Tiny Plants: Idahoa

This is a post I wrote three years ago as a guest writer for a blog called Closet Botanist. That blog has since dissolved, hence the re-post.

This year, we returned to the location in the Boise Foothills where I encountered the plant that inspired this post. I found what might be seedlings of the tiny plant. If that’s the case, the phenology is a bit delayed compared to three years ago. I’ll check again in a week or so. Until then, meet Idahoa.

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I have taken a real liking to tiny plants. So many of the plants we regularly interact with are relatively big. Large trees loom above us. Tall shrubs greet us at eye level. Flowering perennials come up around our knees or higher. But how often do we get down low and observe the plants that hug the ground or that reach just a few centimeters above it? Turf grass is ubiquitous and groundcovers are common, but among such low growing plants (or plants kept low), even more diminutive species lurk.

It was a hunt for a tiny plant that sent me down a certain trail in the Boise Foothills earlier this spring. Listening to a talk by a local botanist at an Idaho Native Plant Society meeting, I learned about Idahoa scapigera. A genus named after Idaho!? I was immediately intrigued. Polecat Gulch was the place to see it, so off I went.

Commonly known as oldstem idahoa, flatpod, or Scapose scalepod, Idahoa scapigera is the only species in its genus. It is an annual plant in the mustard family, which means it is related to other small, annual mustard species like Draba verna. It is native to far western North America and is distributed from British Columbia down to California and east into Montana. It occurs in a variety of habitat types found in meadows, mountains, and foothills.

Idahoa scapigera is truly tiny. Before it flowers, it forms a basal rosette of leaves that max out at about 3 centimeters long. Next it sends up several skinny flower stalks that reach maybe 10 centimeters high (some are much shorter). One single flower is born atop each stalk. Its petite petals are white and are cupped by red to purple sepals. Its fruit is a flat round or oblong disk held vertically as though it is ready to give neighboring fruits a high five. Happening upon a patch of these plants in fruit is a real joy.

Which brings me to my hunt. It was the morning of March 20th (the first day of Spring) when I headed down the Polecat Gulch trail in search of Idahoa, among other things. The trail forms a loop around the gulch and is about 6 miles long with options for shortening the loop by taking trails that cut through the middle. I have yet to make it all the way around. Stopping every 10 yards to look at plants, insects, and other things makes for slow hiking.

I was about a half mile – 1 hour or more – into the hike when Idahoa entered my view. A group of them were growing on the upslope side of the trail, greeting me just below waist level. Many of them had already finished flowering and had fresh green fruits topping their thin stalks. At this location they are a late winter/early spring ephemeral. I made a mental note of the site and decided to return when the fruits had matured. Next year, I will head out earlier in hopes of catching more of them in flower.

On the way to Idahoa, I noted numerous other small, green things growing in the sandy soil. It turns out there are countless other tiny plants to see and explore. It got me thinking about all the small things that go unnoticed right underneath our feet or outside of our view. I resolved to move slower and get down lower to observe the wonders I’ve been overlooking all this time.

Further Reading:

Vines for Spring

I’m taking a break from writing a regular post this time around. It’s the first week of spring, and there is a lot going on. I hope you are getting outside and enjoying the warmer weather (at least those of you in the northern hemisphere anyway). It was a pretty mild winter in my neck of the woods, but that doesn’t diminish my excitement when I see plants start to flower and leaf out. The gray days of winter are largely behind us, and holing up in my cave of an apartment is suddenly less appealing.

What I have for you this week are some short video clips. I recently joined Vine, a short-form, video-sharing social media site where each post is a six second, looped video. I’m late to the scene as usual, but I’ve been having fun messing around with it. The following videos are some of my first attempts (and lousy ones at that); if I decide to stick with it you can expect better content. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, please join, follow, favorite, share, like, comment, etc. Regardless, I hope you will find time to pry yourself away from a screen and experience nature during this beautiful and singular time of year.

 

 

 

 

Awkward Botany is also on Twitter and Tumblr, so feel free to follow me there too if you would like. Happy Spring!

