Tag Archives: Mineral County

Botanizing the Bodie Hills

A rainy day at Bodie

A rainy day at Bodie

Earlier this year I was asked to contribute an article for the Bodie Hills Conservation Partnership newsletter and web site on Botany in the Bodie Hills. That was a tightly edited version for a general audience. Here, for the intrepid reader, is a slightly longer version with more details (and more photos).

The early months of 2019 were uncommonly wet in the Bodie Hills, so the soils were saturated, the creeks were flowing, and the seasonal “dry lakes” contained standing water. Years like this are especially good for exploring plant life in the Bodie Hills. At least 640 (possibly as many as 750) different species and varieties of plants occur in the Bodie Hills. This impressive diversity is due in large part to the variety of habitats and plant communities and other environmental gradients across the area.

Eriogonum on a hill south of Bodie

Eriogonum caespitosum on a hill south of Bodie

Most of the range is clothed in sagebrush scrub (dominated by Artemisia tridentata) and pinyon-juniper woodland (Pinus monophylla and Juniperus osteosperma). These plant communities contain much more plant diversity than is apparent at first glance. Moisture and temperature gradients from the west to east sides of the range and from low to high elevations contribute to this diversity.

The western slope and central highlands of the Bodie Hills (facing Bridgeport Valley and the Sierra Nevada) are home to many plants that are common in the Eastern Sierra region. Among these you will find perennials like antelope brush (Purshia tridentata), desert peach (Prunus andersonii), spiny hopsage (Grayia spinosa), snowberry (Symphoricarpos rotundifolius), desert paintbrush (Castilleja chromosa), sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum), Great Basin wild-buckwheat (E. microthecum), several kinds of milkvetch or locoweed (Astragalus spp.), and others. There are native perennial grasses such as squirreltail (Elymus elymoides), sand ricegrass (Stipa hymenoides), Great Basin wild-rye (Elymus cinereus), several kinds of bluegrass (Poa spp.), and others. In spring and early summer you will see annuals including the bright yellow Brewer’s navarretia (Navarretia breweri), pale blue Wilcox’s woollystar (Eriastrum wilcoxii), and several white-flowered cryptanthas (Cryptantha spp.), and many annual wild-buckwheats (Eriogonum spp.).

Morning in Bridgeport Canyon

Morning in Bridgeport Canyon:
sagebrush scrub and pinyon-juniper woodland

The lower east and north slopes of the Bodie Hills (on the Nevada side, facing the Pine Grove Hills, Fletcher Valley, and Wassuk Range) is home to many other plants associated with desert floras of the Great Basin and northern Mojave. The woody ones include winter fat (Krascheninnikovia lanata), three kinds of saltbush (Atriplex spp.), Nevada ephedra (Ephedra nevadensis), Bailey’s greasewood (Sarcobatus baileyi), budsage (Artemisia spinescens), spiney horsebrush (Tetradymia spinosa), and others. Herbaceous wildflowers in this category include globose springparsley (Cymopterus globosus), Nevada suncup (Eremothera nevadensis), shortstem lupine (Lupinus brevicaulis), and the small but spectacular ground nama (Nama aretioides).

North side of the Bodie Hills, Road NF 128

Low on the north side of the Bodie Hills, on road NF 128

From the “Elbow” bend of the East Walker River to Potato Peak in the center of the Bodie Hills, elevations range from about 5,600 to over 10,200 feet above sea level. Heat intensity and length of growing season vary a lot over these 4,600 feet, so the shoulders and summits of the highest peaks support plants you might not expect to find in the Bodie Hills. Above about 9,800 feet on Bodie Mountain and Potato Peak you will find sub-alpine and alpine plants more commonly seen in the high Sierra Nevada. These include bush cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), Eschscholtz’s buttercup (Ranunculus eschscholtzii var. oxynotus), mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna), alpine hulsea (Hulsea algida), and Brewer’s draba (Draba breweri). A few of the highest peaks (Bodie Mountain, East Brawley Peak, and Mt. Hicks) also support small stands of limber pine (Pinus flexilis).

East Walker River at The Elbow

East Walker River at The Elbow (elev. 5,600 ft)

Potato Peak from the north side of Bodie Mountain

Potato Peak (elev. 10,237 ft) from the north side of Bodie Mountain

Snow accumulation sites are common on the steep north and east slopes of peaks and ridges. These areas tend to have sandier soils, extra spring moisture, and shorter growing seasons. At mid-elevations these are often where you find groves of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides). At higher elevations (as along the Bodie-Masonic Road), these places may support small stands of lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta) and other plants less common in the surrounding sagebrush, like dwarf lupine (Lupinus lepidus) and Parry’s goldenbush (Ericameria parryi).

A snow accumulation site

Lots of lupines in a snow accumulation site north of Potato Peak

Aquatic plants have limited opportunities to thrive in the Bodie Hills, and in dry years they may not be able to grow at all. In wet years, at places like Dry Lakes Plateau and Chemung Lake (on the northwest side of Masonic Mountain), spikerush (Eleocharis macrostachya) will be standing a few feet tall in the shallow water. Water mudwort (Limosella aquatica) and the tiny smallflower gymnosteris (Gymnosteris parvula) may be abundant around the receding shorelines. As the soil dries out, the bright yellow flowers of tansy-leaf evening primrose (Taraxia tanacetifolia) will light up the lake beds, which may be visible from miles away.

