A Super Weed to the Rescue

December 4, 2014

Sometimes little things can have mighty big consequences.  Here’s a tale about a tiny plant that has the potential to help provide us with clean energy, produce new medications, end world hunger and reduce water pollution. I found it on the way to the South Boulder Creek Trailhead from the East Boulder Community Center

On the Way to The Boulder Creek

On the Way to The South Boulder Creek

To the left of this sign I spotted a green pond full of life in what was otherwise a pretty dormant landscape…

A Splash Of Green

A Splash Of Green

At first I thought it was algae but upon closer inspection I realized that the pond was covered with small plants busy photosynthesizing …

Small Green Leaves Cover the Pond

Small Plants Cover the Pond and Absorb Solar Energy

The Leaves About 5mm in Length

Each is Less Than 5mm In Length

It wasn’t difficult to identify this small plant and to discover the big tales it has to share…

What Is This Little Plant Up To?

What Tales Can This Tiny Plant Reveal?

This was my first encounter with duckweed (Lemna minor) named for the ducks that love to eat it. It turns out that this diminutive plant is of great interest to scientists. Research into duckweed is promoted by the International Lemna Association and the International Committee on Duckweed Research and Applications. A comprehensive genomic study of duckweed was published in February 2014.

Here are some quick facts about this mighty little plant:

-The duckweeds (genus Lemna for water plants) are the smallest, simplest and fastest growing flowering plants known to people who know such things. These tiny plants can rapidly cover enormous bodies of still water such as this duckweed invasion in Lake Maracaibo in 2004

Green swirls of duckweed dominate the center of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo in this Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 26, 2004.

Green swirls of duckweed dominate the center of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo in this Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) image acquired by NASA’s Aqua satellite on June 26, 2004.

-Individual plants consist of a single, flat oval modified stem no more than ¹/4″ (5mm) in diameter

-The flowers are rare and are nearly invisible at ¹/₃₂ (1mm) in diameter…

Tiny Duckweed Flower

Tiny Duckweed Flower

-Despite its flowers, duckweed sexual reproduction is also rare. More often species propagate asexually by forming new plants from vegetative buds.

-Dense populations of duckweed are an important food source for fish and waterfowl. Because the plant contains more protein than soybeans, it is sometimes cited as a significant potential food source for humans as well. Since the late 1960s, scientists have studied duckweed for animal and human consumption (duckweed farming). Because each plant absorbs nutrients through its whole structure, and not just through a central root system, the tissue contains twice the protein, fat, nitrogen and phosphorus of other vascular plants. Millions of ducks can’t be wrong and duckweed may become the food of the future.

-Some of the most exciting prospects in duckweed technology have been aimed at using this plant as a factory for biopharmaceuticals. This technology is making rapid strides towards practical commercialization.

-Since duckweed floats on the surface of the water it is easily harvested. This makes it effective not only as a food source but also as a way to remove pollutants and toxins from bodies of still water.

-These plants also may play a future role in water conservation because a cover of duckweed will reduce the evaporation of water when compared to the rate of a similar size water body with a clear surface.

-Duckweed is a good candidate as a biofuel because it grows rapidly, has 6 times as much starch as corn, and its cultivation does not contribute to global warming. Additionally, it does not compete for land in food production. It is being studied by researchers around the world as a possible starch-based feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production. Duckweed just might be a source of cost-effective, clean, renewable energy.

-Our knowledge of its complete DNA sequence yields insights into how duckweeds are adapted for rapid vegetative growth. Their trick is to genetically  mimic the rapidly growing juvenile stages of other plants. The research, simply titled The Spirodela polyrhiza genome reveals insights into its neotenous reduction fast growth and aquatic lifestyle was published in Nature Communications in February 2014. In simpler words, duckweed never grows up!  A trait which could come in handy.

We earthlings have a lot riding on this little super weed that refuses to grow up.

