow (or knee- still not sure.)

The result is my currently bruised rib. I’ve suffered bruised ribs at least 4 times previously, and in fairness this is probably the mildest case I’ve experienced, but it’s still painful to twist, lift or breather deeply. And I know from experience that there’s no cure but time. The good news is that doing the things I like- biking, running, getting it on with my wife- won’t cause further damage; I just have to endure the pain.

So I went to bed, annoyed with myself for allowing such a stupid injury to occur, and woke up… way… short… of… breath…

Injury #2: Lungs. Causative Agent: Pinus nigra pollen

I’m probably a borderline asthmatic. Both my siblings are full-on, lifelong asthmatics, as is my 6-year old son. My own encounters with asthma are rare, but nearly every year I’ll have a 2 or 3-day long bout with it in May or June. I’ve always assumed it’s tied to something pollinating (call me Sherlock) but I never knew what. Now I think I have the culprit: Austrian Pine, Pinus negra.

Austrian Pine (also known at European Black Pine) is one of the 2 most common native pines in Europe (the other being Scots Pine, Pinus sylvestris). It grows clear across the continent, divided into 2 subspecies, each of which is further sub-divided into several varieties. The 2 major subspecies are divided roughly along a North-South line somewhere around the Austrian-Swiss border, and an East-West line across Central Italy.

P. nigra is sun-tolerant, shade-intolerant, and is a hard pine, with needles bundled in groups of 2. (For some basic background info on pines, see this post.) It’s monoecious, with trees bearing male and female cones.

So why is this Euro-pine relevant to us here in Utah? Because the vast majority (like practically all) of the actual pines (I mean real pines, not firs or spruces) that you see in parks, office parks or people’s yards in Salt Lake City- or for that matter in pretty much any US city- are either Austrian or Scots Pines.

Side note: This is easy to verify for yourself in Utah. Check out any real pine in a yard or office park, and you’ll notice it’s needles are practically always bundled in groups of 2. Utah has only 2 native pines with needles bundled in 2’s- Colorado Piñon, Pinus edulis, and Lodgepole Pine, Pinus contorta; neither look at all like your office park/yard in-town pines…

The reasons: They look “nice”, European settlers were used to them and planted them from early on (similar to English Oak, Quercus robur) and they tend to do well in settled/suburban/gentle-urban environments. Also, the sun –tolerance of P. nigra is a real plus in new, shade-less office/exurb developments, and it exhibits great resistance to or tolerance of pollution, snow, ice and salt spray. (In Utah, large amounts of salt are used for road de-icing during the Winter months.) Most of the Austrian Pine planted in the US is from original sources in Austria, and is therefore of the Eastern-European subspecies, Pinus nigra nigra.

So all of the pines we see driving around town here in the Salt Lake Valley are non-natives. And in fact it’s pretty darn hard to see a native pine within 50 miles of Salt Lake City. Despite the plethora of firs, spruces and Douglas Firs in the Wasatch, actual pines are quite rare around here, an anomaly I’ll explore in a future post, as the high country melts out and opens up…

When I complained of my shortness of breath Thursday morning, my wife pointed out a pollen-ringed rain puddle on the cover of our hot tub in the back yard, and poking around later that day, the culprit was obvious; the Austrian Pines separating my yard from my neighbor’s are practically “snowing” pollen. And here, to illustrate just how much pollen is bursting out of the males cones right now, is this video, the making of which involved my scaling a step-ladder, while holding my holding my breath for extended periods.

This really drives home for me the sheer numbers aspect of wind-pollination. I’ve worked almost my entire adult life in sales or sales management, and in sales we often talk about the “Funnel Model” which is fancy-sounding way of saying that in sales, no matter what you’re selling, you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince. Wind-pollinators, such as the Austrian Pine in my yard, are the ultimate cold-calling salesmen; they blast millions of pollen grains out randomly, in hopes that some teensy number will find their way- against all probability- to land on a female cone of the same species tree. It seems impossible- if an engineer told you he was designing such a randomized system, you’d never believe it would work- yet the world is filled with pines and oaks and willows and maples. That’s what I love about wind-pollination; it’s something completely impossible that happens all around us all the time. Now if only I could catch my damn breath.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Scrub Oak Part 2: How Angiosperms Work

So this post is going to be complicated. But I’ve done my darnedest to make it as clear and straightforward as possible, with simple pictures, no (well few) big words, and almost no terms we haven’t seen before. Anyone with a 6th-grade or better education can make it through this post, and should.

Preamble – Why This is Really Worth Understanding

So I think one of the things that semi-smart people struggle with on an ongoing basis is whether or not to invest the effort in understanding how something really works. In other words, there are lots of fairly complicated things in the world around us: automatic transmissions, refrigerators, hedge funds, REITs and oil refineries. If our lives and/or careers are closely tied to one of these things – like we’re a hedge fund manager or a refrigerator repair-person- then we probably need to know exactly how that specific complicated thing works, but if not, then we can just get along fine without understanding it. Still, we may feel kind of lame if we don’t understand why our car doesn’t work or how our beer stays cold or what’s going on with our investments. So we constantly debate ourselves as to whether it’s worth making the effort to really understand something that isn’t directly tied to our trade, and predictably, most of us understand relatively little of how the world works.

