Many Thank-yous all Around

Hard to believe it’s been almost 6 months since we first started at the USGS office in Boulder City. Bridget and I were talking about how it’s such a weird feeling that today is our last day -it’s a bittersweet mix of sadness, thankfulness, and some disbelief that it’s really over after today.

Bridget and I hiking down into the Grand Canyon!

The past few months have been so busy that we haven’t reported on the blog in a while! Between visiting all 3 gardens every other week and side projects added on outside of that, there’s been little time to get to our laptops to type up our entries. But two highlights outside of our Joshua Tree Garden upkeep duties were helping out on a Mojave plant survey project back in early March, and collecting data on periderm-stripping of Joshua Trees across the Mojave (periderm is what Joshua Tree “bark” is called since it is a monocot). Periderm-stripping is when rodents such as rabbits and squirrels chew off the tree “bark” for nutrients when they aren’t able to get enough from their typical food sources. This is likely linked to climate change with fewer plants –rodent food sources– surviving as they receive less rain.

An example of what periderm stripping looks like
We also wrote a letter to the aliens and put it in The Black Mailbox in Alamo, NV (google it!) on the way to a periderm stripping site 🙂

We were also able to make a few more weekend trips, including the Grand Canyon and back to Zion again to hike Angel’s Landing! It’s been so much fun to adventure/hike/camp with Bridget over the months and become such good friends through all of that, our long drives, and living and working side by side.

Hiking on the edge to get to Angel’s Landing! 😮

I’m keeping this post short and sweet, but I need to say a few more thank-yous to our mentors: Chris, Lesley, Todd and Sara. I’ve felt that throughout this time, our mentors have all cared so much about making sure we’re learning as much as possible, giving advice for our future careers/grad school, and encouraging and thanking us for the hard work we’ve put into the Joshua Tree Genome Project. They’ve taught us a lot about research, the desert ecosystem and what it’s like to work at the USGS, which has been so valuable.

Ending with Bridget and I being our goofy selves (pointing up at the switchbacks we’re about to go up) in our favorite place: out on the trail!

Hello from Boise!

Hi, my name is Sahalie, and I’m interning with the Rocky Mountain Research Station this spring and summer. RMRS is a research branch of the Forest Service in Boise, Idaho.

Me by the Middle Fork of the Boise River

Since arriving in Boise, I have been doing interesting work in the field and the lab. In our first month, my fellow intern Alaina and I spent a lot of time doing surveys on plants grown by RMRS for research.

Plant surveys at a common garden site

For each plant in these surveys, we note the plant’s developmental stage, the amount of herbivory, the number of nearby live plants, and the diameter of the leaf rosette. We also collect a leaf from a plant once it reaches the right stage. These sites will be surveyed over the next few months to track the growth and development of the plants.

Erigeron pumilus
Phacelia hastata

In addition to conducting plant surveys, Alaina and I have cleaned seed collected last year to prepare it for cold storage. We first “de-winged” the seeds to remove the fluffy pappus of the seed by rubbing the seeds over a rubber mat. Then we put the seeds into an air column which blows air from below through a tube. We controlled the rate of air flow to lift the light fluffy pappus into traps at the top of the tube while the heavier seed stayed at the bottom of the tube.

In addition, we spent time counting seeds in Erigeron pumilus flower heads that were collected from the common gardens last year. We pulled apart the flowers with forceps and carefully removed and counted each seed. At first it was hard to tell the difference between the tiny seeds and other flower parts, but we got good at it with practice.

In the last week, we have begun scouting for plant populations that we will collect seed from later in the summer. We have traveled to eastern Washington and Oregon to look for Sphaeralcea and Lomatium dissectum populations. This work has been really interesting so far and I’m looking forward to traveling to other sites around the Great Basin!

Scouting for Lomatium dissectum on steep, rocky hillsides

In my free time, I have enjoyed exploring Idaho. I have biked along the Boise River greenbelt and hiked in the hills above the city. Alaina and I live near the Lucky Peak reservoir, and I have been on many evening walks along the cliffs above the water.

A couple weeks ago, Alaina, another co-worker, and I went camping by the Middle Fork of the Boise River. We visited a hot spring and a cave and made pancakes for breakfast!


I have had a great time in this internship so far and learned a lot, and I’m excited for the next few months!

Seeds, Surveys, and More Seeds

Hi CLM blog!

My name is Alaina and I am one of the new interns working with the U.S. Forest Service at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Boise, ID. It’s hard to believe we are already wrapping up the first month of our internship. Just a few weeks ago I was driving away from a gray and snowy midwest winter in Michigan and into the mountains out west. It feels so good to be back out in these wide open spaces and have spring with finally beginning! Just in the last week or two we have been watching the landscape begin to green up for what people call the “green week” here. The only time of the year these mountains may green.  

