Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Mid-June @7,000 ft: Natives, Worms, Caterpillars, And Jungle-Riding

IMG_0726 In mid-June in the Wasatch, peak Spring is at 7,000 feet. It’s that time when everything is way, super-green, the trails are tacky (or muddy, more like, this last week) and wildflowers are everywhere. When you move up from 5,000 feet to 7,000 feet, the big, immediately obvious difference is the lush greenery. But there’s another difference, just as dramatic, that becomes apparent as you learn to recognize the wildflowers: Up here, the natives dominate. Oh, there are still exotics around if you look for them, but overwhelmingly, the flowers you see at 7,000 feet are natives, unlike so many (probably the majority now) of the wildflowers at 5,000 feet.

Tangent: I don’t know why this is. Certainly many of the foothill areas I frequent- like across from the zoo- have been subject to disturbances which could have offered footholds for exotics. (pic right = Musk Thistle flower along Roller Coaster) IMG_0786But certainly much has been disturbed up around 7,000 feet as well (development, and before that mining and logging.) And the foothills abut the valley, which has hosted significant agriculture over the last century+, and that’s always a common pathway for the introduction of exotic weeds as well. But what seems to me most likely is that that valley/foothill climate is probably more similar (specifically the winters) to much of the areas of Europe and Asia from which most of our exotics originate. That’s just a guess though.

Already we’re into the 2nd generation of wildflowers up around Pinebrook, Jeremy and Glenwild, and there are a couple of cool newbies we’ll check out today. But first, let’s catch up on some of those we looked at already.

IMG_0544 There are still great patches of blooming Cutleaf Balsamroot, particularly on the switchbacks on the East side of the Flying Dog loop (pic right), but in most spots now they’ve peaked and are wilting. The Singlestem Groundsels, which so dominated the landscape just a couple of weeks ago are mostly battered and wilting as well. The Blue Penstemons though, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago, are everywhere, and they’re spectacular.

IMG_0548 Although the Serviceberry bloom at 7,000 feet has peaked (but it’s still going strong up closer to 8,000 feet, as you get up on Mid-Mountain trail) the Chokecherry bloom (pic left) is still in full swing. With the recent heavy rains many of the flowers have begun to shed their petals, and sections of trail are now strewn with their little white petals.

Gross Tangent About Biking And Worms

Tangent: Speaking of things that are “strewn” right now, let’s get back to my uber-rant/manifesto from yesterday. After a week+ of rain, know what’s strewn all over the roads right now? Earthworms, that’s what.

Nested Tangent: So why do Earthworms come to the surface when it rains? To avoid drowning, right? Earthworms breathe through their skin (they have no lungs) so if the soil around them is water-logged, presumably they’ll drown, goes the conventional thinking.

Worms on road Actually that’s probably not the case. Most near-surface groundwater holds a fair amount of dissolved oxygen, and so it probably take weeks of immersion in soaked soil to drown a worm. Rather the thinking is that rains provide the worms with a chance to relocate to new areas much more quickly via overland travel. Normally a worm needs to stay out of the open air lest its skin dries out (which would suffocate it.) But rainy days allow a worm to surface and cover lots of ground quickly* without drying out.

*By Earthworm standards.

Worms Cables So what? Here’s what- as you ride a bicycle along a worm-strewn road at high speed, the worms get flung up onto your bike’s frame, brake calipers, cables and water bottle cages. This morning when I crested Big Mountain Pass I noticed a dull spot in my cassette- pureed Earthworm smeared across cogs 2 through 4. Eeew….

Probably the biggest change up here in the last couple of weeks hasn’t been the flowers so much as it’s been the sheer fullness of the shrub foliage. The trails have all turned into cool green, mysterious tunnels, almost jungle-like in their lushness.


Tangent: In coming weeks, this “jungle effect” will extend to the Aspen forests up around 8,000-9,000 feet.

IMG_0744 The green tunnel/jungle effect thing is probably the biggest difference between riding at 7,000 feet in Utah and riding at 7,000 in Colorado. When I lived in Colorado, riding around 7,000 feet almost always meant riding through Pine forests (usually Ponderosa, sometimes Lodgepole.) When I moved to Utah it was mid-July, and the biggest surprise was that on all the rides I did that first month: Mill Creek, Park City, Mueller Park- the trails were lined with lush, leafy, shrubby vegetation.

