Lovely Lomatium

I officially learned how to botanize in the American west. Before then my skills were limited to "hey, look at the pretty flower" and then Googling my way to an answer. As such, I have a real soft spot for western botany. Despite the fact that I have not had the chance to exercise those muscles in some time, I nonetheless revisit the few groups that I do remember via the massive photo collection I built up during my tenure in Wyoming. One group I am particularly fond of are members of the genus Lomatium.

I had never really paid attention to members of the carrot family. I always associated that group with the Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) I encountered growing in ditches. In other words, I found them boring. All of that changed when I moved to Wyoming. Spring was slow to start that year. I mean really slow. I thought I had it bad in western New York where spring snow storms and freezing temperatures often delayed plant growth well into May. That year in Wyoming, the last snow storm hit on June 29th. Because of this, most of the plants we were trying to locate were biding their time underground waiting for favorable weather to kick off the growing season.

By mid June I was starving for plant life. I needed to see some greenery. That is when I first laid eyes on a Lomatium. They began appearing as tight clusters of highly dissected, rubbery leaves. Once I knew what to look for, I began finding them throughout the foothill regions where we were working. Since I was just getting familiar with the local flora, I was hard pressed to key anything out. Instead I just waited for flowers. I didn't have to wait very long. 

Soon entire hillsides were covered in little yellow umbels. They were squat plants, never growing too high. The constant winds that whipped across the terrain made sure of that. It soon became apparent that Lomatiums don't waste any time. Water is limited in these habitats and they have to make quick work of it while it is available. Another interesting thing to note is the sex of the flowers. Generally when I see a dense umbel like that, I just assumed they were hermaphroditic. In at least some Lomatium, this is actually not the case. The sex of the flowers is determined by age. 

Smaller plants tend to produce male flowers, whereas larger plants will produce hermaphrodites. This makes a lot of sense as producing only pollen requires much fewer resources than producing ovaries and eventually seeds. Needless to say, larger plants also produce the most seed and are often the driving force in population persistence and growth. The seeds themselves are quite interesting. They are winged and often quite fleshy until they dry. Wind is the predominant seed dispersal mechanism and there is no shortage of wind in sagebrush country. 

The phylogeny of this genus is quite confusing. I certainly haven't gotten my head wrapped around it. Individuals are notoriously hard to identify both physically and genetically. There is a large degree of genetic variation between plants and "new species" are still being discovered. At the same time, there is also a lot of endemism and some species like Lomatium cookii and Lomatium dissectum are of conservation concern. Aside from habitat destruction, over-grazing, and limited ranges, over-collection for herbal uses poses considerable threat to many species. 

Further Reading:

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

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