Thank You Duckweed

Thank You Duckweed

 

Jewels in Boulder’s Banks

September 19, 2014

I’ve been taking Mandy the Dog to the Silver Lake Ditch at the Sunshine Canyon trailhead. She enjoys the snow melted water diverted from the Boulder Creek on her tired old legs…

Mandy Chills Out In Silver Lake Ditch

Mandy Chills Out In Silver Lake Ditch

Today’s tale started at the ditch bank while I was watching this wet retriever. I noticed a shrubby plant with delicate little red and yellow spotted flowers…

Jewelweed Plant on the Bank of the Silverlake Ditch

Remarkable Plant on the Bank of the Silver Lake Ditch

The flowers were remarkable to me for their color as well as their curved spur and pitcher-like shape…

A Pitcher-Like flower with a Curved Spur

A Pitcher-Like Flower with a Curved Spur

When I returned home I searched all of my favorite flower sites but I couldn’t find a match. Before declaring a new species I sought the help of a naturalist friend who identified this uncommon little plant as Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). It is also known as spotted touch-me-not because the ripe seeds explode out of their pods when they are lightly touched.

Jewelweed was used for medicinal purposes by a number of native North American Indian tribes. It’s main value was as an external application for wounds and a range of skin complaints including poison ivy which ironically often grows nearby.

The jewelweed flower’s curved spur contains the nectar it uses to attract pollinators. It has been recently discovered that the shape of this spur is critical to pollination efficiency. The curvature of the spur influences the type of pollinator, the amount of time it spends as well as it’s position within the flower during pollination. The jewelweed flower and it’s pollinators are literally (I never use this term lightly) made for each other. This is an example of coevolution, a concept initially proposed by Charles Darwin. The bees and hummingbirds here in Boulder Colorado are attracted to jewelweed and the jewelweed has a spur to accommodate both hummingbirds and bees. Hummingbirds are bigger and carry a larger pollen payload so they are favored. I looked for a big hummingbird in the act but settled for this little bee…

Bee Find The Target

Bee Finds The Target

Aligns with Runway

Aligns with Runway

On Final Approach

On Final Approach

Pollination Underway

Pollination Underway

If bees could see they way we humans do (they don’t) here’s what the nectar approach would look like…

The Nectar Approach

The Nectar Approach

I also discovered this jewelweed poem by Betty Lies. Click on the title at the bottom to learn more…

We call it touch-me-not, this wildness

tense as a spring: Hands off,

it seems to say, but I know

something wound up

in the heart’s green coils

is crying Touch me. Touch me.

Touch me now. All fall

I have been drawn and drawn again

to one tall stand of jewelweed,

to touch the pendant seedpods,

feel them burst with life.

I understand it’s not just botany

that gives me such delight

running my fingers over their plumpness,

warming them till they explode

and scatter seed.

I have seen hummingbirds

bury their beaks in jeweled cups,

the bees delving so deep

you only know they’re inside

by the flower’s orange tremblings.

This autumn, when my body

keeps its secrets from me,

hiding something deep within,

it pleases me to feel

the life stored in those pods,

waiting for release, first now,

and then again to rise,

to rise after a slow cold winter.

-Betty Lies, Jewelweed©

Sanitas’ Salvia Spectacle

August 31, 2014

The flora, fauna and cultural resources on the Sanitas Valley Trail (pronounced san-eh-toss with the emphasis on the first syllable since it is derived from the word sanitarium) make it one of my favorites here in Boulder. Among its charms is a diverse floral display from Spring through Autumn. The heavy rain pattern this Summer has greened the Valley making this an exceptional season for wildflowers. On my last visit with Mandy the dog I discovered that the lower Sanitas Valley has recently witnessed an explosion of tall blue flowers. I have never seen them this big…

A Floral Spectacle in the Sanitas Valley (  40° 1'19.19"N, 105°17'44.89"W)

A Floral Spectacle in the Sanitas Valley (40° 1’19.19″N, 105°17’44.89″W)

After several attempts and help from a few experts I identified these flowers as Salvia azurea (Wild Blue Sage). This hearty member of the mint family attracts butterflies, bees and hummingbirds to the Valley.

This was too good to miss so I leashed Mandy in the shade and I took my camera into this field to capture the pollinators at work and the wildflowers that attract them.