Throughout the Bodie Hills are creeks, springs, and meadows where greater moisture and richer soils provide habitat for plants that need to keep their feet wet. These include many different sedges, grasses and rushes. Common shrubs along creeks and around springs include several different willows (but mostly narrow-leaf or coyote willow, Salix exigua), Woods rose (Rosa woodsii), aspens (Populus tremuloides) and occasionally buffalo berry (Shepherdia argentea). Clearwater Creek and Mormon Meadow, both along the paved highway to Bodie, are good places to explore these habitats.

Mormon Meadow

Mormon Meadow (before the sheep move in)

Additional plant diversity is made possible by variations in geology throughout the area. For example, Travertine Hot Springs, a BLM Area of Critical Environmental Concern just east of Bridgeport, has extensive wet, alkaline soils and crumbling travertine crusts that support plants uncommon or absent elsewhere in the Bodie Hills. Older sites of ancient hydrothermal (hot spring) activity have altered soils (often white or yellow in color) that absorb more water and support isolated patches of Jeffrey pine (Pinus jeffreyi).

Travertine Hot Springs

Arrowgrass (Triglochin) at Travertine Hot Springs

High on Masonic Mountain, which is mostly granitic, you will find a spike-moss (Selaginella watsonii) and Torrey’s milkvetch (Astragalus calycosus) which are common on high Sierran granites, but rare in the Bodie Hills. Chalky white Miocene lakebed deposits are exposed several places in the eastern Bodie Hills, north of Aurora. At least one uncommon species of wild-buckwheat (Eriogonum alexanderae) is found only on these soils.

Masonic Mointain

On Masonic Mountain, looking toward the summit

But listing and naming these plants can’t possibly convey the delight of finding them in the field. So, during your next visit to the Bodie Hills, make an extra stop or two at a meadow, hilltop, aspen grove, or any bright splash of color in the sagebrush, and see how many different plants, flower colors, and growth forms you can find. Notice the insects that visit them and the geology under foot.

You can download the free PDF annotated checklist of plants in the Bodie Hills HERE. To see what plants and wildlife other people are observing throughout the Bodie Hills, visit www.inaturalist.org/places/bodie-hills.

Mt Biedeman and aspens

Mt. Biedeman and a grove of aspens


Copyright © Tim Messick 2019. All rights reserved.
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Bailey’s Greasewood in the Bodie Hills

Sarcobatus baileyi

Sarcobatus baileyi (note the short, pubescent, clustered leaves)

Floristic studies of large areas are always works in progress. New things regularly turn up in previously unexplored habitats or in more favorable water years. Even reviewing photographs taken several years ago can reveal “new finds” among plants previously labeled with a big question mark.

Just recently, looking through my Lightroom catalog at photos taken 3 and 4 years ago, I realized I had photographed Bailey’s greasewood (Sarcobatus baileyi), a plant I was unaware of at the time, but have since come to know a bit through observations by others on iNaturalist. I had noticed, photographed, and scratched up my hands on it twice: in May 2015, on a ridge just south of the Sweetwater-Aurora road (NF-028) and west of Red Wash Creek (in Lyon County, Nevada); then in September 2016 several miles farther southeast, where NF-028 crosses a low ridge to enter the west end of Fletcher Valley (in Mineral County). Only in 2019 have I recognized what it was, but I think it may be locally somewhat common on gravelly ridges in the low northern and eastern foothills on the Nevada side of the Bodie Hills.

Sarcobatus baileyi

Sarcobatus baileyi

The growth form, foliage, and habitat of Sarcobatus baileyi tend to be so different from the much more common and familiar S. vermiculatus, that it scarcely registers as a greasewood if you aren’t aware it exists. The flowering parts (male and female in separate clusters, and scarcely resembling “flowers” at first glance) are similar in both species, although they are nearly sessile in S. baileyi and are on longer lateral branches in S. vermiculatus. Here’s a key to Sarcobatous species, adapted from a few different sources:

1. Plants generally erect (infrequently ± spheric), often 1–2 m tall, loosely and irregularly branched, the lowest branches rarely in contact with the ground; leaves 1–4 cm, solitary on elongate shoots of current season, usually glabrous (may be slightly pubescent); pistillate flowers and staminate spikes on long lateral branches with 3–9 obvious internodes; mature staminate spikes generally 10–40 mm; fruit 2.5–5.2 mm long, the wing 4–10 mm wide; plants common, usually associated with seasonally moist, saline or alkaline soils, often phreatophytic (rooting deeply to reach the water table)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   S. vermiculatus