Tangent: The huge glaring exception to this observation in my life is my father. The guy understands all of the above examples I listed, how they work and how to go about doing or designing them. Plus a whole bunch of other things, like how to design bridges, invest in real estate, and find and smelt iron ore. And if that weren’t enough, the guy is an amazing artist.(below)

Like most people, and- sadly- unlike my father, I all too often don’t take the time to really understand how stuff works. It’s not that I’m stupid; I’m just busy, distracted, and like most people, a bit lazy.

But as I started learning about, and becoming more interested in plants, I came to realize that How Angiosperms Work is really worth understanding, and the best analogy I can give you as to why it’s worth understanding is the transistor.

One of the most dramatic changes in the world over the past couple of generations that has affected all of us has been the explosion of high technology. From ultra-reliable cheap watches to computers to the Web to cell phones to iPods to televisions to fuel-injection to coffee-makers, technology touches all of us. Now it’s fairly unreasonable to expect an average joe to understand how all of these things actually work, but there’s one fundamental building block, one common root, one thread, upon which all of these technologies and so many others are based: the transistor. If you understand how a transistor works, you understand the basic functional mechanism of all of these technologies.

Tangent and Disclaimer: My college degree is in Electrical Engineering. At one time, more than 20 years ago, I actually understood exactly how a transistor worked down to the sub-atomic level. Though I’ve long since forgotten, never use my degree, and am today- ironically- almost embarrassingly inept when it comes to anything electrical or electronic, to this day I derive a deep satisfaction from having understood how a transistor worked at least for a while, and knowing that there really is a science and reason and a logic behind how all of these things work, and that it isn’t all just voodoo black magic or some weird, wild dream from which I can’t awake.

If a transistor is worth understanding, then Angiosperms are at least 10 times more worth understanding. Because Angiosperms affect us, and have affected every human who ever existed, so much more than transistors. Almost everything we eat- whether directly or via animal feed- is an Angiosperm. With over 300,000 species, Angiosperms comprise the vast majority of the world’s plant biomass, and account for nearly all of the oxygen we breathe. By any objective measure, the Earth is ruled by Angiosperms, and we’re just along for the ride.

Given their significance in our lives and the world, it’s fascinating how complicated and weird Angiosperm reproduction is. In fact it’s so complex, elegant and strange that it’s generally thought to have evolved but once, most likely around 140 – 150 million years ago. All Angiosperms, including so many of the plants we’ve looked at- Willows, Cottonwoods, Maples, Glacier Lilies, Milkvetch, Dandelions, Palm trees, Crabgrass, Bearclaw Poppies, Dyers Woad, Musk Thistle and Joshua Trees- use the same mechanism. And here in Northern Utah and the end of the May, there’s no better plant to illustrate it than Gambel Oak.

How Angiosperms Work

We talked a while ago about the basic parts and structure of males and female flowers. Oaks are monoecious, with both male and female flowers and they’re wind pollinated, which means that Oak catkins disperse gazillions of grains of pollen in hopes that some small number will wind up on the stigma of a female Oak flower.

A female Oak flower has 3 separate pistils, each topped by a sticky stigma. Each pistil leads down to 2 chambers, each of which contains 2 ovules. Now strangely, only one ovule in one chamber ever gets fertilized. The other 5 ovules and 2 chambers are aborted, usually during the process of pollination.

Prior to actual pollination, each ovule contains a megaspore, which is a fancy word for a “starter” cell that divides a bunch of times. The megaspore undergoes a complex development of its own via meiosis. Each megaspore divides via meiosis into 2 cells, each of which in turn divides again- via mitosis*- resulting in 4 cells, 3 of which are spontaneously aborted. The 4th cell becomes the Embryo Sac Nucleus, and undertakes a mitotic process of its own, dividing twice, resulting in 8 haploid cells.

Side Note: My earlier posts on Dandelion genetics and polyploidy in Sagebrush explained the terms: haploid, diploid and triploid. In the case of Oak, the diploid number is 24, the haploid number is 12.

Of the 8 haploid cells, 5 are spontaneously aborted, 1 becomes the egg, and 2 become polar nuclei, whose function we’ll see in a moment.

Tangent: The obvious question in all this is: why all the waste? Why the extra chambers and ovules and potential embryo sacs and nuclei and eggs? And how is it determined which cells are aborted and which maintained? The answer is we just don’t know; this is just what evolution came up with. It may not be tidy or designer-perfect, but it works, and works great.

When the pollen grain lands on a stigma of the same species (or same-enough species), the sticky pad of the stigma holds it in place.

