Sunday, January 26, 2014

“the rarest prairie gem of all”

Claude Barr at his Prairie Gem Ranch in southwest South Dakota, 1976.  From Jewels of the Plains.
These days I have so much work that I’m relying on guest bloggers to keep In the Company of Plants and Rocks up and running.  Last week, S.H. Knight, “Mr. Geology of Wyoming,” posted geo-poetry.  Today’s guest is Claude Barr, "the eminent plantsman of the plains.”  Barr is not a famous man, at least not outside a small circle of native plant enthusiasts, which is a shame.  When I recently reread his book, looking for information on Easter daisies, I found myself thinking “What an amazing life!  More people should hear this story!”  Perhaps this post will help a little toward that end.

It really is a remarkable story.  Even as Barr struggled to keep his ranch going during hard times, he pursued his passion -- gardening with and studying the native plants of the Great Plains.  From his nursery in rural South Dakota, he shipped plants and seeds to people all across North America, and overseas as well.  But that’s enough from me.  I’m turning the post over to Claude now, so he can tell you his story in his own words.  (Judging by his book, the man is a skilled and eager writer.  I’m sure he would be quite at home in the blogosphere.)
Jewels of the Plains holds a wealth of knowledge, gathered during a long life devoted to “the flower jewels” of the Great Plains.  What follows is a small collection of excerpts.

“I do not have the fondest memories of Arkansas, where I was born near Bentonville on August 27, 1887.  My family starved out of Arkansas, paying a farm purchase loan at ten percent interest and selling eggs as low as three cents a dozen.  However, it was there I came to know the fragrance of many flowers and fruits, and the taste of wild grapes, persimmon, Mayapples, black and red haws, pawpaws ...”

“The earliest experience I can recall that would indicate I was interested in plants occurred when I was a very small boy.  With my two older sisters I went over a hill in early spring to gather fresh green stuff -- grass, as far as I remember -- for Easter baskets.  There I came upon a plant that grew in a neat gray carpet, close to the ground, with soft silky surfaced leaves in pleasant pattern, one of the pussytoes.  In contemplating it I derived a keen and unaccustomed pleasure.”
Antennaria parvifolia, one of the pussytoes.  Photo by Wasowski, Sally and Andy, from the from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“While in high school [in St. Louis], I was offered a very modest scholarship to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, for three years.  Times were hard but it never occurred to me not to finish, and so in 1914 after some delays I received an A.B., with majors in English, Greek, and public speaking. ... While selling stereoscopes and views in eastern South Dakota during a vacation from college in 1909, I heard of land available for homesteading in the southwestern corner of the state. ... I went with my father to help him file a claim.  Deciding that a homestead would be a good property investment for myself, I filed also ...”

“Thus my Prairie Gem Ranch began as a government homestead of 160 acres ...  The limited acreage was the traditional allotment to an individual or a family, whether in the region of America’s finest farmlands or in the Great Plains of progressively higher elevation, lower rainfall, and with often unusable, alkaline, ground water.”

“The deficiencies of the land were wholly unsuspected.  In 1910 there were only two fair rains in early June.  In 1911 corn planted in May germinated in August. ... [yet] an unreasonable hope spread among the newcomers that the plowing under of the grass and more rain would bring better conditions.  But the soil was tough -- ‘gumbo’ clay -- different from anything we had ever known.  Tractors broke down under the strain and plowshares bent. ... Now sixty years old and with funds much depleted, my parents were totally at a loss to picture another start elsewhere.  Their letters to me bore an unmistakable message of despondency.  Giving up an offer of a graduate scholarship at Harvard, I decided to return home ...”
Northern Great Plains.  Barr’s ranch was near Smithwick (from Jewels of the Plains; click image to view).
“Although the climate and soil were demanding, there were certain unique benefits.  From our doorstep we could see the Badlands and Black Hills in opposite directions.  More important, I had many opportunities for acquainting myself with new plants. ... I saw for the first time such marvels of beauty as the great white evening primrose known as Gumbo Lily ... off the wagon [driven by his father] I would hop, to kneel and study the blossom closely, then run to catch up.”
Oenothera caespitosa, the gumbo-lily.  “These flowers, two and a half to four inches wide, open so rapidly in later afternoon that the movement of their unfolding may be watched.”  Photo by Byerley, M. Brooke, from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“In the early days, we went to the Black Hills for little pines to start our groves.  By chance and inclination, I brought back in a spadeful of soil a plant ... of our South Dakota state flower, the Pasque, or ‘crocus’ as it is commonly known.  A young Black Hills pine was placed where its night-time singing would be convenient to an open window.  The shade at its foot contributed to the long life of the pasque flower, Pulsatilla (Anemone) patens.  In an April of fine flowering, I snapped a photo that recorded seven wide and close-clustering blossoms on the plant.”
Pasque flowers herald spring in southeast Wyoming.
“The act of preserving this delightful impression was to prove a significant step toward the writing of this book.  I submitted the black-and-white picture of the lovely pasque flower, with a short column of notes, to House and Garden, New York.  The article was accepted and published in 1932 ... Following this opening into the new world of garden writing, I selected the subject of Calochortus, mariposa tulip or sego lily ...
"One who has not seen the beauty of these delicate flowers cannot picture it."  Sego lily, Calochortus gunnisonii.  Photo by Wasowski, Sally and Andy, from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
“In 1935, I sent out my first catalog, ‘Beautiful Native Plants of the High Plains, Badlands, and Black Hills,’ to be furnished directly to customers, and began a collecting and nursery business.  It was a welcome sideline to cattle ranching in those very lean years of the early 1930s.  For some years, Mrs. De Bevoise [a founder of the American Rock Garden Society] continued as my best customer, until I built up a mailing list by advertising.”

