Blowout Penstemon

While living and working in Wyoming, I had the chance to meet so many amazing plant species. Many of these were quite unique to the high desert environments where we were assigned. Countless hours were spent searching large swaths of land rarely visited by humans. One species of plant managed to elude me during my time in that beautiful part of the country. The plant is incredibly rare and thus a focus of federal protection and restoration efforts. 

Based on first impressions, blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii) may look like any other penstemon. The similarities stop there and indeed, this is one of the most unique species of penstemon I have ever heard of. Originally it was only known from a few locations in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. Recently, a few populations were discovered in Wyoming but it is by no means common. 

As its common name suggests, P. haydenii is a specialist of blowouts. These depressions in the sand are caused by blustering winds that carve out and remove all vegetation. Most plants cannot survive in these conditions. There is very little water, the sands are constantly shifting, and as the wind kicks up sand at high speeds, the abrasive force can actually cut down frail vegetation. This is where P. haydenii excels. 

It has a thick, waxy cuticle covering its stem and leaves that protect it from this sandblasting effect as well as drought. The seeds of these species are dispersed by wind and have extreme longevity in the soil. They can remain dormant for decades until the right conditions are present for them to germinate. P. haydenii seeds need at least 2 weeks of steady moisture and lots of abrasion from sand in order to break dormancy. Research has shown that these conditions are only ever present one out of every 8 to 10 years. As a result, P. haydenii has a debilitatingly small recruitment window. 

This rarity has placed it on the endangered species list. Ironically, the very regulations that were put into place to control range degradation by cattle ranchers may have caused serious declines in this species. It was once common practice to over-graze the land where P. haydenii is found and as a result, vegetation became sparse. This increased the likelihood of blowout formation, which favored P. haydenii. Fire suppression is another threat. Regular fires help kill back vegetation that would otherwise outcompete P. haydenii

With droughts on the increase and human activities expanding into areas where the few remaining populations of P. haydenii occur, the future of this strange little endemic is uncertain. There has been a lot of effort to save and restore this species numbers but it is by no means the end of the story. Only time will tell...

Photo Credit: Vernon Jenewein Vljenewein

Further Reading:
http://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=peha12

http://ecos.fws.gov/speciesProfile/profile/speciesProfile.action?spcode=Q2EX