Saturday, January 29, 2022

South Dakota plants: the shaggy Borage Family

Common borage, Borago officinalis. Click to view the coarse hairs (Andrey Zharkikh).

For the past two years, roughly contemporaneous with the pandemic, I've been part of a group of botanists revising Vascular Plants of South Dakota by Theodore Van Bruggen. Such an honor, and I'm so happy to contribute! I've used this book since my arrival in the region 45 years ago, and it remains the only such resource available. Ours will be the fourth edition, the others having been done by Ted himself. He retired from the University of South Dakota in 1990, but still keeps an eye on South Dakota botany, at age 96.

The project began about ten years ago when botanists familiar with the state's flora divvied up the 126 plant families. Then some years later, there was a caesura of sorts, which lengthened into a fermata that was sustained until it threatened to become the Fine. So additional botanists were recruited, and families that had been "turned back in" were reassigned. That's when I joined the group.

Now I'm working on my 19th family. Some are very easy, with only one or two species (e.g. the Cattail Family). Others are nightmarish, like the one I'm doing now—the Boraginaceae, the Borage Family. But I've learned that whenever I start to stress over things like conflicting nomenclature, unreliable taxonomies, and elusive keys, it's time to step back and remember that we love plants. For one thing, if we look carefully, we will find something fascinating—like hairs.

"Boraginaceae" is derived from the name of one of its members, the herb borage. This is pronounced burrij, and is perhaps derived from from the Latin burra—a shaggy garment. Indeed many members of the Boraginaceae are shaggy, covered in coarse hairs. Up close, some are downright scary!

Hairs of Fendler's catseye, Cryptantha fendleri, become rigid and divergent with age (Matt Lavin; scale added).
Madwort, Asperugo procumbens, sprawls and climbs with its retrorse hairs (and sticks to clothing) (Matt Lavin).
Onosmodium molle has many names: O. bejariense, Lithospermum occidentale, false gromwell, marbleseed, stoneseed, and more. Its hairs are beautiful—long, somewhat bristly, not the least bit scary (Brian; cropped).
Fringed puccoon or gromwell, Lithospermum incisum, has appressed stiff hairs, making it strigose (among botanists) (Andrey Zharkikh).

The coarseness and rigidity of borage hairs is due to mineralization. As a hair develops from an epidermal (surface) cell, calcium and sometimes silica are added to the cellulose matrix of the cell wall. Often the result is a bit of prickliness. But in some cases the hairs are quite painful to touch. Notoriously so are the hairs of the viper's bugloss, Echium vulgare. They may cause dermatitis, including inflammation and itching, sometimes severe.
Viper's bugloss, Echium vulgare, has beautiful rich-blue flowers and demonic hairs (Matt Lavin).
Zooming in on the viper's hideous stem.
In their painstaking study of boraginaceous hairs, Barykina & Alyonkin (2016) found that viper's bugloss hairs contained "fine-grained, dark green contents near the tip". Is this the viper's toxin? I'm not sure. I also read that irritation may be due simply to the physical effect of hairs lodging in the skin, rather than to chemicals (WA NWCB 2015).

Though the borages are known for their shagginess, not all members of the family are hairy. For example, many of our bluebells (Mertensia spp.) are glabrous.

Mountain bluebells, Mertensia ciliata (Andrey Zharkik).
Prairie bluebells, Mertensia lanceolata, has glabrous leaves with ciliate margins (click to view; Andrey Zharkikh).

So now you know ... the next time you meet up with a member of the Borage Family, you must check out its hairs! But do be careful.


Barykina, RP, and Alyonkin, VY. 2016. Pubescence of vegetative organs and trichome micromorphology in some Boraginaceae at different ontogenetic stages. Wulfenia 23: 1–29.

Smith, AW. 1963. A Gardener's Book of Plant Names. Harper & Row, Book Club Edition.

Washington State Noxious Weed Control Board. 2015. Echium vulgare.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Lamoille Canyon—V, U, and much more

A "glacier caรฑon" in the Ruby Mountains (2021, but in the style of 1868).

Lamoille Canyon, in the Ruby Mountains of northeast Nevada, is a geotripper's dream. Attractions range from Pleistocene sculptures to seriously-deformed mid-crustal Proterozoic rocks, all visible from the paved road up the canyon. And there are guidebooks! That wasn't always the case, of course. The first geotrippers had to decipher the geology themselves. They got some things right, but for others, they were wide of the mark.

In 1868, geologists Clarence King, Arnold Hague, and SF Emmons were traversing Nevada from west to east, during the second season of King's Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel. In August they reached the East Humboldt Range, which at that time included the Rubies. The men were impressed. They found it to be "the most prominent uplift lying between the Sierra Nevada of California ... and the Wahsatch of Utah" (Hague & Emmons 1877).

King's seven-year survey would result in five geologic maps and an epic report—eight volumes in all and nicely illustrated, with photographs even!

From King's geologic map of the Nevada Plateau. Brown unit that includes Lamoille Canyon is "Archean"—everything older than Cambrian (David Rumsey Map Collection).
Lake Marian; chromolithograph by expedition artist Gilbert Munger (King 1878).

Arnold Hague described the East Humboldt Range as a "bold" ridge 80 miles in length "with many rugged summits reaching over 10,000 feet above sea-level". Unlike most ranges in Nevada, it had been extensively glaciated. "The summits of the East Humboldt Range, from White Cloud Peak to the northern end, all show abundant evidences of glaciation. Very considerable glaciers existed in the elevated group south of Fort Halleck" [location of Lamoille Canyon]. "The erosion of glaciers has excavated deep U-shaped caรฑons ..."