“[Western American Alpines by I.N. Gabrielson], which takes the reader into the mountains by word and picture and shows many plants in picturesque haunts, is to be regarded as a treasure by any lover of the rare and beautiful.  I studied it with fascination -- and with the frequently recurring awareness that a species described as an alpine could be matched in beauty by a sister species of the Great Plains.  With this awareness came the further realization, at first provocative, then obsessive, that numbers of Great Plains plants of high merit had no counterparts at all among the Western alpines.  There could be but one solution:  there must be a companion volume covering the jewels of the Plains.  I began to work at once on this absorbing project.”
“Over the vast expanses of the Plains, the phloxes have little choice of habitat; all are inured to open sun”  Musk phlox, Phlox muscoides (P. hoodii spp. muscoides); flowers ca 1/4” across.  Photo by J. Dorn, © R. Dorn; Digital Library/Archive University of Wyoming; may be re-used for educational purposes.
“Income had long since determined our activities.  Cattle and poultry products were the standbys:  our weekly income was based on butterfat and eggs, and there were seasonal returns on marketable cattle.  I took temporary jobs in the township office and did occasional roadwork.  By the late 1940s the government  grazing plan had been in operation ten years.  Pastures had responded remarkably well to lighter stocking ... About this time a fortunate rise in cattle prices cleared me of all my financial obligations including college debts.”

“In 1957 I sold the milk stock to gain time for ‘the book.’  I spent this time growing and shipping plants to every state in the union and every province in Canada, to seven European countries, to Japan, Australia, and New Zealand.  I sold the beef cattle in 1963 -- and still had little time for writing. ... So I made the decision to continue only with seeds -- this to keep in touch with the world -- and to concentrate on my writing.”
The Great Plains of North America, with ecoregions.  "Traveling this seemingly endless grass-and-sky country, the initiated bear ever in mind that meadows of the right type, and rocky pastures, bluffs, and breaks of all descriptions harbor the flower jewels which at frequent intervals deck the Plains.”
“I knew that for my book to be of ultimate value, it had to present a vivid description and outline of garden value for every species of the region, so that appreciation of these unique plants could be more widespread. ... I had to consult books and herbaria where descriptions, pictures, and preserved specimens have been brought together ... The great herbarium of the University of Wyoming, at Laramie, known as the Aven Nelson Herbarium [now the Rocky Mountain Herbarium], houses the largest collection of Great Plains plants readily accessible from Prairie Gem Ranch. ... The shortest route from the ranch to Laramie is 230 miles.  But by taking alternate routes, which did not add too many miles to the trip, I was able to collect many valued specimens, photographs, and habitat data.”
"Little has been done toward color selection in Yucca glauca ...  From a clump of a few crowns, later to be destroyed by road building, I brought to the garden a plant whose sepal segments were strongly tinted with red."  Flowers of soapweed yucca (Y. glauca) growing near Laramie, Wyoming.
Claude Barr passed away in 1982, shortly before his 95th birthday.  Jewels of the Plains was published the next year through the efforts of colleagues and friends determined to share his “great knowledge of and love for the wildflowers of the Great Plains.”  The book is out of print; remaining copies are available from the Great Plains Native Plant Society as a special premium with purchase of a Life Membership.  Barr was the inspiration for the Society, formed in 1984, and his legacy continues at the Great Plains Garden near Hermosa, South Dakota.
“many readers of Jewels of the Plains may well decide that its author was the rarest prairie gem of all"
(University of Minnesota Press; photo from GPNPS).

