Saturday, June 28, 2014

Bitterroot in the Laramide Heartland

Several weeks ago I took a vacation in the Heartland of Laramide Tectonics.  It was short but wonderful.  I came home infused with Laramide stories -- of a time when Wyoming went from being a quiet sea to a land of rugged mountain ranges and deep basins, and in only 25 million years.  My geo-posts aren’t quite ready though, so instead here’s an amazing plant -- one that blooms with a flamboyancy all out-of-proportion to its habitat.

This is a typical Heartland landscape, with juniper, small ponderosa pine, sagebrush, mountain mahogany, sparse short grassland and spectacularly tilted rock strata:
It was springtime in the Heartland and wildflowers were out in profusion but keep in mind -- this is a relative concept.  The country is dry and vegetation is generally sparse; these are landscapes of muted colors.

The most obvious bloomers were the rough mule’s ears (Scabrethia scabra), with flower heads several inches across.
Rough mule's ears, with yucca, sagebrush, blackbrush and other highly drought-tolerant plants.
Real mule’s ears (Wyethia) has leaves that really do look like a mule’s ears.  But this close relative gets the same name even though its leaves don’t match.  However, they’re definitely rough to the touch (scabrous).
Most of the wildflowers were not nearly as showy as mule's ears.  But in the harsh dry setting, even plants like wild buckwheat and desert sandwort were impressive.
Wild buckwheat (Eriogonum) in center with desert sandwort (Eremogone) on right, on a dry rocky south-facing slope.  The buckwheat is about four inches tall.
A warm dry wind blew most of the time so I rarely tried to photograph flowers.  But there was one morning when I couldn’t resist.  I was walking along a ridgecrest to view lithified remains of the tidal flats that were so common in Wyoming 200+ million years ago ...
Arrow points to brick-red Chugwater Formation -- sediments deposited in Triassic tidal flats.
... when suddenly I was stopped in my tracks by a flash of bright pink.
There are at least four bright pink flowers in this photo -- click on image to find them.
It was bitterroot.  It always does that!  It catches me by surprise with its unexpected showiness and odd growth form:  no leaves and large radiant flowers barely above the ground.  They looked like party decorations that the wind had blown in and scattered along the ridge.
Bitterroot in typical dry rocky habitat, with desert sandwort.
Bitterroot spends most of the year as a fleshy root that is surprisingly large (to 12 inches) given the size of the plant we see.  The unassuming leaves appear in spring, photosynthesize for awhile to replenish root stores, and then wither as the first flowers open.  The flowers are spectacular -- bright, well over an inch across, with many petals.  Color ranges from pale pink to deep rose to occasionally white.  All the ones I saw were deep pink.
Bitterroot with leaves and first flowers.  Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, photo by Fran Cox.
Flower with several buds below.  Upper right, prickly pear cactus almost in bloom.
Bitterroot bud in what strikes me as a really tough place to grow!
Then I found some curious coppery delicate flower-like items lying on the ground.
They were the remains of bitterroot flowers.  After the petals wither, the sepals dry and fall as a unit that is light and papery and easily blown about by the wind.  Inside the sepals is a capsule; it splits open to scatter small black seeds while tumbling across the ground.
Black seeds in opened capsule, surrounded by dried sepals. 
The sepals together form the calyx; source (modified). 
Here a dried calyx has been trapped by several bitterroot buds.
The scientific name for bitterroot is Lewisia rediviva.  For many of us in the western USA, “Lewisia” brings to mind (correctly) Meriwether Lewis -- the Lewis of Lewis and Clark who explored the immense Louisiana Purchase acquired from France in 1803.  The expedition left St. Louis in May of 1804, reached the west coast in November of 1805, over-wintered, and arrived back in St. Louis in September of 1806.  On the way home, they stopped at Traveler’s Rest, Montana in early July, where Lewis collected several specimens including six plants of what would become Lewisia rediviva.  This was one of 134 specimens sent to botanist Frederick Pursh, who determined it was a new genus and named it in honor of Lewis.  Several roots had been planted, and they produced leaves even though they had been out of the ground and without water for several years.  This inspired the specific epithet rediviva, meaning “brought back to life” (source).
Meriwether Lewis's bitterroot specimen, collected in 1806.  Source.
The origin of the common name is not clear.  When Lewis tasted the roots, given to him by Indians, he found them “naucious to my pallate” (source).  How could this be?!  They were highly valued by many tribes, both as a staple and a trading commodity.  However some tribes did call the roots “bitter” or “black medicine” (source).  Perhaps that’s the source of the name.
The amazing and beautiful bitterroot, so well-adapted to its harsh environment.  This is one of the wonderful plant illustrations of Mary E. Eaton.

For more information on bitterroot biology and history, as well as tips for cultivation, see Lewisia rediviva, Bitterroot (PDF) from the Montana Native Plant Society.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Welcome to my yard, leafcutter bee!

