Category Archives: Botany

A Fen in the High Desert

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

There’s a tiny fen (about one-half acre in area) within a somewhat larger meadow (about 1 acre) in Cinnabar Canyon in the Bodie Hills. The most abundant and characteristic plant in this meadow is a Sphagnum, or peat moss (possibly S. fimbriatum, but this needs to be checked using the most recent keys). The peat growth is deep and spongy wet, even late into the dry season. It’s a “mound fen” — water seeps slowly from a spring at the highest point in the meadow. Vascular plants in the meadow include abundant Nebraska sedge (Carex nebrascensis) and Tufted hair grass (Deschanpsia cespitosa), with a few very scrawny Swamp laurel (Kalmia polifolia) plants. The Kalmia was probably more robust and much more at home here during the cooler climate of the Little Ice Age (circa 1300 to 1850).

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

Sphagnum sp.

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

Kalmia polifolia

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

Carex and Deschampsia

This place fills me with questions, but skimming through the on-line literature about peatlands in the Great Basin and Sierra Nevada reveals very few answers.

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

Why is this bog here? What is it about the geology, hydrology, or history if this place that led to the formation (or persistence?) of a fen here, and not in any number of other seemingly similar meadows? Why aren’t there more peaty wet meadows in the Bodie Hills? (There is a suggestion in the literature of just one other that I haven’t seen, near Dry Lakes Plateau.)

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

How long has the fen been here? Peat deposits at other locations in the Great Basin and beyond (some actively growing, some not) have been examined to determine the relative abundance of different kinds of pollen and diatoms at various depths. The peat deposits can be dated at various depths with the aid of identifiable volcanic ash layers. These findings are used to infer changes in vegetation and climate over centuries or millennia. I’m not a palynologist, but I would love to know what a few core samples might tell us about the history of this place.

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

Are there invertebrates that favor these acidic fens, and are they present here? Is there anything unusual about the chemistry of the water in this spring? The water feels cold, but how does the hydrology of this meadow relate to the band of hydrothermal activity (some still active, some long dormant) extending from roughly Cinnabar Canyon northwest to Travertine Hot Sprigs, near Bridgeport?

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

The spring

Unfortunately, the meadow is not in the best of shape. I wish it could be fenced. Trampling by sheep has disturbed the surface and shallow subsurface of the growing peat layer. (But it looked about the same 35 years ago.) This trampling probably reduces the abundance of some plants, degrades the habitat for some invertebrates, and introduces nutrients unfavorable to some of the flora and fauna here.

Cinnabar Canyon Bog

Trampled peat

 


Copyright © Tim Messick 2017. All rights reserved.
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Food of the Gods in the Bodie Hills

How can a scrawny plant, growing in disturbed soils, with painfully sharp spines all over its fruits come to be named  for the mythical “food of the Greek gods”—Ambrosia—a name also related, apparently, to the Greek word for immortality, αθανασία (athanasia)? Carl Linnaeus himself, the “father of modern taxonomy,” bestowed the name in 1754. But why Ambrosia? I haven’t found an explanation. The authoritative Flora North America says “allusion unclear.” One might say it’s a crusty old botanist’s joke on posterity, but I won’t impugn the intentions of the great Linnaeus. The genus isn’t native to Sweden and he may have examined only a few specimens from North America (collected by others). Maybe they smelled nice, but he probably didn’t get to know the genus well enough.

Ambrosia

Ambrosia acanthicarpa, annual bur-weed or annual ragweed, grows on disturbed, sandy soils, often along roadsides, throughout much of western—especially southwestern—North America. The plants seen here were on a dirt road near the north edge of the Bodie Hills, in Lyon County, Nevada. I’ve also seen it beside Hwy 270 at Mormon Meadow and I’ve probably overlooked it at other locations. (Though you’re not likely to overlook it if you encounter it while wearing open-toed sandals.)

It’s not immediately obvious, but Ambrosia is a composite—in the sunflower family (Asteraceae). There are more than 40 species of Ambrosia in the New World, mostly in western North America. Ambrosia now includes plants formerly placed in Hymenoclea and Franseria.

Ambrosia

Despite its vicious demeanor, Ambrosia has an intriguing anatomy. The male flowers, bulging with stamens, are tightly clustered into numerous small heads, dangling along the axis of a tall raceme. The pollen shed from those anthers causes agonizing irritation of eyes and sinuses in anyone getting a face-full of the stuff. Magnified, the pollen grains look like lethal medieval weapons.

ambrosia_artem-wikipedia

While the male flowers will insult your eyes and upper respiratory system, it is the female flowers that will draw blood from your toes and fingers. Pistillate flowers are in the axils of leaves below the staminate inflorescence—the better to catch those heavily armed pollen grains. They lack corollas and are encased, usually one at a time, in a long-spined “bur.” (These spines are derived from the paleas—in Asteraceae, the usually very thin, papery, scale-like or bristle-like “chaffy bracts” at the base of each flower.)  As the fruit matures, the bur becomes very hard. The spines stiffen and become very sharp.

Ambrosia

Did you notice the tire tracks in the first photo? Above you see evidence for one of this plant’s long-range dispersal mechanisms. The mature burs attach themselves freely to automobile tires. No doubt this is one reason Ambrosia acanthicarpa is fairly common along disturbed road shoulders and many lesser-used unpaved tracks throughout the American west.


Copyright © Tim Messick 2017. All rights reserved.
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The Checklist: New 2017 Edition

I’ve made some corrections and additions to Plants of the Bodie Hills: an Annotated Checklist, based on some fieldwork and other research during 2016. CLICK HERE to visit the Downloads page. The January 2017 edition of the checklist is a 47-page, 5.1 mb PDF file. [UPDATE, January 16: A few more typos corrected. You may want to download again if you downloaded prior to 1-16-2017.]

Checklist Cover 2017

The Bodie Hills encompass about 417 square miles in northern Mono County, California, western Mineral County, Nevada, and southern-most Lyon County, Nevada. The checklist includes 679 taxa of vascular plants, of which 575 are definitely known to occur in the Bodie Hills and 104 others are considered likely to be present. The list includes 52 families of dicots, 15 families of monocots, and 8 families of vascular cryptogams.

Travertine Hot Springs

Travertine Hot Springs has extensive alkaline wet meadows and dry outcrops.

Cinnabar Canyon

Cinnabar Canyon contains pinyon-juniper woodland and an unusual wet meadow.

Bodie Mountain

Bodie Mountain supports high-altitude sagebrush scrub with lots of
cushion plants and several alpine species.

Bodie

Bodie is in the south-central Bodie Hills.

 


Copyright © Tim Messick 2017. All rights reserved.
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