Friday, December 24, 2010

Mojave weather

The Mojave is typically a cool season desert, meaning that it doesn't get rain during the summer months. Instead, the wet season is in the winter, like in a coastal Mediterranean climate. This leads to a dryer environment during most of the year, so succulent plants like cacti are less prevalent, whereas scrubby plants like creosote and salt brush are dominant. When summer precipitation does break over the mountains, it usually falls as virga, and therefore doesn't make landfall. Summer thunderstorms are also rare, but can occur.

One of the most unusual and interesting weather events that can occur in the northern reaches of the desert is valley snow. Such occurrences don't happen often, usually only once every 15-20 years. When it does happen, it happens spectacularly, and then vanishes again as quickly as it came. The experience can be rather surreal, but the haunting beauty of seeing a creosote bush or choilla covered in a layer of fine powder is breathtaking.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Calochortus kennedyi

Desert mariposa lilly

A splash of vibrant orange on the desert sand, Calochortus kennedyi makes is pressence known like an glowing ember. Where as most desert flowers I've encountered are some shade of white, yellow, blue or purple, this lilly is a vibrant, almost florescent orange. Though not rare, these plants are not "common," so finding one out in the field is a real treat.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The beauty of the desert

Though it sounds like an oxymoron, there is a real beauty to the desert that makes me, even now, misty in the eyes. More than just about any other place, it is something that is great, vast and innocent. There is a beautiful, delicate purity to the desert, one that I fear is lost on those who are too blind to see it. While living there, I looked around at the grandeur of it, the simple, stunning majesty of it, and was confronted by people, living in its midst, that felt nothing for it, saw it only as a resource to be exploited for their selfish pleasure, or destroyed in the name of their highly vaunted progress. It made my stomach heave with loathing when I saw its surfaces scared by the wicked claws of humanity's callousness. And feel great pity for those who, while living in its midst, had never truly seen it because they were trapped by the walls of "civilization."

I call the desert innocent because that is how I see it. It is open, clean and pure. You can see from horizon to horizon, and truly understand just how vast it is. There is little cluttering it. The life that lives there is delicate, while struggling to persist and grow, but is at the same time tenacious and strong, unwilling to let itself give up. Its face is rough and hard, but look a little closer, and it shows a beautiful, delicate side, one that is so shy, it takes some coaxing to come out, be it the transient blooming of flowers in the spring, or the furtive animals that hide in the shade of the rocks and bushes. It is tenacious, holding onto its life while barely having enough to survive by the standards of those near it.

The value of this place is not measurable in dollars, but in the delicate beauty of its life, its body and its soul. When I walk the desert and take in its vastness, I come to what might be called a state of reverence. Its such a wondrous thing. And I love it. It is without pretense, modesty or judgement. The desert simply is. And that is the most beautiful thing about it.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mirabilis multiflora var. pubescens

Colorado four-o-clock

Found in the upper reaches of the canyons in the eastern Mojave, Miriabilis multiflora greatly contrasts with its much more common cousin, Mirabilis laevis var. villosa. The most stikeing contrast between the two is one of size. Where the common M. laevis is a smaller plant, M. multiflora is much larger, with its blossoms being on average 5 cm across, and the plant itself being around half a meter in diameter on average.

Like all members of Nyctaginaceae, the petals and sepalsof the bloom
are fused into a single perianth. This blossom is a deep magenta, and a very pleasant find while hiking in the reaches of the canyons and valleys.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Belly flowers

In the desert, there are a number of flowers thatI and a few of my colleagues at the BLM refer to as belly flowers, because they're so tiny you practically need to get onto your belly to see them. Often, these tiny flowers are among the prettiest of the flowers you can see out in the desert, but require some special attention to find them. Also, most of them are quite common, but because many hikers are not looking close enough at the ground, they miss them.

Belly flowers are a perfect example of "stop and take time to smell the
roses." When you're out in the desert, stop, and take a moment to really look at what's around you. Don't be rushed. Because you very well might find a little gem in the cracks between a rock or two. All to often, we're so hurried with what we're doing that we don't take the time we need to really appreciate where we are, and what's around us. And that's a real shame, because there's so much to see, even right next to your boots.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


When I show people pictures of many of the canyons out in the Mojave, they're often surprised at how lush and verdant they are. They lay in stark contrast to the normal image of stark desolation that is the common perception of the desert. Yet, when one looks at the nature of these canyons, their vibrance is not all that surprising.

Fundamentally, a canyon is usually water carved, meaning that their is often a source somewhere in it. This is the foundation for most of its life, because, unlike most of the desert, there's a readily available source of moisture. Much like an oasis, this gives rise to ample vegetation, which in turn gives rise to animal life.

