Category Archives: Cartography

Mapping the Varieties of Eriogonum microtheca (Great Basin wild buckwheat)

Two varieties of Great basin wild buckwheat (Eriogonum microtheca) are common in the Bodie Hills (var. laxiflorum and var. ambiguum), and a third (var. alpinum) is likely present in a few areas. Several other varieties occur throughout the deserts and mountains of western North America. The characters that distinguish these are, aside from flower color, fairly subtle differences in stem and leaf vestiture (hairiness), leaf size, and plant height. Most of the varieties are difficult to identify with certainty from photographs alone, but some have narrow geographic distributions, which reduces the number of possibilities in many areas to just two or three.

Eriogonum microtheca var. ambiguum (left) and var. laxiflorum (right).

I’ve been wanting to understand these taxa better. So, I’ve mapped the documented locations of each, and I share those maps with you below, along with some notes on identification and links to photos.

First, a few notes:

  1. Is the epithet microthecA or microthecUM ? The spelling was was originally published in 1848 as Eriogonum microtheca, but since 1858 microthecum has been in general use. Apparently, this was an error—probably introduced and widely accepted, because it “sounds right” and the usual practice is to have the genus and epithet endings agree in gender (-um is neuter, -a is feminine). Recently, as microtheca became accepted once more, there was a proposal to conserve microthecum, which (unfortunately in my opinion) did not prevail. So, microtheca it is, but in references that have not been recently updated, microthecum is still widely used. Confusion on this important issue will persist for decades to come.
  2. Data sources: The maps are based mostly on specimen location data downloaded (as KML files) from the Consortium of California Herbaria (CCH), served by the CCH2 data portal and the Intermountain Regional Herbarium Network (IRHN). Several maps include additional “research grade” observations downloaded (as CSV files) from iNaturalist. The map for variety microtheca is based mostly on data from the Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria (CPNWH). Caveat: Some collections or observations may be misidentified or have mis-mapped coordinates, so some locations shown on these maps may be incorrect. The geographic ranges suggested by these maps should be considered very approximate.
  3. Also: Descriptive details and common names are mostly from the Flora of North America treatment of Eriogonum microthecum.
  4. Mapping software: The maps were compiled using Quantum GIS (QGIS), a free, open source Geographic Information System that I’m gradually learning to use. The base map is a combination of “Stamen Terrain Background” and “ESRI Terrain” web map services. Additional minor cleanup and formatting was done in Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator.

Map 1, var. laxiflorum, var. simpsonii , and var. microtheca. These are the three most widespread varieties. Var. laxiflorum (Great Basin wild buckwheat) (photos) is common across the central and northern Great Basin, and the eastern Sierra-Cascade ranges, up to eastern Washington. Var. simpsonii (Simpson’s wild buckwheat) (photos) is common across the central and southern Great Basin to the western Rocky Mountains and Colorado Plateau. These two are very similar, but the leaf margins of var. simpsonii are revolute (turned under) or nearly so; those of var. laxiflorum are not.

Variety microtheca (Slender wild buckwheat) (photos, specimen images) occurs mostly from central Washington to central Idaho. Its flowers are yellow (flowers of var. laxiflorum and var. simpsonii are mostly white), but so are the flowers of var. ambiguum, which also extends into eastern Washington and western Idaho (see Map 2). The flowering stems and inflorescence branches of var. microtheca are usually glabrous (hairless); those of var. ambiguum are tomentose (with densely interwoven, generally matted hairs) to floccose (with tufts of soft woolly hairs, the tufts often deciduous).

Map 1.

Map 2, var. ambiguum and var. schoolcraftii. Variety ambiguum (Yellow-flowered wild buckwheat) (photos) occurs in the eastern Sierra Nevada and western Great Basin from Inyo County to southeastern Oregon. It is similar to and sympatric with var. laxiflorum, except for its yellow perianth. Its range also overlaps with var. microtheca in eastern Oregon; but, as noted above, the flowering stems and inflorescence branches of var. microtheca are usually glabrous, while those of var. ambiguum are tomentose to floccose.

Variety schoolcraftii (Schoolcraft’s wild buckwheat) (photos) has a very narrow distribution southeast of Honey Lake, in Lassen, Washoe, and perhaps also Plumas counties. It’s very similar to var. ambiguum (yellow flowers and tomentose/floccose herbage), but has slightly larger leaves, flowers, and fruits.

In var. ambiguum: leaf blades are mostly ≤ 0.6 cm wide; flowers are mostly < 2.5 mm long; involucres are 2–2.5 mm long; achenes are 1.5–2 mm long.
In var schoolcraftii: leaf blades are 0.5–1.2 cm wide; flowers are mostly 2.5–3 mm long; involucres are 2.5–4 mm long; achenes are 2.5–3 mm long.

