Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Even in March Berries Go Round

Ah me, I failed (til recent reminders) to let you know about the current edition of Berry-Go-Round, number 38, which is now up at Anybody Seen My Focus?. Puca, a first-time host, has done a smashing job of rounding up the latest and greatest plant posts, and even included FF's recent contribution on big bluestem, below.

Hustle on over and check out lettuce-growing tips, SPAM (not the bad kind), spring flowers, and much more. Do drop a comment or two on posts you enjoy; it helps keep our participants motivated!

Then, when you're ready, be the first to try out the new BGR submission form to deliver your post on plants, botany, green news, etc. directly to my doorstep, where the next edition will be hosted at the end of April. Or, if you're not excited about such technovation, email me your link directly at FFnaturalist AT gMAIL you-know com. Okay?? Deadline is April 25th, please...

Preliminary indications are that the April edition will have a bit of a tree focus (Arbor Day and all), but plant posts of all types are welcome. Lines are open...

Friday, March 25, 2011

Big Blue: A Grass for the Times?

Last fall I had an email from a botanist friend: What’s going on with big bluestem? After he pointed it out, I noticed that, sure enough, this species, one of the dominant grasses in the tallgrass prairie (as in the source of the original Kansas sods that once housed the homesteaders), was bustin’ out all over the foothills!
Above: Fall color in "turkeyfoot," Big Bluestem grass (Andropogon gerardii), looking across Section 16 and Boulder's Jewell Mountain Open Space. (You can even see the turkey feet in this photo!)

Normally, Big Bluestem does occur on the slopes of our mountain front in sporadic patches, but has been expanding in recent years. In 2010, this warm-season grass had an extraordinary year. Its abundance first drew attention at Lookout Mountain, on the slopes of Windy Saddle Park and adjacent areas, where patches of last fall's russet color could still be spotted in January, even from a distance, as long as the ground was free of snow. Big bluestem and its cousins in the grass family provide great winter color in the landscape.
[This post is a revised version of an article that appeared in the March edition of the Plan Jeffco newsletter, and is therefore oriented toward local open space parks.]

Tallgrass prairie, whether here or in the East, is a tattered remnant of what it was in its glory days. We’re lucky to have sizable patches in Jefferson County; efforts to protect some have been underway for more than 20 years. It’s been years since we talked tallgrass prairie here at FF, but we have continued to monitor developments in the Rocky Flats area, where our best examples of this rare ecosystem survive, including the Ranson/ Edwards property and Jewell Mountain, where Boulder conveniently protected several hundred acres. Patches of big bluestem on the foothills slopes are fine, but limited, reminders of the more extensive remnant prairie that once rolled out across the county but now have retreated to a fringe along the mountain front. Most of what you see west of Highway 93 and north of Hwy 72 is tallgrass prairie.

Big Bluestem (grass)
Andropogon gerardii
  • Warm-season sod-forming grass.
  • Height: 4-5 feet in Colorado; to 8 ft in prairie states.
  • Range: All but the five westernmost of the lower 48 states, as well as the central provinces of Canada.
  • Dominant and characteristic grass of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.
  • Flowering heads are 4-5 inches long, with 3 (sometimes more) spreading branches, suggesting its other common name: turkeyfoot
  • Links: At USDA Plants database; at Illinois Wildflowers.

Don't Confuse Big Bluestem with:
Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis; Bromopsis inermis) is a ubiquitous pasture grass that was introduced in the late 1800s for livestock forage and erosion control. A sod-former, it tends to grow in extensive monocultures, unlike the patch effect of bluestem, although it is a similarly robust grass that turns color in the fall (more brownish than reddish, however). Smooth brome has leaves on the stem, not just at the base, and lacks the characteristic "turkey foot" seedhead. It is invasive in prairies, and some states consider it a weed. According to the USDA, Smooth Brome now occurs in every state except Hawaii, Alabama, and Florida.

Big Bluestem in Jeffco’s Landscape
Look for these foothills patches primarily on unforested south- and east-facing slopes: on Mt. Morrison, most central-county slopes visible west of Highway 93, and on the north slopes of our canyons, from Bear Creek to Golden Gate. In Mt. Galbraith Park, you can see the colorful auburn patches across the canyon opposite as you make your way up the trail. Driving west on I-70, look for it to the north as you enter the foothills, on the slopes in Matthews-Winters Park.

In the southwest part of Red Rocks Park, bluestem occurs on more prairie-like level sites, because that area has been long protected and contains isolated spots where the Rocky Flats alluvium persists on lands that would otherwise have been cultivated or developed. In fall, Big Bluestem blends perfectly with the outcrops of the Fountain Formation that define Red Rocks.

