Sunday, December 24, 2023

Merry Red & Green to All!

Red Baneberry, Actaea rubra, Wyoming.
How did red and green become our Christmas colors? Maybe you're thinking, as I did, "From holly, of course!" But recently I learned otherwise. Though holly has long played a role in winter celebrations, dating back to solstice gatherings of our pagan ancestors, it wasn't until 1931 that red and green became THE colors of Christmas. No longer could Santa wear blue, purple or whatever. He had to dress in red, specifically Coca-Cola red.
Haddon Sundblom's 1931 Santa in Coca-Cola red (Miel Van Opstal, Flickr)
This wasn't the first time Coca-Cola hired an artist to create a Santa Claus. But this particular one "solidified in our collective imagination the red of Santa's robes [which matched the Coke logo] with the green of fir trees and holly and poinsettia that we already had in our minds." (More here.)

I'm fully part of that collective imagination—red and green are my Christmas colors.

Big Leaf Maple, Acer macrophyllum, California.

Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum, Sica Hollow, South Dakota.
Paintbrush parasitic on Sagebrush, Wyoming.
Cobra Lily, Chasmanthe, from Ronn in California.
Planta Claus brings lots of sugars and oxygen ... to those who've been good of course.
See you next year! Hollis & Emmie

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Junipers in December & Views from Above

Trail 1 dusted with snow.
Once again we ventured northeast of Laramie to visit the two three Rocky Mountain Junipers we're following (I added the Fallen One several months ago). It was cold and windy and snowing lightly off and on. But it felt good to get out of the house! And it's time to acclimatize—they say this will continue for awhile.
We made it. "Northern" tree on left. Field assistant on limestone for scale.
Of the two standing trees, the northern one has a good crop of berries on the east (leeward) side. I saw none on the west side. The southern tree has no berries. Perhaps it's male (Rocky Mountain Junipers are usually dioecious, trees are male or female).

East side of juniper, protected from the wind and laden with berries (dark spots, click image to view).
Next I checked the third tree, the Fallen One. It's clearly female, with a very healthy crop of berries.

Fallen one in distance.
Mature juniper berries often have a glaucous bloom, making them frosty blue.

Then we turned to face the wind, and made our way back to town.

Headed home. What appears to be mountains on the horizon is a cloud bank.

Recently a reader asked where these junipers are in relation to Laramie. So I captured and sent her a photo from Google Earth. And wow, was I surprised! The limestone is much more impressive from the air. It's the gently sloping start of the foothills of the Laramie Mountains to the east.

Arrow marks approximate location of the junipers. Paler areas east of town are exposed slabby limestone.

A better view; black spots are scattered junipers.
This is my contribution to the December gathering of Tree-followers, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. Best wishes to all!

Monday, November 13, 2023

"Trees are poems ... "

The usual view. Left arrow marks my junipers, right points to the fallen one. Note sign on left.

Late yesterday afternoon we visited the two Rocky Mountain Junipers I'm following this year. It was a perfect time to go—cool, surprisingly calm, with low golden light.

We started on Trail 1 as we always do, in spite of the recently added sign. Leashes are now required on this trail. Neither of us like them so we went without, yet we traversed the next fifty yards safely! ;) Then we left the trail to travel cross country across slabby limestone, making a beeline for the junipers.

The Fallen One.
My junipers against the sky.
“Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” Khalil Gibran

I came upon this by way of Joran Viers, City Forester of Albuquerque, and Michael H., who sent it my way. Gibran likely was thinking of deciduous trees with large intricate canopies rather than the small dense "canopies" of our tough little junipers. Yet poems were worth considering, and I looked through the lens to check.

Junipers poem viewed from the west in golden light.
Limber Pine poem with a bit of a breeze.
Lots of juniper berries ... a nice ending to the season.
As we continued east cross country, I discovered we weren't alone. We were being carefully watched by a pronghorn buck and his companions.
They were much more interested in us than we were in them.
Off to more interesting things (click to view).
This is typical pronghorn behavior here ... watch for awhile then amble off. My field assistant has no interest in animals this large, being programmed to hunt small burrowing rodents (basenji genes). And I'm more interested in plants. So we too ambled off, heading west back to the car through the prairie. The grasses were beautifully backlit, and it was hard to keep moving.
Indian Ricegrass, Achnatherum hymenoides.
Curled seed tails of Needle-and-Thread, Hesperostipa comata.
Blue Grama, Bouteloua gracilis (up close below).

This is my contribution to the monthly gathering of Treefollowers, kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. Come join us ... it's free, fun, and always interesting.

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Orachs on the Corner—Russian or French?

Summer before last (2022), the City of Laramie had our street redone. As part of the project, sidewalks were added where there were none, for example in front of my house. This was at no charge to the owner. My lot is large so I was grateful.

A strip of bare soil six feet wide was left between the sidewalk and street—reputedly called a parkway in Wyoming. One day Ben Huhnke, the general contractor, asked what I'd like in my parkway (he actually said "there" and pointed). I replied "native grass" and he said "ok".

Several months later a subcontractor spread seed mix on the parkway. Ben stopped by again and told me they put down "prairie grass". I said "great".