A pollen grain contains two (diploid) cells, each of which performs a specific function. The first cell starts growing a tube downward through, and along the length of, the pistil, toward the ovule chamber, and the three haploid cells (1 egg and 2 polar nuclei) within.

The second cell divides meiotically into 2 sperm cells, which travel down the tube- or more accurately, are carried downward by the burrowing tip of the pollen tube, since the sperm can’t move/swim on their own- toward the ovule chamber.

The downward growth and penetration of the pollen tube can take days, weeks or months, depending on the specific Angiosperm in question. When it reaches the ovule chamber, it delivers one sperm to the egg, which unite to form the diploid embryo. The other sperm is delivered to the 2 polar nuclei, which combine to create a separate triploid (36 chromosomes) embryo. The triploid embryo develops into what is called the endosperm, which surrounds and feeds the diploid seed embryo. It is the food for the seed, and in many of the plants that we eat – wheat, corn, coconuts- it’s primarily endosperm that we’re consuming.

And that’s Double Fertilization. There’s still a lot that has to happen before another tree or shrub or weed is successfully produced, but we now have a fully fertilized seed with its own self-contained food source, ready to be carried, blown, flown or dropped to a location where it might just possibly sprout and take root. It’s what happens in every Angiosperm, and as weird and complicated and wasteful as it may seem, every oak tree, every acorn, every wheat stalk, every clump of grass, and every fluffy Cottonwood seed was produced exactly the same way. From the standpoint of a living thing, it is the mechanism that makes the world work. This, right here, is the Beauty of the World.

There are a zillion things I’ll never understand or figure out. But I’m glad I lived long enough to understand this.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Scrub Oak Part 1: The Basics

“Scrub Oak” is what covers most of the Wasatch foothills. Its correct name is Gambel Oak, Quercus gambelii, and it’s the only Oak (genus = Quercus) native to Northern Utah, and the only deciduous Oak native to any part of Utah. Around Salt Lake it’s the dominant plant between 5,000 and 7,000 feet. And only a few decades ago it covered much of the lower benches as well, before suburbia pushed it back. In many East-side Salt Lake Valley neighborhoods- Olympus Cove, Holladay, St. Mary’s, Canyon Rim- original stands of Gambel Oak still adorn many yards. Our old house, in Holladay, had a wonderful stand in the back yard. Since Gambel Oak covers so much of the Wasatch and Oquirrh foothills, it seems the clearest dividing line between Winter and Summer: Bare Oak = winter, Leafy Oak = Summer.

Tangent: Quercus is an unusual genus in that it has many deciduous and many evergreen (Live Oak) species, and in many places- California is a great example- the two types grow side-by-side. Spanish has 2 different words for Oak: Roble for deciduous Oak and Encino for Live Oak.

Nested Tangent: I *love* Spanish, and this is a great example why. Wait a minute- this tangent should be in Spanish. OK, Otra vez: Me encanta español y aquí está buen ejemplo por que. Español tiene a menudo palabras diferentes para communicar comprensión mas específico. Roble y Encino es un ejemplo. “Ser” y “Estar” es otro, y “Saber” y “conocer” es otro tambien. Ademas la pronunciación está claro y siempre sigue las reglas gramaticas. Hablar y oir bien en español es hablar y oir con mas comprensión.

The range of Gambel Oak is itself a fascinating topic. It grows in wide areas of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. But nowhere does it seem to dominate the landscape like it does here in the Wasatch foothills. Yet the Salt Lake Valley is really on the very fringe of its range. Just 20-25 miles West and 50-60 miles North, it just ends, not even making it out to the Stansburys. It’s a reminder of how dramatically and quickly everything changes as you enter the true Great Basin. If you think of the Basin as a vast ocean, Salt Lake really sits on the shore.

Tangent: Professor Chuck, whom I’ll introduce when I talk about hybrid Oaks, spent a good part of his career researching why Gambel Oak give out when it does. He probably has looked into questions of its range in Utah as much as anyone. Back in the 1970’s, he spent a couple days out in the Deep Creeks with a colleague, scrambling around looking for Gambel’s, coming up dry.

Under ideal conditions, Gambel Oak grows into a 20-30 ft high tree, but on the dry hillsides it grows in a more “stressed” form of a small tree or low shrub. Oaks reproduce, as everyone knows, through acorns, but around Salt Lake, the vast majority of Gambel Oak reproduction asexual, via root cloning. In Northern Utah Gambel Oaks very rarely manage to reproduce sexually- June frosts tend to destroy acorns, and a type of wasp destroys many/most viable acorns by laying its eggs inside them. The clones can form thick, dense, low stands, often impenetrable to hikers; hiking off-trail in the foothills usually involves weaving one’s way through gaps between Oak stands, hoping that the route won’t dead-end.

Tangent: For a long time, I disliked Gambel Oak, and this was why. Many of my early hikes and mtn bike rides in Utah and Western Colorado degenerated into Scrub-Oak-Bushwhacks from hell, from which I emerged scratched up and worn out. Over the years I’ve warmed to Gambel Oak; how much is from having lived among it, and how much is my own mellowing with age I couldn’t say.

