Beautiful Bitterroot

During the summer of 2011, I entered into a small love affair with a wonderful little succulent rosette. I would see them scattered about the sagebrush. They always brightened my day. They seemed so foreign compared to the northeastern flora I was used to. The cylindrical leaves were tightly packed and hugged the ground, no doubt to get away from the constant winds that blow across the terrain. It didn't take long to learn its name. The flora I was using told me that these plants were none other than Lewisia rediviva, more commonly known as bitterroot. 

Bitterroot is native to much of North America west of the Rockies. It can be found growing at elevations ranging from 2,500 feet to over 10,000 feet. This is one hardy little plant. Its position taxonomically speaking has changed a bit as of late. This species was once placed in the family Portulacaceae but recent analyses now suggest it in a new family - Montiaceae. 

The rosette of leaves are produced from a cylindrical taproot in late summer. They will remain green throughout the fall and into the harsh winter, insulated under the snow. This allows the plant to get a head start on photosynthesis come spring. As the snow slowly melts away, bitterroot begins producing flower buds. 

As the flower buds mature, the leaves begin to senesce. Very often you will find flowers and no leaves, which may lead some to believe they have witnessed two different plants. Either way, the flowers are quite the spectacle. Blooming time varies depending on latitude and elevation but between the months of April and June, bitterroot enters reproductive mode. If you're a fan of big flowers on small plants, then this species is right up your alley. The 2 inch flowers are borne flush with the ground and vary in color from stark white to bright pink. Their display is made all the more magnificent by the fact that bitterroot is often found growing in bare soil, devoid of other flowering forbs. 

Further Reading:

http://on.doi.gov/1QVDFKK

http://1.usa.gov/1Wim1JC

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

Pretty Parasites

Three owl's clovers from western North America - Triphysaria eriantha ssp. rosea, Triphysaria eriantha, and Triphysaria versicolor ssp. versicolor. These lovely plants are hemiparasites belonging to the family Orobanchaceae. This group is thought to be closely related to the genera Castilleja and Orthocarpus.

Photo Credits: Tom Hilton (http://bit.ly/1Ikg9Vy) and Ken-ichi Ueda (http://bit.ly/1CRPxaT)