Some of the blue color is provided by Chicory, a beautiful though noxious weed here in Colorado…

Cichorium intybus (Chicory)

Cichorium intybus (Chicory)

Next we come to the Salvia azurea…

Salvia azurea (Blue Sage)

Salvia azurea (Blue Sage)

A few of the Salvia are white…

White Salvia

White Salvia

Bees love this stuff…

Bee on Salvia

Bee on Salvia

Some touches of red are provided by Blazing Star

Blazing Star (Liatris)

Blazing Star (Liatris) with Butterfly

An occasional dab of yellow is provided by Gumweed…

Butterfly on Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

Butterfly on Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa)

In addition to insect pollinators the Salvia’s nectar is attracting a flock of hummingbirds. This morning there were at least a dozen of them humming about the delicate blue flowers. I’m told that these little jewels are Broad-tailed hummingbirds

 

Broad-tailed Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) Flight on Salvia Azurea

Hummingbird Flight on Salvia Azurea

Hummingbird Flight on Salvia Azurea

Hummingbird Flight on Salvia Azurea

This is hard work for a little bird, it’s time for a break…

Hummingbird on Tree

Tired Hummingbird Resting on Tree

Looks like Mandy needs a break as well. Here this cool trail provides welcome relief for a hot dog…

 

 

Boulder Birch Survived Big Chill

June 9, 2014

Paper Birch Vista

“Beneath you birch with silver bark
And boughs so pendulous and fair,
The brook falls scattered down the rock:
and all is mossy there.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

When the ice sheets from the Last Ice Age receded from Colorado about 11,000 years ago they left a vastly different environment for the fauna and flora that survived. Colorado’s high altitude encouraged great glaciers, some of which remain to this day (although they are now thawing quickly). This epoch not only wiped out the wooly mammoths, it took out the Paper Birch (Betula papyrifera) trees as well.
Our Rocky Mountains were covered with Paper Birch until the climate warmed after the glaciers retreated. Now there is one small canyon in Boulder Colorado which is so narrow and protected that it endured the harsh Arctic-like climate and subsequent warming that changed the local landscape. We don’t have any remaining mammoths but we do have a small stand of Paper Birch that survived the post Ice Age warming. This Ice Age-free place is called Long Canyon, sometimes called “the Canyon that Time Forgot”. Let’s go back in time to find our ancient trees.

We start at the South side of the Realization Point parking lot on Flagstaff Road

The Trail is on the South of Flagstaff road at realization Point

The Trail is on the South of Flagstaff road at Realization Point (the traffic cones)

Descend thru the trailhead to the left of the Green Mountain Lodge Sign…

Descend to the Green Mountain Lodge

Descend Past the Green Mountain Lodge Sign

Soon you encounter the upper end of the Gregory Canyon Trail. Go right (West) after crossing the streambed (which was severely rutted by recent flooding)…

Cross the Rutted Stream and head West

Cross the Rutted Stream and Head West

The Habitat Conservation Sign holds a clue of what’s to come…

Paper Birch Clue

Paper Birch Clue

Continue to the Lodge where the trail splits, take the right trailhead into Long Canyon…

Soon the Trail Splits

Soon the Trail Splits

Sorry, no pups allowed because of the sensitive ecology on this trail…

Sorry Pups

Sorry Pups

Here’s the Green Mountain Lodge

Green Mountain Lodge

Green Mountain Lodge

Continue over the bridge…

The Bridge to Long Canyon

The Bridge to Long Canyon

Enjoy the welcoming stream…

Enjoy the Gurgling Stream

Enjoy the Gurgling Stream

Enter the Forest…

The Deep Forest

The Deep Forest

Enjoy the Canyon flora…

Heart-leaved Arnica (Arnica cordifolia)

Heart-leaved Arnica (Arnica cordifolia)

Lance-leaved Chiming Bells (Mertensia lanceolata)

Lance-leaved Chiming Bell (Mertensia lanceolata)

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon)

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon pulchellum)

Western Wallflower (Erysimum asperum)

Western Wallflower (Erysimum asperum)

Coral Root Orchid (Corallorhiza maculata)

Coral Root Orchids (Corallorhiza maculata)

Enjoy the fauna…

Long Canyon Deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

Long Canyon Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus)

We finally come to the ancient Birches…

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

SONY DSC

Betula papyrifera

If you continue 1.1 mi/1.8km to the upper end of the Trail you are on Flagstaff Road where you can catch a quick glimpse of the Continental Divide at the Indian Peaks. Here is where the glaciers went …

Continental Divide Peek

Indian Peaks Peek

This is the end of the tale of the Boulder birches until the Next Ice Age is induced by climate change.