Map 2.

Map 3, var. alpinum. Variety alpinum (Sonora Pass wild buckwheat—though based on its distribution I think it should be “Mono” wild buckwheat) (photos) is known mostly from the eastern Sierra Nevada (and the Sweetwaters, Bodie Hills, and Glass Mountain) in Mono County, plus a few nearby locations in Alpine and Tuolumne counties. With white to rose or reddish corollas, it resembles var. laxiflorum (common throughout the same area), but its stature is shorter, leaves are shorter and narrower with revolute margins, and hairs are often whiter than in var. laxiflorum. It seems to favor the crests of glacial moraines, arid hilltops, and high ridge habitats.

Map 3.

Map 4, var. lapidicola, and var. panamintense. Variety panamintense (Panamint wild buckwheat) (photos, specimen images) is probably restricted to the desert ranges of central Inyo County (one collection in the southern Sierra Nevada may be misidentified). Variety lapidicola (Pahute Mesa wild buckwheat) (photos, specimen images) is known from the Inyo Mountains of Inyo county, the Pahute Mesa/Rainier Mesa area of Nye County, and other scattered locations in central and eastern Nevada as far north as Elko County.

These both differ from var. simpsonii and var. laxiflorum in having flowering stems and inflorescence branches generally glabrous; hairs, if present, are generally brownish or reddish rather than whitish. Both have leaf blades elliptic, and the margins not revolute.

Variety panamintense is a shrub 3–6 dm tall, with leaf blades broadly elliptic, 6–18 mm long × 3–8 mm wide, brown-tomentose below, floccose to subglabrous above; involucres 2–2.5 mm, subglabrous or glabrous; flowers 1.5–2(–2.5) mm; and achenes 1.8–2 mm long.

Variety lapidicola is a subshrub 0.5–0.5 dm tall, with leaf blades elliptic, 3–7(–8) mm long × 1–4 mm wide, densely reddish-brown-tomentose below, tomentose to floccose above; involucres 2.5–3.5 mm, floccose to subglabrous; flowers (1.5–)2–3.5 mm; and achenes 2.5–3 mm long.

Map 4.

Map 5, var. arceuthinum and var. phoeniceum. Both of these are rare, known only from a very few locations in eastern Nevada and western Utah. Varieties laxiflorum, simpsonii, and to a lesser extent lapidicola are also prevalent in this region. Variety arceuthinum (Juniper Mountain wild buckwheat) (specimen images) is known from a scant 5 specimens in the Mahogany Mountains of Lincoln County, Nevada and Iron County, Utah. Variety phoeniceum (Scarlet wild buckwheat) (specimen images) is apparently known from only 3 specimens collected in Millard and Beaver counties, Utah.

Both are short, compact subshrubs, under 10 cm tall. Both have very small, narrowly linear leaf blades, 4–8 mm long and ≤ 1.2 mm wide, densely white-tomentose below and sparsely floccose or glabrous and green above, with revolute margins. The differences are subtle: (1) var. arceuthinum is generally 5–7 cm tall with a spreading caudex, while var. phoeniceum is only 2–4 cm tall, generally without a caudex; (2) var. arceuthinum has glabrous involucres, while var. phoeniceum has floccose to subglabrous involucres. With so few specimens available, and the differences so minor, are these really distinct taxa? More fieldwork needed, I think.

Map 5.

Map 6, var. corymbosoides, var. johnstonii, and var. lacus-ursi. These three varieties occur only in the Transverse ranges of southern California. Of the more widespread varieties, only var. simpsonii may also occur in this area. It differs from these three in having flowering stems and inflorescence branches that are generally tomentose to woolly-hairy (vs. generally glabrous in var. corymbosoides, var. johnstonii, and var. lacus-ursi).

Variety lacus-ursi (Bear lake wild buckwheat) (specimen images) consists of subshrubs about 1.5–2 dm tall, with cream-colored flowers 2.0–2.5 mm long. Its leaves are narrowly elliptic, densely white-tomentose below and glabrous or nearly so above, with the margins usually revolute. It is known only from clayey outcrops in Bear Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains.

Variety johnstonii (Johnston’s or San Gabriel Mountains wild buckwheat) (specimen images) consists of decumbent, spreading subshrubs, less than 1.5 dm tall, with white to reddish flowers mostly 3–3.5 mm long. Its leaves are elliptic to obovate, densely whitish-brown-tomentose below and floccose to subglabrous above, with the margins usually not revolute. It occurs in montane conifer woodlands and was initially known only from high elevations in the San Gabriel Mountains, but has since been found in the San Bernardino Mountains as well.