Nested Tangent: The other big (and welcome) shock was how close by great Aspen-forest singletrack riding was to town. In CO, riding extended singletrack through Aspens usually meant a ~1 hour drive (Kenosha Pass, for example.) Around Park City, American Fork Canyon, and all the higher stuff in Mill Creek, Pinebrook or Jeremy, pretty much everything you ride is through Aspen forest.

IMG_0571 And that’s not just the case in the Wasatch. The higher ranges of Southern Utah- the La Sals, the Abajos, and all across the Markagunt Plateau (Brian head, Virgin Rim)- are filled with great Aspen forest singletrack riding. The big, glaring exception to that rule is the Paunsaugunt Plateau (Red Canyon, Bryce), and interestingly that’s one of the few areas* in Southern Utah dominated by extensive Pine** forests.

*Not counting Piñon.

**Real Pines, not PLTs


IMG_0547 Speaking of Chokecherry foliage, you may have noticed that it’s loaded with these little caterpillar nests (pic right). I suspect that these are of the genus Coleophora, possibly Coleophora demissella (no common name), which is native to Western North America and feeds exclusively on Chokecherry leaves.

Side Note: I tried to dig up a photo of an adult C. demissella, with no luck. Most Coleophora look like generic, fairly unexceptional brown moths.

Red-Spotted-Purple-Butterfly-1 But If you leave in the Eastern US, and you see caterpillar nests among Chokecherry foliage, there’s a good chance it’s either White Admiral, Limentis arthemis arthemis, or Red-spotted Purple, Limentis arthemis astyanax, (pic left) which mimics another, poisonous, species, the Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor.

IMG_0550 They show a real preference for Chokecherry- I never see their nests in Oak, Maple, Serviceberry, or any of the other eye-level foliage at that altitude.

Back To Flowers

IMG_0725 There are a number of new flowers out as well, including several that we looked at last year (follow the links if you’re interested) such as Scarlet Gilia (pic left) and the possibly para-carnivorous Sticky Geranium.

IMG_0738 Side Note: Something I didn’t include in last year’s Geranium post- the dark, clearly visible veins in the Geranium petals (pic right) are hypothesized to be visual signals helping pollinators to “lock on” to the flower.

IMG_0730 But there are also a couple of new flowers that we haven’t looked at before, and which are all pretty easy to spot right now. First is this guy, Pale Stickseed, Hackelia patens (pic left). It’s all over the place in small clearings, often co-occurring with stands of Penstemon (pic right). Hackelia is a genus of about 40 species, occurring in North America and Asia, which is part of the Forget-Me-Not or Borage family. Another Hackelia you can spot up in Pinebrook looks like similar but with blue flowers. IMG_0731It’s Small-flowered Stickseed, Hackelia micrantha. At first glance it looks just like a blue version of the Pale Stickseed, but it you look closely at the leaves you’ll see they’re different plant. The Pale (white) seems to be far more common than the Small-flowered (blue) around Pinebrook and Park City in general.

IMG_0431 Another little white flower down close to the ground is this guy, Smallflower Woodland Star, Lithophragma parviflorum (pic left). Though small, low and easy to pass by, these flowers have a distinctive shape that makes them a cinch to ID once you notice them. They actually have only 5 petals, but they’re deeply lobed, giving the first impression of a flower with a dozen+ petals.

IMG_0709 If this next one looks familiar, it should, because it’s another Wild Onion, similar to the one that KanyonKris and I spotted back at the end of April along the cliffs of the Virgin River Gorge. This is a different species, Tapertip Onion, Allium acuminatum. Tapertip Onion is a classic “2nd generation” flower, in that it’s almost never the first thing to bloom where it’s found. IMG_0718 The bulbs are edible and supposedly smell (and I assume taste) like onions. Haven’t tried it yet, hope to this week. Onions are monocots, and so are more closely-related to things like grasses and lilies than they are to any of the previous flowers in this post.

The last flower is also a monocot, and it’s a looker.

*Have you noticed that I always try to save the best flower for last? I do that to try to keep the non-plant-geek reader engaged. I figure if you’re not into plants, if you think there’s a really great-looking flower (or maybe a Selma Hayek photo) coming up, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll stick with the post a bit longer… And the other thing I noticed is that I almost always finish with blue flowers.

IMG_0574 It’s Blue Camas, Camassia quamash. If it sounds familiar, it’s because I mentioned it back when I talked about Death Camas; this is the plant for which Death Camas is sometimes mistaken, with disastrous consequences.