1′ Plants generally ± spheric, low, < 1 m tall, densely and intricately branched, the lowest branches in contact with the ground; leaves shorter, 0.5–1.5 cm, clustered in short shoots on cushion-like pads of longer or older twigs, usually pubescent; pistillate flowers and staminate spikes appearing ± sessile, but on short branches with 1–3 minute internodes; mature staminate spikes generally < 10 mm; fruit 5–11.5 mm long, the wing 7–16 mm wide; plants uncommon, frequently on soils that are not obviously saline or alkaline, commonly non-phreatophytic (i.e., shallower-rooted)
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   S. baileyi

Sarcobatus baileyi habitat

Sarcobatus baileyi habitat (they are the greenest low shrubs here)

Bailey’s greasewood is distributed across the central and western Great Basin, nearly all in Nevada. Bailey’s greasewood has been collected in California east of the White Mountains in Fish Lake Valley, along Hwy 266, southeast of Dyer, Nevada, just barely inside Mono County. Calflora indicates it has been observed near Honey Lake in Lassen County and a paper on Sacrobatus ecology (Drenovsky et al. 2011) documents its presence south of Owens Lake in Inyo County.

Common greasewood (S. vermiculatus) has a much wider distribution across all of the Great basin and beyond, to Canada, the Great Plains, and Mexico. In and near the Bodie Hills, it’s common at Travertine Hot Springs, around Mono Lake, other moist alkaline meadow margins, and rarely in uplands or seasonal washes.

Sarcobatus vermiculatus

Sarcobatus vermiculatus (with longer leaves, not clustered)

Sarcobatus vermiculatus

Sarcobatus vermiculatus (with a Variegated meadowhawk, Sympetrum corruptum)

Sarcobatus baileyi and S. vermiculatus sometimes grow together and they sometimes intergrade; because of this, some individuals may not be clearly assignable to one species or the other. Intergradation may result from hybridization, soil or moisture stress, or in some cases pathogens or insect activity. Such intergradation has not been observed in the Bodie Hills, however. With somewhat limited habitat for both species, they probably remain fairly distinct here.

Vernon O Bailey

Vernon O. Bailey on horseback in Nevada, 1898. (Source: Smithsonian Institution Archives, public domain)

Who, then, was Bailey?
Vernon O. Bailey (1864–1942) was an American naturalist, mammalogist with the Death Valley Expedition of 1890-1891, and a Chief Field Naturalist for the Bureau of Biological Survey (part of what became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). His name is commemorated in Canis lupus baileyi, the Mexican wolf, and several other species of plants (including species of Chrysothamnus, Echinocereus, and Yucca). (Other western plants, including an Eriogonum, have been named for at least one other Bailey—William Whitman Bailey.) The Sarcobatus was described by Frederick Vernon Coville, an American botanist (1867–1937) who was also in the Death Valley Expedition and wrote the report on its botanical findings. Later, Coville was chief botanist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and first director of the U.S. National Arboretum.

In Coville’s 1892 description of Sarcobatus baileyi, he says, “The plant was first seen by Mr. [Vernon O.] Bailey at Cloverdale, Esmeralda County, Nevada, in 1890, and recognized by him as different from S. vermiculatus. In company with Dr. [Clinton Hart] Merriam he afterwards found it in a valley in Nye County, Nevada, southeast by east from Gold Mountain, near Thorpe’s quartz mill, and later in Fish Lake Valley … on the California State line. … I take pleasure in associating Mr. Bailey’s name with this shrub, both as a mark of his earnest and invaluable labors in the field of natural history and as a reminder of a warm friendship established among the vicissitudes of a desert exploration.” Vernon Bailey and C. Hart Merriam were not only close professional colleagues; they also became in-laws: in 1899 Bailey married Merriam’s sister—and prominent ornithologist—Florence Merriam.


Copyright © Tim Messick 2019. All rights reserved.
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Plants of the Bodie Hills Checklist: January 2019 Edition

Plants of the Bodie Hills Checklist Cover 2019

Another year has passed and a surprising number of taxa (species, varieties, and subspecies) have been added to Plants of the Bodie Hills: an Annotated Checklist — about 50! Some of these are new finds in the field; some are new records in the on-line herbarium databases. Some of these are definite new additions; some are in the “maybe” category. The total count is now about 750 taxa.

Other changes in this year’s edition include the addition of keys to selected genera, and additions to the map on the last page (or back cover, if it’s printed 2-sided).

CLICK HERE to visit the Downloads page. The January 2019 edition of the checklist is a 64-page, 6.1 mb PDF file.

Here’s a selection of favorite plants seen during visits to the Bodie Hills in 2018:

Eriogonum caespitosum

Matted wild buckwheat: Eriogonum caespitosum

Eriogonum maculatum

Spotted wild buckwheat: Eriogonum maculatum

Salvia dorrii

Dorr’s sage: Salvia dorrii

Thelypodium laciniatum

Feathery thelypodium: Thelypodium laciniatum

Allium anceps

Twin leaved onion: Allium anceps

Angelica capitellata

Ranger’s buttons or Swamp white heads: Angelica capitellata
with lots of visiting insects.

Astragalus curvicarpus

Curvepod milkvetch: Astragalus curvicarpus

Rosa woodsii

Woods rose: Rosa woodsii subsp. ultramontana


Copyright © Tim Messick 2019. All rights reserved.
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