09 January 2010

Wild and not-so-wild life: flora

Flora of the Badlands, September
Disclaimer: I am not even remotely a botanist. My friends who are botanists will be only too happy to confirm this statement and to pile on the details, gleefully. It took years for me to start noticing plant life in the way I had noticed animal life from day one. I did develop a decent appreciation of the importance of native plants and xeriscaping when I lived in the Texas Hill Country years ago, something I had not thought of before. When your water source is an aquifer with a slow recharge rate, you should hoard that resource carefully.

I always liked the plants of what I now know should be called a mixed grassland prairie. Not only were they familiar to me, they took root and set the stage for the rest of the ecosystem in a dry and sometimes harsh environment. Tough grasses held the fragile topsoil together. Cottonwoods found an anchoring point wherever there was water. I learned this without being aware of learning it.

Ask me to name it, though, and I may not do so well. Botany is  like a book I’ve only just started: I can't quote it very well. So here is a series of photos from the Badlands, Black Hills and surrounding region, some of which I can identify, some of which I, er, don’t know yet.

Disclaimer 2: We are the kind of nerds who have a huge bookcase filled to overflowing with nothing but field guides to just about everything. At the end of a long day's exploration, you can find us pulling them out left and right, happily arguing about what we saw that day. So, in putting this little essay together, I relied on the following: the lovely Dakota Flora: A Seasonal Sampler, by David Ode (http://www.sdshspress.com/index.php?id=21&action=912); Natural History of the Black Hills and Badlands, by Sven G. Froiland (http://www.librarything.com/work/133744); South Dakota Weeds (Agriculture Extension Service, South Dakota State College, 1956); and Plants of the Black Hills and Bear Lodge Mountains, by Gary E. Larson and James R. Johnson (http://www.blackhillsparks.org/plantsbhbl.htm). All of them were on the bookshelf already. Nerds.

Hand-tinted plates in a 1956 ag extension book on noxious weeds! We love old field guides....

As in most dryland areas, the Badlands and prairie flora look somewhat nondescript in the cold and dry times, exploding into bloom in a wet year. We have had two wet years after a prolonged and difficult drought, so the past two springs and summers have been a major symphony of green. The snowmelt and rains flooded the landscape, and there were pools of standing water in places that normally looked liked baked brick. We found shorebirds in the Badlands. Here at Agate Fossil Beds, the Niobrara is nearly choked by the water-loving river plants.

Even in the dry times, the prairie flowers find a foothold, or roothold, and blossom. This is Plains parsley, the type specimen of which, according to Ode, is at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London. That's an amazing story in itself. The explorations of this region in the early 19th century included a great deal of specimen collecting and transportation, both to the museums of the Northeast and to Europe. I was attracted by its three-way symmetry and the sharpness of its shadows; I had no idea it had a relative that traveled to England 200 years ago. (This is why I love museum work--every specimen is a story, if you dig deep enough.)

Sego lily is just one of the prairie lilies. They are unexpectedly delicate blooms in a harsh landscape. These are true lilies, native to the mixed grass prairie and surrounding regions, far tougher than their flowers look.

The gumbo lily, or (to be more botanically accurate) gumbo evening primrose, has nothing to do with a good Cajun gumbo, alas. As Ode says, it occurs on the gumbo-lands, the clays of the Pierre shales of this area. Gumbo soils are dark, brittle when dry, horribly sticky and clinging when wet, often full of selenium. Yet this graceful flower thrives here, blooming at night, closing in the early morning light, attracting the pollinators, anchoring the ecosystem.

Cottonwoods are just as lovely in the fall as I remember them from childhood. This one in a city park had an especially lovely form, bending down gently over the water, leaves trailing off one by one. Cottonwoods are our main source of fall color, and the conditions have to be Just Right. Just Right did not happen in 2009. Just before the leaves started to turn in early October, we were hit with snow and sub-freezing temperatures. The leaves fell off in large clumps without turning. I'm hoping for better conditions this fall.

Higher in the Black Hills, you find a wealth of botanical communities and rarities. And I find out the limitations of our camera. Bought for our trip to Iceland a few years ago, it's been a dependable workhorse. But it does not see blue flowers the way I do. I am sparing you several dozen pictures of washed-out or too-dark flowers that in life were a pure azure or royal or close-to-Prussian blue. I've tried every setting we have. You'll just have to take my word for it that this was a joyous blue mountain meadow. And still is, every spring.

The Black Hills are dissected by streams and springs, reflecting the abrupt uplift that created them. This is part of Roughlock Falls, a biological oasis in a steep canyon. In the Black Hills, the plants change rapidly with the altitude, and there are pockets of rare plants and animals all through the area. Every trail is different. 

The water is just as cold as you might think, but just look at the difference in the plant life. In this cool, humid microclimate, a wholly different community flourishes.

For me, it's like being in a foreign country with my usual Tarzan-level grasp of the language. There is so much to learn here, and every plant is its own story. It is a fascinating new chapter for me.

In every crevice and canyon, the plants find and define their niches. I wonder about this often, especially with the rare ones. Were they once more abundant, or have they just become established? What part do they play in this complex saga?

There are plants I want to find here just because I love their common names. That may or may not be a good reason for botanizing. Pearly everlasting, manyflower stickseed, flixweed tansymustard, textile onion, darkthroat shootingstar, candle anemone, poverty oatgrass...check back here in a year and I'll post my updated botany album. Maybe I'll learn this stuff yet. Since I have a student doing a major paleobotany project, I pretty much have to.

I'll leave you with a few images...

View of Bear Butte across the water, reflections of cottonwoods, August

I'd love to know what this is. The color rendering is good, much better than my identification prowess. This is in Spearfish Canyon.

I am intrigued by the shapes of the seed heads here.

A particularly tenacious survivor in western Nebraska. That cliff is indeed that steep.


edna said...

So beautiful! I remember cottonwoods from Albuquerque and the white fluff blowing in the spring time.

Jacki said...

I think the purple pink blooms might be Epilobium, or fireweed. There's a great common name for ya!

Unknown said...

Thanks! Fireweed, eh? too cool....