Gambel Oak leaf blooms and leafs out a couple of weeks later than Bigtooth Maple, and it blooms later the higher you go, so right now pretty much all stages of Oak bloom and leaf development (pic above left) are visible if you’re willing to hoof or pedal around a bit. Oaks are monoecious with imperfect flowers, meaning that a tree bears both male and female flowers. Like most wind-pollinated flowers, they lack colors or glamorous petals and so are a bit dull visually, but the tiny male flowers, dangling in bunches called catkins (pic right), are easy to pick out.

From any objective standpoint, Oak has been- over the last 70 million years or so- an evolutionary home run, with somewhere between 300 and 400 different species encircling the Northern hemisphere.

Tangent: Oaks hybridize easily, and much of the reason for the wide range of number of possible species is that botanists have a tough time agreeing what’s a species vs. a hybrid. As it turns out, there are some really cool Oak hybrids right here around Salt Lake, and they tell an amazing story, which we’ll get to in the next few weeks…

One of the things that make Oak so interesting in its success is its reproductive strategy. Unlike so many of other wind-pollinated trees-such as Maples and Cottonwoods, Oak invests heavily in a relatively small number of resource-intensive seeds (acorns.) Oak is a “Wind-Agent” plant: wind-pollinated, but its acorns require a dispersal agent, such as a squirrel or corvid.

Because Gambel Oak is- for me at least- the best, clearest demarcation line between Early Spring and “High Spring”, because its leaves and seeds are so well-know and recognizable, and because it’s all over the place, it’s probably the best place to talk about what’s really going on in angiosperms, and what exactly happens when that bit of pollen- be it via wind or bee or moth or bird- finally makes its way to the stigma of a female flower.

Next Up: How Angiosperms Work.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

The Remarkale Chemistry of Poison Ivy

I’ve always thought that one of the characteristics of an effective blog is the author’s ability to take an everyday experience that happens to him or her and use it to further the overall goal of the blog. The overall goal of this blog is to make me really observe, understand and dial in to the annual process of how the living world wakes up, a good part of which is understanding what goes on in plants all around us, and how those processes work. The good news today is that one of those great, to-the-point experiences has happened to me; the bad news is that it really, really itches.

Tangent: Actually, a pretty reasonable characteristic of an effective blog would be if anyone ever read it, but we’ll just leave that one aside for now…

One of the goals of the Twin Corral Box Canyon trip was to explore all of the side canyons we missed in 2001, and in this we were largely successful. The last one we explored on Monday was one we’d bypassed on the first trip: a narrow canyon blocked by a thick mini-jungle of vegetation. This time we bush-whacked our way up it, getting scratched and whacked by willows, Gambel Oak and brush of various types. The going was slow, and Steve and I split up, each trying different routes up and out of the jungle. From about 50 feet ahead and to the left of me, Steve called out, “Hey, there’s Poison Ivy in here.”

Now one of my weaknesses as an outdoorsman is that I have never learned to accurately identify Poison Ivy. So I called back, “What’s it look like?” After a moment Steve called back, “Uh green… and leafy…” Thanks, Steve.

Steve found a good path up and out of the jungle, and onto some slickrock where we found decent hand and footholds that brought us up to a slickrock saddle separating the 2 main forks of the side canyon. We poked around for several minutes, agreeing that we should wash our legs when we got back down at the first decent pool of water we found, in case we’d brushed up against the Poison Ivy. We returned the way we came, then continued hiking down-canyon another 10 minutes or so before finding a pool and washing our legs, probably 30-40 minutes after first encountering the Poison Ivy.

Thursday morning I woke up with a violently itchy rash across the back of my left upper leg, and a spot on my left knee, and since then, I’ve committed myself to understanding how Poison Ivy does its thing.

Poison Ivy, Toxicodendron radicans, grows in every US state except Alaska, Hawaii and California. California of course has plenty of the closely-related, and similarly functioning Toxicodendron diversilobum, or Poison Oak as it is commonly known. Both plants are misnamed. They are neither Ivy nor Oak, but actually woody vines that grow either as climbing vines or low ground-shrubs.

In the East, Poison Ivy is common in all sorts of wooded or partially-wooded areas, and does really well in “disturbed” or cleared locations. In fact, one of the interesting things about Poison Ivy in the East is that its frequency is apparently much greater today than it was prior to European settlement, due to all the subsequent “disturbance” of forest and woodland.

But in the West, the only time I seem to come across Poison Ivy is in canyon bottoms. In fact certain canyons, like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado or Young’s Canyon off the Dark Canyon in Southern Utah, are notorious Poison Ivy “hot spots”.

The sap of Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and other Toxicodendron species contains stuff called urushiol. Urushiol isn’t a specific chemical, but rather a class of chemicals, more specifically known as catechols, each of which is characterized by a Benzene ring with a long “tail” of additional Carbon and Hydrogen atoms.

