Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Life List, Part Two

By Duncan Bell, SoCal Rare Plant Treasure Hunt Field Botanist

This summer out in the desert the weather got quite wild. Large monsoonal storms repeatedly hammered down on the desert washing out many roads and re-landscaping many geological features. One of the nice consequences of these massive storms was the life that it brought to the desert. While exploring out there I came across many more species that I had never seen before and thought I would share a few: 

Sanvitalia abertii (Astreraceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.2] is a summer annual that usually only shows its face when it’s up around 100 degrees in summer and the soil becomes saturated by monsoonal storms. This population was found in the Castle Mountains in a very picturesque canyon not too far from the Nevada border.

 Bouteloua eriopoda (Poaceae) [CNPS CRPR 4.2] is a perennial grass that likes to flower during summer after good rains. When found this plant can be quite abundant but in California the only place where you will find it is in the east Mojave.

 Asclepias nyctaginifolia (Apocinaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.1] This milkweed is often found growing in rocky wash margins and is currently under a lot of threat from all the renewable energy projects that are going up out in our deserts.

 Chamaesyce abramsiana (Euphorbiaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.2] This species was a new addition to a floristic checklist I have been working on of Rice Valley and the Arica mountains in Riverside county. This species is almost exclusively found in silty soils of small depressions where rain collects.

 Enneapogon desvauxii (Poaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.2] I still find grasses to be quite difficult to identify and still have trouble warming up to this family but this species in particular is one of my new favorites from the grass family as it is so unique in appearance. Under a hand lens the fruits look like little cephalopods or sort of like little spiders.

 Aloysia wrightii (Verbenaceae) [CNPS CRPR 4.3] This species has alluded me for years and I finally had the chance this year of finding and observing this shrub. Over a dozen invertebrate species were noted on a single shrub within just a few minutes. The insects were definitely loving it out there in the east Mojave this fall.

Euphorbia exstipulata var. exstipulata (Euphorbiaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.1] This species is only known from just a few places in California from Clark mountain and the New York mountains. It was such a great bloom this summer that we were able to find three previously undocumented populations in the Mescal Range and in the Castle mountains.

 Parkinsonia microphylla (Fabaceae) [CNPS CRPR 4.3] This tree is only found along the Colorado river and while clambering around the Whipple mountains this summer we found a few large populations.

 Lotus argyraeus var. multicaulis (Fabaceae) [CNPS CRPR 1B.3] This is a east Mojave endemic that is also only found in California. I had actually also found it during the spring season this year, but did not realize what it was until I spent some time with it under the microscope this summer.

Ditaxis serrata var. californica (Euphorbiaceae) [CNPS CRPR 3.2] While this may not be the prettiest plant it is still an interesting one because it has taxonomic uncertainty.  This plant has a CNPS California Rare Plant Rank of 3 which means it needs more information regarding its taxonomic status. This variety looks similar to other species within the genus Ditaxis except that it is not hairy like the rest of the species within the genus.

And just for fun here is a photo taken this summer of Castle Peaks from near Hart Peak in the Castle mountains near where many of our rare plant occurrences were found. If you have not visited the Castle mountains I highly recommend that you go. This area has some of the largest stands of Joshua trees in all of California.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Carlquistia muirii (Muir's tarplant)

By Duncan Bell, SoCal Rare Plant Treasure Hunt Field Botanist

Presumably in the year 1875 a man named John Muir was clambering around a large mountain range called the Sierra Nevada in an area known as Yosemite Valley and came across a plant he did not recognize. Mr. Muir made a collection of this plant and sent it to a man named John Redfield who would in turn send it to a man named Asa Gray who would recognize it as a new species and name it for Mr. Muir. Obviously this plant had been around for hundreds of years but this would be the first time that it was found and taken in by the arms of science. So what’s the story behind the naming of this plant?

Sherwin Carlquist (Wikipedia)
 The Genus Carlquistia is named for botanist Sherwin Carlquist who is a California native and was a professor at multiple universities here in California, but did most of his field work internationally. This Genus was described by California’s great and busy bee botanist Bruce Baldwin who has been doing a lot of genetic work on the Composite family.