"Glacier Caรฑon" by Timothy O'Sullivan, expedition photographer (Hague & Emmons 1877).

Tarn above a U-shaped canyon—textbook glacial features (Hague & Emmons 1877; O'Sullivan photo).

Glacial features almost always trigger memories of a report I wrote long ago for Mr. Brunello's 8th-grade science class. It was titled "Glaciers and Ice Ages". In our little town, the only geologist available for the requisite interview worked in the oil fields. When I arrived at his house, he had a stack of textbooks on the table, and I think I wasn't the only one who was nervous. But that's all I remember. I have no idea whether we discussed U-shaped canyons. In any case, here I am at it again, more than a half century later.

A valley's shape often indicates its creator. V-shaped drainages usually are the work of streams. Flowing water erodes the outsides of bends, and deposits sediment on the insides, making a narrow winding drainage. But a glacier can destroy those bends. Born at high elevations when enough snow and ice have accumulated, it oozes downstream, carrying and shoving rocks and debris—a giant icy rasp grinding away at anything in its path. Slowly it make the valley straighter, the bottom wider, the sides steeper—a U-shaped glacial canyon (more here).

Lamoille Canyon is both V- and U-shaped; shorter U-shaped drainage is the South Fork, a hanging valley (modified from source).
The Lamoille Canyon Road leaves NV Highway 227 near the small community of Lamoille (southeast of Elko). Before reaching the canyon itself, it crosses glacial outwash for several miles. Moraines are visible to the south. Yet once inside the canyon, we see that it is V-shaped, the creek rushing down a narrow bottom.

V-shaped part of Lamoille Canyon. Pullouts are scarce.
About five miles from the mouth, the canyon starts to change from V to U. The bottom becomes broad, the walls steep—the work of a glacier.
Upper Lamoille Canyon is U-shaped, with nice pullouts for geo-gawking.
Why is Lamoille Canyon both V- and U-shaped? DeCourten and Biggar (2017) suggest that during the most recent glacial advance, 22,000–14,000 years ago, not enough snow and ice accumulated for the glacier to extend below the South Fork. The lower drainage was left in the hands of water, aided by uplift. Because the Ruby Mountains are rising, the stream's gradient is steep, giving it more erosive power.

The road continues upstream below walls of spectacularly-deformed rocks to a popular trail head. However the season was winding down. Though it was a weekend, my field assistant and I had the trail to Lamoille Lake to ourselves.

From the start to the top, the trail provided great views of glacial sculpting.
Pegmatite vein intruded into granite, and polished millions of year later by ice.
The ascent ended about two miles from the trailhead, in a glacial cirque.
Lamoille Lake in its cirque, viewed from about 10,300 ft (source; I didn't get this high!)
Driving back down the canyon, I stopped to ponder contorted rocks in the walls—part of the  "Archean mass" that dominates much of the Ruby and East Humboldt ranges. During the 1868 survey, Clarence King appointed himself to study these ancient rocks. But he wasn't up to the challenge. In fact, he wasn't even aware of it.
What the heck happened here?!

As geologists learned more about the mountains of the American West—and more about geology itself—the Ruby and East Humboldt ranges revealed themselves to be a great puzzle. What's with the mid-crustal metamorphic rocks exposed at the surface, and those greatly displaced fractured sedimentary strata?! Not until the 1980s did someone come up with plausible explanation. It's a complicated story, and still debated. In an upcoming post I will attempt to describe metamorphic core complexes ... while the ghost of Clarence King sighs with relief that he lived in a simpler time.

Geologists back in the day (1864); Clarence King far right (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution).


DeCourten, F, and Biggar, N. 2017. Roadside Geology of Nevada. Mountain Press.

Hague, A, and Emmons, SF. 1877. Descriptive geology. Report of the geological exploration of the fortieth parallel, v. II. GPO.

King, C. 1878. Systematic geology. Report of the geological exploration of the fortieth parallel, v. I. GPO.

Snoke, AW, et al. 1997. Grand tour of the Ruby-East Humboldt metamorphic core complex, northeastern Nevada. U. Dayton, Geology Faculty Publications 39. Available here.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Tree following 2022: looking for a tree, I find two

Balsam poplar?
Just before Christmas, I set out to find a tree to follow in 2022, specifically a balsam poplar. A few grow along one of my favorite nearby hikes. Since I go there often, it seemed a convenient tree to follow. Also, balsam poplars are not common in our area, so I look forward to getting to know one.

Balsam poplar is boreal, with outliers in North America as far south as Colorado (source).
There ARE balsam poplars here ... somewhere.
December is not the best time for spotting these poplars. They're leafless, and grow among their relatives, quaking aspens, which they resemble. But I found several candidates—mature trees with furrowed bark nearly the length of their trunks. Mature aspen also have furrowed bark, but only at the base.
I think this is a balsam poplar, Populus balsamifera.
Quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides.
Large leaf is likely from a balsam poplar, with smaller aspen leaves.
Then I met up with a very nice pair of trees—a large most-likely balsam poplar right next to a magnificent aspen. These will be my followed trees in 2022.
Tree buddies.
Aspen crown silhouetted against the sky. The light was too dim to catch the poplar.
I took a few more photos, but soon it was dark. While I enjoy cold and snow, winter days are too short for me. At least they're getting longer now!

Holly-leaf or Oregon grape, Berberis repens (NOT a true grape).

Recognize these "twigs"?
Equisetum! (scouring rush). 
Pale yellow vertical lines are aspen trunk reflections on ice.
More ice art.

This is my contribution to the first gathering of tree-followers for 2022, again kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. It's a great time to join in the fun—it's easy and stress-free. More information here.