I need your help—those of you who live somewhat close to the Bodie Hills. Three plants have yet to be identified there because they have not been seen up close, photographed clearly, or observed under the right conditions for identification. Since my home is a nearly 5-hour drive from their locations, I don’t know when I might be in the right places at the right times to identify these plants. So, I invite anyone who is interested to do a bit of “citizen science” botanical field work and post the observations on iNaturalist. Details follow.
Mystery Plant #1: An Aphyllon Near Aurora
This plant has been observed twice, in June 2021 and April 2022 at the base of a road cut along the road to Aurora (Mineral County, Nevada), about 0.85 mile south of the intersection with the road through Del Monte Canyon to Bodie (elevation about 6,400 feet). Both times the plants were well past flowering, dried out and crumbling to the point where critical features for identifying the species were no longer present.
When might these plants be in fresh, identifiable condition? Similar plants have been observed in Adobe Valley southeast of Mono Lake (Mono County, CA)(elevation about 6,500 feet). Plants in that area appear to have been in good condition during July. The plants in the photos above had probably flowered during the previous summer.
This plant is clearly in the genus Aphyllon (Broomrapes) of Orobanchaceae (Broomrape family). They are parasites. Lacking chlorophyll, they derive sugars and other nutrients needed for growth from the root systems of nearby shrubs, often sagebrush or rabbitbrush. The inflorescence emerges directly from the ground. It tends to be mostly purplish, yellowish, or brownish in color, with the corollas various combinations of purple, pink, yellow, and white. A taxonomic note: All Broomrapes in North America (about 17 species) were formerly in Orobanche, before that genus was split mid-Atlantic, with all the New World Broomrapes placed in genus Aphyllon and all Old World species remaining in Orobanche (see PhytoKeys 75: 107–118 for an explanation).
Our mystery plant also clearly has an elongate above-ground stem that bears flowers on short pedicels, as in Aphyllon parishii and several other species. In some other species the flowers emerge on much longer pedicels from a very short, below-ground stem—which is the case in two other species of Aphyllon found in the Bodie Hills: A. corymbosum and A. fasciculatum.
The Aphyllon observations in Adobe Valley have been difficult to identify and it’s been speculated (here and here) that an undescribed taxon may be lurking in that area. Could the Aphyllon near Aurora fit into this potentially new taxon also? Photographs showing details of flowers, bracts, and stem are needed.
Mystery Plant #2: A Silene Near Cow Camp Road
This plant is definitely in Caryophyllaceae (Pink family); I think it’s a Silene (because of the notched petals), maybe Silene nuda (Sticky catchfly). But in these photos that came to me by way of the Eastern Sierra Land Trust, from someone wanting to identify it, the image resolution is just a bit too low for a confident identification, so it needs to be revisited in the field. This was seen (in early August, 2019) in the central Bodie Hills, roughly mid-way between Cow Camp Road and Rough Creek, a little north of “Halfway Camp”, elevation about 7650 feet.
Another tall, perennial Silene reported to occur in the eastern Sierra is S. verecunda (San Francisco campion). In Silene nuda, the pedicel and calyx are glandular-puberulent to glandular-hairy. In Silene verecunda, the pedicel and calyx are puberulent (short-hairy), but not glandular. Photos of the plants should therefore include close-ups of the flower, calyx, and pedicel. Clear views of the basal and cauline leaves (showing shape, hairiness, and relative size) would be helpful as well.
The nearest collection of Silene nuda is in Douglas County near Topaz Lake. The species occurs in the northern Sierra Nevada—mostly north of Tahoe—to south-central and southeast Oregon, southern Idaho and across northern and central Nevada. If confirmed here, the Bodie Hills would be the southwestern-most known occurrence of Silene nuda.
A map of Silene nuda collections (sources: CCH2 and IRHN)
Mystery Plant #3. A Pine Near Millersville
High on a remote mountain slope 1.2 miles north-northwest of Potato Peak, above the head of a steep gully at 9,540 feet, and surrounded by thickets of mountain-mahogany, is a small stand of pines. But which one? I think they’re most likely Limber pines (Pinus flexilis), because that’s what occurs at a similar elevation on the north slope of Bodie Mountain, but Lodgepole pines (Pinus contorta subsp. murrayana) occur in scattered, mostly small stands in the central Bodie Hills too. A much closer look at these pines is needed, ideally documenting their overall appearance, the number of needles per fascicle, and the size and appearance of the cones.
Viewed from far down in Aurora Canyon, the details needed for a confident identification are not visible. This stand of pines is a little north of the site of Millersville (topic of an earlier post).
Plants of the Bodie Hills, January 2023 Edition, is now available on the Downloads page (a free PDF). As in previous years, the new edition contains additions, corrections, nomenclatural updates, and refinements to the keys. A key to genera in the grass family (Poaceae) has at last been added.
New additions to the flora this past year are:
Astragalus platytropis (Broad-keeled milkvetch)
Eatonella nivea (Woolly bonnets or White false tickhead)
Eriogonum cernuum (Nodding wild buckwheat)
Glossopetalon spinescens var. aridum (Spiny greasebush) (Crossosomataceae)
Many of these finds were made not by me, but by others posting their observations to iNaturalist (thanks to all who do this!). All observations within the Bodie Hills can be seen HERE.
As before, you have two options for how to use this document: 1) load the PDF onto a mobile device or 2) print the PDF yourself.
Using a mobile device: I’ve found the PDF to be quite readable on my iPhone (in the Books app), although it helps that I’m near-sighted. It’s even easier to read on an iPad, other tablet, or laptop.
Printing the PDF: You can print the PDF yourself or at a local print shop. I highly recommend printing the 124 pages 2-sided to conserve paper and reduce bulk and weight in the field. A comb or spiral binding, binder clip, or other binding will hold it together.
Your additions, corrections, comments, or questions are always welcome.
Here are a few plants I was pleased to see last year while roaming the Bodie Hills:
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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 a few 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 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 7, All varieties, with (very) approximate range boundaries.
As of this writing, there are no observations in iNaturalist for the five 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).
All photos, maps, and text are copyright Tim Messick 2015-2023, except where other sources are given credit. All rights reserved. No copying or modification without written permission. Links are welcome. Thanks!