Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Waylaid by Wildflowers

“The world would be a much better place if everyone was required to get down on the ground and look for tiny flowers—on a daily basis!”  (Mike N)

In late May, I drove Highway 773 through the Volcanic Hills in western Nevada, about 45 miles west of Tonopah. It was harsh but beautiful country, with colorful rocks dating to roughly 20 million years ago, back when Nevada was a truly hellacious place. Huge calderas erupted on a massive and terrifying scale. Viscous magma exploded from vents, and fiery sheets of ash and debris raced across the land, destroying everything for miles.

Intent on examining the remains of that horrifying time, I turned off on the first promising two-track, parked at the toe of a sparsely-vegetated (so I thought!) alluvial fan leading up to multi-colored outcrops, and started walking. But I didn’t get far. I was stopped by hundreds of flecks of color on the ground.

In between the shrubs, tiny plants were blooming. I suppose the show was lackluster compared with this year’s super bloom of the lower deserts—annuals so thick that they formed carpets of color. But I was impressed! It was such a surprise, and in some ways more rewarding. Only when I looked close did I see the beauty. The subdued display seemed fitting for the high desert, with its shorter growing season and harsh winters.
Click on image to see flecks of color (maybe).

I never made it to the volcanic rocks—spent a lot of time happily photographing flowers instead. Here are of some of the more common ones, all new to me. A humongous thanks to randomtruth at Nature of a Man for identifications … saved me from major struggles!

Many were true belly plants—little annuals growing so close to the ground that I had to lie on my belly to get a good look (for scale, see photo at top of post). The first to catch my eye was ground nama, Nama aretioides (Boraginaceae), which was super common. Up close it looked like a fairy’s flower arrangement—miniature bright pink flowers with yellow throats streaked red, and tidy clusters of hairy leaves.

Desert calico (Loeseliastrum matthewsii, Polemoniaceae) has really distinctive bilateral flowers. For some reason they reminded me of surprised faces, maybe because of their dark pink "raised eyebrows." I like the common name, but couldn’t find an explanation for it. Maybe the flowers are enough mottled or multicolored to qualify as calico.

Apparently Linanthus campanulatus (Polemoniaceae) goes only by the awkward common name of bellshape gilia, a literal translation of an earlier scientific name, Gilia campanulatus. Sand grains stick to its stems because of its glandular hairs.
Sticky stems.

I easily recognized this next plant as a cryptantha (Boraginaceae), maybe because of the hairs—glassy spikes like those of many of our cryptanthas. This is cushion cryptantha or cushion catseye (C. circumscissa). Flowers are super tiny, about 1/8 inch across (1-2 mm).

Signs of a belly-plant botanist.
Eventually I left the land of belly plants (above) and moved into a swale (below) where plants were denser and taller—must be (or have been) more water. These also were mostly annuals, just bigger.

The mentzelia (stickleaf) below was another plant I could recognize to genus, probably because of the pale stems and rough leaves. It may be Mentzelia dispersa or M. affinis (Loasaceae). According to experts, the two are almost impossible to tell apart based on appearance. They differ clearly only in habitat: “Verified populations of M. affinis have not been found above 1200 meters in desert habitats” (Flora of North America). The alluvial fan was at 1800 m (6000 ft), does that make this M. dispersa? Can we rely on such a simple criterion? Of course the name didn’t really matter—I enjoyed the plants just fine without it.

Desert or Esteve’s pincushion (Chaenactis stevioides, Asteraceae) is said to be “among the most abundant spring wildflowers in the higher Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin” (Flora of North America). The Volcanic Hills are in the southern Great Basin and this plant was indeed abundant. It grows through much of the American West.

I thought the scale buds (Anisocoma acaulis, Asteraceae) were especially photogenic. These are not to be confused with bud scales, which protect over-wintering buds. Scale bud is named for its distinctive patterned phyllaries (bracts), most obvious when the flower (head) is closed. It’s the only species in its genus, which is closely related to Malacothrix.
Obviously someone finds scale buds tasty—missing heads were common.

Fortunately I didn't ignore the shrubs. They too surprised me with something new. The alluvial fan was covered in greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus, Sarcobataceae), a very familiar plant but not the kind of greasewood vegetation I know. I looked close just to be sure ... yep, greasewood. Succulent green leaves and sharp-tipped twigs make greasewood easy to recognize. The reddish structures are its distinctive winged seed pods.
Here in Wyoming, we say greasewood grows in valley bottoms where water is near the surface, usually on saline soil (1). But it appears to be doing just fine on alluvial fans in the Volcanic Hills.
Greasewood on alluvial fan; White Mountains on horizon.


(1) Knight et al. (2014, Mountains and Plains, the ecology of Wyoming landscapes, p. 167) mention there are a few stands of greasewood in foothills, calling them an “anomaly” … “as it is usually found where groundwater is near the surface on saline soils …” However, Waring (2011, A Natural History of the Intermountain West, p. 146) includes badlands and playa dunes, as well as saline bottoms, as greasewood habitat.


Two websites were especially helpful for verifying identifications and learning more about these plants. Foremost was the awesome Calflora (the Volcanic Hills are just 15 air miles east of California). Plants of West and Southwest USA was useful for selected species.


  1. This makes my heart sing. The fact that so many were blooming and you stopped to photograph them. They're all photogenic, but I agree the scale buds are particularly lovely. Many people wouldn't notice these little wonders: Thanks for taking time to share them with us. That last shot is incredible!

    1. Thanks, Beth!! I really miss the desert flora, discovered that on the trip. Now I'm thinking about a long spring tour through southern Nevada and southeastern California.

  2. I really enjoyed your look at the small plants. All of your photographs were lovely, but I particularly liked the first one of Nama aretioides. Something about the depth of field and background just really caught my eye. You're right, of course, sometimes the enjoyment is more important than the name.

    1. Thanks, Tim ... for visiting and for the Comment. Good to hear from you. I've tried several times to comment on your posts, but I'm not allowed ... ? Today I wanted to let you know I'm currently reading and enjoying Mabey's book! unfortunately, almost done

    2. Hi Hollis, I'm sorry you couldn't comment. I think I've found and corrected the setting now. I'm glad you're enjoying Mabey's book. I have to be honest and say that I read and wrote that review back in 2015, just never go around to posting it!
      Ps. I don't suppose you saw the recent post of my son with the bee orchid!?

  3. The very tiny ones are beautiful - and although there's not a road in sight the ground is so apparently arid and soil-less I think many of these plants could be adopted as honorary street plants!
    Because I've moved to Halifax (West Yorkshire, UK - not Nova Scotia!) where the environment is very different from Dorset, I've started a new blog 'Loose and Leafy in Halifax' - https://looseandleafyinhalifax.blogspot.co.uk/
    This is where all new posts will go. Hope to see you there!

    1. Thanks for the update, Lucy, I changed the address on my blog list. Interesting comparison: arid alluvial fan and the street! I can see it :-)

  4. Those are worth stopping and gawking for! So pretty and especially in a landscape that looks flower-prohibitive! Thanks for stopping, shooting and posting about these pretties.

    1. Glad you enjoyed them, Tina. Yeah, flower-prohibitive appearance is right. They sure surprised me!