Thursday, May 21, 2015

Trumpets in the Desert

There are many many wild buckwheats – on the order of 450 species, subspecies and varieties. They’re native to North America and reach their greatest diversity here in the American West (e.g. 200+ in California alone).  I should be proud, but instead I avoid them because they’re notoriously hard to tell apart.  Even the acknowledged expert, JL Reveal, agrees with me:
“Species of Eriogonum [wild buckwheats] have long been regarded as among the most difficult in North America to distinguish” (source).
But there’s one wild buckwheat that’s among the easiest plants to distinguish, even though its flowers look pretty much like those of other wild buckwheats …
Tiny yellow flowers.
… and the leaves are hardly distinctive.
Rosette of basal leaves.
Yet even at a distance we can recognize it …
Click on image to view plant in center of photo.
… by its stems!
It’s the … FANFARE!!! … desert trumpet, Eriogonum inflatum.  The photogenic inflated stems and branches give it away.
Swollen main stems may be an inch across.
Looking down into the very open spreading inflorescence (flower “cluster”).
Desert trumpet grows in Arizona, southern and east-central California, western Colorado, northwestern New Mexico, central and southern Nevada, southern and eastern Utah, Baja California and Sonora.  It does well on harsh arid sites (source).
Desert trumpet in a rock garden in southeast Utah.  Plants are close to two feet tall.  Blue flowers belong to desert larkspur (Delphinium).
Once upon a time someone found insect eggs in stems of desert trumpet, and speculated that the hollow swellings were abnormal growth caused by insects.  Speculation became knowledge, which persists in spite of efforts to get rid of it (read more here, here and here). Insects sometimes lay eggs in the inflations, but plants grow them even where there are no insects – in labs for example.

Inflated stems are a boon to photosynthesis.  They store carbon dioxide (unless insects drill holes to ventilate their nurseries), and provide up to 75% of a plant’s photosynthetic surface.  Even better, stems and branches remain green and photosynthetically active into summer, after the leaves have wilted (Waring 2011).

Some desert trumpet plants do not have inflated stems.  “… this feature is partly a function of available moisture: the drier the conditions, the less pronounced the inflation.  Stems produced in the summer tend to be inflated less frequently than those produced in the spring” (source).   Non-inflated stems were the basis for an old variety that’s no longer recognized.  Too bad, it had a neat name:  Eriogonum inflatum var. deflatum.

By fall the stems have dried and turned brown, but they usually stay on the plant for at least another year.  You can take a dried stem and slice off half of the inflated part lengthwise to make a pipe, as some Indians did.  This is why desert trumpet is also known as Indian pipeweed.  Another name is bottle stopper.
Desert trumpet/Indian pipeweed/bottle stopper in fall (pale stems are a year older).  Source.
Emmie found desert trumpets on the crest of this small ridge north of Goosenecks State Park.

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Clarke, C.  2013.  One of the oddest flowers: desert trumpet.

Schneider, A.  Eriogonum inflatum (desert trumpets) in WILDFLOWERS, FERNS, & TREES of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, & Utah [online].  Accessed May 2015.

Waring, GL.  2011.  A natural history of the Intermountain West; its ecological and evolutionary story.  Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Geo-challenge: two landforms, one river

What are these landforms and where?  Which river is “involved” in both?  You can respond via Comments below.  In a few days I’ll post answers in a Comment and tweet.

I think (and hope!) this geo-challenge will be easier than the last one, which featured the escarpment side of Comb Ridge.  The dip-slope side, with outcrops of Navajo sandstone, is the more familiar view.  More explanation here.

Readers got it:  1) west flank of Raplee Ridge, a small anticline – crossed by the San Juan River; and 2) incised meander at Goosenecks State Park – cut by the San Juan River.  Both are in southeast Utah.
Click on image to see details.

Monday, May 11, 2015

bold or striking would at first seem only grotesque

West side of Comb Ridge (answer to recent Geo-challenge).  The sloping east side covered in Navajo sandstone is more familiar – see photos below.
Around 70 million years ago, something dramatic happened along the west coast of North America that profoundly affected the western interior of the continent.  Two of the Earth’s crustal plates collided, and one dove under the other.  Maybe “collision” is an exaggeration; it was quite a slow process by our standards.  Yet by the time it ended 30 million years later, western North America had been compressed enough to create spectacular mountain ranges.