Documentary: The Sagebrush Sea

Last month I posted a few photos of some of the weeds and wildflowers of the Boise Foothills. In that post I touched briefly on the ecology of the foothills, and a few readers expressed interest in more posts about this topic. It is definitely a topic I would like to explore further, but it is not one that I know a ton about. In fact, despite spending the majority of my life residing in this high desert, sagebrush-dominated ecosystem, it has only been in the past few years that I have really gained an appreciation for it. Perhaps that’s understandable. This landscape, which initially appears drab, lifeless, and boring, is not easy to love at first…until you do a little exploring, at which point you find it teeming with life, loaded with diversity, and worthy of admiration.

That is one of the themes of a new PBS Nature documentary, The Sagebrush Sea, which debuted on PBS in May 2015. The film is an intimate view of what’s really going on in this vast, seemingly empty landscape that many of us simply ignore, passing through on our way to somewhere else. It is an introduction to a fascinating ecosystem, shaped and formed by extreme events and inhabited by plants and animals that have unique adaptations that allow them to survive the harsh conditions of the high desert. Some of these plants and animals can be found nowhere else on earth. For anyone looking to learn more about the ecology of the Boise foothills and/or the larger ecosystem of which they are a part, this is an excellent place to start.

The-Sagebrush-Sea

The sagebrush steppe is a plant community dominated by sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata and its various subspecies) and bunchgrasses. At one point it covered as many as 500,000 square miles of western North America – hence “the sagebrush sea” – but human activities have reduced it to half that size. The plants and animals in this ecosystem have been coevolving together for at least 2 million years. Sagebrush is, as the narrator of the film says, “the anchor of the high desert,” living up to 140 years old and helping to ensure that the desert doesn’t become a dust bowl. Sagebrush also provides food and shelter for a great number of species.

The Sagebrush Sea was produced by the The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, so while lots of other plant and animal life get adequate screen time, the birds of the sagebrush steppe dominate the film. One species in particular, the greater sage-grouse, is the star character, driving the film’s narrative and speaking for the protection of this threatened and underappreciated ecosystem.

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A view from behind a male greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus ) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Sage-grouse are endemic to the sagebrush steppes of the intermountain west. They are sensitive to disturbances and are “tied to unbroken expanses of sage.” Their breeding grounds (leks) are large patches of open ground, but when they aren’t breeding (which is the majority of the year) they are taking refuge in the sagebrush and grasses. The females make nests below sagebrush, where they blend right in, camouflaged from predators. Sage-grouse consume various plants and insects throughout the year, but their diet consists mainly of the evergreen leaves of sagebrush. Just 200 years ago there were up to 16 million sage-grouse in the sagebrush sea, today that number has been reduced to around 200,000. Due to such a steep decline, they may soon be added to the endangered species list.

Because sage-grouse are so reliant on healthy, intact, widespread sections of sagebrush-steppe, they are considered an umbrella species. Taking measures to protect them will simultaneously spare and even improve the lives of numerous other species with similar requirements. To begin with, there are a handful of other bird species that nest nowhere else except in sagebrush, specificallly the sagebrush sparrow, the sage thrasher, and the brewer’s sparrow. Other animals feed on sagebrush and rely on it to make it through the winter, such as pronghorn and mule deer. Sagebrush is also considered a nurse plant, providing shade and moisture for grass and forb seedlings growing below it.

The sagebrush steppe is threatened by the usual cast of characters: habitat fragmentation, urban and agricultural development, invasive species, climate change, etc.  Some specific activities like cattle ranching and oil and gas drilling also come into play. While The Sagebrush Sea briefly introduces some of the major threats to this ecosystem, it does not dwell on any single issue or point fingers in any one particular direction. For one, it is hard to place blame when there are so many factors involved; but more importantly, the filmmakers wanted the film to be accessible to everyone in order to foster a greater appreciation for the sagebrush sea and a consequent desire to protect it. The debates regarding this part of the world are heated enough, and those directly involved are already well aware of the issues.

This is a beautiful film. The images it captures are captivating and at times breathtaking. Apart from the sage-grouse, various animal families are introduced throughout, each one stealing your heart. My only complaint is that, at only 53 minutes, the film is too short. Luckily, the world they depicted is right outside my door, and I am now even more inspired to explore it.

To learn more about sage-grouse conservation, visit Sage Grouse Initiative.