The research project we will be assisting here centers around using native seeds in restoration and aims to show how locally adapted plant populations may be better suited for restoration in their respective ecosystems, compared to more generalized seed mixes. This summer we will be monitoring these plant populations at our common garden sites and collecting seeds all over the Great Basin and Snake River Basin. So far we have been spending our time getting acquainted with cleaning and counting thousands of tiny seeds and surveying plants at the Orchard, ID and Richfield, ID common gardens.

View of Orchard common garden site
View of Richfield common garden site

As we arrived to the Orchard common garden for the first time this season we were met with a garden teeming with life! Unfortunately, it was not the plant life we wanted, but rather lots and lots of weeds. In true gardening fashion the first big step of getting common garden surveys rolling was weeding. Slowly the first sprouts of Erigeron pumilus (ERPU) and Phacelia hastata (PHHA) were revealed. After freeing each plant of its surrounding weeds we finally began surveying. For each plant we survey, we assign it a phenophase that describes which point of growth it is at for the season. Currently most of the plants are currently between a 1 and 3.5, 1 being just the beginning of growth and 3.5 meaning the plants are already budding! If the plants are at least at a phenophase of 2 we will go ahead and collect the largest leaf, and measure the diameter of the rosette.

ERPU at phenophase 3.5 – Budding
ERPU at phenophase 2
PHHA at phenophase 3.5 – Budding
PHHA at phenophase 2

When we aren’t out in the field we usually spend our days processing seeds in the lab. Trying to differentiate between tiny seeds and the other reproductive parts of the plant they are combined with has been quite the test on my vision. One of these processes involves taking apart dried flower heads sampled from the gardens in 2021. For each flower head we will sort the seeds from the chaff (other parts of the plant) and count how many seeds it contains. It is amazing how a flower the size of my thumbnail can have over 300 seeds! This has given me a whole new perspective and appreciation for these little plants. The other process of seed cleaning has been de-winging seeds or as I like to say, removing the “fluff”. Once de-winged we will put the seeds into an air column to separate the seeds from the “fluff” by their difference in weight. The result? Thousands of cleaned and counted seeds ready for use.  

ERPU flowerhead before separating seeds.
ERPU flowerhead with separated and counted seeds.

Outside of work Sahalie and I have been settling in and sprucing up our little trailer. We have made it quite the home and are getting used to the more “off grid” living. The beautiful hills and cliffs along Lucky Peak Reservoir are basically our backyard, and we can watch helicopters land at the Forest Service helipad from our kitchen window. We have explored several local hikes and even some hot springs to make use of the last cold weekends before summer. Additionally, we’ve been exploring the city, trying new food, attending the Treefort Music Festival, and spending a lot of time along the Boise Greenbelt. Living out in our trailer in the foothills while also working right in downtown Boise in our office has been such a unique blend of city and outdoor life. As the weather continues to warm up we are gearing up for so many more adventures around Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, and Utah and can’t wait to see all the places that seed collecting will take us later this summer!

The view out of our trailer front door featuring our trusty water jug that we haul in water with.
Sahalie and I exploring a cave along a fork of the Boise river.
Sunrise over the mountains on our drive into the Richfield garden.

Thousands of plants, 3 gardens, 1 week

Whew! What a busy couple of weeks.

Planting Joshua Trees has been quite the group effort and a lot of fun to work with people involved in different facets of the Joshua Tree Genome Project.

The week prior to planting involved meetings with the team, including Chris Smith, Karolina Heyduk, Jeremy Yoder and his graduate student Kate, and of course our USGS mentors Todd Esque and Lesley DeFalco. Basing their experience off of last year, they were concerned that there weren’t as many plants with 3 or more blades because those have shown to be more likely to survive once planted in the gardens. With that in mind, it was harder to choose the number of gardens to plant these seedlings in based on the likelihood that there would be fewer to survive. After assessing how many seedlings we had at each blade stage and their health rating (1-3), we decided on planting at 3 of the 4 gardens planted last spring. One of the gardens was easy to rule out since none of the seedlings survived there due to poor soil for Joshua Trees.

With this information decided, Bridget and I got busy tagging seedlings and getting them into the database, so that we can track each individual plant through the experiment. Lesley was then able to dedicate each plant to a specific garden. The two USGS Biological Science Techs, Caitlin and Sharon, helped us move each crate of Joshua Trees out of the greenhouse, so they could “harden off,” or acclimate to the full spectrum of temperature fluxes that the greenhouse tempers. You wouldn’t think such small stature Joshua Trees could weigh that much, but factoring in the nearly foot-long plant bands full of soil that they were contained in and then having 25 of those packed in each crate, they actually weigh quite a bit! In teams of two, we lifted and shifted the crates using a dolly and wagon, making sure to keep the order of crates the same out in the shade house as they were in the greenhouse. Our final step was to flag each plant for the garden they had been designated to – Pink for Cactus Mine (Local Nevada Garden), Yellow for Ridgecrest (Ridgecrest, California Garden), and White for Turkey Farm (St. George, Utah Garden).