Pasques in the Storm

April 17, 2014

Living on the edge of the Rocky Mountains presents a challenge to things that bloom in early Spring. Temperatures quickly fluctuate from hot to below freezing while a heavy wet Spring snowfall can suddenly blanket the hillsides. What’s a plant to do to protect its sensitive stamens and pistils?

This week we had a warm spell followed by freezing and snow, the perfect conditions for checking out the survival of the most striking of our early flora, the pasque (Anemone patens). Pasque flowers have a showy, beautiful blossom that is composed of 5 to 7 sepals that look like petals. True petals are missing. The plant is common throughout northwestern U.S. up to northern Alaska. Common names include the pasqueflower, wind flower, prairie crocus, Easter flower, and meadow anemone.

I went searching for pasque flowers before the storm on Boulder’s McClintock Trail. I found a few entering the risky world above ground…

The Pasque Before the Storm

The Pasque Before the Storm

The name “pasque” is probably from the Hebrew “paschal”, “relating to Passover”. The pasqueflower begins blooming as soon as the mountain snow melts, about the time of Passover. Another interpretation is that the flower is named for Easter since Pasqua means Easter in Italian.

Religious controversies aside, these early bloomers are important to honey bees and other pollen gatherers to replenish their food stores after a long winter. From an evolutionary standpoint an early flowering niche strategy can provide abundant snow melt moisture and less competition for pollinators

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

One downside of this early bloomer strategy is that early flowering requires survival techniques that enable the plant to withstand harsh climate conditions. In one adaptation the pasque does what we do, it puts on a coat. The plant has evolved a thick silky coat to insulate the leaves, stem and flowers and to protect them from direct contact with snow…

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasque Plant

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasqueflower plant

Another risk of early blooming is that the timing of “early” is critical for successful reproduction. We can see that this plant, like many others, depends on the synchronization of snow melt with the early emergence of pollinators. Both of these events are being disrupted by climate change. It is possible that plants like the pasque and the bees that pollinate them will get out of sync. This nasty aspect of rapid climate change is called pollinator dislocation.

Pasque with Pollinating Bee

Pasque with Pollinating Bee

Then the storm came to Boulder, Colorado

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

Today the warmth returned to the McClintock Trail so I trudged through the mud to see how well their coat of silk allowed the pasques to survive the snow storm…

Worn Out Pasque Flower Protecting Delicate Pollen

Storm Bedraggled Pasqueflower Protecting Delicate Pollen

This Pasque Survived the Storm Intact

These Pasqueflowers Survived the Storm in Good Shape

Protecting the Future of Pasque Flowers

Protecting the Genetic Future of Pasqueflowers One Flower at a Time

Soon the weather will stay warm and the soil will dry out. Those warm lush slopes of early Spring will look like desert by Summer. Thus by late Spring these tough but beautiful flowers will have completed their life cycle and will toss their seeds into the wind for the next generation. The delicate violet sepals and yellow anther will be replaced by a twisting mass of feathery seed heads ready to fly away and spread the genetic secrets of their survival.

Pasque Gone to Seed

Pasque Gone to Seed

Here’s the handy guide to the Wildflowers of the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks called Look Closely that led me to the pasqueflowers on the McClintock.

Cold Boulder, Warm Dog

December 12, 2013

It has been cold and snowy here in Boulder Colorado with temperatures dipping well below 0F/-18C for an entire week. Mandy the dog and I went out one frigid morning to photograph our Flatirons right after a storm when the snow is billowing. I guess we were viewed as crazy by photographer Paul Aiken when he took this photo for the Boulder Daily Camera.

Thanks to Paul Aiken for Taking Our Photo!

Thanks to Paul Aiken for Taking Our Photo!

I managed to squeeze the shutter several times before my fingers and toes were starting to hurt so we turned around to head for warmth…

The Cold and Frosty Flatirons

The Cold and Frosty Flatirons

Mandy was disappointed when we started back to the car. She loves the snow and cold and could stay out all day…

Mandy Loves the Cold and Snow

Mandy Loves the Cold and Snow

It Feels So Good

It Feels So Good

After seeing our picture in the newspaper article the next day, several of my friends thought I was wrong to take Mandy out without boots on a cold snowy day. Have dogs become so domesticated that unlike their ancestor the wolf they now need boots?

