Sunday, January 30, 2011

January Berries

The latest edition of the Berry-Go-Round plant carnival is now posted at Seeds Aside.

This month's eclectic collection offers a look at a dozen record-holding plants, news about Sphagnum genetics, book reviews, the evolution of C4 photosynthesis, and the stunningly unique Fern Rap. Or how about the oldest evidence of plants found to date in Florida? All of these tasty tidbits, and many more, can engage your brain cells if you wander over to edition #36 of the Berry-Go-Round.

Nice job, Laurent! Thanks for the great reading...

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Botanical" Wonders

Two events conspired to renew my level of botanical engagement this month. The second was Mary, the Accidental Botanist, who posted a piece about, a great resource for people (Mary aptly calls "plant nerds") who want to figure out more about a plant.

But the original reason I needed to re-engage was work-related: a project that gave me an excuse to learn more about the rare plants at Summit Lake Park, the alpine contribution to Denver's Mountain Park System. I need to know what these plants look like, and I won't be making any trips to Mt. Evans or Summit Lake in January (see photo). Could the new PlantList site help me?

In two clicks, on my first attempt*, I found myself looking at an image of herbarium specimen #K000697587 of Draba exunguiculata at, incredibly, the Kew Herbarium! It was collected near Gray's Peak in 1885!

*Okay, not quite that easy. Plantlist has a typo; I had to add an "n" to the species epithet to make it work.

Quite a few of the rare plants at Summit Lake are mosses and liverworts (bryophytes). In another two clicks, this time over to the New York Botanical Garden, I was studying a map of locations of specimens of the rare moss, Oreas martiana. Although 16 of the 39 specimens at NYBG are from Colorado, the map showed only six locations on the North Slope of Alaska, one in northern British Columbia, and two in Greenland. Ahh, there's the wrinkle: The specimens have to be "georeferenced," that is with coordinates recorded, in order to be plotted, and many, it seems, are not.

The Plant List, sad to say, deals only with vascular plants and bryophytes. You'd think 298,900 valid names (and more than a million total) would be enough to satisfy anyone, no?

As I said in a previous post about Summit Lake:

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.

What about my favorite arctic tundra lichens that also occur at Summit Lake? No help from the PlantList there, but I was hooked on the concept. Lichen images are rarely a problem; Steve and Sylvia Sharnoff have helped us out with their definitive book and website at (And Steve's more extensive photo gallery, a wonderful place to explore on a snowy winter's day.)

A quick visit over to the American Bryological and Lichenological Society (ABLS) website reminded me I should drop in on the lichen herbarium at Arizona State University, where Dr. Thomas Nash has amassed more than 109,000 lichen specimens. Searchable... Now that sounds promising!

Instead of searching only the ASU collection, though, I found myself presented with this opportunity to search lichen herbaria across the US and Canada! Enter a taxon, and/or maybe some criteria, and pow! you've got label data from any of the 15 institutions in the Consortium of North American Lichen Herbaria.

A few more clicks, and you'll have a map of all the georeferenced specimens in the database, or maybe a list of all the lichen specimens collected within a given distance of whatever coordinates you care to enter. If you ask for all the occurrences of the arctic lichens Dactylina madreporiformis (aka Allocetraria madreporiformis) and Thamnolia vermicularis, you get 515 specimens in ten (counting subspecies) taxa, that look, on the map, like this. The Dactylina is red; Thamnolia blue.

The armchair explorer can click each little map bubble to view a specimen label for that site. If multiple specimens occur there, a list of them pops up, and you can pick which label you want to see.

If you have a microscope handy, you can even try using a Dynamic Key to the lichens of an area, as in this one for the 348 lichen species within 40 miles of Summit Lake. The key will walk you through the characters, eliminating species at every choice (pick a feature you know, if possible, or can make an educated guess at), until you arrive at your answer. Unfortunately, the first big steps in elimination require you to know quite a bit about the lichen's innards, like spore features and what the photobiont (algal partner) is. If you happen to know it's cyanobacterioid, you're in luck; you'll only have to work through 36 species. Alas, about 90% of lichens involve green algae, often Trebouxia, as the primary photobiont.

Easy way to lose a week or two (as I did)... If Dr. Weber's lichen collection* at the CU Boulder Herbarium (COLO) was in the database, I'd be in real trouble!

You say you're not particularly fond of lichens? We'll have to address that in a future post...
* Specimen data aren't online, but you can explore his Catalog of Colorado Lichens.

For Berry-Go-Round #36... "Botanical" is in quotes because lichens aren't really considered to be plants by most people. These days they're organized as "lichenized fungi." But BGR says it's okay "as long as a reminder clearly indicates fungi and algae are not considered plants anymore." This is my reminder.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

How to Start a Year

So far, 2011 has shown promise, in its small moments and quiet observations. Just the way we like it here at FF... Dawn photo, on the 2nd, finds the Sun in its notch, already a bit to the north of its Winter Solstice position.

Our New Year's storm was followed by an even more productive one the next weekend. So far, we are two for three on weekend snow. With temperatures plus-50F (above 10C) this past weekend (and a few minutes of actual rain, in January yet, yesterday morning), the entire foot (30 cm) of snow is now also gone. On January 6th, the calm between the storms is reflected in a pink morning.

Trips to the coop after dusk have, a time or two, been accompanied by the hooting of Great Horned Owls, and early one morning, we could hear two calling to each other in the neighborhood. It's that time of year already. One night, even a sighting, as an Owl flew low past the house.

The youngest girls, last year's pullets, have starting laying seriously, and we are already overwhelmed with luscious eggs, many of them in shades of green. In another month, the older hens will start again too; I'd better get my "customers" primed for a busy season.

The Sharp-shinned Hawk is becoming a regular, often spooking from the chicken area each morning when I open the coop door, and sometimes not going far. To date, I've found Junco feathers by the gate, by the fence, and under her tree. Why she isn't eating more Starlings is still a mystery.

On a sad note, Bob the Quail has not shown his adorable little face, or that roundish shape lurking under his favorite shrub, since January 4th. I still hope for his return, but know as well that his visit was a special glimpse and not necessarily a long-term liaison. Cat Woman's friend and I will remember a special sighting of him on New Year's Day.

No evidence suggests that the resident sharpie was the cause of Bob's sudden disappearance. He made it through the first cold spell, but left before the second, so it wasn't the cold either.

For several days, a Red-tailed Hawk screamed from a power pole down the street. One morning, he took off as I was driving away, making a low pass just above my windshield. Too quick for the camera, that close look sticks only in memory.

One morning, I met Bee Lady and Flame at Red Rocks to check out the birds there. With several "unusuals" reported, including a Curve-billed Thrasher, we had high expectations. We saw, that day, only the Golden-crowned Sparrow, a new one for me. Neither the Harris's Sparrow nor the Rosy Finches put in an appearance. The thrasher has been reported back since, and Cat Woman got to see an entire flock of Rosy Finches there this weekend.

On the domestic front, we've had some serious cold, during which the woodstove served cozily, and the Chocolate Cat discovered the cryptic qualities of the new blanket "Grandma" brought him for Christmas.

That's January—and domestic tranquility!