Canyons vary greatly in appearance and vegetation, since they're derived from differing bedrocks, ecologies and orientations. It is entirely possible that plants found in one canyon are not found in any other, or are only found in a small number of them. Ultimately, this diversity is one of the reasons that canyons are so precious.

There are, however, some significant threats to canyons in the desert, most of which are derived from a human source. One is the use of canyons for recreation. Normally, this is not an issue, but there are members of the public that do not treat the land with the respect that it deserves. Some use the canyons as a garbage dump, leaving their waste behind instead of taking it to a proper disposal site. More sinister is the presence of off
highway vehicle riders. While many of these riders are not actively malicious, there is a significant number that are of the mindset that they can willfully ignore the designated ares where they can ride, and bushwhack through any part of the desert, including the canyons, that they want. The amount of damage that they can inflict with this activity is significant, and each time, it compounds the problem, as new routes are formed, which encourages new riders to take the illegal passage.

The other threat is not to the vegetation directly, but to the source of their life: water. As human growth continues unchecked, we must find new sources of water. And in finding those water sources, we often steamroll natural areas in the process. If the water supply in a canyon is lost, or even reduced, it can have a dramatic effect on the ecology. Fortunately, most of the canyons are not being actively tapped, or are only used for small wells. However, if a larger municipality began to use the water, then it could seriously effect the canyons' health.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Eucnide urens

Rock Nettle or Stingbush

A deceptively innocent looking plant, Eucnide urens is one of my personal
favorite plants found in the Panamint valley. As the plant's common name attests, it is equipped with a stinging defense mechanism, which is more than likely to deter herbivores from consuming its leaves. The plant's sting is quite powerful, but not entirely like that of a true nettle (which are family Urticaceae). The pain of the sting is much sharper, but levels off to a dull ache after a few minutes. The stinging defense is so powerful, in fact, that while handling the plant with leather gloves, I was still repeatedly stung. Even dried, the leaves' stinging barbs are sharp enough to inflict a painful sting. The leaves have two types of stinging hair, one long and sharp, the other narrower and barbed. These barbed hairs will catch in clothes, and make it very difficult to remove the leaf without further contact.

Despite this rather powerful defense, one which I've been on the receiving
end of more than once, I'm very fond of Eucnide and find it to be a magnificent plant. Growing in rock cracks, on cliff faces and in drainages, its a hardy survivor of a plant. When in bloom, the blossoms are a spectacular creamy white, which is accented by the silvery sheen of this year's leaves, and the tan of the previous year's growth. When found growing on a sheer cliff face, it adds a touch of regal splendor to an already ruggedly beautiful landscape.

There has been some debate recently in the botanical community as to whether Eucnide should be classified as a carnivorous plant. The basis for this debate is the plant's ability to kill large numbers of insects in short order; those who land on the plant's leaves are quickly dispatched by the stinging hairs. The debate arises from the question: does the plant derive any significant amount of nutrients from its kills, or are these simply an extension of the plant's natural defensive strategy.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Rare plant monitoring

One of the jobs of a BLM botanist is to monitor known populations of rare and threatened plants, as well as always keep an eye out for new populations. This monitoring is typically done by visiting a known site, and making an inventory of all known plants, as well as keeping track of any new individuals found. The most common way we perform this task in the Ridgecrest Field Office is to use a GPS unit, typically a Garmon, and whenever we find one of our target plants, mark a waypoint. By doing this, we begin to develop a distribution map that allows us to track the species over time, and keep an eye on the health of the populations in our care.

Another reason that we keep track of the rare plants is because of our nature as a multi-use agency. There are many projects that are proposed on public land can potentially have an impact on these rare species. By tracking them, we can very quickly determine if a project will be stopped. Though charismatic fauna, such as desert tortoise or raptors are much more prominent, our rare plants are protected under the same laws, and therefore, any project that would impact them can be immediately blocked. And unlike most animals, there is little that can be done to mitigate the loss of habitat, as many of these plants are found in such narrow bands of distribution, and under such specific conditions, that they can't simply be moved. Ensuring that none of our rare plants are impacted by development of the desert is one of the biggest reasons that we keep track of these species.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Astagalus geyeri var. geyeri

Geyer's milkvetch

Found in Deep Springs and Fish-Lake Valley, Geyer's milkvetch is an easily overlooked plant. Standing barely 5 cm at its tallest, this small pea is among the numerous special status plants found in the California Desert District.