Quick Chemistry Review: Benzene is a common organic chemical compound used in lots of plastics. (It used to be an additive in gasoline until it’s carcinogenic properties became clear.) A single Benzene molecule has 6 Carbon and 6 Hydrogen atoms and forms a hexagonal ring. A “tail” is a series of additional atoms in a linear structure attached to the main hexagonal ring.

The primary catechol molecule in Poison Ivy is Pentadecyclcatechol. The primary catechol molecule in Poison Oak is Heptadecyclcatechol. The main difference between the two: Penta-blah-blah has 15 Carbon atoms in its tail; Hepta-whatitz has 17.

Side note: It’s actually a lot more complicated than this; there are 4 different variants in each of these catechols, and the mixture of each type in a given Toxicodendron species or subspecies affects the effect of that specific plant’s urushiol…

When the sap/urushiol of Poison Ivy is exposed to the air, either through crushed leaves/stems, insect bites/damage or whatever, the Pentadecyclcatechol molecules oxidize (which means that they’re chemical structure changes in a way that involves the loss of one more electrons) and in this oxidized state they’re highly reactive.

When oxidized Pentadecyclcatechol molecules contact skin, they rapidly penetrate the epidermis and work their way into the dermis. (The dermis is the living, pinkish under-layer of skin you see when you skin your knee, and which oozes blood when exposed until it scabs over.) Before they do this, they can be washed off the skin, but only with the help of soap; urushiols are hydrophobic, meaning they repel water.

Once in the dermis, the oxidized Pentadecyclcatechol molecules chemically bond with proteins in the cell membranes, after which they are impossible to wash off. The entire process takes around 15 minutes.

The altered proteins are seen as foreign bodies by the body’s immune system, which is what triggers the itching, blistering, etc.- it’s an autoimmune reaction. The reaction really gets going when the Pentadecyclcatechol binds to membranes of Dendritic T-Cells, which are basically white blood cells with a whole lot of “arms” sticking out. These T-Cells play an important role in triggering autoimmune reactions, and the catechol-affected T-Cells set off the full alarm as it were, kicking the full-blown autoimmune response into high gear.

Side note: AIDS patients, with their impaired immune systems, often suffer from low T-Cell counts. An odd-but-logical side affect of a low T-Cell count is that AIDS patients usually suffer a milder or no reaction to contact with Poison Ivy or Poison Oak.

By the time Steve and I reached the pool and washed our legs, we were probably 15-30 minutes too late; by that time the Pentadecyclcatechol molecules had penetrated into the dermis of our legs and begun binding to cell membranes. Even if we’d reached a pool sooner, it’s unlikely our “washing” (glorified rinsing, really) would have had much effect; without soap we were probably just pushing the urushiols around a bit. Lesson learned? On my next canyon trip, day-hike with a watch and a bit of camp soap in my daypack.

It’s hard to see the Beauty of the World when it itches so damn bad. I’ve swiped some of my younger son’s steroid-based anti-eczema cream, and that seems to be helping a bit, but I’ll be glad when this little home-chemistry class has run its course.

It’s been rainy and cold in Northern Utah ever since my return. But it’s finally starting to dry out and warm up, and the Gambel Oak is exploding into life.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Twin Corral Box Canyon Part 2: Stages of Ascent, One More Shrub

Another thing about the Twin Corral backpack worth mentioning is the weird physiogeography of deep canyon hikes. Early in the season, I talked about how each Great Basin peak hike follows a similar 3-stage methodology. A like 3-stage methodology holds true for most canyon hikes, only in reverse. First is a traverse across high ground. Second is the descent through the middle layers, or “tiers” of the canyon system, and third is the travels and exploration along the canyon bottoms. But somehow the 3 stages of canyon hiking are clearer in reverse, as you exit the canyon, typically after a stay of a few days.

The first stage in this direction (up & out) is the hike and climb through the main canyon bottom- what I call the Underworld- and up and out a navigable side canyon. This is basically more of what you’ve been dayhiking the last few days- beautiful, with high walls and a small patch of sky overhead, easy navigation.

The second stage is the Middleworld. The Middleworld is a weird land of interconnected sandstone hills, ramps, cliffs and ledges interspersed with ravines and patches of brush and woodland. The Middleworld is far and away the most problematic stage navigationally- suddenly a ramp starts rolling steeper and turns to a wall, or a little valley winds its way into a dead end, or open out into a towering pour-off. For many of us, the Middleworld is the closest we come to navigating a maze in the natural world.

The third stage is the Overworld, the high plateau surrounding the canyon, over which you trudge back to your vehicle, (which hopefully will still be present, intact and operational.) And the shocking thing about the Overworld is the sky. So much sky, all around you. Too much sky, no protective canyon walls, and so much light. You tuck down your cap visor a bit, and focus on the ground ahead, but all that sky and light is both wonderful and un-nerving at the same time.

The Overworld on the East side of the Dirty Devil canyon system is dominated by 2 shrubs. First and most dominant is our old friend Blackbrush.

