Velvet Turtleback

Death valley doesn't seem like a place where life would thrive. Nonetheless, a unique assemblage of plants can be found living in this hostile environment. These plants are well adapted to take advantage of those fleeting moments when things aren't so bad. A flush of flowers following a rare desert downpour is a reminder that even the harshest environments on this planet can harbor rich biodiversity. One of the coolest plants found in Death valley has to be the velvet turtleback (Psathyrotes ramosissima).

This peculiar little aster forms fuzzy little cushions that superficially resemble the domed shell of a turtle. The tightly packed leaves even give the appearance of scales. Everything about this plant is adapted to life in one of the driest places on Earth. For starters, it is a desert annual. Its seeds can lie dormant in the soil for many years until the perfect conditions arise. Once that happens, growth can be surprisingly rapid. In Death Valley, good conditions don't last long.

Even when conditions are right, its desert environment can still be quite challenging. Water loss and sun scorch are constant threats. Its cushion-like growth form and fuzzy leaves help reduce water loss as hot, dry winds whip across the region. The fuzzy leaves also help to reflect punishing UV rays that may otherwise fry the sensitive photosynthetic machinery inside.

All in all this is an incredible little plant. It survives in one of the toughest environments on the planet through a combination of timing and physiology. It is also but one of many desert-adapted species painting the valley during the brief growing season. As is typical of most of the plants of this region, its beauty is ephemeral and won't last much longer and to me, that makes it all the more wonderful.

Photo Credits: Stan Shebs and Dawn Endico - Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]