Sunday, July 27, 2014

Urban Botany, Urban Art and the Instagram Effect

There’s a scrappy little Virginia creeper growing from the crevice below the right rear heel of the giant prairie dog (click on image to view).
I stumbled into urban botany by way of Lucy Corrander’s Street Plant posts (my favorite is this one).  I’ve done a few too -- about dandelions and other plants taking back the streets -- so-called weeds.  But I’ve mostly ignored our urban flora.  Yet every time I read about Lucy’s street plants, I think it would be neat to look at our own.  So finally I did.

I often bike through downtown Laramie, but totally ignore the plants of cracks and crevices.  So I wasn’t sure I would find many suitable subjects.  I needn’t have worried.  We have tough and tenacious plants, and our streets are not that well kept.  In fact, I had to narrow my focus.  I decided to limit myself to plants in artistic habitats.
Virginia creeper, Parthenocissus vitacea, is well-established at the base of a telephone pole.
Syl Arena wrote recently about the therapeutic value of Instagram, the popular online mobile photo-sharing service with distinctive Instamatic-like square images:
“Most of us, who are serious about creating great images, remember a time when making photographs was fun, spontaneous, and easy. Yet, we get all tangled up and photography becomes a stressor rather than a release. ... Now, I reach for my iPhone and take that snap. I try to do this at least once a day–stop my life for a moment and make a photo for the joy of making the photo. ... I find it’s a convenient way to stay connected to the playfulness that brought me into photography way back when.”  Syl Arena in My New Photo Therapist
It sounded appealing -- liberating as well as playful -- so I instagrammed the urban plants.  Actually, I used the square photo setting on my iPad mini, but the experience was the same.  Limited to square photos, with no viewfinder and often bright sunlight, I wasn’t able to obsess over composition.  Pretty soon I was “connected to playfulness”.
Lucy mentions the looks she gets when she’s on the pavement face-to-face with street plants.  I had no such pleasure.  If anyone looked at me odd, I didn’t see it.  I did have to move once for a delivery truck; there wasn’t room in the alley for both of us.
Prairie Dog Town, by Jeff Hubbell and Lindsay Olson.
Among the most common street plants in Laramie is cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum.
Cheatgrass habitat -- a crevice below the Snowy Range.
Close by I found more cheatgrass, with dandelions and kochia (left to right).
Occasionally I strayed from the Instagram format for habitat shots.  From Escape by Meghan Meier.
Kochia with a bit of dock.
Kochia, or summer cypress, is really common in downtown Laramie ... and most other parts of town.  It came to the USA from Eurasia and is one of our tumbleweed species.  We city-dwellers think it’s a weed.  But it’s very good browse for livestock and wildlife, and after I learned that the seeds are high in protein and great feed for birds, I didn’t feel so bad about all the kochia in my yard.  The seeds also have medicinal potential (for humans).  The NRCS has put together an excellent Plant Guide for kochia (PDF).  Kochia is Kochia scoparia to some and Bassia scoparia to others.  It’s a member of the amaranth family.

Here’s a much more robust dock plant, Rumex crispus.  Plants at the base of phone poles seem to do well.  The fence is here because the optical shop burned several months ago and it’s still being repaired.
Parking artifacts often ended up in my photos -- not because I sought them out but because parking is such a big concern in our daily lives.
No Parking, with white yarrow and hollyhock.
Mr. Peanut is ...
... watering the tansies!
Much of Mr. Peanut's garden is in hollyhocks, both real and imaginary, with a healthy population of insects.  This is Hollyhock Haven by Travis Rhett Ivey.
I was shooting one last parking photo when ...
Foxtail, wild aster and yet more kochia, with fallen sign.
... a cottontail popped out of the vegetation (see him below?).
He stayed and watched me take photos.  So I instagrammed him.
My favorite mural is Crossing Sherman Hill -- the famous grade across the mountains between Cheyenne and Laramie.  Here’s Union Pacific steam locomotive No. 4014 -- the Big Boy -- coming down the curving grade into the Laramie Basin.
Up at the summit, the train passes by striking granite rock outcrops -- like Vedauwoo and the Crow Creek tors.
And finally -- the caboose, passing several of the many snow fences along the route.
I took a video of the wonderful half-block-long mural, by Travis Rhett Ivey:
While I was sitting on the sidewalk photographing Virginia creeper in a crevice at the base of the Sherman Hill, two people approached me.  But they didn’t look worried, or even puzzled.  In fact, they were taking photos too.  They had come from El Paso, Texas to Wyoming, for the Frontier Days celebration in Cheyenne, and drove over the Sherman Hill to visit Laramie and see the downtown murals.  We chatted for awhile, then they headed off to the newest one, at the Napa auto parts store.  I followed shortly.

I found a small patch of saltgrass.  It’s one of our common prairie grasses, especially where soils are alkaline, but doesn’t seem to be much of a street plant.
Saltgrass, Distichlis spicata.
Saltgrass habitat, from We Built the Dream by Talal Cockar.

The Laramie Mural Project is a collaboration involving the University of Wyoming Art Museum, local artists and downtown business owners.  A brochure is available at the downtown Tourism Office.  On the Project website, you can take an “audio tour” narrated by the artists (click on “Mural Tour”).


  1. It's spectacular - the way living plants are interacting with scenes in the paintings. I've never come across hollyhocks growing wild. I doubt they would be left to grow here because they are so bulky and fall over easily (if we are meaning the same plant). But they are among my favourites and I wish we had them in our streets.

    1. I think our hollyhocks are the same. Maybe they don't fall over here because we don't get near the rainfall you do. I also like them a lot, and didn't realize how common they are in our downtown until I went looking!

  2. Hope it's ok that I've given this as an example of a Street-Plant post on a new Loose and Leafy Page