Japanese researchers have recently uncovered the secret that protects dogs from getting cold when standing on frozen ground. Previous studies have found that dogs can stand on ground as cold as -31F/ -35C without the tissues in their feet freezing. This Japanese study entitled “Comparative Anatomy of the Vasculature of the Dog (Canis familiaris) and Domestic Cat (Felis catus) Paw Pad” is posted in the Open Journal of Veterinary Medicine.

In the dog’s paw pad, the veins surround and run parallel to an artery. Both are in intimate contact so that when the arterial blood flows into the pad surface the venous blood flowing out is in close thermal contact. This establishes a constant temperature difference between arteries and veins and makes for an effective heat exchange. In cold temperatures the warm arterial blood transfers its heat to the adjacent cool venous blood. In this way body heat is re-circulated back to the body core through the venous blood prior to losing heat to the environment. If a foot pad is in a warm environment the blood in that pad will be warm and the heat exchanger will have little effect. When the foot pad is exposed to a cold environment heat loss is prevented by essentially shutting off the paw heat. This means that Mandy has evolved to maintain a warm body and to tolerate cold paws during exposure to cold. Indeed, Mandy’s paws are supported by a circulatory heat exchange that evolved from wolves. This system is also found in penguins, arctic whales, seals and foxes. This discovery has the evolutionary implication that ancestors of the domestic dog lived in cold climates requiring such an adaptation. Sorry kitties but this adaptation does not apply to you. Perhaps your feline ancestors lived in warm climates.

Mandy deserves our envy, not our pity, in the cold. I wish my toes and fingers didn’t hurt on a day like this…

Snow billowing off of the Boulder Flatirons

Snow Billowing Off of the Boulder Flatirons

Maroon Reflections

August 22, 2013

Fortunately for photographers North America had two sets of Rocky Mountains. The first peaks, known as the Ancestral Rocky Mountains, rose to lofty heights before erosion began to wear them down. The sediments from these giant mountains created a huge mudflat in central Colorado. The Ancestral Rocky Mountains were completely eroded away by the time the modern Rocky Mountains formed. The present mountains lifted from the earth elevating a few of these maroon mudflats with them. Those remnants of the first Rockies, known as the Maroon Formation, can be viewed at the Maroon Bells (Maroon Peak and North Maroon Peak) in Aspen, Colorado as well as at the Flatirons above Boulder, Colorado.

Since I have already taken a gazillion panoramas of my hometown Boulder Flatirons I went to Aspen to get a dawn panorama of the “Deadly Bells” reflected in Maroon Lake. I tried this before but got rained on for 4 days. This time the weather cooperated and I joined a lineup of photographers at dawn…

Photographers Flock to the Maroon Bells

Photographers Flock to the Maroon Bells…The Most Photographed Mountains in Colorado

Here’s an upside down photo I captured from the reflection of Maroon Bells on Maroon Lake. Note the rocky sky…

The Maroon bells as Reflected In Maroon Lake

The Maroon bells as Reflected In Maroon Lake

The dawns light forms a line which slowly descends the Bells…

The Bells at 5:45am

The Bells at 5:45am on 16 August 2013


The Bells at 6:10am

The Bells at 6:10am on 16 August 2013

Here’s someone’s timer-driven camera capturing a sunrise animation from a series of images…

Capturing an Animation of Sunrise on the Maroon Bells

Capturing a Video of Sunrise on the Maroon Bells

Later that morning I captured this view from an aspen grove above the Lake…

Maroon Bells From Aspen Grove 14 August 7:15AM @  39° 5'55.78"N106°56'34.61"W

Maroon Bells From Aspen Grove 14 August 7:15AM @ 39° 5’55.78″N106°56’34.61″W

Maroon Lake forms the headwater of the Maroon Creek which flows down beautiful glaciated Maroon Canyon and on to hydrate the thirsty town of Aspen…

Maroon Creek Headwater

Maroon Creek Headwater

The flora of Maroon Canyon fill my memory…

Sunflowers Help Frame The Bells

Alpine Sunflowers (Tetraneuris grandiflora) Help Frame The Bells

The Fireweed is profuse…

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium)

Aspen Groves grow where the pines cannot…

Aspen Groves in the Maroon Canyon

Aspen Groves in the Maroon Canyon

Fossils show evidence of long times past…

Fossil Evidence of Early Vegetation

Fossil Evidence of Early Vegetation

Ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) call this place home…

Ptarmigan with summer plumage

Ptarmigan with Summer Plumage

This one views me with some suspicion…

Soon the snows will fall and these feathers will be replaced with white ones

Soon this Rocky-Colored Camouflage will be replaced with Snow White Plumage

A small herd of Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose (Alces alces) has recently moved into the Canyon. Here’s a mom getting some breakfast, my first photo of a female moose…

Moose Cow Getting Breakfast.