Lack of development, and a somewhat inhospitable climate, have also protected the Rocky Flats area. The extremely cobbly soils, beloved of gravel companies, hampered agricultural attempts on much of the area, and enhanced the available moisture content for the growth of these taller species. These soils are considered among the oldest in Colorado, in part because the area is unplowed, with some estimates placing their age at 2 million years. But Big Bluestem’s visibility in the landscape of any given year reflects how we’re doing on overall precipitation and temperature.

The Water Year and Other Influences
Based on the 30-yr average precipitation, our wettest month of the year should be May. When it is, that’s about perfect for big bluestem and other warm-season grasses (including blue grama, sideoats grama, little bluestem, and switchgrass), which are just getting started as the weather warms toward summer. By June, the cool-season grasses (such as the common lawn grasses, including Kentucky bluegrass, which take advantage of early season moisture to start growth) will be ready to flower and set seed, but you’ll still have to hunt around on the ground to find evidence that big bluestem is even alive. Large clumps of hairy, velvety blue-green leaves will be your hint.

In July, those spreading clumps send up tall flowering shoots, which produce the “turkey-foot” seedheads by August. When cool-season grasses are giving it up and their seed has scattered, Big Bluestem ripens into the terra cotta masses that reveal its presence even from a distance.

This seasonal habit represents an entirely different metabolism (called “C4”) in these warm-season plants, which use carbon along different pathways than many familiar plants. According to some researchers, this may give them an advantage under conditions of elevated carbon dioxide (think global climate change), especially during drought.

Interestingly, although it seemed, until February snows, that it’s been droughty for several months, 2010 was a good moisture year during its first half, giving Big Bluestem the start it needed. In fact, rainfall in this part of the county has been at or above normal every month from April 2009 through last June. (Later records have not yet been posted online; I’d guess July stayed high as well.) Average temperatures have also hovered a degree or two above normal since late in 2008. Both conditions have supported growth of Big Bluestem, a species that prefers it a little more moist and warm than is the rule in Colorado. If we go too dry and warm, we’re apt to see more of its cousin, little bluestem, but as long as it finds a moist spot, Big Bluestem will remain a part of the county’s natural prospect.

Further Reading
Many more references—bison grazing effects, mycorhizal associations, fire, etc.—can be found via Google Scholar; here are a few to get you started. If you've been following our Indian Gulch fire, some of the articles on fire may be of interest; parts of Mt. Galbraith Park, mentioned above, burned. Note that most articles are in Jstor, and only abstracts are available to those of us without university connections.

Biomass production and species composition change in a tallgrass prairie ecosystem after long-term exposure to elevated atmospheric CO2
Clenton E. Owensby, Jay. M. Ham, Alan. K. Knapp, Lisa. M. Auen, 2001, Wiley Online Library.

Photosynthetic and water relations responses to elevated CO 2 in the C 4 grass Andropogon gerardii
AK Knapp, EP Hamerlynck, CE Owensby, International Journal of Plant Sciences, V 154,#4, pp 459-466, 1993.
In absence of water stress, such systems don’t respond to elevated C, but in water-limited envts, levels of leaf phi, leaf-level ps rates, and stomatal conductance are all likely to be affected by elevated atmos CO2, with the net result being inc in biomass productn.

Growth and Gas Exchange of Andropogon gerardii as Influenced by Burning
Tony J. Svejcar and James A. Browning, Journal of Range Management, Vol. 41, No. 3 (May, 1988), pp. 239-244

Long-Term Effects of Annual Burning at Different Dates in Ungrazed Kansas Tallgrass Prairie
Gene Towne and Clenton Owensby, Journal of Range Management, Vol. 37, No. 5 (Sep., 1984), pp. 392-397

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Fowl Weather*

Dire predictions for weather here these last few days have uniformly failed to materialize. That's unusual for March, storms of which routinely produce whatever snow piles are forecast. We woke today to a proper pea soup of fog, as yesterday, but only a skim of white crystals has reached the ground. For the life of me, I can't find the camera, but it looks a lot like this out there, minus the heavy snow.

(Ah, ha! You have only to retrace your steps, and remember that you were trying to snap the lovely crystals on the gate, without success, then came in by the fire, and voila! Here's this morning's actual view.)

It's produced a nice feathered frosting of white on everything, one of the occasional attractions winter provides. Even the chain link gate to the chicken yard looks like a piece of delicate lace...

And the trees! Yesterday I attended a 1 p.m. meeting atop Lookout Mtn, which was in dense fog. The storm, scheduled to move in at 2 p.m., made us hurry through the meeting, but we left in dense fog and clear roads, allowing a view of white-laced trees. Much like this view from February 25th, only a mountain away, but with the ground whitened as well.

