Category Archives: Botany

Botanizing Tonopah Junction

Tonopah Junction simmers in the summer heat of the vast and nearly uninhabited Soda Spring Valley in Mineral County, Nevada. In the southern, lowest part of the valley lies the crusty and mostly glaring-white bed of Rhodes Marsh, which is itself a remnant of Pleistocene Lake Rhodes. US Highway 95 skirts the lake bed, a little north of half-way from Hawthorne to Tonopah.

So, why botanize here? Twice this year I’ve stopped near the intersection of US-95 and NV-360, curious to look at the sand dunes southwest of Rhodes Marsh to see if Dune horsebrush (Tetradymia tetrameres) or other interesting dune endemics might be found here. Neither early April nor late August were botanically optimal times to visit. June might be the time to find the greatest number of plants in bloom.

Greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus). Smoke from fires in the Sierra Nevada are obscuring the Candelaria Hills.

This is not a tall, impressive dune system, though it covers about 1.5 square miles. The dunes are all low and stabilized by vegetation. In spite of (or maybe because of) these characteristics, such dunes can provide habitat for some interesting plants (and invertebrates). The dunes near Tonopah Junction are all anchored beneath greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus); many also have Bush seepweed (Suaeda nigra) on their sides or in swales between the dunes. I believe I saw one Naked spiderflower (Carsonia sparsifolia) seedling in April, but it was far from flowering yet. I would expect to find Nevada wormwood (Euphrosyne nevadensis) here during the summer. In late August, an acre or more of the distinctive skeleton-like remains of Dune evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides) was seen. I’ve yet to find Dune horsebrush there, but remain hopeful.

Bush seepweed (Suaeda nigra)
Bush seepweed (Suaeda nigra)
Dune evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides)
Dune evening primrose (Oenothera deltoides)

Nothing is left of the historic Carson and Colorado Railway and station at Tonopah Junction apart from an eroded roadbed and some debris. The only attraction left here is the ruin of an old stone house, now sadly filled with trash and defaced by graffiti. This was apparently part of Sully’s Tourist Camp, started by C.E. “Sully” Sullivan of Hawthorne in 1937. It looks as though the project was never completed—which is sad, because I think this would be a delightful place to rent a rustic cabin, tepee, or yurt for a few days. There’s hardly any information about Sully’s on the internet, but Tami, at the the Gouge Eye Chronicle blog, has unearthed a few details.

Sully’s Tourist Camp at Tonopah Junction
Sully’s Tourist Camp at Tonopah Junction
Sully’s Tourist Camp at Tonopah Junction

Anyone looking to make useful contributions to the documentation of biodiversity in the Great Basin on iNaturalist might consider an expedition to Rhodes Marsh, Teels Marsh (in the next valley to the west), and the surrounding hills. Very few observations or collections have been made in this area.

Tonopah Junction and Sully’s Tourist Camp (Source: Google Earth, 2021)
Other-worldly patterns in Rhodes Salt Marsh (Source: Google Earth, 2021)

Copyright © Tim Messick 2021. All rights reserved.

Adding Plant Observations to Calflora

One of the best on-line resources for finding information about plants and places of botanical interest in California is Calflora (https://www.calflora.org/). Calflora can help you discover what species occur in a particular area, learn about the ecology and horticultural potential of species, and much more.

Among the many features in Calflora are tools for individuals to add location-specific observations and photos of plants seen in California. A recent email from Calflora on this topic is HERE. Observations can be added by uploading the information and photos directly to Calflora or by assimilating observations previously added to iNaturalist.

Photos added directly to Calflora will be available as reference photos on the “Taxon Report” pages, whereas images imported from iNaturalist will not, and they will appear in the search results on the “Observation Search” page only if you check “iNaturalist” under “Other Sources.”

On the other hand, observations posted first in iNaturalist will be:
– confirmed by at least one other person to become “research grade” before it is eligible for assimilation into the Calflora database, and
– assimilated into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), which is another aggregator of biodiversity data.
On the iNaturalist site, search areas can cross state and national boundaries and can include other organisms besides plants.

Instructions for how to import your observations from iNaturalist to Calflora are HERE. The “Add Records from iNaturalist” feature is HERE (you will need to register as a contributor to Calflora first). Basically, an application running within the Calflora web site will look at your iNaturalist account, search for observations matching Calflora’s required criteria and any other date or taxon filters you wish to add, and display a list of your qualifying observations and photos.

These search results will include:
– Research Grade records of wild plants made in California (thus excluding “casual” and “needs ID” observations, non-plant organisms, and observations outside California).
– Records with a Creative Commons (CC) license on both the photo and the observation (allowing them to be used by others for non-commercial purposes).
The search results will not include:
– Records of rare plants (those with obscured locations).
– Records already assimilated into Calflora.

Once this table is displayed, you simply click on each “ID” number, then click “add to Calflora” in the fly-out menu (as in the screenshot below). Calflora imports the taxon name, location, your photographs, and some other details, including a link back to your iNaturalist observation.

