Friday, July 24, 2009

Positive Daisies, Pants On Fire

KK RSP cutSo I know I’ve posted a ton about wildflowers this year, and in this post I’m going to post about 4 more. But I have 2 good reasons for doing so- a long-term strategic reason, and a short-term-tactical-pants-on-fire reason. (No real reason for pic right except it was during the ride I photographed Flower #1, and I thought it was a cool pic.)

The long-term-strategic reason is that one of my hopes for this blog is that when I finish this whole crazy project, I’ll have blogged about just about every wildflower and tree in Northern Utah, and that people looking for info on a particular Utah plant will land here, and hopefully gain a little bit of insight about it.

Tangent: And in fact this happens today. When I look as visitor stats, many folks land here because they’re looking for info on a particular plant or flower*. Still others regularly land here because they’re searching for “Selma Hayek” or “Hotel Sex.” Somehow I get the feeling that most of those searching on the latter phrase are not in fact looking for night-mountain-biking info

*Most don’t stay all that long, but hey that’s another story.

WatcherApexClimb by KK The pants-on-fire reason is that I’m going to be out-of-state and/or out-of-pocket for most of the next 4 weeks. (pic left = me climbing in Park City, courtesy of KanyonKris. Again, no real reason for the photo. I’m just vain.) There’s a whole complicated itinerary for this that involves work, family, races and multiple vacations, but the net-net is that I’ll have little if any opportunities for blogging about the Wasatch over the next month. But there are a handful of late-summer flowers that are blooming like crazy right now and which I want to hit on quick before leaving town.

Tangent: I love the expression “Pants on fire.” Really? Your pants are on fire? How did that happen? I can see catching your hair or maybe even your shirt on fire, but your pants? And if your pants were on fire, why would you be running around, trying to get a lot of stuff done? Why wouldn’t you- oh I don’t know- maybe take off your pants?

Nested Tangent: Oo- this reminds me of the best take-off-your-pants-story ever. Years and years ago, OCRick was on a river trip. It was a big group, of whom OCRick only knew 1 or 2 beforehand. One of the other rafters was a very attractive young woman. One night, as they’re all sitting around the campfire, the Very Attractive Young Woman stands up very slowly, and without a word, unbuttons her jeans, and very, very slowly starts to pull them down. (OCRick- and presumably others- was thinking, “OK, hey, trip’s looking up!”) When she finally slow-motion-shimmied her pants down past her thighs, her behavior suddenly made perfect, horrible sense: there was a huge scorpion on her leg. She flicked it off non-chalantly, re-panted and sat back down.

Really, the only expression I like better than pants-on-fire is “Swing a Dead Cat”, about which I have already blogged (tangentially) about. Know what would be really crazy? If you were swinging a dead cat while your pants were on fire- then people would notice you! They’d say, “Hey check out that guy-that’s some serious multi-tasking!”

Pants on fire OK, so one more thing before we get to the flowers: at least 2 of these are so common right now that they fall squarely in the “If-You-Notice-Them-You’re-A-Retard” (IYNTYAR) category.

First Flower – The Deal With Daisies

IMG_0520 The first flower is easy- it’s a “normal”-looking, or “Positive” daisy, in contrast to the “Negative Daisies” we checked out during the Steiner100. While Positives are nowhere near as common as Negatives right now in the Wasatch, they’re still pretty common. And like the negatives, it’s not actually a “daisy” either. Well, sort of, but sort of not. What?

OK, here’s the deal with Fleabanes, Asters and Daisies. All of these flowers are part of the massive, super-cool and highly successful Sunflower family, Asteraceae. Balsamroots, Mules Ears, Arnicas, Sunflowers, Dandelions and False Dandelions, Salsifies and Blue Sailor- we keep running into this family over and over and over again. There are over 23,000 species of Asteraceae, and they’re a diverse and highly evolved family. There are 3 defining characteristics of Asteraceae, which may well account for their success.

