Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Our Earliest Bloomer

American pussy willow in February 2015, southeast Wyoming, 7200 ft elevation.

For a month I've been identifying plant specimens collected at Mount Rushmore National Memorial (yes, there’s more to the park than presidential heads). The Park Service funded a floristic inventory to document all vascular plants within the Memorial boundaries. This requires a specimen for every reported species, deposited in a public herbarium, and of course correctly identified. My role is to review the problematic ones, using the wonderful resources of the Rocky Mountain Herbarium—literature and an immense collection of dried pressed plants.

One of the biggest challenges is the genus Salix, the willows. Specimens often include only leaves, with no information about other characteristics, like bark. Flowers and fruit aren't always helpful, being small and nondescript. Differences between species are often subtle, and some species are highly variable. In other words, willows are a pain.

But there are exceptions, one being the American pussy willow (Salix discolor), notable for its behavior. When I looked at the Mount Rushmore “Salix discolor specimen, I realized immediately it was something else because the branchlet had both catkins (flowers, fruit) and leaves. American pussy willow blooms and sets fruit long before leafing out.

That trait was fixed in my memory three years ago, on a cold winter day in the foothills east of town. In a small dry canyon I was shocked to find a willow with pussy paws (tips of emerging catkins). After all, it was February! It would be three more months before the first leaves appeared.
Pussy willow canopy, early June.
A week ago, curious as to how early the pussy paws emerge, I hiked up what has become Willow Canyon to check. Sure enough, it was “in bloom.”
Off to see the willow (terribly dry year so far).
The willow of Willow Canyon is the leafless tree mid photo.
Blooming already! White dots are pussy paws.
Emerging catkin.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Little to Report Except Really Weird Weather

Overwintering boxelder, Acer negundo, in Laramie, Wyoming, USA.
Last Sunday I made my monthly visit to the tree I’m following—a boxelder growing in a shady corner made by two warehouse walls. I didn’t expect to see anything different from what I saw last month, and that was the case … nothing obvious to me anyway. The boxelder probably would say otherwise. It’s metabolizing, but very slowly. Without leaves, it can’t photosynthesize to make food, and probably no cells are dividing.
In spite of our horrendous winds lately (more below), there was no new garbage in the alcove, just dirty old snow.
Emmie reported no new trash.
The road construction project appears to be dormant too. The crew has been gone for weeks, maybe for the holidays. The amazing Gomaco 6300 curb-and-gutter machine hasn’t budged since last month.
Yellow Gomaco 6300 behind barrier on left.
Snow was predicted for the night before my visit, and I had hoped shoot wintry photos of the boxelder. But it didn’t pan out … again. We’ve had very little snow so far. What promised to be winter showed up in mid December, but soon left. Now we’re back to what would we would call spring in Laramie—temps as high as 50 F some days. Really weird!

Maybe you heard about the recent severe winter weather of the plains and eastern US … or experienced it first-hand! But here in Laramie, where severe winters are normal, the weather was abnormally mild. We had highs in the 30s F, while temps were subzero in Cheyenne—just 50 miles to the east (and 1200 feet lower). The map below shows warmer than normal temps in red, and colder than normal in blue (darker means more extreme). The sharp boundary explains those powerful winds we had—average speeds 35-40 mph with gusts in the 50s, even 60s one day.
Arrow points to Laramie Valley in southeast Wyoming.

This is my contribution to the January virtual gathering of tree-followers, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. Interested in joining us? … info here.