Friday, January 17, 2014

A Letter to the Earth from S. H. Knight, Mr. Geology of Wyoming

Dr. Samuel H. Knight in 1916, his first year on the faculty at the University of Wyoming.  By the time he retired in 1966, he had taught an estimated 10,000 students.  American Heritage Center photo.

[Note to readers: this email message arrived yesterday.  I about fell over when I read it!]

Dear Madam:

One of our recent arrivals lit up with delight when we were introduced, for he had read about me in a blog ... and of the fossilized Algal growths (stromatolites) of the high Medicine Bow Mountains.  I was quite surprised, pleasantly so, and I had to ask:  “What is a blog?”  He's still explaining.  It’s taking awhile as I knew nothing of the Web, the Internet, etc., but we don't mind.  We have plenty of time, an eternity in fact.

He showed me your articles on his little computer, and though I still don't understand how they came to be, I am absolutely delighted!  Such lovely color photographs and so realistic!!  I sincerely hope that many many readers will not only enjoy these “posts” as they’re called, but also take the information, maps, etc., and go see for themselves.  Studying the remains of two-billion-year-old tropical algae in an alpine setting was for me one of the most exciting experiences during my life on Earth.

My new friend also explained how I could contact you (with his help of course).  I am doing so in the hope that you will find of interest my poem about the Algal mats of the Medicine Bows.  It concluded the speech I delivered at ceremonies naming the “S. H. Knight Geology Building” on the University of Wyoming campus on August 2, 1974. Probably you will think it old-fashioned; after all, the lines do rhyme.  If you happen to like it, you are welcome to include it in your blog.  In any case we will continue to read In the Company of Plants and Rocks, so do blog on.  We have plenty of free time up here, and I’ve been told that our internet access is instantaneous and throughput infinite.

Samuel H. “Doc” Knight
Professor Emeritus, Department of Geology, University of Wyoming

[Doc Knight (if you happen to be reading this) -- I like the poem very much, and of course I want to share it!!]
"High near the crest of the Medicine Bows" in southeast Wyoming.

In commemoration of two billion year old Algal growth-patterns,
Nash formation, Medicine Bow Mountains

High near the crest of the Medicine Bows
Where an alpine meadow grows,
Where columbines nod azure heads
And purple gentians make their beds

Fire-scarred trunks of fallen spruce
Like giant jack-straws, scattered loose,
Etched by blasts of driven snow
As seasons come and seasons go.
... and purple gentians make their beds

Things were not always thus
Time has changed the Earthly crust,
The crust was once an ocean floor
Two billion years ago -- and more.

Bent and rent by crustal blows
Marred and scarred by glacial flows,
Sculptured by erosion’s incisive knife
The fossil remains of primal life.

Patterns spun on algal looms
Locked forever in marble tombs,
Nurtured in the ancient sea,
Prophetic of the life to be.

... nurtured in the ancient sea, prophetic of the life to be.

[This poem was included in A Collection of Verse by Samuel Howell Knight, published by his children on September 1, 1974.]
Portrait of Doc Knight, from the University of Wyoming Geology Museum.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Daisies in Waiting

Easter daisies in foreground, to right of bunny tracks.
The Easter daisies are waiting ... waiting for spring.  It may be January, but these guys are ready to go!

