Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tundra Tales and Mossy Trails

The extreme fall color we encountered during last month’s visits to Summit Lake might make you think the season for wildflowers there had ended. ‘Twas not so—at least two of summer’s wildflowers were hanging on in protected nooks. An occasional Alpine Avens, whose red leaves dominated the landscapes of the previous post, still retained green leaves and full golden bloom.

Photos taken September 9 and 18, 2009.

This composite, however, was the most obvious fall wildflower, displaying spots of bright yellow that caught the eye. (Perhaps Senecio fremontii, or a species of Ligularia? Consensus among the botany buddies is for the Senecio.)

The grasses were also well headed out and more obvious, as here, then they had been most of the summer. Unlike many other nonforested ecosystems, alpine tundra is not dominated by grasses. They appear, as do other wildflowers, as decorative elements in small patches, rather than the matrix against which showy flowers are displayed. In most of this tundra, the Avens, if anything, forms the background matrix. (What looks like a grassy matrix in tundra photos is usually Kobresia myosuroides, a small sedge that dominants the snow-free wind-swept areas.)

Of them all, we were perhaps most happy to get reacquainted with the tundra’s fall wildflower of note: Arctic Gentian. [Elsewhere known scientifically as Gentiana algida, we here in Colorado are asked to call this species Gentianodes algida.*] We never see this flower in summer; when it blooms, alpine autumn has arrived, and the first snows of winter are surely on the way.

*This is due to the efforts of Colorado’s most dedicated and prolific plant taxonomist/systematist of recent decades, Dr. William A. Weber, emeritus curator of the University of Colorado Herbarium in Boulder. Dr. Weber turned 92 or 93, I believe, this month, and his accomplishments are too numerous and impressive to list. He has trained and/or inspired generations of Colorado botanists. In addition to his work on the vascular flora, he is also the state’s leading lichenologist (to the best of my knowledge) and, in 2007, ventured into yet another field with the definitive Bryophytes of Colorado.

It’s a challenge for me, a gestalt taxonomist at best, to appreciate Dr. Weber’s revisions of the Colorado vascular flora, and I suspect out-of-state botanists are also challenged. Somehow the familiar Latin names come more readily. It’s like learning another language! Perhaps I exaggerate…

plaqueBut one of the things for which I unequivocally appreciate Dr. Weber is that he is solely responsible for encouraging the National Park Service to designate Summit Lake Park as a National Natural Landmark in 1965 on the basis of its unusual flora, which he documented. The plaque reads: This site possesses exceptional value as an illustration of the National Natural Heritage and contributes to a better understanding of man’s environment.

The distribution map for this species in Colorado implies that it can be found at lower elevations than strictly tundra, even with a few plains counties apparently reporting it. Weber lists it as alpine and subalpine, and its height (or lack thereof) certainly makes it a good fit among alpine ankle-biters. Grass-like leaves enable it to hide unobtrusively among other plants all summer while they bloom profusely, then only when it has the field pretty much to itself does it show its abundant flowers.

More pictures and information on Arctic Gentian in Montana, at Southwest Wildflowers, and at the USDA Plants database. I've been macro-impaired of late, but you can find a very nice closeup at Pikes Peak Photo.

What about those Trails?

As pleasant as the gentians were, we were at Summit Lake Park to talk trails. The main trail to the Chicago Lakes Overlook is scheduled to be redone next season, so planning was in process on that. In addition, we talked about, and tried to line out a route for, a new trail closer to the lake, a major attraction for visitors. aerial close

This photo provides an overview of the area, with the main overlook trail at the left, and the parking area lower right. There is a trail from the parking lot to the lake, but visitors have also created a web of social trails in the area as they go for the views and explore the shoreline. What I’d like to point out in this photo, though, is the bare-looking area to the lower right of the lake. That’s the area we were trying to route a new trail through, to channel foot traffic and discourage wandering at will.

trail Here’s what the area looked like a little closer up. We tried to lay out a route that would avoid the perennially wet areas and impact a minimum of vegetation. But I’m a bit daft about cryptogams, and it seemed everywhere we tried to put a flag, the “bare” ground was thick with lichens and mosses. Tundra lichens are a special breed—most are species that dominate arctic ecosystems and aren’t seen down here in the lower 48 states, except at very high altitudes. So they’re special, at least to me.

Test your eye with this elk’s eye view. If this photo (Photo 1) were a vegetation quadrat (and I’m a little rusty on cover sampling), I’d say there’s no more than about 40% rock and gravel, about 20% vascular plants, and the rest is moss (almost blackish here) and soil lichens. (The green cushions, which look like moss, are actually "cushion plants," one of which—to confuse us further—is called moss campion.) Smack in the center of the above photo is a whitish wormy lichen called Thamnolia vermicularis. You’ll probably need to click to get a good look at it, or, better yet, visit it at Steve Sharnoff’s very useful site. He’s a way better lichen photographer than I am! Helpful hints for guessing cover are below, if you prefer.

Now that you’re oriented, try Photo 2. If it looks equally bare to you, consider that here I’d guess there’s only about 15% rock and gravel. The rest is ground lichens and mosses. Barely visible in the center of this photo is the brownish Solorina crocea.

Pretty cool, eh? And, to top it off, if you were a plant ecologist, you could spend 14-hour days in the field for weeks on end making these kinds of estimates!

The moral of the story, if there is one, is that there’s lots of life out there, if you look, and few good places for trails. Or, perhaps, that there’s really no way to build a trail without disturbing some little beings, especially if they are cryptogams!

p.s. I forgot to include one more photo. The dominant leaves here are those of the Netleaf Willow, Salix reticulata. This entire shrubby willow thicket, as you can see by my scale item, is not more than one inch tall (2.5 cm)... Two of the plants, northwest of the Chapstick, show opening capsules of willow fluff. In the tundra, unless you're paying close attention, you just never know what you're walking on!

Submittal to Berry-Go-Round plant carnival, edition number #21, now up at Beetles in the Bush.

Photo 1—how much rock? Photo 2—rocks are in fuchsia.

edmosaic edsmSolorina


Watcher said...

Great post. I imagine that things look a bit different up there this week!

Getting people to stick to trails above timberline is so tough. Unfortunately I think that's part of the appeal of tundra for a lot of day-visitors- you can walk anywhere! And it takes so little traffic on that stuff to start a new "trail".

Bughole said...

I appreciate a Colorado naturalist willing to express his discomfort with the "Weber Code". I appreciate his wide-ranging body of his work (his biogeographic work especially), and I suppose it is a tribute to him that one state in the west uses a vastly different nomenclature than the rest, but as an out-of-state botanist it has always baffled me. Still his eccentric nomenclature bothers me less than his unusually broad concept of species, and I automatically reach for Harrington whenever I need to key Colorado plants.