The hills are alive with wildflowers!

March 14th kicked off the beginning of my second field season of my floristic study of the South Fork Tule River watershed. I have been worried all winter because the drought that California has been experiencing means no rain and no rain means no wildflowers and no data for my flora. We had that big storm that swept through the state a couple of weeks ago, but was it enough germinate flowers?  Leaving my house before the sun rose, I took interstate 5 to 99, toward the southern sierra Nevada. As the sun rose I scanned my surroundings. Driving through the grapevine and the valley I became discouraged because I didn’t see much greenary, but after heading north on highway 65, the all-american highway, I began to see green growth (even if it was mostly non-native grasses).

Once I hit highway 190 and saw the rolling green hills with their granitic rock outcroppings, I knew I was at home. Turning on the one lane road towards the Tule River Indian Reservation I began to see the familiar hills splattered with the bright golden color of fiddle necks (Amsinkia intermedia var. eastwoodiae) and creamy white of hundreds of popcorn flowers (Plagiobothrys sp.).

Wildflowers in bloom!
Wildflowers in bloom!

After meeting with the tribal forest manager and the natural resources department, I headed for the hills to collect plants. The first place I went was this interesting area that I had collected at before. The area was also the locality of a plant I have been interested in since last year when I first collected it.

Caulanthus coulteri

This plant had my colleague Nick Jenson and I in a tizzy. We thought it was a type of  Jewel flower (Streptanthus sp.) but it didn’t seem to fit in the key anywhere. The species it resembles the most is S. insignis var. insignis, but the flower dimensions are lot larger, and there are key differences in the fruits. After consulting the Jepson Manuel many times, and scouring the herbarium at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, we think we found the correct species: Caulanthus coulteri. The thing with Streptanthus and Caulanthus is that they are really hard to distinguish between the two because phylogenetically speaking, they are one species. The identification keys are hard to use and can easily confuse many a botanist.

When I got to the area in question I was pleasantly surprised to see hundreds of plants in flower! Last year at this time I had only seen 4 or 5 plants, along with many other annuals blooming. This time I saw only a few other species blooming, with the Streptanthus sp. being the most abundant. These plants were the biggest I have seen yet. Unfortunately, most of these plants were not in fruit, which is an important character for identification, but a few plants had some immature fruits, so I collected these. Another surprise was to see desert Chia (Salvia columbariae) growing abundantly alongside the Streptanthus sp.

         Salvia columbariae is one of only two annual species of Salvia

Salvia columbariae
Salvia columbariae

within the section Audibertia.  It has a wide geographic distribution and is common in naturally dry, open, and disturbed areas below 4000 ft and is found in coastal sage scrub, chaparral, foothill woodland and creosote bush scrub habitats in western North America. Because of its large distribution and generalist nature, there has been research into the existence of certain ‘ecotypes’ from different environments that require varying pre-treatments to germinate. Ideally, it would be interesting to see whether the variation in geographic distribution and germination requirements translate to genetic variation and the formation of genetically distinct groups. I am hoping to do a population genetic study to parse this question out, so stay tuned!

I spent the next few days collecting plants from areas that I had collected before, as well as new areas, including Oat mountain (not really a mountain so much as a hill). There was a lot more in bloom than I had originally thought, and this made me happy!

Oat "mountain"
Oat “mountain”

Being out in the sierra foothills on those 4WD roads on the Rez, collecting plants, somehow becomes meditative and I was able to get a lot of good thinking about my research (and my life) done out there. You come up with some crazy revelations in the backcountry when you are out there by yourself!

Speaking of crazy…I also came across the corpse of not one, but two dead cows!

Decomposing cows make good fertilizer for wild flowers
Decomposing cows make good fertilizer for wild flowers

It’s an eerie feeling to see such a big animal so dead and decomposed, yet there is also a kind of beauty in it, knowing that the corpse is becoming nutrients for other organisms, including wildflowers. It’s interesting to think about how much of life depends on death. For example, the act of nutrient procurement (i.e. eating) is somewhat morbid. Whether you are a vegan or an omnivore, something had to die for you to gain nourishment to survive. And eventually, we too will become nutrients for other organisms after we die. ♫♪ “It’s the circle of liiiiiiiiiiiiife ” ♪♫ 🙂

And on that (musical) note, I leave you. Until next time: stay green!







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