Tangent: I’ve learned something new about Blackbrush since blogging about it last month. In that post I mentioned that the right (ish) angles of the branching twigs is one of the easiest ways to identify Blackbrush. But it also appears that that right-angle branching may have a direct benefit: It creates pockets of internal, shifting, intermittent shade for leaves on the interior branches, shielding them at least part of the time from the full strength of the sun.

The second plant is fascinating because its so different from everything else around it: Mormon Tea, Ephedra viridis (Green Mormon Tea) or Ephedra nevadensis (Nevada Mormon Tea.) (The two species overlap and are tricky to tell apart.). Ephedra is a genus of several dozen species, around 10(?) of which are native to North America. What makes Ephedra so interesting is that it’s a Gnetophyte. The vast majority of Gymnosperms (non-flowering plants) with which we’re familiar are Conifers, like pines, firs, junipers, etc. But there are 3 other major orders of Gymnosperm which are completely separate and distinct from and only distantly related to Conifers.

The first is the Cycads, which we mentioned when we looked at Palm trees. The second is the enigmatic Gingko, a prehistorically common and varied order, which today exists only as a single species, the Gingko tree, believed to be extinct in the wild.

Gnetophytes are way ancient (200+ million years) have never been very numerous, but hang on in specialized niches. Ephedra is one of 3 families in the order (the other 2 are totally weirdsville). Ephedra bears no leaves, only stems, which are green, upright and fairly flexible, and it is within the stems that photosynthesis takes places. Ephedra is dioecious, and the male cones “bloom” in April and May like little flowers (which they are not.) Ephedra is what I call a “Wind-Agent” plant, meaning it is wind-pollinated, but its seeds dispersed by an external agent- usually small rodents who cache them underground. Ephedra also reproduces asexually, via root cloning, and often re-sprouts from the crown following fire.

Tangent: The type of Ephedra we find in the West- Mormon Tea- bears no measurable amounts of the much-publicized drug, “Ephedra”. The drug “Ephedra” comes from an Asian species.

There are a couple of other interesting things about Ephedra. The first is that the form of the male cones is such that they direct wind currents to disperse its pollen away from itself- a more sophisticated dispersal schema than the undirected "pollen blast" of conifers. The other is that Ephedra is the only known non-Angiosperm to practice double fertilization, a sophisticated reproductive mechanism we'll look at when we talk about Oak.

Ephedra is cool in the desert because it’s so generically and evolutionarily distant from everything else around it. For hundreds of millions of years it’s followed its own lonely path, and here it is, thriving alongside Blackbrush and Bitterbrush and Sagebrush and Shadscale and all the rest of the pack of modern-day angiosperm shrubs.

The Overworld effect usually damps out on the long drive home, in the “safety” of your vehicle passenger compartment. But over the years, it’s strange how the Overworld effect has become one of my favorite and most savored parts of a multi-day canyon backpack.

Twin Corral Box Canyon Part 1, Videos, Cottonwoods, Tamarisk

I’m back. We had a great trip, spending 3 nights in Twin Corral Box Canyon. Twin Corral is a side canyon off the Dirty Devil which we’d visited back in 2001. On that trip, we found a way out on the East side via a side canyon of Twin Corral, and on this trip we used that “way out” as a “way in”, descending into the canyon from the East, and then spending 2 days exploring various side canyons, nooks and slots.

About a month ago, when I was going on about Little Creek Mountain, I mentioned how the place was so interesting that it deserved a blog of its own. I feel the same way about Twin Corral. This area- the various side canyons of the Dirty Devil- is an area we know well. Since 1999 we’ve done 7 trips to this area, and explored every canyon between Robber’s Roost and Happy Canyon. They’re all wonderful, but Twin Corral is my favorite. It’s long, deep, seldom-visited and difficult to reach.

This isn’t a canyon country blog, but I’ll mention just a few of the amazing highlights of this canyon before zeroing in on a couple- one today, one tomorrow:

About 2/3 of the way up Twin Corral, is the biggest, lushest Cottonwood forest I’ve found in this whole area (pic right.) Monday, just as we did 7 years ago, we lay dozing on a sandy bench in the shade, getting gently snowed on by Cottonwood seeds.

Fremont Cottonwood, Populus fremonti, is common to pretty much every wet Utah drainage below 6,000 feet in the greater Colorado river drainage. Though often dismissed as a “junk” tree by yard snobs, the tree is much-loved by most every desert hiker. Its cool green shade, the deep rustle of its leaves in the wind and its frequent indication of nearby water make it an always-welcome sight. Cottonwood is what I call a “Wind-Wind” tree (Wind-pollinated, with wind-dispersed seeds) and it’s generally the only thing in most Southern Utah canyons that looks like a real, honest-to-goodness, leafy tree.