This milkvetch appears to be associated with blow sand habitats. They are found abundantly along a southern chain of dunes in Deep Springs valley, but sharply cut off the moment one leaves the blow sand and enters more rocky habitat. I found that these tiny plants, at first very easily overlooked, were quite prolific in their "chosen" area, to the point that while surveying for them, I often had to avoid stepping on them as I worked my transect lines. In the short time I worked the area, I found over 500 plants.

This plant is a further reflection of how a special status plant can vary in nature. Unlike some of its cousin Astragalus', where it is often possible to actually count the number of individuals in the whole population, this species is quite prolific, but is highly limited to a small section of land. It is this limited range of habitat that makes this as a species of concern to the Bureau of Land Management. If something were to happen to the site where the species is found, then it could easily wipe out one of the few known populations. Because of this, the BLM does not allow utilization of the lands where this plant is found.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Tamarix chinensis

Salt Cedar - Tamarix chinensis

Not all of the plants out in the Mojave are desirable. There are any number of noxious weeds and invasive species infecting the landscape. One of the most reviled is the salt cedar, or tamarisk. Brought in from Asia as a landscape and riparian stabilizing plant, this vegetative menace quickly spread out of control, clogging waterways and consuming vast quantities of water. This species is able to form monocultures, forcing out native species by out competing them for water, salinating the soil, and rapidly shading them out. A tamarisk plant grows at a prodigious rate, and will overtop most of its neighbors in short order. These plants are also hideously fecund, producing a storm of seedlings that can blanket an area. The one saving grace is that the seeds are very short lived, but given the number produced, their wind dispersal mechanism and the speed at which they are produced, means that with only a few surviving, they can quickly re-infest an area.

Removal of tamarisk is a high priority for the BLM in our area. We spend a good number of resources on removal and control. In some areas, we have managed to completely remove the plant, and the native vegetation is recovering nicely. Most of the actual removal requires the use of herbicides. However, the application method is so precise that there is virtually no outward contamination of the surrounding area. The plants are cut down, and a thin film of herbicide is painted onto the stump. Those that are small enough to be removed manually are pulled with the use of weed wrenches and good old elbow grease. The reason that simply mechanically removing all of the tamarisk is not practical is thus: they are root sprouting, so leaving one large chunk of the root in the ground will allow the plant to re-grow. This is why seedlings can be removed, since they haven't developed a strong enough system to come back, but larger trees need be poisoned, since they also produce prodigiously large roots. There have been some recent breakthroughs with biological control using a parasitic beetle, but until the technique is fully tested, herbicide is the only practical and viable option to get rid of this pest.

There are those that say we should not remove the tamarisk for various reasons. However, most of their arguments do not truly hold water when scrutinized with even basic logic or analysis. One of the most often sited is that tamarisk do not use more water than a tree of equivalent size. Yes, it is technically true that a salt cedar the same size as a willow is using the same amount of water. However, there are typically many many more tamarisk occupying an area than native vegetation would, and form monocultural stands where there is nothing but tamarisk. Not only that, but they will also recruit to areas that are too dry for the native species to hold, and still use the same volume of water. There are streams in parts of the desert where after tamarisk has been removed and native vegetation has returned, the creek will actually begin flowing again, where as when the tamarisk was present, it was completely dry.

Another of these arguments is that the salt cedar provides habitat for wildlife. Yes, it does, to a degree. When you look at the species diversity and health between salt cedar stands and equivalent stands of native vegetation, the health and diversity of the native stands are always greater. Many native species will use salt cedar because in many cases, they have no other choice. Either all of the good habitat has been taken up by other occupants, or there is nothing but salt cedar available.

Ultimately, the complete eradication of this species from our region is the best for our desert vegetative communities.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Fremontodendron californicum

California Flannelbush - Fremontodendron californicum

Found up canyons and in washes, Fremont- odendron californicum is on of the Mojave's floral treats. Blooming in summer, it's flowers are strikingly yellow, which contrasts strongly with the deep, waxy green of the foliage. The flowers are unusual, in that the showy parts are not in fact petals, but sepals. In fact, the flowers are completely without petals. After pollination, the flowers turn into large, woody capsules, which are covered in stiff hairs. These hairs give the plant its common name, and provide a painful deterrent to any animal seeking to attack the seeds.

Flannel bush is a fire following species, pioneering areas that have been recently burned. Thus, it is a popular plant for reclamation in areas where it is naturally range, which consists of the majority of California. After fires, these plants will establish quickly, holding together the soil and protecting it.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Opuntia pulchella

Sand cactus - Opuntia pulchella

Not all cactus are large, perennially apparent plants. In the case of Opuntia pulchella, the above ground portion of the plant is deciduous, and shed each year. In the fall, the plant will die back to a large underground rhizome, going dormant. In the spring, the stems will re-sprout, and produce a short, highly spiny hedge of stems. In late spring, early summer, the cactus will put on its flowers, which are an intense pink-purple.

