Monday, September 24, 2012

Super easy tree id ... while passing through Hell

Last winter, I wrote a post about using dichotomous keys to identify trees in the Rocky Mountains.  A dichotomous key presents the user with a series of choices, each with two alternatives.  At each step, a subset of candidate species is eliminated.  Eventually, the user arrives at a single species -- the tree at hand!
If we were to take this specimen though the key in the Rocky Mountain Tree Finder, we would decide first that it’s a conifer (without “regular leaves”), then a pine (with clustered needles, five or fewer per cluster).  Then we would choose five needles to a cluster, followed by needle-length of 1.5 inches or less ... voilà!  This is a bristlecone pine.

But there is an easier way to identify this tree, as I realized when it almost knocked me over while I was hiking the Cascade Falls trail east of Cedar City, Utah (map at end of post).  Just answer a single question:  “What kind of bottlebrush would it make?”

Left:  a branch of limber pine, Pinus flexilis, might make a usable bottlebrush in a pinch.

Below:  ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa, with its longer needles (4-9 inches), could be handy for cleaning jars.
This bonzai ponderosa pine is less than four feet “tall” -- hardly ponderous, but quite beautifully-formed in response to the harsh badlands environment.
I guess common juniper, Juniperus communis, might work if nothing else were available.
However, if there were a bristlecone pine tree nearby, you would toss your limber pine, ponderosa pine or juniper branches, for bristlecone branches look to be perfect bottlebrushes.
Botanists think bristlecone branches resemble foxtails, and in fact, three closely-related species are grouped into subsection Balfourianae, the Foxtail pines.  These include the Rocky Mountain bristlecone (P. aristata), the foxtail pine of the eastern Sierra Nevada in California (Pinus balfouriana) and the Great Basin bristlecone (P. longaeva) -- which is the one that I found along the Cascade Falls trail.  (The famous ancient bristlecones of the White Mountains in eastern California are Great Basin bristlecones as well.)

I didn’t expect to see bristlecone pines here, at only 8900 feet elevation, but the branches were a dead give-away -- lovely green bottlebrushes!

A bristlecone pine with the graceful symmetry of youth.

With the death of a main stem, this small tree already has developed the pitchfork growth form characteristic of aging bristlecones.
Bristlecone pines are named for the recurved bristles on the tips of the cone scales.
The Cascade Falls trail is located east of Cedar City, Utah, on Dixie National Forest in the vicinity of Navajo Lake.  Take the Navajo Lake turnoff south from Utah Highway 14.  Go about 0.3 mi on this gravel road, then turn left at the sign to Cascade Falls (small sign, only visible going west).  Follow this dirt road down to a gravel road in a drainage bottom.  Turn right (southwest) and continue to the road’s end and the trailhead.  Map from Google Earth.
There is much to see along the short trail to Cascade Falls, which passes through hellish badlands before arriving at a fount of clear, cold, gushing water emerging from a rock crevice!
Passing through hellish badlands ...
... to arrive at a blessed fountain,
... with smokey views of a distant Zion (National Park) en route.

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