We were ready to go for an early start on Monday morning!

Day 1: Monday – 7am – USGS Greenhouse – Boulder City, NV

Yawning and not mentally ready for the day, Bridget and I roll up on this lightly breezy morning (as they usually are in the desert) with many layers, hats, 2 water bottles a piece and a hearty lunch. We hook up the 500 lb water trailer to the back of our truck and drag the hoses to start filling it up while we wait for the U-Haul truck to arrive to load up the plants. The back of our truck is stuffed with buckets of gloves, watering cans, shovels, extra flags and foam pads to kneel on as we plant (the soil starts to feel harder and harder as the day goes on). All the crates with at least one pink flag are loaded –we create an assembly line of people lifting and carrying crates over to one person arranging them into the back of the truck. Then we all load up into our vehicles and we’re off to Cactus Mine!

Busy planting at Cactus!

We pull our truck up to the side of the garden to be in position for when we’re ready to water. We start by rolling out transect tapes to mark out as straight of lines as possible –Bridget and I know the straighter the lines, the easier it is to find plants once many have died because it makes the rows of plants less clear. Meanwhile, the auger is giving us trouble when we’re trying to start it for digging holes, so everybody grabs a shovel and we start digging by hand – a much slower process. They finally get the auger going, and we pop in our turquoise ear plugs and follow in their path as crates are opened up and plants are laid out into the holes for the planters to then take over the final step. After a long day, we’re treated by a beautiful sunset that seems to fully surround the sky around us and the mountains around our fading desert valley. We drive out with a near-full moon rising, most of the plants in the ground, and some peace of mind that we’ve got a much smaller bout to finish in the morning.   

The sunset treat

Day 2 – 7 am – Same location as last entry!

We roll up in the same fatigued mental state as the previous day, but with slightly declined physical states this time, including sore arms, tired backs and achy knees (don’t worry, we’re young, so we’ll bounce back!) Luckily, we finish up the planting around lunchtime; only leaving consolidating plants into fewer crates for the remaining gardens and picking up stray tags and flags and any other remains from our planting effort. Bridget and I hook up the fire hose to the water tank and spray the plants as gently as possible to avoid blowing them out. After that, we’re ready to head out with a little more time to recuperate and pack for our camp-out in Ridgecrest the next day.

Day 3 – 6 am – you get it by now

You can only imagine the toll on our mental and physical states by Day 3 with the hour earlier start tacked on…at least we have a four-hour drive to mentally prepare!!

I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, but I’ll admit we were tired!

With the process down pat from two days of practice and a head start on drilling from Lesley, Todd and Karolina staying overnight to start that before the rest of our crew arrived that morning, Ridgecrest went so smoothly that we finished planting in one day!!

We patted ourselves on the back for that one. It shifted our plans for the following day, so that Bridget and I would join Lesley and Karolina camping out at Utah the following night to get another head start before the planters would arrive there, too.

Camping over Ridgecrest

Day 4 – 7 am – Ridgecrest Common Garden – Ridgecrest, CA (switching it up right when you get the hang of it)

Lots of driving today. The end!

Just kidding. After recording the positions of the new Joshua Trees in the garden and watering them one last time, we headed back to Boulder City. We loaded up the U-Haul one last time with the only remaining crates marked with white flags. It was a bittersweet moment..kidding again!!

We re-organized the cab of our truck that was in disarray after a few days of throwing equipment and various clothes/food randomly across the back seats. And with that we set off for St. George, another 3-hour drive to end the day. Which, Bridget and I decided, deserved a peanut butter chocolate milkshake -even though it was only about 50 degrees out 😊

We set up traps at the garden, then went right to bed, the gentle hoo-ing of owls lulling us off to sleep.

Day 5 – 7am – Turkey Farm Common Garden – St. George, Utah

LAST DAY! Woohoo!

After checking traps first thing to make sure any caught rodents wouldn’t get too cold (none were caught today though), we got to work clearing an area for our new Joshua tree garden. Today, Bridget and I decided to volunteer to take over digging holes with the auger. We’d regret that one later! Mostly kidding…

The auger hard at work

The Utah garden has very sandy soil, but after getting a few inches down, it is very hard to dig past as the soil layer becomes harder. After my first go at it, where I only got a few holes to the necessary depth, Bridget found that by rotating the auger around and around for a few minutes could finally get the hole dug through that hard layer. We finished digging after a few hours, with shaky hands and tired wrists and forearms from holding the vibrating handles steady. The rest of the crew arrived and handled planting, while others got started on clearing Salsola away from the garden fence. Once planting was finished and lunch was had, we all jumped in on the Salsola removal, taking another few hours, but ending with the garden in great shape for Bridget and me!