This past summer (2023) was exceptionally wet. The plants loved it! And Ben was right. Prairie Saltgrass, native to the Laramie Basin, filled in much of the parkway. Several nice stands of Foxtail Barley appeared, along with one of my favorite grasses, Alkali Sacaton, and some Western Wheatgrass (these may have arrived on their own from the prairie nearby). There were small bunch grasses I didn't recognize, perhaps cultivars for landscaping. I will learn more next year.

Prairie grasses in autumn:
Distichlis spicata, Prairie or Inland Saltgrass.
Hordeum jubatum, Foxtail Barley.
Sporobolus airoides, Alkali Sacaton.
Even with all this grass there still was plenty of bare dirt. Colonizing annuals moved in, as was to be expected. But a big surprise showed up on the corner—about 35 annuals to six feet in height!
My sidewalk leading to the stand of large mystery plants. 
Stout reddish stems and branches (they were yellowish green early in the season).
Autumn leaves.
The leaves suggested lambsquarters (genus Chenopodium), but none of the species I know grow so tall. Then a vague memory surfaced, from my review of South Dakota chenopods and amaranths. Could this be one of the larger annual orachs (genus Atriplex) with dimorphic female flowers? The Flora of North America, with the help of DuckDuckGo (I've switched), confirmed my suspicions. But which one? That was not clear.

If I had to pick I'd choose A. heterosperma, the Russian Orach, as I found no ebracteolate flowers (botany geeks, see (1) in Notes below). But maybe they fell off. And the plants were red and huge, more like A. hortensis, the French Orach. I couldn't decide. No matter, they're both edible (2).
Atriplex heterosperma (formerly A. micranthum) is native from Europe east to Chinese Turkestan. From "Icons of new or incompletely known plants illustrating the Russian flora, especially the Altaic" (Google's translation from Latin), 1829–34. BHL.
Atriplex hortensis (formerly Chenopodium hortense) is native to western Asia and the Mediterranean region. Jacob Sturm painting, 1796. Source.
Orachs (Atriplex), lambsquarters (Chenopodium), and domesticated spinach (Spinacia) are all in the same family—the Chenopodiaceae (recently combined into the Amaranthaceae). Their leaves generally are edible or at least not toxic, and often taste slightly salty. Tastiness varies with species and age.

A. hortensis, often called French Spinach, is used as a substitute for cultivated spinach. I recently learned that A. heterosperma, the Russian Orach, can be used that way as well. Wild Food Girl raves about orachs in general, and notes that A. heterosperma can be harvested guilt free because it's non-native. She recommends it for Wild Spring Salad, along with tumblemustard and salsify stems. I'm in luck! Both tumblemustard and meadow salsify showed up this year. Fingers crossed for another rainy summer, and productive foodscaping on the parkway.


(1) Like other members of the genus Atriplex, A. heterosperma and A. hortensis have small inconspicuous flowers and fruits, and the flowers are unisexual, either male or female. But these two species are unusual in that they have dimorphic female flowers (two kinds). In A. heterosperma some flowers produce large seeds, while others produce much smaller ones (i.e., hetero-sperma). In A. hortensis the flowers themselves differ. Many (most?) are enclosed in a pair of bracteoles, lack sepals, and hold their seeds vertically. Others are ebracteolate, do have sepals, and hold their seeds horizontally.
See any ebracteolate flowers?
(2) We are advised to harvest orach leaves from young plants, taking the tops and leaving older lower leaves for continued growth. Being a botanist I waited for flowers and fruits, hoping for confident identification. By that time the plants were robust, their leaves too tough to eat. But I have lots of seeds for next year.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Mono Lake—the Simple Life

When friends asked where I was going on my trip last September, I learned to say "Mono Lake". It was the only place in central eastern California they knew. I actually intended to visit volcanos, but "Mono Lake" turned out to be an acceptable answer. I stopped there most days to enjoy its peacefulness, strange rock sculptures, and oddly simple ecosystem.

Judging by the responses I got—usually something like "Isn't that where LA gets its water?"—Mono Lake is best known for the destruction wrought by the City of Los Angeles. After 1941, when the northern extension of the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed, the lake dropped 45 feet, losing half its volume. Thanks to strong advocacy it has risen since 1994, but is still below the management level set by the California State Water Resources Control Board (more here).

To be clear, Los Angeles takes water not from Mono Lake but from the creeks flowing into it. The lake itself is much too salty, as Mark Twain noted in 1872:

"its sluggish waters are so strong with alkali that if you only dip the most hopelessly soiled garment into them once or twice, and wring it out, it will be found as clean as if it had been through the ablest of washerwomen's hands. ... If we threw the water on our heads and gave them a rub or so, the white lather would pile up three inches high."

Rather Soapy (from Roughing It)

Twain and his companions had come to Mono Lake by way of the Great Basin in Utah, Nevada and eastern California—a land of internal drainage:

"Water is always flowing into [the lakes]; none is ever seen to flow out of them, and yet they remain always level full, neither receding nor overflowing. What they do with their surplus is only known to the Creator."