IMG_0531 Now when you look at these 2 flowers, you probably think: “Hey, these look way different. Who are the moronic Euell Gibbons-wannabes that are mixing them up?” And certainly the flowers look way, way different (pic below, right = Death Camas). But remember, they only bloom for this short little time of the year. The rest of the time, they look almost identical- same leaves, same bulbs. Only one will sustain you and the other will sicken (or kill) you. Which means that if you’re going to try a Camas bulb, right now is the time to do so.

IMG_0538 IMPORTANT NOTE: Not that I’m suggesting in any way you do so. Liability and all that. Not that it would do you any good to sue me. My only possessions are boxes of slightly-damaged bike parts, about 30 flower/bird/wildlife guides, my mosquito head-net, and a Toyota with 140K miles on it. Oh, and my awesome pine cone collection. I will try a bulb though. And when you think about it, that’s the real beauty of this blog- I do all the bizarre, high-risk stuff- riding across natural bridges, eating wild roots, getting attacked by wild animals and German tourists, raising 3 small children- while you get to live the experiences vicariously at no risk to yourself. What a deal!

Right now most of the Blue Camas flowers are still closed, but many are starting to open, revealing their interiors, and in the shots below I’ve opened a couple up to reveal the anatomy of this flower, which is absolutely fascinating. Remember that it’s a monocot, and like with all monocots, things tend to occur in multiples of 3’s.

Blue Camas Top View There are 6 petals and six stamens. The pistil bears 3 stigmas. But what’s particularly interesting is the differing height and appearance of the stamens. 3 are tall, and topped by beige-colored anthers. The other 3 are short and topped by blue-colored anthers. This arrangement of stamens- 3 short, 3 tall- is called tridynamous. Many flowers have varying length stamens, and common configurations besides tridynamous include didynamous (2 short, 2 tall), as well as tetradynamous (2 short, 4 tall.)

Blue Camas Side View If there’s an obvious textbook explanation for the function of “polydynamous” stamens, I haven’t found it. But I’ll hazard 2 guesses. First would be to provide better pollen-dusting coverage of any pollinator entering the flower. Second would be to increase the likelihood of successfully dusting both large and small pollinators.

Taking flowers apart is geeky but fun. Every species is different, and that’s what’s so cool about flowers: there are just so many different designs and approaches to solving the same problem. Biologists love to go on and on about the diversity of living things, but sometimes it’s hard to appreciate; there are only a handful of tree species in the Wasatch, checking out birds and bugs close up requires time and patience, and too much time spent poring over lichens and mosses can drive you batty. But checking out flowers is easy, even for a lazy, ADD wannabe-naturalist like me.


Christopher Taylor said...

Another guess I'd consider for different-length stamens is that maybe the longer ones produce pollen for cross-fertilisation via pollinator, while the shorter ones self-fertilise the flower's own stigma in case the cross-pollination doesn't happen. Not that I'm saying that's what happens - it's completely a guess on my part. If it was the case, though, you'd expect to see the cross-pollination stamens open before the self-pollination stamens.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

Totally hear you on the worms. I was cleaning my road bike last night, thought I was done, only to find yet another worm carcass clinging to the underside of the downtube.

Why is it that I clean my road bike pretty much whenever it's dirty but only clean my mountain bike when parts that are supposed to move don't because of all the built up mud and gunk?

Watcher said...

Christopher- brilliant. That’s a clever guess. I spent my lunchtime following it up. Herkogamy is the botanical term for the differing length stamens/pistil to as to avoid or promote self-pollination. Greater herkogamy discourages it; lesser promotes it. So it’s possible that the shorter stamens, positioned a bit closer to the pistil, might be optimized for self-pollination.

There’s also the possibility that the differing length stamens function to enable both reverse herkogamy (stigma below anthers) and approach herkogamy (stigma above anthers.) “Reverse” is associated with Lepidopteran pollinators and supposedly maximizes pollen export. “Approach” causes a pollinator to hit the stigma before getting dusted.

Thanks again for the idea- I really appreciate it!

SBJ- I’m actually the reverse- diligent about cleaning the mtn bike, but don’t clean the road bike till the dead worms make me nauseous. Which reminds me, someday I need to do a post on the varying maintenance demands of road vs. mtn bikes, and how low maint requirement is probably the single best argument for road over mtn…

Ski Bike Junkie said...

Just be careful if you do a post about maintenance requirements, or you might convince yourself to join the Jesus Freak single speeders. I never wash my single and lube the chain about twice a year. It seems to work better the dirtier it gets.