Friday, May 11, 2012

April 2012 took me to the book-signing of the second edition of "The Jepson Manual"--I was principal illustrator. It was good to see other contributors, the production team, old friends, but the real treat of travel was what was to come: I was off to the Sierra Nevada for a botanical foray. When you say you are "off to the mountains," many would think of hiking or skiing or other high elevation adventures. But to the botanist, "off to the foothills," where I was headed, can be equally thrilling. For botanists follow the spring: as the year warms up we visit the desert to see what is blooming, next the low elevations, along the coast, and as the season's temperatures rise, up we go, often ending our botanical year in the alpine.

            Off I went, and on my first morning out, driving up the beautiful Kern Canyon, I was rewarded with seeing the Kern County Larkspur (Delphinium purpusii) for only the second time in my life. It is a big plant, with oddly wrinkled spurs (the reflexed, tube-shaped sepal that holds a nectar reward for pollinators). I was as much amazed by the fruits of this species as by the flowers. By larkspur standards, they were HUGE, and nice and green and shiny too. The canyon had many flowers to see, but was less floriferous than during what botanists refer to as a "good year," where the rain is just enough and comes just at the right times.

            I missed this year's desert trip: it was planned, but there wasn't much rain this year (and it came at the wrong time), I had a debilitating flu, so didn't make it south. But on this trip I had to at least travel over Walker Pass (in the southern Sierra) to see for myself, and found that all the rumors of a dry desert were true. Some shrubs were flowering (they almost always do), but the annuals that on a good year can make rainbows out of hillsides, were tiny and few. I brushed the dust from my boots, turned around, and headed for wetter ground.

            Just west of the summit of Walker Pass there is a spot that the hard-core botanists know of, where the plants are in an unexpected jumble of east-meets-west. Imagine sagebrush (Artemisia--found on the east side of the mountains, especially in the extensive Basin and Range country) meets flannelbush (Fremontodendron-typically on the west side of the mountains). Here there are a few scattered gray pines and juniper trees, sagebrush, and redbud (Cercis occidentalis-another west side species), the latter in full and glorious flower ,as pictured below. I could say so much more about this interesting spot, this vortex in the map of vegetation types, but in words I travel on.

            Up I go, towards one of the Kennedy Meadows (the other that I know of is on the Sonora Pass Highway, north of Yosemite), on the east side of a large ridge, but northwest of Walker Pass. Here there are always some desert wildflowers, as I am higher in elevation. Indeed, the coreopsis was in full bloom, and bush lupine. One of the joys of my botanical forays is that the hours of expected scenes and plants are punctuated by natural anomalies. First there was the fun of seeing Parry's Nolina, an uncommon leaf succulent endemic to southern California, with its flowering stalks ready to burst.

Just below these 8 foot tall monocots,(with their gigantous asparagus-like flowering stalks), there were two bush lupines, side-by-side, one with normal blue-purple flowers, and a genetic variant (not a different species, subspecies, or variety) with pink and white flowers!

      Trying to edit myself down to the highlights (and I say this as a true and full-blooded botanical nerd) is tough. So I will share one more "nerd-highlight," which brings my story back to the character of this particular spring. I traveled from the Walker Pass area north around Lake Isabella, over Greenhorn Summit (which, by the way, was where Purpus--yes, who that larkspur I mentioned is named for--collected the specimen from which Plagiobothrys torreyi var. perplexes was described), headed west towards Highway 99, suffered some freeway time, and then went up into the hills again near Fresno. Here the foothills again gave evidence of little rain and less snowpack (around 50% of normal in the Sierra for the year). Usually at this time of year the rounded granite summits would sheen dark with water, water that seeps through soil and vegetation, over the open rounded rock faces, and collect in streamlets below.

This year there was dry rock, some green, some flowers. But still thriving was the tenacious fern ally, Hansen's spikemoss.

John Game, one of my favorite botanical photographers, has a great picture of the wondrous mats that this little plant forms on the CalPhotos site. Many of thes mats are several feet wide, forming significant continuous groundcover. How much these mats must contribute to capturing and holding water, thus providing more habitat for the growth of other less sturdy plants.
I saw many more species of plants, and I recognized most. This led me to a medium-sized epiphany: it is time to focus more on the actual writing (as opposed to field work) of my book on Sierra Nevada Plants. What a great time to start a blog...perhaps some of you will share this experience with me.
(Pictured below: fruits of Lace Pod, Thysanocarpus curvipes, one of the foothill regulars).

1 comment:

  1. You were botanizing in my old neighborhood! I lived in the Lake Isabella area for years, and spent many happy hours botanizing the Kern Canyon, Paiute and Greenhorn Mountains, and the route over Walker Pass into the Mojave.