Tangent: If you listen to the rustle of Fremont Cottonwood leaves in the wind, and compare that sound with the rustle of Aspen leaves in the wind, you’ll notice that it’s the same sound, only the Cottonwood rustle is deeper-pitched. Cottonwoods and Aspens are closely related- both are Poplars (genus = Populus) and the leaf/stem architecture of each is extremely similar. The leaves of both are connected to the branches by stems that are very narrow side-to-side relative to the “height” of their cross section. This makes them prone to slide back and forth across each other, resulting in the distinctive rustle in even the slightest of breezes. But the Cottonwood leaves are roughly twice the size of the Aspen, so the sliding/rustling is of a much lower pitch.

Further up the canyon, way, way up, almost at the end, is a side canyon filled almost exclusively with Box Elder, the only such canyon I’ve ever come across (and one of the few times I’ve encountered this tree in the desert.)

At the very end of the canyon is the highest, deepest alcove I know of anywhere; a place always shaded and cool and damp.

I don’t think I’ve ever been on a trip that’s been busier with rattlesnakes; I had 2 encounters that qualify as close calls- one snuggled in between my pack and a tree in the evening (pic left), and another warning me off from under a rock only 18” from where I’d stepped (pic right).

Strangely, bats appeared in the canyon shortly after the sun disappeared behind the walls, but well before real dusk, giving us a great opportunity to observe them flying and hunting in the light. They zipped and dipped and dove back and forth around us, close enough for us to hear the faint soft clicking of their wings flapping. This video is sketchy, but it gives you the idea…

The bottoms of these canyons almost always contain pools of water, and in the spring the water is teeming with life- frogs, tadpoles, and water bugs of all types: water bugs that scoot along the surface held up by teeny oil pads on the bottoms of their feet, big oval beetles that dive deep over and over again, and further up-canyon, strange critters that look just like little ½” pieces of broken-up twigs, till you realized that the have little legs and are crawling all over the place. (I have a great video of this- but took too long to upload, and honestly, it was kind of a sleeper...)

At night, the frogs begin their courting song- a loud ruckus that keeps you up the first night, and lullabies you to sleep by the third. Here’s a great night-video capturing both the calls, and the freaky throat expansion that produces it.

I’ve done a bunch of these trips, and they’re all great. But it’s unusual that I return to the exact same place after several- specifically 7- years. And I noticed 2 significant changes.

In 2001, at the junction of the main Twin Corral Box Canyon and the first major tributary on the North side, on the NE corner of the 3-way junction, there was a set of fantastic 4-8 foot high hoodoos, comprise of hard cap-rocks, 1- 3 feet across, atop columns of softer sediments. 7 years later, the hoodoos are gone, the cap-rocks lying on the ground. We think of geologic change happening slowly, but it can sometimes happen faster.

The second, more sinister change is worth mentioning because it’s an appropriate coda to Weed Week, and that’s Tamarisk, or specifically, the penetration up-canyon of Tamarisk.

Tamarisk (genus = Tamarix) is a group of a couple dozen species of brushy, feathery-leaved flowering shrubs native to the Middle East, Southeastern Europe and parts of South-Central Asia (I keep telling you, ALL the bad stuff comes from Asia). During the past ~180 years, several species have been introduced to North America, as ornamentals, windbreaks, or for erosion control. They’ve long since escaped cultivation, and today 8 or 9 (depending on who’s counting) species of Tamarisk range across the continental US. In the desert drainages of Utah and Arizona, “Salt Cedar”, or Tamarix ramosissima, has run rampant, choking stream banks, and out-competing Cottonwoods and Willows.

Tamarisk survives drought better than Cottonwoods or Willows. But on the other hand, it also survives inundation of its roots for longer periods than either of its canyon country competitors. And it blows them away when it comes to seed production: a mature Tamarisk produces 250 million wind-blown seeds per year, each of which can germinate within 24 hours of landing on wet sand.

Tamarisk has long lined all the major waterways of Southern Utah. And year by year, it creeps up side canyons, following water tables up-canyon. In 2001, we hiked up Twin Corral from the mouth of the canyon, on the Dirty Devil River, and I paid close attention to how far up Tamarisk penetrated. This year, when I returned, dropping in mid-canyon, and dayhiking both up and down-canyon, I also paid attention. Today, Tamarisk is common and thriving roughly 2 miles up-canyon from its up-canyon range limit in 2001.

The lesson for me in these changes is the perspective of intermediate time. We’re all used to short-term month-to-month changes. We’re also fairly accustomed to long-term decades long changes: we see an old college roommate after 20 years; we visit the house where we grew up in the 1970’s; we return to a Caribbean island we visited on college spring break. But these longer-term changes are muted by fading memories. The perspective I had this week- 7 years- was long enough for significant change, yet short enough for memories and observations to be clear.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Weed Week Part 3: Evil-Super-Thistles, Clean Shoes and Reverse Allelopathy

Time to wrap up Weed Week, and I’ve saved the most evil, the most sinister, the most foul weed for last. I mentioned it a few weeks back, and though it’s not yet flowering, it’s already the fastest-growing forb throughout much of the foothills.