John Muir sitting by stream
(John Muir National Historic Site)
The species muirii is named for iconic California resident and really the world founder of the conservation movement John Muir. This species was described by Asa Gray based on a specimen that was first collected by John Muir. Asa Gray was one the most important botanists for North America as he would study and describe hundreds of new species. Gray worked as professor of natural history at Harvard University and was in continuous correspondence with Muir as Muir would continually send him plant specimens from the west.

As the years would go by other botanists found other populations of Carlquistia muirii. In total there are 21 known populations. C. muirii is a California endemic and is a California Native Plant Society California Rare Plant Rank 1B.3. It is found within the national parks and national forests of the Sierra Nevada with one population known from BLM land but within a wilderness area.

Climbing towards Church Dome. (photo by Duncan S. Bell)
If you choose to visit any of these populations you need a good amount of time as most are far from any road and you need a strong sense of adventure as this plant likes to grow on steep exposed rocky slopes and cliff faces often growing in very little soil with pine duff. It is the sort of plant that John Muir would describe as “the noblest plant mountaineers I ever saw” for they grow in inhospitable out of reach places.

Steep rocky slopes and cliffs were Carquistia muirii grows.
Plant can be seen at bottom right. (photo by Duncan S. Bell)
 I decided I would like to see this plant in its natural habitat and decided on a population that had not been visited in over 30 years that was found on Church Dome within the Domeland wilderness in Sequoia National Forest first found by explorer and botanist extaordinaire Jim Shevock. The record on the California Natural Diversity Database for this population states that this population is best reached from the east side of Church Dome. I was spending the next three days in the area by myself with no cell phone reception or radio and as I got closer to the base of the east side of the dome I decided that it would be suicide to climb up that way so I headed for the center and later headed east where the scrambling was more manageable. I’m glad I made my approach in this manner as I found Shevocks population as well as a few others further to the west. The trip was a success.

Carlquistia muirii growing out of cliff face.
(photo by Duncan S. Bell)
 I spent the entire afternoon and evening clambering around Church Dome taking notes and GPS points and just as the sun was setting I made it off the cliffs and back into the forest below to make camp for the night.
People remember John Muir most frequently as the founder of our conservation programs and our national parks and often forget that he was highly interested in the word of botany and made actual plant collections that are in herbaria today. He may not have made a lot of collections and some of his location data for the collections was very minimal but in his writing one can find his passion for the plant world. One of my favorite written pieces from Muir revealing his botanical curiosity was from a letter he had written to his close friend Jeanne Carr describing the vast wildflowers of California:

Carquistia muirii is a mat-forming rhizomatous plant that is
often found growing out of rock cracks (photo by Duncan S. Bell)
“All one sea of golden and purple bloom so deep and dense that in walking through it you would press more than a hundred flowers at every step. In this flower-bed, five hundred miles long I used to camp by just lying down wherever the night overtook me, and the flowers closed over me as if I had sunk beneath the waters of a lake; the radiant heads of the compositae touching each other, ray to ray, shone above me like the thickest star-cluster of the sky; and in the morning, I sometimes found plants that were new to me looking me in the face, so that my botanical studies would begin before I got up.”

Carlquistia muirii inflorescence
(photo by Duncan S. Bell)
I’m very happy I was able to re-find this historic population of Carlquistia muirii and spend some time with a plant that was named for two great California botanists.   –Duncan S. Bell

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Adding to the Life-List

By Duncan Bell, SoCal Rare Plant Treasure Hunt Field Botanist

A “life-list” is a term used by birders, botanist, entomologists and other groups of the natural sciences to refer to a list of all the different species they have identified. You will occasionally hear someone in the field say “That’s a lifer!” which means they have identified a species for the very first time and can then add it to their life-list if they choose to.