Four or five years ago, I was chatting with a friend in the backyard when I noticed a bee carrying what looked to be a perfect little green circle into a crack in one of the railroad ties that frame my raised beds.  She (I later learned) flew out empty-handed and then returned fairly soon with another piece.  We watched for 10 or 15 minutes, fascinated.  She was a leafcutter bee, and was building her nest in the railroad tie.  The green circles were leaf fragments used to make partitions in the nursery.

Every summer since, I've hoped and looked for more leafcutter bees.  Today I finally saw one.  I was about to open the back door when I caught a glimpse of a funny-shaped insect flying around.  I looked closer and realized it was a bee carrying a sizable piece of leaf, hence the odd shape.  She entered a hole at the end of a railroad tie, and a few minutes later emerged without the fragment and flew off.  She was gone for about five minutes before returning with another piece.  In the meantime, I had grabbed the camera.
Entrance to nest is in the end of the shorter tie.
The leaf fragments this bee brought back were larger than the ones I saw last time, and she had to fold them to carry them.  Sometimes it seemed she had more than she could manage, and once she had to back out of the hole and take another shot at getting in with her load.  But this is not an over-achiever bee.  The bee in the photo below is carrying an equally large piece of leaf in the same manner.
From Leafcutter Bees Fact Sheet, Colorado State University Extension.
This leafcutter bee either made longer trips or spent more time harvesting compared with the one I saw some years ago.  She was gone for up to 10 minutes at a time, and finally didn’t return before I lost my patience and went inside.

Leafcutter bees are said to prefer certain kinds of leaves for their partitions -- green ash, lilac, Virginia creeper and rose.  I looked at the rose bushes in the yard, and found some leaves with rounded cut-outs.
But I think these holes are too small.  They may be the work of leafcutter bees, but apparently not the one I was watching.
Also the veins of the rose leaves don't match those of the bee’s leaf fragment.  I wandered around the yard looking for the source plant, but no luck.  You can bet I will be scanning the neighbors' trees and shrubs now for cut-outs as I walk through the 'hood.
Do you recognize the bee’s leaf?  It has serrated margins and reticulate (net-like) purplish veins.
(click on image for a better view)
Rose leaves also have serrated margins, but the veins are neither purplish nor reticulate.
Leafcutter bees are solitary bees (vs. colonial).  The female lives only a few months and has a lot of work to do in that time.  She either finds or excavates a linear site, and starts building one cell after another, stocking each with pollen and nectar for her offspring.  She lays an egg in the cell and then seals it with a leaf fragment.  In this way she constructs on the order of a dozen cells, in a tunnel 4-8” long.  The young bees hatch, develop, and live in their chambers until the following summer (source).

Leafcutter bees generally do not remove enough leaf tissue to be destructive.  And personally, I’d love to have lots of little round cut-outs in rose leaves if it meant more leafcutter bees in railroad ties.
Leaves with bee nibbles.  From Leafcutter Bees Fact Sheet, CSU Extension.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Into the Heartland of Laramide Tectonics

My destination ... where on (Google) Earth??? (click on image for better view)
I leave soon for the “Heartland of Laramide Tectonics” of Lillegraven and Snoke (1996).  They were referring to the creation of the Rocky Mountains -- the Laramide Orogeny.
Laramide uplifts and basins were created roughly 75 to 40 million years ago during the Laramide Orogeny.  Modified from Snoke 1993 (from Hamilton 1988).
Precisely when Laramide deformation started and stopped is still being debated.  The cause is even more controversial, for it’s very odd to have a major mountain-building event so far from a plate boundary (west coast of North America).  In contrast, there is general agreement about the style of deformation, which is distinctive and consistent.
Laramide-style deformation: "very deep basin where range thrust up & over ... typ. Rky Mtn structure involving craton"  Class notes,  Regional Geomorphology, Dr. B. Mears, Jr., Univ. Wyoming, 1984.
“... the Rocky Mountain foreland was fractured by deep-rooted reverse and thrust faults that uplifted broad blocks of Precambrian basement rocks, separated by deep basins.”  Rock beds were folded to produce as much as 45,000 ft of displacement between a range and the adjacent basin -- “staggering structural relief” (Snoke 1993).

This will be a short trip, posts should be up soon.  I'll tweet photos from the Heartland if reception allows.
Field gear in the digital age.

Literature Cited

Lillegraven, JA and Snoke, AW.  1996.  A new look at the Laramide orogeny [...].  WY State Geological Survey Public Information Circular No. 36.

Snoke, AW  1993.  Geologic history of Wyoming within the tectonic framework of the North American Cordillera, in Snoke, AW, Steidtmann, JR, and Roberts, SM, eds.  Geology of Wyoming.  WY State Geological Survey Memoir 5:  2-56.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Face-to-Face with Plants

Heartleaf arnica in the afternoon sun.
Lately it seems I’ve been mostly looking up at plants.  Being a tree-follower, I've been monitoring my cottonwood and its flooded home.  But it’s springtime in the mountains, the wildflowers are blooming like crazy, and it’s time to commune with the smaller plant folk.  I especially like to get down at their level and meet them face-to-face.