Moose Cow Getting Breakfast.

Snack break over, it’s time to get back to her calf…

It's Time to Find Baby

It’s Time to Find Baby and Get Some Privacy

This is the only yellow-bellied marmot (Marmota flaviventris) seen on this trip…

Yellow Bellied Super Marmots Did Not Reveal Their Presence

Yellow Bellied Super Marmots Did Not Reveal Their Presence

There were many sightings of Mountain Mandy in Maroon Canyon however…

Mandy (Canis lupus familiaris) takes a Break

Mountain Mandy (Canis lupus familiaris) Takes a Break

As does this grasshopper critter (I need some crowdsourcing help to identify this insect)…

Giant Grasshopper?

Giant Grasshopper?

It was a delightful week thanks to the Maroon Formation and I even captured my inner Summer panorama. I hope to go back in the Fall to collect some more colorful pixels.

Maroon Reflections

Maroon Reflections 14 August 2013 8:15AM MDT @ 39° 5’53.57″N, 106°56’32.52″W

Isabelle’s Warming Glacier lilies

July 14, 2013

On this adventure I was in hot pursuit of the elusive Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum). I figured that the best place to find them was near a glacier so Mandy the dog and I decided to head up to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area to check in on Isabelle, our local glacier and her high mountain wildflowers.

We started at the Brainard Lake Recreation Area which is our closest gateway to the Indian Peaks Wilderness…

We Start At The Brainard Lake Recreation Area

We Start At The Brainard Lake Recreation Area

The Indian Peaks form a dramatic backdrop for Brainard Lake. This Colorado Wilderness Area gets its name from a majority of its peaks having Native American names. Ogallala, Pajute, Pawnee, Shoshoni, Apache, Navajo, Arikaree, Arapahoe, and Niwot Peaks all reach well above 12,000 feet, making for breathtaking views of jagged summits that tower above green valleys and glacial lakes.

Brainard Lake and the Indian Peaks

Brainard Lake with the Indian Peaks Backdrop

From here it was a short hike to the Pawnee Pass Trail which will take us up past Long Lake and Lake Isabelle

The Pawnee Pass Trail To Long Lake and Lake Isabelle

The Pawnee Pass Trail To Long Lake and Lake Isabelle

We were being watched by a “Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose

Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose (Alces alces)

Rocky Mountain Mighty Moose (Alces alces)

Long Lake is a great place to cool off…

Mandy in Long Lake

Mandy in Long Lake

We arrived at Lake Isabelle after a two-mile/3.2 KM hike. The melting snow drifts and the Glacier feed the lakes and drive the wildflowers…

Melting Snow at Lake Isabelle

Melting Snow at Lake Isabelle

The Pawnee Pass Trail continues to climb above the Lake…

Lake Isabelle from the Pawnee Pass Trail

Lake Isabelle from Pawnee Pass Trail

As the trail ascends towards Pawnee Pass on the Continental Divide we encountered lots of receding snow. This is Glacier Lily territory.

There is Still Lots of Snow on the Pawnee Pass trail

There is Still Lots of Snow on the Pawnee Pass Trail

Mandy found another opportunity to cool off…

Mandy Wallows In The Snow

Mandy Wallows In The Snow

I finally spotted what we were looking for…

We Found the Yellow Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum Pursh)

We Found the Yellow Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum Pursh)

Yellow Glacier Lilies

Yellow Glacier Lily Trio

The roots of this plant feed deer, elk, and bighorn sheep. Grizzlies have been known to “cook” the roots of yellow Glacier Lilies in the sunshine. They know what the native people have learned: that the roots of this alpine plant aren’t pleasant when raw, but become sweet after a good heating. The roots of the yellow Glacier Lily were so valuable that they became a trading commodity in the Native American culture.