Just look:
January 12, 2014
They keep green leaves all winter ...
and already have flower buds, which formed last fall ...
so with the first sign of spring, sometime around Easter ...
they will burst into bloom when the other prairie plants are just starting to grow.
March 30, 2012.  "Flowers" (heads) are about an inch across.
Their scientific name is Townsendia, and some people call them that -- townsendias.  The Federal government calls them Townsend daisies (USDA Plants Database).  There are at least 25 species, all native to western North America.
Last May I rescued several Easter daisy plants from a grassland scheduled to become a road, and put them in a raised bed in the backyard.  I quit watering them after only a week or so, and they did just fine.  They're true xerophytes.  Meanwhile, there's still no sign of road construction.  Maybe I’ll transplant more townsendias this year.
May 30, 2013.
Some townsendias, mine for example, are tough to identify.  So I collected a voucher specimen, took it to the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the University of Wyoming, and compared it with descriptions in the literature and specimens in the collection.  It is Townsendia hookeri, Hooker’s Easter daisy.
Compiled from Flora of North America.
Flowers of T. hookeri (above, left) are smaller than those T. exscapa (right), with which it’s often confused.  Technically these are heads not flowers.  Townsendias are composites (Asteraceae); what looks like a single flower is actually a head composed of many tiny flowers or florets.
Hooker's Easter daisy heads, each with yellow disk flowers surrounded by white ray flowers.
UPDATE:  Cindy Reed of the Great Plains Native Plant Society provided the photo below of Townsendia exscapa.  These two townsendias are easily confused when not seen together, i.e. based on descriptions only.  When open, T. exscapa has longer more loosely-arranged ray flowers.  In T. hookeri, the flower clusters are tighter, and leaves are narrower and more crowded, "presenting a finer-textured tuft" (Claude Barr).  They were considered a single species until J.H. Beaman split them in 1957 (I agree with Beaman).
Townsendia exscapa, the Easter daisy found by Richardson and named in honor of D. Townsend by Hooker.  Photo by Cindy Reed.
Townsendia hookeri, for comparison.
I mounted my voucher specimen of last week.  Soon it will be added to the 825,000 specimens already in the Rocky Mountain Herbarium.
I’ve kept an eye on my Easter daisies as I walk by them every day, and I was amazed to discover that the little cushion plants over-winter with evergreen leaves and fully-formed flower buds.  This is Wyoming and 7200 ft elevation ... how do they keep from freezing?! At least they’re low to the ground and out of the wind, and often protected by snow.
“The flower buds remain green against any odds of winter weather and hurry toward bringing out every blossom within a few days” wrote Claude Barr, the great native plants gardener of the Great Plains (in Jewels of the Plains, 1983, University of Minnesota Press).
Indeed, Easter daisies bloom before other plants have grown much at all, and thus can enjoy whatever sunshine spring offers.  They’re buried with each spring blizzard, and then when the snow melts, they continue as before.
Easter daisies open as the morning warms.  March 30, 2012.
There are many creatures named “Townsend” in this part of the world, including a solitaire (bird), ground squirrel, chipmunk, mole, vole, jack rabbit, and of course daisies. Most were named for John Kirk Townsend, one of the great 19th-century naturalists of North America, but John Kirk is not the Townsend of Easter daisy fame, though you will occasionally read otherwise.  Townsendias were named for David Townsend, a prominent citizen of West Chester, Pennsylvania -- a banker, County Commissioner and enthusiastic botanist.  He neither discovered nor named Townsendia, and it’s not clear that he ever saw one in the wild.  The first collection on record was made by John Richardson in Saskatchewan.  He called it Aster exscapa.  When W.J. Hooker of the Royal Botanic Gardens reviewed the specimen, he decided it was sufficiently distinct to warrant its own genus, which he named in honor of Townsend:
“I have named the genus in compliment to David Townsend, Esq. of West Chester, Pennsylvania who having imbibed the most ardent love of Botany from his friend and instructor Dr. Darlington of the same city, has devoted his leisure hours to the science with eminent success.” (Hooker, W.J. 1840.  Flora Boreali-Americana: or, the Botany of the Northern Parts of British America, Volume 2)
W.J. Hooker himself was honored when J.H. Beaman described and named Townsendia hookeri in 1957, based on a specimen from Mt. Vernon Canyon in Jefferson County, Colorado:
“To the layman, T. hookeri is perhaps as well known as any species of Townsendia.  In Colorado it is abundant at the base of the Front Range and is one of the first flowers of the year; hence, its name Easter Daisy.”
An early spring bouquet.
Those lucky enough to catch Easter daisies in full flower adore them.  Though low to the ground, they’re spectacular against the dull browns and grays of an early spring grassland.  In Dakota Flora, Dave Ode suggests they would be the leprechauns’ favorite flowers if they grew in Ireland!  I have to agree -- the little plants with their large clusters of bright blooms are enchanting.  Claude Barr must have loved them too, judging by what he wrote:
“Wintering as a completely evergreen bun of narrow leaves close to the ground, and guarding its quota of autumn-set buds, Townsendia joyously responds to the gentle light and warmth of early spring with wide disks and short rays of soft gold and glowing light pink.  Fittingly, it is called ‘Easter-daisy’ ...” 
South Dakota rancher Claude Barr, "eminent plantsman of the plains" (Great Plains Native Plant Society)
Spring's still a long way off ... best to put back their cover of snow.

Friday, January 3, 2014

A Carnival of Rocks and Plants

Tors of Sherman granite with spring wildflowers.  This was May 2012; for now we can only dream.
In December we had a cross-cultural carnival for geologists (The Accretionary Wedge) and botanists (Berry Go Round).  Sadly, attendance was meager.  Perhaps it was the holidays -- certainly the case for me, that’s why this summary is a bit late.  Hopefully it wasn’t the topic.  In any case quality made up for quantity, for one of my top favorite natural phenomena received the most attention -- substrate specificity in plants!