This particular episode of mountain building is known as the Laramide orogeny.  The most obvious Laramide structures are the Rocky Mountains.  They extend from Canada to northern New Mexico (3000 miles), and include many individual ranges.  Some peaks stand 9000 feet above the adjacent plains.
The Rocky Mountains ... whatever the plates were doing out west, the results were huge!
The Front Range of the Rockies above Fort Collins, Colorado.  Source.
There also are Laramide structures on the Colorado Plateau, west of the Rocky Mountains. In my opinion, they’re even more spectacular.  Mountain ranges are impressive but they’re familiar.  The Laramide landforms on the Colorado Plateau are surprising and dramatic, especially in the stark settings.
“outlines which at first seemed harsh and trivial have grace and meaning” (Monument Valley in distance).
“forms which seemed grotesque are full of dignity” (San Rafael Reef, courtesy Jack Share of Written in Stone).
“magnitudes which had added enormity to coarseness have become replete with strength and even majesty” (Comb Ridge; town of Bluff is lower center; source).
We’re taken by landscapes that are a little bit familiar, but mostly new and unexpected.  We think they're enchanting, awe-inspiring.  These are the kinds of landscapes that make the Colorado Plateau such a wonderland.  But just a few days after I wrote these words, a great geologist – in fact an authority on the Colorado Plateau – disagreed with me:
“The lover of nature, whose perceptions have been trained in the Alps, in Italy, Germany, or New England, in the Appalachians or Cordilleras, in Scotland or Colorado [i.e. the Rocky Mountains], would enter this strange region with a shock, and dwell there for a time with a sense of oppression, and perhaps with horror.”  (Dutton 1882)
Clarence Dutton was one of the late 19th-century pioneering geologists of the American West – men that I hold in great regard, and envy in some ways.  Not only was the territory unexplored, geology was still a young science, with endless opportunities for discovery. This was good for reputation and career of course, but I think the best thing must have been rounding a corner and finding something brand new, dramatic, and inexplicable.
“whatsoever might be bold or striking would at first seem only grotesque” (entrenched meanders of the San Juan River).
I sometimes experience a little of the delight of discovery if I don’t read in advance about a place I intend to visit.  But like many people, I'm too familiar with the Colorado Plateau to react as Dutton described.  So I was intrigued that just 60 years ago Wallace Stegner questioned whether these landscapes would ever be widely-appreciated:
“Being innovations, and newly discovered [in Dutton’s time], they were powerless until cultivation released them into the aesthetic consciousness.  Whether they have yet been so liberated, and whether the forms and colors of the plateau country strike most of us even yet as anything more than bizarre, is an open question.” (Stegner 1954)
Now Stegner’s open question has been answered.  Every year millions of people visit the Colorado Plateau to enjoy what were once bizarre horrifying landscapes.  Books, magazines, movies, television, and the internet have released them “into the aesthetic consciousness” of the masses.
West side of Comb Ridge from Hwy 95.  Graceful? ... or harsh and bizarre?
I’m especially taken by the long dramatic rock ridges in southeast Utah.  They were folded during the Laramide orogeny, and later uncovered and sculpted by erosion.
It's neat to think about how this amazing ridge was created – by colliding crustal plates and erosion, both extremely slow.
These are hogbacks … or so I used to think.  One side is covered and protected by a sloping rock layer that’s resistant to erosion.  On the other side, erosion has cut down to form a steep escarpment.  However, Wikipedia tells me that a ridge where one side slopes more gently than the other is a cuesta, not a hogback.  But since the Wikipedia hogback example looks very much like the subject of this post – Comb Ridge – we’ll stick with hogback.
Comb Ridge on right and Comb Wash center; line is a small normal fault (after Sears 1953).
West side (escarpment) of Comb Ridge hogback, showing teeth of the (cock’s) comb.
Comb Ridge, subject of last week’s geo-challenge, is a spectacular hogback on the east flank of the Monument upwarp.  The rocks were tilted when the area was uplifted.  There may be a deep sub-surface fault in the basement hard rocks (see diagrams below), but it isn’t expressed at the surface.

Below:  How uplift and erosion created the Comb Ridge hogback.  The first diagram is a theoretical view of the fold in the absence of erosion.  The second shows the hogback created by erosion (after Robinson, Utah Geological Survey 2012).
Comb Ridge is long – on the order of 80-110 miles (length varies among sources).  Whether viewed from the ground or the air, it’s dramatic.
Most of Comb Ridge.
The sloping east side is covered by the photogenic Navajo sandstone.  On the steep west side, erosion has cut down through hundreds of feet of rock underneath.
Lower Jurassic Navajo sandstone on east side of Comb Ridge near Hwy 95.
How do you like this pinyon - juniper woodland?!
Escarpment on west side of Comb Ridge; Hwy 95 passes through the deep narrow roadcut.
Jurassic and Triassic rocks of the escarpment.
It was impossible to capture the magnitude and spectacle of Comb Ridge in photographs.  My mind assembled views into stunning panoramas, making my photos pathetic in comparison.  They're valuable to me because they bring back impressions and feelings.  But you the reader … you must go there yourself!