One of my favorite things I love about taking volunteers out to the desert is not just showing them rare plants but introducing them to common plants as well. Often every plant we come across is a “lifer” for them. It’s always fun to watch them fall in love for the first time with some of my old favorites such as Desert Calico (Loeseliastrum matthewsii) with its flowers like little faces looking back at you, Frost Mat (Achyronychia cooperii) with its star fish like branches, Parachute plant (Atrichoseris platyphylla) with its beautifully bizarre succulent leaves, and Ghost Flower (Mohavea confertiflora) which often grows with and mimics Blazing Star (Mentzelia involcrata) and takes advantage of its pollinators.

I personally don’t keep a life-list but I admit that I will occasionally shout out “That’s a lifer!” on occasion when I find something new and exciting. I have been exploring the plants of our great California deserts for about three years now and it always surprises me how many species I come across that are life-list species for me. I’m really starting to believe that our California deserts are so botanically diverse that one can spend a lifetime exploring them and still always find something new and different.

Just in the past few months I have come across over two dozen life-list species all of which are CNPS California rare plant ranked plants. I thought it would be great to share a few photos and finds with everyone.

Grusonia parishii (Cactaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.2] is commonly known as “dead cactus” and for good reason, it actually looks like it’s dead. I was very excited when I came across this species this year but was immediately concerned as it appeared that the plant we found was just a dried up dead shell. I gave it a little prod and found it turgid and very much alive, thank goodness.
Physalis lobata (Solanaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.3] commonly called “lobed ground cherry” was a lucky find out at the Sheephole mountains as it appears to be dependent on those patchy and uncommon late summer rains which this area was lucky to have received last year.

Ipomopsis tenuifolia (Polemoniaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.3] commonly known as “slenderleaf skyrocket” is found in the southwest corner of the Colorado desert growing in granitic soils among boulders in the Jacumba mountains. Very showy.

Wislizenia refracta ssp. palmeri (Cleomaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.2] commonly known as “Palmers jackass clover” is only known from a few populations in California. This one was found while out on a sunrise hike across the Palen sand dunes.

Enceliopsis covillei (Asteraceae) [CNPS CRPR 1B.2] commonly known as the “Panamint daisy” as they are only found in the Panamint mountains. We returned to the type locality which is where this species was first collected during the Death Valley Expedition 121 years ago. Also, you may not know this but this is the large daisy that adorns the CNPS logo.

Mentzelia hirsutissima (Loasaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.3] commonly known as “hairy stickleaf”. We went looking for this species at several locations last year with no luck. Third times the charm? This was found this year just a few miles north of the U.S./Mexico border.

Linanthus maculatus (Polemoniaceae) [CNPS CRPR 1B.2] commonly known as the “Little San Bernardino Mtns. Linanthus” but no longer only known from the Little San Bernardino mountains as the populations are now known from near the town of Ocotillo in Imperial county and unique as they are all missing their spots. This species is a true “belly plant” as you must get down onto your belly to observe them as they are so small; on average they are about the size of a penny. Unfortunately these cute little guys are threatened by the Ocotillo Express wind project that has begun bulldozing the area.

Selaginella eremophila (Selaginellaceae) [CNPS CRPR 2.2] commonly known as “desert spikemoss” may not be the cutest plant but I had never seen it before and was very excited when I found it growing in amongst the boulders I was climbing.

These are just a few of the “lifers” I found this year and hopefully I will find some time to post more at a later date. If you would like to add a rare plant to your life-list or just go looking for rare plants in general then feel free to contact someone at CNPS and they can direct you on how to do so. This is also a good time to remind everyone that rare plants are rare for a reason and any collecting of rare plants without a special permit is absolutely illegal. One of the best rules to follow is to take only photographs and leave only footprints. And try to leave as few footprints as possible. And watch out for those “belly plants”!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Quest for the Panamint Daisy

Exactly 121 years plus one day since Coville's 1891 hike into the Panamint Mountains and described the huge, rugged Panamint daisy, the Southern California Rare Plant Treasure Hunters made a second attempt to verify the occurence of the iconic rarity.

A very dry year was exacerbated by 95-degree early morning heat, as the Enceliopsis seekers marched across the 2-mile stretch of valley floor to the canyon's mouth, and were greeted with a sweet sliver of swiftly moving snow melt flowing through the aluvium.

