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