How to get there

US Highway 163 crosses Comb Ridge west of Bluff, and Utah Highway 95 crosses it southwest of Blanding, via the dramatic road cut shown above.  Unfortunately there’s only one pullout near that road cut – immediately west, and only for east-bound traffic.  For great views of Comb Ridge and many other features, continue west from the road cut roughly 11 miles to Salvation Knoll.  A well-constructed trail leads to the summit.
Morning view of Comb Ridge (right) from pullout just west of road cut on Utah Highway 95 (for east bound traffic).  The sunny slope is Cedar Mesa sandstone (Permian), which covers most of Cedar Mesa.
View down to Salvation Knoll trail head.
Between the two paved highways, gravel and dirt roads run through the washes on either side of Comb Ridge:  Butler Wash on the east and Comb Wash on the west.  I can give only limited reports on conditions:  The roads at the north and south ends of Comb Wash were fine.  I especially enjoyed the south end of Butler Wash, with many terrific views of the photogenic Navajo sandstone.  It looks like it would be easy to explore Comb Ridge from the Butler Wash road.
Comb Ridge escarpment from Comb Wash road north of Hwy 163 (west of Bluff).
One of the many great views of Comb Ridge and the Navajo sandstone from the Butler Wash road.

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Dutton, CE.  1882.  The Tertiary history of the Grand Canyon District.  USGS Monograph II, 26.

Fillmore, Robert.  2010.  Geological evolution of the Colorado Plateau of eastern Utah and western Colorado.  Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Robinson, M.  2012.  Geosights:  Comb Ridge, San Juan County, Utah.  Utah Geological Survey.

Sears, JD.  1953.  Geology of Comb Ridge and vicinity north of San Juan River.  Geological Survey Bulletin 1021-E.

Stegner, W.  1954.  Beyond the hundredth meridian: John Wesley Powell and the second opening of the American West.  Houghton Mifflin Co.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

This month I’m following hésho tsítonnê

It’s the seventh of the month already! … time for monthly reports from tree-followers around the world.  But I’m 1200 miles from home and my willow.  I won't know what it’s doing until I return in a few weeks.  So I’m reporting on a surrogate, the pinyon pine – also known as hésho tsítonnê or gum tree.

I knew I would be in pinyon country, so I looked into pinyon pines before I left.  This earlier post is an overview.  So far I’ve been hanging out with the two-needle pinyon.  Together with Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) it forms pinyon - juniper woodlands covering millions of acres.
Two-needle or Colorado pinyon, Pinus edulis.  Source.
Distribution of two-needle pinyon and its western relative, the singleleaf.  After Lanner 1981.

On harsh sites, pinyon pines can be especially photogenic ... tough gnarled little trees with disproportionate trunks and crowns.  These portraits were taken in sandstone country near spectacular Muley Point Overlook in southeast Utah.  Some of the pinyons were pretty spectacular too, in their own way.
Pinyon pine poses with Indian paintbrush in the foreground and Navajo Mountain behind.
This tree is only 4.5 feet tall, but the trunk is over a foot across at the base.
How about that switch-backing trunk! (click on image to view)  There's a close-up below.

Pinyon pines are quite pitchy, so much so that Zuni Indians called them hésho tsítonnê or gum trees.  The pinyons at my campsite were indeed gummy, and pitch blobs were scattered on the ground beneath mature trees.
Pitch is a plant resin.  It’s not the same as sap, which transports nutrients through the tree. In some cases, pitch is clearly protective and “may confound a wide range of herbivores, insects, and pathogens.”  Trees use it as a dressing on open wounds.
Pitch protecting an area where bark was removed.
Like the trees, Navajo and Hopi people used pinyon pitch to dress open wounds, sometimes mixing it with red clay.  Its most important use was in sealing water jugs.  There were many other applications – glue, dye, medicine and even a teflon-equivalent on sandstone griddles for cooking Pueblo wafer bread:
"It took them almost a day to get the stone properly heated, rub the squash oil into it and then rub it again with wads of piñon gum, which melted and sank into the pores.  They finished by scrubbing the stone with juniper and pine twigs, which left it clean and slightly scented.”  – Ruth Underhill, Workaday life of the Pueblos (in Lanner 1981)
In summer, the Navajo turned pinyon pine trees into shade shelters.  They cut off the lower branches and carefully sealed the stubs with mud.  For if they didn’t, pitch would rain down on inhabitants and their belongings.  What a horrendous sticky mess that would be!

Pitch is messy but it’s also magical, making pinyon wood the perfect fuel for an evening out.  It produces a hot sparkling aromatic campfire that frees the mind and lets it wander far from real world cares:
“Nobody who has sat before a roaring, pitch-boiling, bubbling, scented fire of piñon can think of it as the mere consumption of wood.  It is the spirited release of centuries of brilliant sunlight, absorbed under a cloudless Southwestern sky …”  – Ronald Lanner (1981)
Campfire of pinyon and juniper.  Even a few small dead branches will make a lively fire.

Sources (in addition to links in post)

Lanner, RM.  1981.  The piñon pine, a natural and cultural history.  University of Nevada Press, Reno.

Do you have a tree to follow?  Consider joining us … it’s always interesting and fun!  The gatherings are kindly hosted by Lucy Corrander – more here.