Once soaked in H20 salvation, the seekers continued another mile, until the canyon gave way to nearly impassable combinations of boulders, slots and shale walls. They stopped to rest and assess, and finally determined this year's conditions were too extreme for both the daisy and its would-be finders.

Hoisting their packs and turning shoulders against disappointment, a distant flash of golden radiance caught a botanist's eye. Cameras whiplashed, counters counted, rulers ruled and rejoicers beamed. Though scavenged by desperate insects, partial petals of happiness fluttered in the the noon-day sun, and for this 121-year nano second of botanical history, the Panamint daisy lives on.

(by Kim Clark)

It should be noted that most populations of the extremely rare Panamint daisy are located and protected inside Death Valley National Park, where collecting reduces genetic diversity, seed production and future populations, and carries a $5,000 fine. The collection noted above did not include a whole plant, was one in 121 years, outside the park boundaries, under legal permit by a qualified botanist as an herbarium specimen to forward conservation and preservation. If you ever have the pleasure of gazing upon this beautiful creature, please take only pictures. A permit is always required to collect plants on public lands, and permission should be sought and granted on private lands. Happy Botanizing!

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Castle Mountains Rare Plant Treasure Hunt - whoot!!!
by Kim Clark

Once off interstate 15 and heading for Castle Mountainss, the Joshua tree woodland (with silver cholla and blackbush understory) spread far and wide, becoming so dense you couldn't see the space in between. The old and stately Joshua trees sported every bizarre configuration imaginable, while the young shot up in naive-green enthusiasm. Not bad for a low-rain year. The 4,200 ft. elevation evaded the low-land heat, and we had the pleasure of botanizing in mid-70s temps with occasional gusty breezes.

Walking a transect across the banks of a wide seasonal wash, club cholla (Grusonia parishii) was our first find. Scattered amongst an old mining-days midden heap, the matted, sprawling cholla looked as dead as described in books, but was firmly rooted and awaiting rains before daring any show of life.

Down the canyon and into the next wash, we were quickly rewarded for our efforts with several showy finds of Pinto beardtounge (Penstemon bicolor) against dramatic outcroppings of rhyolite and basalt. The most enthusiastic specimen was over 3 feet tall.
We stumbled upon the tiny Tragia ramosa, which stung the tips of our unsuspecting fingers as we collected. Several motionless desert horned lizards and a darting collard lizard engaged our cameras on the scenic hike back to camp. 

The desert sun set on our decant feast of fresh cold fruits, cheeses, rosemary bread and dips, avocado and cucumber salad, zesty limed-rice with green onions and cilantro, various proteins and a pear-blueberry galette. Our wine parings toasted the moonrise over Hart peak, as we oriented to the early evening planets and the north star. Later we took shelter under our rain flies, in an effort to avoid an all-night interrogation from an insistent full moon.
Early enough the next morning we headed for the Nevada border, and hiked southwest back into a promising California canyon. The rocks were entirely distracting with geode-like formations, concretions, basalt, worked obsidian flakes, Apache tears and all manner of sparkling gems strewn in our path, making the going much slower than anticipated. Unlike the customary crunch sound of desert hiking, a variety of chiseled stones tumbled and tinkled like melodious wind chimes as we made our way up canyon. 

A fortunate bend in the wash yielded several hoped-for finds of Plains flax (Linum puberulum), Red four o'clocks (Mirabiulis coccinea) and many more hot-pink Penstemons.

We hiked to the headwall, and wondered at the barrel cactus, some with red spines, others with golden, the coyote skull, and the heavily fruit-laden juniper dotting the landscape.

Happy botanizers ended the afternoon with a revival of the previous night's feast, then headed for gas and the 4.5 hour drive home. Volunteers are the nicest people in the world; there because they want to be, bringing their lively spirits, good humor, and their own personal experiences testifying to the endless enjoyment of our irreplaceable native ecosystems and bio-regions. In between the laughter and good times, we learned a lot and deepened our relationships with the precious California desert.