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.