My search found about 460 iNaturalist observations meeting these criteria, which I then added to Calflora. It took only a few minutes. This can be done a few times a year—as you post new observations to iNaturalist and as more observations have their IDs confirmed so that they become “research grade”.

Once you have finished the import, your observations will be included on the results page of a “What Grows Here” search along with data from other individuals, herbarium databases, and other sources (be sure to click “display” for each of the icons under “Points”). Here’s an example, using the “Simple” display format (plant names only, no photos):

Calflora is a rich resource with an abundance of maps, lists, localized data, and external links for learning about California’s plants and places to see them. Features in Calflora (or accessible through external links) that differ from what iNaturalist provides include:
– mapped locations of georeferenced collections held in California herbaria,
– species range maps,
– ecological and horticultural information (including the suitability of any species for planting in any location),
– links to a wider variety of external sources,
… and probably much more.

Check it out, spend some time exploring its many features, and import your iNaturalist observations to Calflora.

Lupinus breweri var. bryoides, on a hill south of Bodie


Copyright © Tim Messick 2021. All rights reserved.

Mapping Mule’s Ears

One common factor contributing to mistakes when people are identifying plants is the scarcity of user-friendly visual documentation (i.e., maps) showing where different species occur in the world. Sure, more than one species of a genus will often co-occur in the same general area, but maps can help you quickly narrow down the number of possibilities in a given area.

Another aid that’s commonly missing is an explanation of how one species differs from a small set of related or similar species, where they may occur near each other. Keys can provide the technical details for distinguishing one plant from all others in a genus-wide or family-wide context, often over a wide area, but may obscure the simple details that can distinguish “Species A” from “Species D” where just those two happen to occur together.

How nice it would be to have more maps of species distributions based on current data for collections and observations. Such maps, together with keys and notes on how to distinguish one species from others in the same area, could facilitate more accurate identifications—especially in genera with little to moderate overlap of species ranges.

Wyethia mollis

This could be a fun project to help pass a pandemic winter, yes?

To explore the idea a bit further, I looked for a genus of modest size in western North America, with at least one species in Mono County. There are many genera to choose from. I selected Wyethia, commonly known as Mule’s Ears (or Mule Ears or Mules Ears), a genus with 14 distinct and well-documented species scattered across the mountains, hills, and deserts of western North America. Hikers in the upper elevations and east side of the Sierra Nevada will know Woolly Mule’s Ears (Wyethia mollis) as one of the brightest and showiest sunflowers of the region.

Here, then, is Mule’s Ears: an Atlas and Guide, a free PDF on my Downloads page. Look it over and let me know if you find this approach and format useful (corrections and suggestions are always welcome).

A Note on Taxonomy
Traditionally, the 14 species of Mule’s Ears have been grouped all together in the genus Wyethia. (As of this date, the Jepson eFlora still treats all California species under Wyethia.) Currently, however, most sources recognize 3 separate genera in this group: Wyethia in a stricter sense (with 8 species), Agnorhiza (with 5 species), and Scabrethia (with 1 species). These are differentiated mostly by the shape, relative sizes, and distribution of leaves. Personally, I’m not always a fan of splitting genera by their sections, but in this case, I think it helps us recognize very visible differences within the group and makes the keys more manageable.

Methods
I downloaded location data (in CSV format) for herbarium collections of each species from the California Consortium of Herbaria (CCH), the Southwest Environmental Information Network (SEINet), the Intermountain Regional Herbarium Network, and the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria, along with crowd-sourced observation data from iNaturalist. These I imported to a base map of US states and counties, Canadian provinces, and Mexican states using QGIS (a free, open source GIS application).

For each species I exported a PDF dot map of collections and observations. These I placed into Adobe Illustrator, aligned with a clean base of only the state and county boundaries. I then traced the approximate boundaries of the occurrence clouds. In doing so, I did quick reality checks on occurrences that appeared inconsistent with overall distribution patterns or distributions reported in the literature. Many of these anomalies turned out to be obvious misidentifications or incorrect mapping of collection coordinates. Colors and patterns were used to differentiate species in the maps.

The final booklet, together with photographs licensed for non-commercial use by iNaturalist contributors (acknowledged in the booklet), was assembled in Adobe InDesign.

How to use this Booklet
1. Download the 16-page PDF from the DOWNLOADS PAGE. I suggest saving this into the library of the books app on your smart phone or tablet (e.g., Books on Apple devices) to keep it handy in the field. The pages are formatted as half-letter size (5.5 X 8.5 inches), so it’s fairly readable on your phone (if you’re near-sighted) or on your tablet.

2. You can also print this as a 16-page booklet from your computer using Adobe Acrobat or Adobe Reader (and probably other PDF apps). Tell the application to print all pages in Booklet format, both sides, left binding, and auto-rotate pages. Use letter-size (8.5 X 11) paper, and select your specific printer (not the generic “Any Printer”) and “US Letter” paper size in the printer dialog. This should result in the pages being filled and with centers properly aligned for folding. After printing, arrange as needed to make sure the page numbers are in proper sequence, fold the stack in the middle, and staple along the fold (a long-reach stapler works best for this).

3. Go forth and Botanize!


Copyright © Tim Messick 2021. All rights reserved.