O. pulchella has an unusual status in the California state BLM. Though unusual, and protected in multiple states, it is only considered a species of interest. This means, that while it is uncommon, it is not rare enough to warrant legal protection. There are many plants that fall into this category across the country, and while they are unusual, and rare in some cases, they are not under threat of becoming endangered or rare. Were that to happen, then the plant's status could change.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Astragalus ertterae

Walker pass milkvetch

There are plants in the Mojave that have very wide distribution, and there are some that have extremely limited ones. One of the later, in fact, one of the most extreme cases, is the Walker Pass Milkvetch, a member of the pea family. The entire known, and confirmed population of this plant is limited to a handful of individuals located on one section of the Pacific Crest Trailnorth of Walker Pass. The original site records only showed 1 plant, but in recent years, there has been some recruitment, and now the population has exploded to 14 plants.

This extreme endemism is an example of how limited in distribution a plant species can be. And the fact that the entire population is located directly adjacent to a regularly traversed hiking trail may seem like a concern. However, the obscurity of the plant is its shield in this case. Yes, there may only be 14 of them, but most people are walking the PCT are not climbing the banks, which is where the plant grows. Still, like all rare plants, there is some degree of danger to it, since it has such a limited known distribution. In all likelihood, there are other populations, which have, thus far, not been identified.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Special status species

In the Mojave, we are blessed/cursed with a large number of plant species, a significant number of which are rare or special status. This means that when we at the BLM are working on implementation of various projects, we have to look very carefully at where the proposals are located.

Special status plants are not uniformly rare, but are all protected by our policy. Some of our species, such as Cymopteris deserticola, the desert cymopteris, have a relatively large population. However, this doesn't mean that they are not rare, because they are only found in very specific habitats, and very few locations. This is like having an island which is the only location you can find the species, yet it is very abundant there. If you bulldoze the island to make houses, you have eliminated the only place that the species is found. So even though it was abundant, you've completely wiped it out. Or consider that with many of these plants, you can actually get a relatively accurate count of how many plants there are in the entire population. Try doing that with something like Larea tridentata, and you come to realize that there is a big difference between the two.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Seeds of Success

There are several projects that I've worked on for the BLM. The one I'm on now is called Seeds of Success. A part of the international seed banking program, SOS has a two-fold goal. The first is long term storage of seeds at the Millennium Seedbank in Kew England. The other is propagation for domestic use through the Bend Seed Extractory in Oregon.

I've found the project itself to be a mixed experience. On one hand, its an interesting task, finding species for the program and going through the process of collecting. I also deeply enjoy spending time in the field, and doing the collections themselves. Yet, the program is not flawless. There are parts of the protocol that are hard to apply to the desert region. One is the size of the population that the seeds are collected from. In many cases, there aren't enough plants to make a proper collection. Other times, there aren't enough seeds to meet the minimum of 10,000 while only taking 20% of the total seed volume. There are other difficulties, but those are two of the most prominent.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Platystemon californicus

Cream Cups - Platystemon californicus

A member of the poppy family, cream cups are a wide spread species, found from California all the way up into Oregon, east into Arizona, and south to Baja California. Phenotypicaly diverse, this species can be short and ground hugging, to tall and showy. Petal color can vary as well, from pure white to creamy-yellow. The flower stems, leaves and sepals of these plants are often very hairy, giving them a white, furry look.
These plants are popular in the horticultural scene, often used as a landscaping plant.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Salvia carduacea

Thistle sage - Salvia carduacea

Found in the lowlands of the Mojave, this member of the mint family eared its common name through its superficial resemblance to true thistles, members of the sunflower family. The flowers of this plant are typically mint, and are quite showy. This annual species can grow up to a meter tall in the right conditions, but those I've encountered are typically only half that size at most.

One of the most striking aspects of the blossoms are the feathered appearance of the lower lip, and the orange color of the anthers.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Salazaria mexicana

Paper bag bush - Salazaria mexicana

Of the Mojave's mints, one of the most visually unique is the Salazaria mexicana, commonly known as paper-bag bush. Twiggy, grey-green and somewhat thorny, this plant is easily recognized out in the field. Its most defining character, and in fact its namesake, is the small paper-bags that form from the plant's sepals during and after flowering. While the plant is in flower, the bags are warm pink, and subtend the flowers, while after flowering is complete, they dry and form a tough, papery "capsule" around the developing nutlets. When the bags eventually fall off, they are blown along the ground by the wind, dispersing them and the seeds.