Imagine that you were an evil scientist, tasked with genetically engineering a Dandelion to be an even more dastardly weed. You’d probably go through 3 steps:

First, you’d add thistles all over, to the leaves and stems, so that neither critters nor livestock could eat it, and that gardeners couldn’t yank it out of the ground bare-handed.

Next, you’d amp up the scale and structure of the plant: you’d add height, woody branching, and double (or better the number of flowers)

And third, while retaining the ray-flower-only structure of the composite flower, you’d dramatically increase the numbed of ray flowers- and hence seeds- per composite flower, and while doing so, you might as well make those flowers a real gaudy color, like hot pink.

NOTE 6/16/11: This post, written in the early days of the project when I was a Total Plant Rookie, contains a fairly big error: The flowers of C. nutans are disk-only, not ray-only. For some time I've meant to get around to updating the post and the "Step 3" graphic, and maybe/hopefully will at some point. The rest of the post and Dandelion - Musk Thistle comparisons are, to my knowledge, accurate.

When you're done, you have a Dandelion from Hell. In the real world, it’s called the Musk Thistle, Carduus nutans.

You can’t travel a foothill trail in the Wasatch without noticing Musk Thistle; it’s fast-growing, distinctive, and painful to brush against. Musk thistle is native to- where else??- yes, Asia, and has spread across North America over the last century or so. (Carduus is a genus of about 90 species of thistle, all native to the Old World.) Like the Dandelion, the Musk Thistle features ray-only composite flowers, and is insect-pollinated (usually bees or moths) and generates wind-dispersed seeds. Musk Thistle seeds don’t disperse as well or as far via wind as Dandelion seeds, but it’s often introduced to new locales by animal or human dispersal.

Unlike Dandelions, Musk Thistle doesn’t reproduce asexually, but it readily self-pollinates. Most Musk Thistles support between 1 and 40 flower heads, compared with generally fewer than a dozen for a Dandelion, and large Musk Thistles can greatly exceed that number; the current record-holder was a 6-foot tall Musk Thistle sporting 643 flower heads. The larger Musk Thistle flowers produce over 1,000 seeds (though only 1/3 are typically viable, compared with ~50-175 seeds per Dandelion flower.

Musk Thistle is one of the first plants to start popping up after the snow melts and it thrives in a wide range of conditions- in Nevada, with as little at 10 inches of precipitation pear year, and in Virginia, with several times that. It’s now found in every state in the lower 48 except for Main, Vermont and Florida.

The spread of Musk Thistle, even in the short time (13 years) I’ve lived in Utah has been alarming. It’s common along- and in some cases pretty much lines- nearly every trail under 7,000 feet, and is frequently found higher. And over the years, as I’ve biked and hiked along Wasatch trails, I’ve notice a disturbing pattern: it’s most frequent along trails, which means that it’s most likely being spread by humans, and/or their dogs.

Tangent: When I lived in Colorado, I had a 600 foot long unpaved driveway that by mid-summer every year would be lined by 3-4 foot high Musk Thistles. Every summer, one Saturday- always too late, after they’d flowered- I’d dedicate an afternoon to digging them up. During these hot, scratchy afternoons I developed a deep-seated grudge against Carduus nutans.

When I visited the Newfoundland Mountains, one of the pleasant things I noticed was the complete absence of Musk Thistle. The Newfoundland’s isolation has protected it this far.

Tangent: I notice this about 1/3 of the way up Desert Peak, and realized with a start that I hadn’t washed my boot soles before coming out there. It’s unlikely, but I hope dearly that I didn’t bring a seed along…

But amazingly, when I climbed the East slope of the Mormon Mountains, up the remote and rarely-visited (like if ever) South Toquop Wash, I encountered several early-season Musk Thistles. In the lower part of the drainage were some older (year-plus) ATV tracks; I wonder if ATVers or hunters introduced the seeds. We generally think of the outdoors as a place where it’s OK to get our shoes dirty; maybe that kind of thinking needs to change… (and I won’t even get into the whole issue of dogs (not in this post anyway); taking up the subject of dogs with hikers is like taking up the LDS Church with Mormons, only not as reasonable…)

The scale, efficiency, adaptability and sheer voracity of Musk Thistle are impressive. But there’s something else impressive, though more subtle, about this plant: it appears to practice a form of reverse allelopathy. That is, when bits of Musk Thistle tissue are added to the soil, it actually fosters the germination and growth of new Musk Thistle seedlings. This seems to be at least part of the reason that it develops into such firmly-entrenched, impenetrable stands.

That’s it for weed week; fast-growing, invasive weeds are annoying and often harmful, but they’re generally successful for good reason, and understanding those reasons usually end up helping one see a little bit more of the Beauty of the World.

This’ll be the last post for a few days; tomorrow night I’m headed down South for a canyon-country backpack. I’ll be back mid-next week, and when I’ve caught up, I’ll zero in on Oak.