First is their composite structure. All Asteraceae are composites of dozens- or even hundreds of individual flowers. For a full explanation, see the first of my Dandelion posts last year.

Tangent: I did a 3-part series on Dandelions way back in the first month of this blog, when nobody* read it. Which was a shame because I always thought that was one of my best series: a super-ordinary, everyday weed that turns out to be phenomenally complex and highly evolved, with a fascinating natural history.

*Seriously- nobody.

CLB Big caption Second is their characteristic of secondary pollen presentation, which means that over the life of the flower, pollen gets transferred from the anthers to some other spot/organ. The Asteraceae mechanism for this is the style that pushes its way up like a plunger, then splits and curls back on itself. In some species this presents an alternate way for (maybe different) pollinators to come in contact with pollen; in others it presents a self-pollination mechanism that becomes effective only after cross-pollination- sort of a hedge-your bets device*.

CLB Zoom caption *There’s also a potential cost to secondary pollen presentation, in that a fair amount of pollen loss seems to be involved in the transfer.

And the 3rd trait is the complex secondary chemistries of Asteraceae, including terpenes, latex and alkaloids, and which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this post.

It’s fascinating to compare the Sunflower family to the Rose family. IMG_0518Though Rosaceae has done far more for agriculture than Asteraceae, the latter is arguably a much more sophisticated, highly-evolved group of plants. They’re also more recent; the proto-sunflower ancestor lived somewhere around 45-50 million years ago (probably in Southeast Asia) vs. 55-60 million for the ancestral proto-rose. Asteraceae by the way have experienced their greatest success in open grasslands, which similarly came about within the last 35-45 million years (around the same timeframe as the appearance of C4 photosynthesis.) The fruits of Asteraceae are always achenes, which I explained in this post and which are well-suited to the seasonally arid conditions of most grasslands.

Tangent: This whole “highly evolved” moniker is of course way subjective and value-laden, but I don’t care. Someday I will do a post on my absolute favorite highly-vs. simply evolved example- the eyes of the Housefly and the Dragonfly.

So am I ever going to explain the “Daisy” thing already? Yes- right now.

Here’s the problem with the word “Daisy”: it’s used in 2 different ways. It’s often used as a catch-all for all/many member s of the Sunflower family. But it’s also used specifically for the Common Daisy, Bellis perennis, which is native to Europe, but which has become a common naturalized exotic in North America. The “Daisies” you buy at the flower shop are cultivars of B. perennis. Fleabanes (genus = Erigeron) and Asters (genus = Aster) are different genera within Asteraceae.

IMG_0522 The Positive Daisy pictured here is Engelmann’s Aster. It looks like a daisy though it’s (really) not. But even more confusingly, it’s not an Aster. It belongs to the genus Eucephalus, yet another genus in the amazing divers Sunflower family, and is specifically E. engelmannii. Anyway, it’s easy to pick out, looks like something you’ve seen at the florist, and if you just do what I do and call it a Positive Daisy, it’s a quick quasi-ID.

Second Flower- IYNTYAR

IMG_0535 The second flower is absolutely IYNTYAR. Seriously, this thing is blooming all over. It’s especially common on open ski slopes around Park City and the Canyons right now, but it’s also super-common in Aspen forests as well. It’s Western Bistort, Polygonum bistortoides, (pics left and below, right) and it also has a composite florescence, but it’s only distantly-related to the Asteraceae. Rather it’s part of the Knotweed Family, Polygonaceae, which is the same family to which the Buckwheats- including Sulphurflower Buckwheat- belong.

IMG_0533 Western Bistort is a late-bloomer ranging all across the Western US and Canada. Further North is the closely-related Arctic Bistort, P. viviparum, which is interesting in that nearly all of its reproduction is asexual, a possible response to a harsher growing environment. Western Bistort- so far as has been observed- reproduces only sexually.

Tangent: When I am KJI-SLC, I’m passing a law (decree, really) that says that any Utah resident who can’t ID Western Bistort has to be deported from the state to live in New Jersey.