Anyway, the point of all this was to talk about chickens. My friend at the Hoosier Horse Farm took a whim in the chicken direction recently, and has been entertaining me with questions and, now that she has her chicks, reactions.

First, a debate on "what kind"... answered in favor of Barred Plymouth Rocks and Ameraucanas (aka "Easter Eggers"). Then the excitement of fluffy little bits of incipient chickenhood at home—"You didn't tell me they'd be so much fun to watch!"

(They aren't nearly so pink, but it is hard to get good photos in indoor light. The 'Canas are the ones that look like chipmunks... very cute!)

The first night she made coffee and stayed up to watch them. First they run around pecking, then they drop, wherever they find themselves, down for a nap, then up and down... Chicken TV. (Networks take notice.) It's especially entertaining to watch them drink.

Last night an update arrived: "They double in size every 12 hours! They are bored... they can fly." (She also mentioned poopy and smelly.) Uh, oh... now she'll be in a race to get them outdoor housing. All too soon, they'll look a little like this photo of our 2008 batch, miniature adults.

Months later, eggs will start arriving. A regular reader wants to know what green eggs look like: here's the answer. (See, we do requests, eventually, here at Foothills Fancies.) It's a good thing she only got 7 chicks—she might be able to keep up!

I have nine (9) dozen eggs in the fridge as I write this, and have just eaten two (one brown, one green) for breakfast. (Not two dozen.) I gave some to Cat Woman (giving them to everyone these days...); she's the only one I know who has been able to distinguish the green eggs from brown; she says they give her indigestion!

I'm finding eggs all over in the coop; last night I even stepped on one, much to the appreciation of the three hens that hurried over to clean it up. This rate, with Easter still six weeks away, is a little alarming. But it won't last...

* Forgive me that one...

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Mysterious Internet

It's a tangled web out there, for sure, and its ways are beyond mysterious. The Phytophactor offered kind words about FF re: the latest Berry-Go-Round, prompting me to go look at my own stats again. I'd decided last time that this is a futile exercise yielding little in the way of intelligible results. It still is. And, of course, it's hard to tell whether people are satisfied with what they find when they arrive.

Speaking of the Phactor, don't miss his posts from early this week on the evolutionary timeline, and one on endangered plants. He's been very prolific lately, and these two are great.

But I just know you'll be interested in some fascinating details about the appeal of Foothills Fancies to the online world at large. Here's a list of my all time top posts (all time being "since Blogger installed stats" or mid-2010).
  • Scales and Tails
  • Best Botany Blog
  • My Kingdom for a Domain…
  • Whatever Happened to Sphenopsida
  • High Color: Alpine Tundra
  • Live at Bear's Lair
  • Tree Cholla
  • Stuff Plants Do
  • Summer Feast BGR
  • Snowy Sunday Visitors

The moral of that story is that old posts live for...ever. A sobering thought. The twin two-year old posts on obsolete plants (Sphenopsida, 27 in Feb) and obsolete taxonomy ("My Kingdom...", 38 in Feb) are still tops in this past month's searches. Several people wanted to know about Zosterophyllum and Asteroxylon? If FF comes up, that surely speaks to the paucity of information out there on fossil plants.

It's heartening to know that people are also out there looking for botany blogs. That means I should be doing more botany, right? (We all should...) A little post I wrote five years ago, simply pointing to the wonderful Botany Photo of the Day is still a top-notch vote-getter.

How do people find us? It's clear from the above list that participating in carnivals adds to one's visibility, as most of those posts were included in one carnival or another. Google, in all its guises, is always a great source of traffic; this month the new listing FF got from Online College Courses is already being productive.

Other bloggers, and being well connected, also help. I already miss the Watcher, who sent more people my way than anyone until he stopped posting one month ago today. Inexplicably moving to the top of the referral list lately is the terrific bird-blogger Bootstrap Analysis. As far as I can tell, my only acquaintance with her was a post I submitted to I-and-the-Bird FIVE years ago! (Thanks, Nuthatch!)

juvenile Western RattlesnakeBut the all-time top of the Foothills Fancies hit parade, with more than twice as many visits as any other post, is the delightful Scales and Tails, documenting a fascination with snakes we might not have expected. In particular, strong in the search terms are things like "baby rattlesnake identification," "images of baby prairie rattlesnake," and so on. (We can only hope these weren't emergency searches.) Thanks go to this little guy. I hope you're doing well, sweetie, wherever you are.

I think I feel a rattlesnake post coming on... stay tuned!