Variety corymbosoides (San Bernardino wild buckwheat) (specimen images) consists of larger, rounded to spreading shrubs, 3–6 dm tall, with white to reddish flowers 2.0–2.5 mm long. As in var. johnstonii, its leaves are elliptic to obovate, densely whitish-brown-tomentose below and floccose to subglabrous above, with the margins usually not revolute. It occurs in chaparral and in oak and conifer woodlands in both the San Bernardino Mountains and San Gabriel Mountains.

Map 6.

Map 7, All varieties, with (very) approximate range boundaries.

As of this writing, there are no observations in iNaturalist for the rarest varieties of Eriogonum microtheca: vars. arceuthinum, phoeniceum, lacus-ursi, corymbosoides, and johnstonii. These present great opportunities for Nevada/Utah and SoCal botanists to document these taxa with photographs from the field!

When photographing these plants, try to capture the following details: 1) stem hairs: abundance, texture, and color; 2) perianth color; 3) leaf blades: hairiness above and below, margins revolute or not, length (measure); 4) plant height (measure).

Map 7.

Copyright © Tim Messick 2022. 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 2022. All rights reserved.

The View from Lucky Boy Pass

Cory Pk from Lucky Boy Pass

Looking Northwest from Lucky Boy Pass: Corey Peak
in the southern Wassuk Range

The earliest map I’ve found showing a road over Lucky Boy Pass, in the southern Wassuk Range of Mineral County, NV (just east of the Bodie Hills), is the 1873 “Topographical Map of Central California Together with a Part of Nevada” [Sheets II and IV], by Charles F. Hoffman of the California Geological Survey (link to Sheet IV in the David Rumsey Map Collection). Part of this is shown below.

1873 Hoffman CalifGeolSurvey (1)

Here’s a closer view (below), with a red dot over Lucky Boy Pass. A few other things to note on this map: the city of Hawthorne (near the south end of Walker Lake) isn’t there yet. Hawthorne was established about 1880. The label “Cory’s Peak” is a little off-target. It’s placed on today’s Mt Grant (highest in the Wassuk Range). Cory Peak should be the first knob north of the red dot. “Mt. Brady”, south of Aurora, is now called Brawley Peaks (although that’s apparently a mis-spelling of Braly). The little back dot at the crossroads north of Aurora marks the stage stop at Fletcher.

1873 Hoffman CalifGeolSurvey (2)

The road over Lucky Boy Pass became a main road connecting Hawthorne with points to the west, perhaps during the peak of activity at Aurora (1863-64) and Bodie (mid-1880s). The arrival of the Carson and Colorado Railroad at Hawthorne in 1881 also boosted activity along this road. Today the road is wide and well maintained, having recently served the now mostly inactive Borealis Mine (just south of Lucky Boy Pass) and  Esmeralda Mill (just east of Aurora in the Bodie Hills).

Buller Mtn

Looking Southeast from near Lucky Boy Pass: Buller Mountain
in the southern Wassuk Range

On a clear day, there are fine views into the remote eastern slopes of the Bodie Hills, and glimpses of the Sierra Nevada beyond.

Mt Hicks from Lucky Boy Pass

Looking South: Mt. Hicks (right) and the distant Sierra Nevada (left).

Bodie Hills from Lucky Boy Pass

Looking South-southwest: Brawley Peaks near Aurora (center). Fletcher Valley in the foreground, with Mud Spring Wash in front of the dark volcanic flows crossing the middle of the picture.

Bodie Hills from Lucky Boy Pass

Looking Southwest: Dunderberg Peak in the Sierra Nevada (center), then Bodie Mountain and Potato Peak in the Bodie Hills (right of Dunderberg). More of Fletcher Valley beyond foothills in the foreground.

The Wassuk Range from Fletcher Valley

The southern portion of the Wassuk Range from Fletcher Valley (looking north). Corey Peak (10,520 ft, right of center) appears to be the highest. Mount Grant (11,239 ft), although taller, is much farther away, barely visible as a low bump left of center. Lucky Boy Pass is near the right edge of this picture.

Lucky Boy Pass Road probably takes its name from the Lucky Boy Mine, discovered in 1908 several miles south of Hawthorne. But who was this lucky person? And what was he lucky with—prospecting, cards, love?  I haven’t found the answers, but he appears to have moved around a lot: there are “Lucky Boy” mines in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Washington, as well as Nevada.


Copyright © Tim Messick 2016. All rights reserved.
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