Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Plants with no names, and other mysteries


It was like being young again. On the road, driving fast, light fading, finally a sign—the wrong sign. Missed the turnoff 40 miles back. Turn north anyway, drive fast, light fading, hit the brakes, back up, take a narrow deep-rutted two-track winding through creosote scrub with no place to turn around. Keep driving, wondering, light fading, rocky hill visible ahead, suddenly arrive and stop. Flat open area, fire ring, fragrance of creosote bush, tiny car lights snaking through the valley below. Far to the east a golden glow edges the jagged mountain crest and the full moon rises—unexpected, unplanned, perfect.

And look what the morning brought:
Morning at the base of Van Winkle Peak.
The desert was in bloom—not the highly-touted “super bloom” of early spring annuals, but rather shrubs covered in flowers. All the moisture had benefitted them too. Most looked familiar, probably because 40 years ago we novice botanists stood before them chanting in Latin. For a moment I hesitated, caught by the reflex. But how absurd! There’s no requirement to name plants to enjoy them.

Of course I recognized creosote bush—I would have recognized it just by its wonderful fragrance (early travelers struggling to cross the Mojave before dying of thirst probably would have disagreed with “wonderful”).
Vigorous creosote bush almost ten feet tall.
Note resinous aromatic leaves.

A yellow-flowered green-stemmed shrub was the main source of color—desert senna, Senna armata, as I later learned from a plant display at the park Visitor Center. It’s a member of the pea family.
Why doesn’t it have pea-like flowers? Because it’s in the subgroup Caesalpinioideae, with flowers only slightly irregular. But it does have compound leaves like many peas, though it took me a moment to see this, with the widely-spaced tiny leaflets on a twisting axis.
Look close – compound leaves!

Next I found a wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) thick with flowers. This genus is easy to recognize, with clusters of small six-parted flowers, but species are often tough. Wild buckwheats are common and diverse in California deserts. During C. Hart Merriam’s Death Valley Expedition of 1891, botanists Frederick V. Coville and Frederick Funston collected 25 species!
Lucky shot—a preoccupied pollinator stumbled into my field of view.

Next to the wild buckwheat was a dead shrub … or so I thought until violet spots caught my eye. This plant’s a total mystery. I don’t know the genus nor the family. It has sharp-tipped twigs, and the stems, leaves and buds are covered in fine gray hairs. Any ideas?

The low shrub below was another a puzzle. It was covered in yellowish fruit, each with two plump locules (chambers) and a persistent style rising between. It had green stems and tiny leaves. Green stems are not uncommon in the desert; they allow photosynthesis to continue after leaves are dropped in response to drought.

Oh boy, chollas ahead! (Opuntia spp.; mid photo below). I spent a fair amount of time among them—I love photographing cactus spines.
Inside the flowers, the stamens were moving, their yellow anthers swaying erratically. Something was rummaging around down at the base of the red filaments. Is there nectar down there, full of drunken pollinators? Finally I caught a shot of one of the culprits.
What is it?

A few annuals were hanging on, the last of the super bloomers. This little beauty was the most common. It’s a member of the aster (sunflower) family.

I spent two nights and two days in the Mojave National Preserve—not nearly enough, not even close. But then I hadn’t planned to go there at all. Seems I always drive across the Mojave in May, when it’s much too hot to stop, but this year things were different, “unusual.” Thunderstorms, heavy rain, flood warnings and finally snow drove me out of New Mexico. I sped across Arizona hoping for dry tolerably-warm Mojave days. Indeed they were.

Continuing on to the coast, I had lots of time to ponder this change. Why are wonderful surprises rare now? Has my venturing into the unknown declined due to age or due to the hyper-availability of information? I thought about all those hours spent on the web the week before I left. Maybe every long trip should include at least one area with little information and no plan. We’ll see if this plan can be implemented ;-)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Tree on a Squeeze Up


It’s tree-following week already!—time for a monthly report on the tree I chose to follow this year. But I’m on the road and getting further away from that fossilized palm frond each day. Not that it matters really—it’s just as dead and extinct as it was back in January. The problem is no internet access. Without Google, I can't write about some interesting palm topic, as I've been doing until now. But we’re not without trees, so instead I’m reporting on a local one … and relying on books. How retro!

Here in northeastern New Mexico, I’ve been keeping an eye out for a tree special enough to substitute for my fossilized palm (I knew Pat won’t mind). Yesterday, I found one. Introducing … (fanfare) … a juniper on a squeeze up!

This tree grows along the nature trail near the Visitor Center at Capulin Volcano National Monument. It’s probably a one-seeded juniper, Juniperus monosperma, said to be the “characteristic juniper” of the area. Rocky Mountain juniper also grows here, but it has more drooping branchlets and peeling bark.

Squeeze ups are blobs of magma. Geologists also call them tumuli but I think they say squeeze up just as often, though maybe not in academic publications. Squeeze ups form when a flow has cooled and solidified on the surface, but molten lava continues to flow underneath. Sometimes the magma squeezes up through a fracture in the crusty surface and forms a blob.

At first glance, the landscape here looks like any pinyon-juniper savanna, with trees scattered through grassland. But a closer look reveals that this really is a lava flow. Much of it has been obscured with erosion, deposition (dirt and debris), and plant invasion, but evidence is still visible: rocks, ridges and squeeze ups. Fractured volcanic rocks are great habitat for trees and shrubs, which send roots down to where water accumulates in cracks.
This lava flowed out of Capulin Volcano (cone in photo above), one of the youngest in the Raton-Clayton volcanic field. It came from a boca (Spanish for mouth) near the base of the volcano during one of the last stages of eruption. That was 56,000 years ago, just yesterday geologically speaking. Capulin is a well-preserved cinder cone, beautifully symmetric in spite of its age. Below, Capulin on right, younger Baby Capulin on left.
Squeeze ups seem to be fairly common on this lava flow. Some hide in the junipers, others stand in full view.

How did I get this post online? I sent it down the creek—a message in a bottle with instructions for relaying it to The Squirrelbasket, who kindly hosts our virtual gathering each month ;-)
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