I think Twain knew more than he let on. Evaporation could keep lake level constant in spite of water flowing in. And evaporation would make it "alkali". Maybe he just wanted to add another flourish to his story.

The party camped along one of the creeks flowing into Mono Lake. They rented a boat from a local rancher, and "soon got thoroughly acquainted with the Lake and all its peculiarities." Twain was not impressed. He considered it "one of the strangest freaks of Nature ... a solemn, silent, sailless sea". It was aptly called The Dead Sea of California:

"There are no fish in Mono Lake—no frogs, no snakes, no polliwigs—nothing, in fact, that goes to make life desirable. Millions of wild ducks and sea-gulls swim about the surface, but no living thing exists under the surface, except a white feathery sort of worm, one half an inch long, which looks like a bit of white thread frayed out at the sides. ... Then there is a fly ... you can see there a belt of flies an inch deep and six feet wide, and this belt extends clear around the lake."

Mono Lake's flies still "swarm up so thick that they look dense, like a cloud." (House Photography)
Today Twain is criticized for equating Mono Lake with the Dead Sea. But in spite of his disparaging remarks, he often was correct in his descriptions. Indeed there are just a few kinds of critters in the water, and they occur in abundance. In fact, they occur by the trillions! I found this fascinating—a hostile environment, a simple ecosystem, and yet so productive.

To everything there is a season—Mono Lake in May.
When I was in the area last May, Mono Lake fooled me. From atop Panum Volcano I saw a lush green field east of the lake—alfalfa?? I drove to South Tufa, where the field revealed itself to be vividly green water. I immediately thought "nitrates" ... or even worse, "sewage".

But Google assured me I needn't worry. In May, Mono Lake typically is thick with green algae madly photosynthesizing. This is truly their moment in the sun. They can flourish because the grazers are still asleep.

These algae are minute. For example Dunaliella is just 0.025 mm long. But it occurs in such abundance that it colors the water green ... until it gets eaten.
The color was unreal, even up close.
Dunaliella thrives in hypersaline environments (djpmapleferryman).

Mono Lake in September.
When I returned in September, the water was clear and flies were abundant along the lake shore—just as Twain had described. At the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center, a worthwhile exhibit explained what had happened while I was away.

As Mono Lake warmed in spring, trillions of dormant life forms on the bottom awoke. From miniscule brown cysts emerged tiny larvae, the first stage leading to adult Mono Lake brine shrimp (Artemia monica, found nowhere else in the world). The shrimps feasted on algae and reproduced at an impressive rate, reaching astronomical numbers.
Mono Lake brine shrimp, about 1 cm long. This is Twain's "feathery sort of worm" (djpmapleferryman).
At the same time, tiny eggs hatched to release larvae of alkali flies (Ephydra hians). After several stages underwater, adults emerged at the surface. They too fed on algae, reproduced, and soon achieved numbers in the trillions. No wonder the water was clear in September!
Alkali flies are fine to hang out with. They don't bite, sting, or otherwise bother humans (photo source).
Like other Mono Lake aquatic life, alkali flies are small (4–7 mm) and super abundant.
At first glance, it seems life is not so easy for alkali flies. Unlike their fully aquatic larvae, and unlike brine shrimp, adult alkali flies breath air. Therefore when they crawl down to the bottom of the lake to feed and lay eggs, they have to bring along their own oxygen! But this isn't a problem. Their dense covering of wax-coated hairs causes a bubble to form when the fly enters the water (its eyes remain exposed) (Young 2017).

Here Mark Twain again demonstrated his perspicacity:
"You can hold [the flies] under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it. When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report, and walk off as unconcernedly as if they had been educated especially with a view to affording instructive entertainment to man in that particular way."
Alkali fly in its bubble (van Bruegel & Dickinson 2017).

Of course to be complete, we must acknowledge the decomposers. Without them the ecosystem would be overwhelmed and cease to function. Throughout the warmer months bacteria on the lake bottom break down and consume the dead ... algae, shrimp, and flies.

Now with bacteria added, we have a  completes list of aquatic inhabitants of Mono Lake—a very short list. Being human, of course we wonder "why?" Mono Lake's inhospitable waters probably drive ecosystem simplicity. Only a few species are adapted to survive. However not only do they survive, they thrive! A single cubic foot of near-shore water in summer contains 50–400 brine shrimp, 5,000–10,000 alkali flies and their larvae, and single-celled algae beyond counting. Is this great abundance due to lack of competition and predation? Sounds like a reasonable hypothesis to me.

After my final stop at Mono Lake I left feeling lucky, as I often do on these trips—lucky to have such wonderful public lands to enjoy, and lucky to be human and able to ponder nature's mysteries.


Unless otherwise cited, information is from the Mono Lake Committee website and exhibits at the Mono Basin Scenic Area Visitor Center.

Twain, Mark (Clemens, Samuel). 1872. Roughing It. Courtesy University of Virginia English Department.

van Bruegel, F, and Dickinson, MH. 2017. Superhydrophobic diving flies (Ephydra hians) and the hypersaline waters of Mono Lake. PNAS

Young, Emma. 2017. How alkali flies stay dry. Nature, NEWS, 20 November