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.