Because the Glacier Lilies bloom so early, they suffer reduced pollination in years of early snowmelt. Such “phonological dislocations” between flowering and pollinator activity are likely to become more common as climates warm. Glacier Lilies are being studied to determine the impact of warming on plants and their pollinators. These vulnerable lilies may become both an early warning and a victim of climate change.

I’m glad we were able to track down this pretty little flower before it’s too warm and too late…

The Last Lilies of the Alpine?

The Last Lilies of the Alpine?

Deceptive American Calypso

July 6, 2013

A recent orchid alert by a photographer friend sent me off searching for what is arguably the most beautiful orchid in North America, the Calypso bulbosa var. americana (Eastern Fairy Slipper). Calypso (Kalypsō) was a nymph in Greek mythology. The etymology of Calypso’s name is from καλύπτω (kalyptō), meaning “to cover”, “to conceal”, “to hide”, or “to deceive”. The Calypso orchid lives up to the name.

The fairy slipper orchid has a circumpolar distribution, occurring in Europe, Asia and North America. In North America it occurs from Alaska to Labrador, south to northern California, Arizona, Michigan and Maine. Although they have a wide range they are uncommon and very hard to find. Fortunately here in Colorado there is a hiking trail which goes to a water feature named for this elusive beauty, the Calypso Cascades. After a 2.8 mi/4.5 km hike up the Wild Basin Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park I was rewarded with my second encounter with this uncommon 4-6in/10-15cm plant…

After a 2.8 mile hike I encountered Calypso bulbosa var. americana

After a 2.8 mile hike I encountered Calypso bulbosa var. americana

In autumn, generally around September, the single dark green leaf of the fairy slipper orchid sprouts from its stem. This leaf lasts through winter, even surviving under snow in the cold parts of its range. With the arrival of spring the orchid flowers and the leaf fades. This means the plant is leafless for most of the summer.

The single leaf has a very limited ability to photosynthesize and so cannot provide all the nutrients the plant needs. This orchid, along with many others in Colorado, is a parasite that grows by exploiting a fungus in the soil that shares nutrients taken from the roots of trees. This is why they cannot be successfully transplanted.

I grabbed my close-up lens and got down on the ground to capture this uncommon sight thereby attracting a queue of photographers waiting for a turn. Here are the results of my turn…

Calypso bulbosa-1

Calypso bulbosa-2

Like many orchids, the Calypso bulbosa has a deceptive flower that provides no reward for insect visitors. The scent and shape of the flower mimics those that do have nectar which lures bumble bees (Bombus species) to the bloom. The bees land on the lip of the flower and enter the pouch in search of food. Failing to find any nectar the bee exits the pouch rubbing against the overhanging column. Pollen is deposited on the bee and is then transferred to the next flower it visits. The deception consists of markings and an odor of vanilla both of which promise a nectar reward that does not actually exist. The flowering period of this species is synchronized with the emergence of naïve bumblebee queens. Individual bees subsequently learn to avoid these flowers and that avoidance is learned quite rapidly. Avoidance behavior by pollinators is detrimental to reproduction in Calypso. This negative effect is offset by small variations in flower color and pattern and by the large number of seeds produced in plants that successfully pull off this deception.

Calypso is said to be in decline particularly in the southern part of its range. Unfortunately habitat destruction is a threat for the fairy slipper orchid. Another significant threat to this stunning plant is the presence of people. We either accidentally trample them or deliberately remove the plants from the wild for unsuccessful attempts to transplant them to our gardens. In addition to being very fussy about where it grows, the fragile roots of the fairy slipper orchid make it susceptible to disturbance. A small rearrangement by a well-meaning photographer could kill the plant. The fairy slipper orchid is listed on the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) which means that any international trade in this species is carefully monitored. Hopefully this may lessen the threat of over-collection. In addition, this species is protected within many parks and reserves throughout its range.

Let’s hope this deceptive little parasite is here for generations of photographers…

Calypso bulbosa-5

Improbable Parasites On the Mesa Trail

June 6, 2013

While enjoying our showy spring wildflower display on the North Mesa Trail I came upon a small brown plant shyly hiding on the forest floor pine duff (partly decayed organic matter). While this Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) does not need to be in the spotlight its very existence is an improbable tale.

