Tag Archives: Lyon County

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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A Herd of Pronghorn

Pronghorn in Fletcher Valley

On a late-September drive along the East Walker River Road, at the north end of Fletcher Valley, I came upon a herd of pronghorn strolling through the sagebrush. I quickly stopped the car, stayed in car, and whipped out the binoculars and telephoto lens. They looked at me, but did not run away. They continued their leisurely walk up an unnamed hill and over the ridge, in the general direction of The Elbow and the Bodie Hills, six miles to the west.

Pronghorn in Fletcher Valley

I counted 21 of them, but I think a few more had already crossed the ridge before I put down the camera for a closer look with binoculars.

Pronghorn in Fletcher Valley

These animals are part of what’s recognized as the Bodie Hills herd of pronghorn. The Nevada Department of Wildlife2012-2013 Big Game Status” report notes: “This antelope herd is shared with California and utilizes upper elevation summer range in the Bodie Hills of California and winters primarily in Nevada. Because of the rain-shadow effect of the Sierra Nevada’s, the Nevada portion of winter range is often in poor condition. This can wreak havoc on fawn survival through the winter months. . . . Following good precipitation years, the population responds quite well with ample fawns contributing to a stable antelope herd.”

Pronghorn in Fletcher Valley

The “2013-2014 Big Game Status” report says, “In March of 2014, 10 pronghorn does were captured and fitted with satellite/telemetry receivers in the Rough Creek Aldridge Grade area. This was a collaborative project between the Nevada Department of Wildlife and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to look at pronghorn distribution patterns and migration routes of the Bodie interstate herd. The follow up of this antelope herd will determine if fawns are being lost on summer range or on winter range.”

Pronghorn in Fletcher Valley

The “2015-2016 Big Game Status” report finds that 2015 was a better year for these animals: “The habitat located within these unit groups is in excellent condition because of the moisture received in fall 2015. . . . Precipitation in 2015 left the grasses and browse community in a productive state. This year’s fawn ratio should result in a stable population trend. At one time this herd numbered close to 200 animals. Consecutive years of low fawn recruitment have reduced the population to 100 animals. Future projects removing pinyon and juniper will allow for some limited expansion. Also creating corridors between California and Nevada will enable the herd to migrate easier from summer range to winter range. The population estimate for Bodie interstate herd is 110 animals.”

Fletcher Valley from Aldrich Pass

Pronghorn country: looking south from Aldrich Pass, across Fletcher Valley,
to the southeastern Bodie Hills.


Copyright © Tim Messick 2016. All rights reserved.
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Sand Rice Grass

Stipa hymenoides

One of my favorite grasses of the Great Basin is the common and widespread sand rice grass (Stipa hymenoides). The rice grasses (or “ricegrasses”) were formerly treated in the genus Oryzopsis, which differed from the closely related needle grasses (Stipa spp.) in part by their short, generally straight and deciduous awns, rather than the mostly much longer, bent, and persistent awns of the needle grasses. Alas, Stipa and Oryzopsis were long known to hybridize promiscuously, and other morphological and developmental studies showed more similarities between the groups, so (to oversimplify the taxonomic story) Oryzopsis was lumped into Stipa. But in common parlance, the shorter-awned taxa are still “rice grasses” and the long-awned taxa are still “needle grasses”.

Stipa hymenoides

In late summer and fall, the seeds swell and push open the florets, making the plants catch the light especially well, so these bright little bunchgrasses can be seen easily from afar. The plants above, however, were right along the sandy edge of the Sweetwater-Aurora road (NF-028), west of The Elbow in Lyon County, in late September.

Stipa hymenoides

Rice grass seeds, especially those of Stipa hymenoides, are highly edible. Sand rice grass used to be called “Indian rice grass”, which is ethnologically and now also politically incorrect, but the name reflected the fact that the seeds were collected for food by Native Americans. Livestock and wildlife find the plants appealing too.

Stipa hymenoides

Sand rice grass is the official the State Grass of Utah and is planted for land reclamation, habitat improvement, and ornamental purposes. Let there be no confusion, however: “rice grass” is very different from true rice, which is also grass (Oryza spp.), but of tropical wetlands (and widely cultivated).

Stipa hymenoides

Stipa hymenoides, last October, at Lee Vining.


Copyright © Tim Messick 2016. All rights reserved.
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