Weeds and Wildflowers of the Boise Foothills: June 2015

Boise, Idaho is a beautiful city for many reasons. One feature that makes it particularly attractive are the foothills that flank the city from the southeast to the northwest. The foothills are a transition zone to the mountains that lie to the northeast. Large sections of the foothills have been converted to housing, but much of the area remains as wide open space. There are around 150 miles of trails winding through the foothills that can be accessed from the Boise area. These trails are used frequently by hikers, mountain bikers, dog walkers, bird watchers, trail runners, and horseback riders. The foothills, along with so many other nearby attractions, explains why Boise is such an excellent city for those who love outdoor recreation.

boise foothills trail

I feel embarrassed to say that I had not yet made it into the foothills this year until about a couple weeks ago. I had intended to go for more frequent hikes this year, but life has been in the way. What I was especially curious to see was how the plant life in the foothills changes throughout the year. Because Boise is located in a high desert and receives very little precipitation (especially during the summer months), many of the local wildflowers show themselves in the spring when there is moisture in the soil, after which they wither up and go dormant for the rest of the year.

But there is still lots to see in June. However, it should be noted that when you are hiking in the foothills you must develop an appreciation for weeds, as many of the plants you will see are not native to this area and, in many cases, are in much greater abundance than the plants that are. Species brought in from Europe and Asia have become well established in the Boise Foothills, significantly altering the area’s ecology. One of the major changes has been wildfire frequency. Before weeds like cheatgrass – an annual, shallow-rooted grass imported from Europe – became so prolific in the area, fires were rare, slow moving, and isolated. The continuous, quick burning fuel source provided by dead cheatgrass heightens the risk of more frequent, faster moving, widespread fires, especially in the hot, dry summer months. This threatens plant species that are not adapted to frequent fires.

But this post isn’t about the ecology of the foothills. We can save that for another time. For now, I just wanted to share some of the plants I saw – both native and non-native – on my short walk through a very tiny corner of the Boise Foothills earlier this month.

The trail that I hiked is one of several trails in an area of the Boise Foothills called Hulls Gulch Reserve.

The trail that I hiked is one of several trails in an area of the Boise Foothills called Hulls Gulch Reserve.

 

Bachelor's Buttons (Centaurea cyanus) are native to Europe. They are a common cultivated flower and have escaped from yards into the foothills. They are quite attractive and popular among pollinators. Their flowers and stems are edible so perhaps we should all take to eating them.

Bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus) are native to Europe. They are a common cultivated flower and have escaped from yards into the foothills. They are quite attractive and popular among pollinators. Their flowers and stems are edible, so perhaps we should all take to eating them.

 

Silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastate) - a foothills native that is also a pollinator favorite.

Silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata) – a foothills native and a pollinator favorite.

 

Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida) - a foothills native pollinated by nocturnal moths.

Pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida) – a foothills native pollinated by nocturnal moths.

 

Medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusa) is an invasive annual grass from Eurasia. It has an ecological impact similar to cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).

Medusahead (Taeniatherum caput-medusae) is an invasive annual grass from Eurasia. It has an ecological impact similar to cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum).

 

The fruits of nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum), a spring flowering plant in the carrot family (Apiaceae).

The fruits of nineleaf biscuitroot (Lomatium triternatum), a native spring wildflower in the carrot family (Apiaceae).

 

Fruits forming on antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), one of several shrubs native to the Boise Foothills.

Fruits forming on antelope bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata), one of several shrubs native to the Boise Foothills.

 

Rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), a native shrub that flowers in late summer.

Rubber rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa), a native shrub that flowers in late summer.

 

Lichens on the branch of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tirdentata sbsp. tridentata) another common native shrub.

Lichens on the branches of basin big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. tridentata), another common native shrub.

 

Tall tumblemustard (Sisymbrium altissimum) an introduced species and one of many tumbleweed species in the western states.

Tall tumblemustard (Sisymbrium altissimum) – an introduced species and one of many tumbleweed species in the western states.

 

Little spider atop the flowers of western yarrow (Achilea millefolium), a foothills native.

A little spider atop flowers of western yarrow (Achilea millefolium var. occidentalis), a foothills native.

Learn more about the Boise Foothills here and here.

Where have you been hiking lately?