Geotripper describes the situation that caused me to fall in love with plants addicted to rocks -- endemics on serpentine, rare plants on rare rock.  What’s an endemic?  What’s serpentine?  He explains both, with great photos.

The Life-long Scholar also posted about plants and serpentine, specifically ferns that may be sufficiently addicted to serpentine to serve as clues to geologic structures otherwise hidden by all that pesky vegetation.

My current favorite edaphic endemics are the subject of my post about calciphilic plants, those that seem be restricted to limestone or dolomite.  I’m not as lucky as students of the serpentine flora.  Even though there’s a lot more limestone and limestone-loving plants in the world, literature and knowledge are sparse compared with serpentine.
Serpentine ecology has literature to die for! (click on image to see just a few examples)
Colorado Lichens (and Friends) writes about a “plant” named for its habitat:  Rock Tripe.  This group of lichens includes a species that may have set the course of our county (USA)!   They’re certainly photogenic in any case.  I’m glad to have learned about this site “speaking of lichens mostly, sometimes mosses and other cryptogams.”  In addition to blog posts, it has lots of information about lichens, something I’d like to learn more about.  I was especially happy to find a tribute to substrate specificity:  Lichens and Rocks, a post in progress.

Lockwood of Outside the Interzone posted a good example of the curious and puzzling patterns of discontinuous distribution that plants present to us.  And we can’t resist asking ... why?!  In this case, why are there trees on only one slope of the crater?

Lockwood also contributed a post about amazing root systems of large spruce trees now exposed on a beach in Oregon.  These massive roots are all that’s left of the trees.  Geology, specifically plate tectonics, is to blame!
Plant bloggers at Berry Go Round were not restricted to topic, as the BGR carnival generally does not limit contributions beyond being botanical (though not gardening).  So in the next posts, we have a nice diversity of topics.

In Appreciating English Ivy, Tim at Notes of Nature discusses whether a plant is “good” or “bad” and when.  As much as some folks hate this ivy, it may well be a keystone species.  This is a thought-provoking post that caused my mind to wander beyond ivy (photo below).
We hate eucalyptus trees for replacing stands of native California live oak, but love them for providing habitat for monarch butterflies.  Photo by Benson Ricks, from Pismo Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove.
Dave Coulter at OSAGE + ORANGE brings up Yggdrasil.  Don’t know “Yggy”?  It’s a giant world tree, an interesting story in itself, and Dave also points out there may well be a connection to ash trees!
The Norns spin the threads of fate at the foot of Yggdrasil.
For my BGR contribution, I submitted the final post in a short series on autumn tree strategies.  Autumn seems so very long ago now!
Windrows of snow behind dead stems of bunchgrass, Laramie Basin.

To round out this summary, here are some interesting plant posts I found recently.   They’re a bit heavy on photos, but then live plants are what I crave this time of year!

Nature of a Man shared wonderful photos of California plants in the field including some serpentine species.  The photos are beautiful and natural enough that I almost feel like I’m there ... almost.

A Digital Botanic Garden posted exquisite photos of a beautiful legume, the broad or faba bean.

In case you haven’t already met, here’s a nice introduction to the Malpighiales, at Catalog of Organisms.

Floral odor and heat are how some cycads control pollinators -- telling them not just when to come but also when to leave.

Do you know the irresistible and popular titan arums?  Have a look at this one that bloomed in August 2012.  As its proud parents (US Department of Botany and US National Herbarium) explain, “its irregular flowering times, large inflorescence and foul odor still create a fascinating burst of fecundity.”  There's also a fun time-lapse video of the arum and its fans.

Favorites of mine, for their elegant flowers, are the milkweeds, featured at Through Handlens and Binoculars (with links to earlier posts).

Denver Botanic Gardens explains the Ikebana tradition of flower arranging in Japan.

Plants are not always nice, but for a good reason.  Defense is critical in a multitude of situations.  AoB Blog provides an interesting summary post and a link to Defence on demand: mechanisms behind optimal defence patterns

Also from AoB Blog -- does green always mean photosynthetic?  We know it’s not just leaves that photosynthesize, but are all green plant structures photosynthetic?
Quaking aspen get an early start.  Before leaves appear, the bark is photosynthesizing and flowers bloom.

Finally ... to all nature bloggers, I wish you the best in 2014.  And keep blogging!
Notes of Nature kindly provides monthly desktop calendars.  I especially like January 2014.
UPDATE (1/23/14)
Back in early January, Short Geologist at Accidental Remediation pointed out "If you are trying to locate pockets of soil deep enough to get a good non-surface soil sample, and you are ass-deep in boulders and cobbles and outcroppings," you might want to pay attention to the plants.  See plants and rocks for more.