With a macro lens on my camera, I drove up into the Laramie Mountains, to the Blair trailhead.  Heartleaf arnica was in full bloom, growing abundantly in shady spots.
Heartleaf arnica, Arnica cordifolia, under quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides).
Yellow disc flowers surrounded by yellow rays.
Arnica is a composite (i.e. sunflower family) and some might call it a DYC -- a damn yellow composite.  But it's easy to recognize with its distinctive leaves.  The lowest ones are the most heart-shaped.

Dandelions were growing here and there along the trail.  They bloom early and late in the season, and every time in-between ... in the mountains, on the prairie, and in town.

On the edge of a stand of sagebrush, in full sun, I met a yellow violet -- an oxymoron I suppose, but I'm used to its funny name.  I never think twice about it until someone looks at me odd.
This particular yellow violet is probably Viola vallicola, as it’s growing above 8000 feet, but it's difficult to distinguish from V. nuttallii of lower elevations.  Issues and id tips are discussed here.

Near some small granite outcrops were low mats of leathery leaves and pink urn-shaped flowers -- one of my favorite plants!  (yeah, ok, I have lots)  I love both the delicate little flowers and the name: kinnikinnik (kin-nee-ki-NICK).
Kinnikinnik, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, also called bearberry.
The macro lens sometimes reveals things I don’t notice on my own, in this case translucent spots on the bottoms of the urns.  Do they serve a purpose? or is this just the way the flowers grow?

There were many sand lilies among the sagebrush and grass.  These are true spring wildflowers and will soon be gone, taking their leaves with them.
Sand or star lily, Leucocrinum montanum.
While I was lying face-to-face with a sand lily, I spotted the petite and beautiful blue-eyed Mary nearby.  She’s one of our commonest spring herbs and one of the hardest to photograph.  It took many tries to bring the tiny flowers into focus.
Blue-eyed Mary, Collinisia parviflora, with a capsule in the background. 
Blue-eyed Mary's flowers are about a quarter inch long.  The plants are several inches tall.
Then I realized I wasn't the only mammal among the plants -- a pika juvenile cottontail rabbit was studying them too!  I stood up slowly and tip-toed away without disturbing him much.  See caption below for more info on id.
A zoologist friend provided the correct id for this guy -- a juvenile cottontail.  Their ears are similar to the pikas’ but different in shape, and the muzzle and body are longer.  We’re having a plague of cottontails this year, yet all the little ones I’ve seen have long ears.  This one must be really young.

I would have kept walking, but a flash of garish pink stopped me -- mountain ball cactus.
Pediocactus simpsonii among cones of limber pine, Pinus flexilis.  Flowers are about an inch across.
Ball cactus plants appear to be only a few inches tall, but there's an equal portion underground.  They really are ball-shaped.
Specimen of Pediocactus simpsonii from the Rocky Mountain Herbarium, University of Wyoming.

Back on the trail I came upon the first of many golden peas.  These plants are tall enough that one doesn't have to squirm around on the ground to take photos.
Golden pea is either Thermopsis montana or Thermopsis rhombifolia var. montana depending on your taxonomic inclinations.
This is a typical pea flower, with a banner, two wings and a keel.  The pistil (female) sticks out well above the stamens (male), ostensibly to avoid self-pollination.  Out-crossing (sex) is preferred.

In a sunny area with grass, sagebrush and rocks, a miner’s candle was starting to light up.
One of the lights of the miner's candle, about a quarter inch across.
This miner's candle is Cryptantha virgata. The long bracts sticking out from below the flowers are characteristic of the species.  The plant is about seven inches tall right now, and will grow another seven inches at least as the flower cluster elongates.
Miner’s candle has very coarse hairs, as do many members of the borage family.  They can be nasty, especially when stuck in skin or hair.  But they’re beautiful up close.

Not far from the miner’s candle, I saw a locoweed I didn’t recognize, with lovely creamy white flowers laced with pink.  I hope to go back when it has pods and is identifiable. Locoweeds (Astragalus and Oxytropis) are in the pea family, so their flowers have the characteristic banner, wings and keel.
The leaves have many oval leaflets, and are obviously hairy.
Next to the locoweed was spike moss (above, with penny).  This isn’t really a moss but rather a vascular plant -- like trees, grasses, wildflowers and ferns.  It has no flowers and produces spores instead of seeds.  It's been assigned to one of the plant groups loosely classified as “fern allies”.
The spike moss (Selaginella densa) was in full “bloom”.  The erect four-sided structures are spore-producing strobili.  The spores are located at the base of each tiny spine-tipped leaf (click on images to see more detail).

My photo expedition ended in a patch of wild strawberries ... or rather wild strawberry flowers.  This is probably Fragaria virginiana, which has seeds sunken in tiny pits in the surface of the fruit.  In our other wild strawberry, Fragaria vesca, the seeds lie right on the fruit surface.  Leaves can be used for identification, but they're more variable and not always reliable.  In most of the plants I checked, the tooth at the leaf apex was shorter than the adjacent ones, so this is most likely F. virginiana.  I’ve marked the spot, and will be back to verify my identification when the strawberries are ripe.