These plants are typically found in exposed areas and drainages, typically where the plant's sepal-bags can catch and germinate. The plants themselves can become a medium to large bush.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Rafinesquia neomexicana

Chicory - Rafinesquia neomexicana

One among the nearly 170 species of Asteraceae found in the Mojave desert, chicory is part of the dandelion group, having a resinous sap, no disk flowers, and plumose pappus. This annual plant is often found tangled in the branches of other, perennial plants, which it uses as a support structure in a inquilisticly commensal relationship. This relationship is not obligatory, and chicory can grow independent of a host plant.

The flowers appear in February, and typically persist until May. I often observed small beetles on the flowers, which could be the pollinator, or an opportunist feeding on the flower parts. The seeds are, like most Asteraceae, probably wind dispersed.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Calochortus flexuosus

Strangling or winding mariposa lily - Calochortus flexuosus

Calochortus flexuosus is a member of the mariposa lily genus, and as such, is among the most spectacular of our native lilies. Found in the Death Valley region east through Colorado. Their typical habitat are rocky slopes, desert hills and mesas between 600 and 1700 m in elevation.

This plant is often inquilisticly commensal with another plant, using its host plant as a support structure. Like another desert plant, the chicory (Rafinesquia neomexicana), it is unlikely that this growth significantly impacts the host plant. C. flexuosus is also capable of forming a scrambling vine that will grow along the ground, and as such, the plant is not obligately symbiotic with a host.

The blossoms of these lilies are typically a light lavender color, with a slightly rarer morph having light, almost white petals. The one or two leaves this plant produces are ephemeral, drying by the point the plant is in flower, with small bracts arming the stems in place of true leaves. The flowers emerge from April to May. [Jepson]

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Langloisia setosissima subsp. punctata

Bristly calico - Langloisia setosissima subsp. punctata

Found in the Death Valley region and the adjoining Panamint Valley, bristly calico is another of the tiny desert annuals that can be easily missed by the casual observer. This species is the sole member of its genus, which contains two sub-species. In the other sub-species, L. setosissima subsp. setosissima has fainter speckling on its petals, but is otherwise indistinct. These plants can be anywhere from 4-20 cm tall, with the flowers being 1.5-2cm in diameter. They are typically found on rocky slopes and washes of the eastern California deserts and up into Oregon and Idaho, and east into Nevada and Arizona.

Like most desert annuals and smaller plants, this species has very little in the way of documentation for this plant.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Forestiera pubescens

Desert olive or stretchberry - Forestiera pubescens

A member of the olive family, F. pubescens is a low growing to tall shrub from the swampprivet genus. These trees are found, as their name genus name would indicate, near water. In the Mojave area, that means they're found near streams and creeks in the eastern Sierra Nevadas. These shrubs are winter deciduous, and can be found either singly or in large stands.

Like most members of this genus, F. pubesces is dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants. Flowering occurred in March to April. When mature, the fruits resemble small, black olives, which were found in tight clumps at the branch nodes.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lasthenia californica

California Goldfields - Lasthenia californica - Asteraceae

Carpeting the hills in a spectacular golden-yellow, California goldfields are aptly named. Found in the region nearest the Sierras, these tiny annual sunflowers are one of the most prolific of the desert annuals. When I first encountered them, as I walked through a sea of flowers, I found my boots and pants turned yellow from the vast amounts of pollen they produced. This is a key to the plant's survival strategy: be as fecund as possible. Each individual plant puts almost nothing into its stem and root system. Instead, it focuses on its flowerhead, which, when pollinated, will produce many dozens of seeds. It is this devotion to prolific reproduction that makes the goldfields differ from the perennials of the region, which focus on building a tough, sturdy body for themselves.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Caulanthus inflatus

Desert Candle - Caulanthus inflatus - Brassicaceae

Striking and beautiful, the desert candle is a native herbaceous plant that can usually be found on sandy hillocks and in washes, where they grow in large, spectacular stands. Deriving its common name from the apical nature of its flowers, this member of the mustard family can grow to be nearly three feet tall, and bears numerous purple flowers at the apex of its inflated main stem. Found predominantly in the Mojave, and to a lesser extent the surrounding regions, they typically bloom from March till May. Though typically unbranched, they can form lateral stalks on occasion, forming a living candelabra.

Desert candles are bee pollinated annuals, specifically the smaller native bees found in the desert. When in bloom, they can be heavily visited by these insects. Their fruit, however, is a dry, dehiscent silique that releases its seeds near the parent plant without animal dispersion. The parent plant dies in the late summer-early fall, and is replaced next year by its offspring.