Third Flower – Really Super-Cool

IMG_0569 The 3rd flower is also super-common, but it’s not really IYNTYAR because it looks kinda-like some other stuff. It’s Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium (pic left). And in truth I’ve been seeing this guy around forever, and only recently got around to ID-ing it because, well, it looks so much like so many other things. At first glance it looks like a miniaturized version of Cow Parsnip, or kinda—sorta Queen Anne’s Lace. Both of those are members of the Carrot/Parsely family, Apiaceae, which is characterized by broad, disk-only composite flowers. And so I naturally assumed this guy was part of the same family, with the same structure flowers.

IMG_0592 Side Note: Cow Parsnip (pic right) is all over and in full bloom now, especially near watercourses, but throughout the Aspen understory around 7,500 – 8,500 feet as well.

Only it’s not. It’s yet another member of Asteraceae that just looks like the Apiaceae. CY Big caption And in fact- and here’s the cool part- the flowers aren’t actually disk-only composites. When you get up close and check them out, each one of those is little teensy flowers is actually a separate composite flower, with its own disk and ray flowers! It’s like a composite of composites! So this little, unassuming carrot-y looking thing I’ve been pedaling by for months is like the most hierarchically sophisticated flower around. Wow!

CY Zoom caption Tangent: There’s a moral here: Check stuff out. That’s it. Don’t just pedal by and say, Ah, I’m busy, it’s just some weed or whatever. Every plant has a cool story to tell.

Side Note: The Cutleaf Balsamroot zoom was from a photo taken with my old camera (Canon PowerShot 450) back in May. The Yarrow zoom was with the new camera (Canon PowerShot SD780IS). This thing takes awesome close-ups.

Fourth Flower – Way Freaky

I saved the best flower for last, but I’ve cheated. For some reason, though I saw plenty of it during the Steiner100 last weekend, I haven’t yet gotten a pic of this guy; I lifted this one (below, left) off of a Penn State botany site. But it’s blooming now and by the time I get up high again it may be gone, so hey, cut me some slack.

cone1 When you look at this thing, it’s not even immediately clear that it’s a flower, and when you realize that it is, you wonder if it’s dying or damaged. But it’s not- it’s in full bloom. It’s Western Coneflower, Rudbeckia occidentalis, and remarkably, it’s yet another Asteraceae. Coneflowers- and there are dozens of species- all sport the trademark cone-shaped heads. The most familiar Coneflower for most of us is the Black-Eyed Susan, R. hirta. But what makes R. occidentalis so remarkable is that it has no ray flowers (what you’d think of as petals.) The flower is a disk-only composite, like what you typically see in the Carrot/Parsley family, and yet it’s part of the Sunflower family.

There are a couple other species of ray-less Coneflower species, and they’re very closely-related to R. occidentalis, suggested that ray-less-ness evolved just once in the Rudbeckia. In any case, it’s yet another independently-evolved way of being a disk-only composite.

OK, that gives you a few flowers to check out while I’m away. I really don’t know how often or on what topics I’ll be blogging over the next few weeks. Work rants, airplane rants, vacation stuff, who knows? I’ll be in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Idaho and maybe even Alberta over the coming weeks, with a couple of pit-stops back in Utah along the way. So be patient, and I’ll see what I can come up with.


Kori said...

More great flowers! I like to compare the flowers and plants that you describe with the ones we've got here in NJ. Similar, but different!

My trip to Utah was so quick that I basically saw nothing that wasn't alongside the road (mostly nice looking black eyed Susans, or maybe they were sunflowers). It was actually a business trip for me. If you ever do go to Promontory (don't go when it's 100 degrees out), a few miles past the turnoff for Golden Spike NHS on Hwy 83, you'll see a very large, sort of improbably located "campus" of buildings, with a rather unique garden out front. That's where I was.

You could always do Google maps to see what I'm talking about, too.

Watcher said...

Wow, that's out there! One of these days I'll make it out there. A lot of the low mountains around the lake make nice spring hikes.