Coral Root Orchid Plant (Corallorhiza maculata)

Coralroot Orchid Plant (Corallorhiza maculata) “Corallorhiza” is Greek for “coral root” and “maculata” is Latin for “spotted”

On closer inspection you can see the tiny Orchid blossoms; this is one of our tiny native Colorado Orchids

Coral Root Orchid Plant Flowers

Coral Root Orchid Plant Flowers

I was surprised when I discovered my first Colorado Orchid; I thought they only grew in lush, tropical environments. Actually there are more than 25,000 species of Orchids. There are more orchids than any other kind of flowering plant except those in the aster and daisy families. Although they are most common in the tropics, Orchids can be found almost everywhere except Antarctica and the very High Arctic, occupying almost any habitat, including on other plants (epiphyte). One, known as a Western Underground Orchid, lives entirely underground. There are at least 33 types of native Orchids in Colorado (compared to only four Native Hawaiian Orchids).

Early Coralroot

Early Coralroot


Coralroot Clump

Coralroot Clump

Orchid seeds are too small to contain stored nutrients. To solve that problem they must be infected by a specialized fungus that establishes a symbiotic relationship, sharing food and enzymes until the young plant can survive on its own. While many plants use soil fungi as a startup strategy, some orchids have taken an evolutionary sidestep and do not use photosynthesis at all. Orchids were formerly considered to be capable of directly living off of dead organic material (saprophytic) in lieu of photosynthesis. Recent studies have revealed that plants cannot live off of dead organic material; only fungi can do that. It is now known that plants previously described as saprophytes are actually parasites living off of fungi. These fungi transfer nutrients from the host plant to the parasite (called Myco-heterotrophy). The fungi themselves are parasitic on the roots of living plants.

Our Coralroots are the type of Orchid that never becomes self-sufficient. Researchers have discovered that members of the genus Corallorhiza are parasitic Orchids. They derive all of their nutrients from mycorrhizal soil fungi in the family Russulaceae (think mushrooms). Despite their name they have no roots but only hard, branched rhizomes. The relationship with the soil fungus begins before the microscopic seed can germinate and continues for the life of the plant. Finding the right fungi to cheat for life is a chancy business and most seeds just die. To improve its survival rate the plant produces millions of seeds per flower. This is why the seeds must be small and light (the Coralroot seed is only about 0.2 mm in diameter). Those few that do go on to survive parasitize their fungi into forming a coral-like formation enveloping the root that resembles a clump of soft corals. Our pretty little Orchid is a lifelong biological cheater, cheating its fungus cheater…

Coralroot Root Fungus Host

Coralroot Root Fungus Host

In addition to the unlikely success of its seed, the complex mechanisms which orchids have evolved to achieve cross-pollination are risky as well. These mechanisms were investigated by Charles Darwin and described in his 1862 book Fertilisation of Orchids. The book was his first detailed demonstration of the power of natural selection, and explained how complex ecological relationships resulted in the coevolution of orchids and insects. The view has been expressed that the book led directly or indirectly to all modern work on coevolution and the evolution of extreme specialization.

Orchids have developed extremely specialized pollination systems often relying on a specific insect for success. The chances of being pollinated are often rare, so orchid flowers usually remain receptive for very long periods and most Orchids deliver their pollen in a single mass. When a protective cap is dislodged by a specific pollinator the pollen baring part called the anther is exposed to the insect’s body. Two pollen masses (called pollinia) are attached to a sticky pad (viscid) which readily adheres to the bodies of insects. When insects visit another orchid blossom, the pollinia are transferred to a sticky surface. Each time pollination succeeds, thousands of seeds can be fertilized.

Coral Root Orchid Flower

Coral Root Orchid Flower Showing Petals, Sepals, Lip, Column and Anther Cap

I observed many hikers walking by this extraordinary example of evolutionary complexity without even noticing its unlikely existence…

Mandy Can't Find the Coralroot, Can You?

Mandy Can’t Find the Coralroot, Can You?

nor its diminutive beauty…

A Small Improbable Event

A Small Improbable Event

The Canadians apparently appreciate the Corallorhiza striata (Striped Coral Root Orchid)…

Striped Coralroot 2006 Canadian Stamp

Striped Coralroot 2006 Canadian Stamp


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