Alex clearing some pesky Solsala!

Lesley and Todd graciously treated us to smoothies on our way out. This was especially nice when we hit standstill traffic that added an hour to our trip back home due to lovely construction and people heading to Vegas for the weekend! Just what the doctor ordered!

All and all, though, it really was a satisfying week of good ol’ fashioned manual labor and teamwork to get a big project done! Working side by side in the soil and getting to talk about life and our backgrounds that led us to the environmental science field was a lot of fun too, and I’m glad we go the chance to work together on such an important project that we all care so much about!

Planting and camping galore!

Hello! We have had a very busy past few weeks – moving the Joshua tree seedlings to the shadehouse to “harden off,” assessing the plants, planning which garden each seedling would go to, watering the soil in the gardens ahead of time so digging would be easier, organizing/packing up the Joshua tree crates, then finally planting in the gardens. It’s been a multi-step process, with a lot of help. The team consisted of the two CBG interns (Maddy and I), the three USGS mentors/researchers (Lesley, Todd, and Sara), other technicians (Caitlin, Sharon, Alex, and Robin), and university folk (Chris Smith, Karolina Heyduk, Jeremy Yoder, and Jeremy’s graduate student, Kate).

After much consideration between the investigators on this project, it was decided that we were going to split up the majority of plants between Cactus Mine and Ridgecrest, then plant a small subset in the Utah garden. The Utah garden is already so successful that it wouldn’t make much sense to plant populations that we already knew were physiologically adapted there – there is also less room to plant there since there are still so many live plants. We had originally planned to plant across these three gardens over the span of two weeks, spending two days at Cactus, three days at Ridgecrest (since the drive is so long), and then two days at Utah. However, the team was so efficient that we got it all done within five days!

The group starting to dig holes by hand at Cactus until the auger worked!

We started off with the Cactus Mine garden, which is the garden closest to Boulder City and also the garden that gets the most public visitation. We loaded the crates containing plants designated for Cactus into a U-Haul, then made the trek to the garden. Upon arrival, we started to dig – both with an auger and with shovels, since the auger was acting a little finicky. We had to let the digging team get a little ahead of the planting team, since digging took longer on average and, though the auger eventually started working consistently, it was hard work and required breaks. Once there were enough holes prepared to start planting, we received a short orientation on how to plant (“Green side up!” was a funny tag-line we heard). The process went like this

  1. The plant band (containing the Joshua tree) would be placed in the hole, but the planter would need to make sure the soil surface around the hole matched the height of soil in the plant band. If it didn’t match, the planter would either remove more soil from the hole or add soil
  2. The planter would pack some soil into the hole around the plant band (adding water to the soil as needed), then wiggle the plant band a bit to make the plant band rise out of the soil, but the Joshua tree/soil within the plant band would stay in place
  3. The planter would pack more soil around the plant band and wiggle the plant band some more, continuing to pull the plant band further out of the hole while the Joshua tree stayed in place. We repeated the packing/wiggling process about 3-4 times per hole, until the plant band could be completely removed and the Joshua tree was stable in the hole
  4. We would organize the contents around the Joshua tree – making sure the metal tag denoting its number was still around the plant and not crushing any blades, moving the plastic tag denoting its matriline further from the plant so it was easier to read, and removing the bamboo stick that was used to keep the metal tag around the plant
  5. We would water the plant and move on to the next one! If the water flowed quickly away from the plant and into surrounding soil (usually because of a discrepancy with the incline), we would pack soil into a donut shape around the plant to ensure that water would pool around it. Or if water quickly ‘glugged’ into the soil, it meant that we hadn’t packed the soil correctly while planting and there was an air bubble somewhere in the soil – in cases like that there wasn’t much we could do to fix it retroactively, but we would pack some more soil into the depression near the plant

The process started to move quickly once we got the hang of it. As Cactus was the first garden, though, we had to do the most organization when it came to pulling plant bands out of the crates. Since each plant within a crate was designated for a specific garden, sometimes a crate could contain plants going to Cactus, Ridgecrest, and Utah. We would have to bring that whole crate to Cactus, then pull out plants designated for either Ridgecrest or Utah and move them into a separate crate. So once organized, we actually had an easier time moving crates to Ridgecrest and Utah, since the crates were then sorted into almost exclusively plants going to those two gardens.

A beautiful sunset after a hard day’s work

We finished planting in Cactus on Tuesday afternoon, and Lesley and Alex walked through the rows of plants and recorded the tag numbers of each plant to make a garden map. Afterwards, Maddy and I used the fireman’s hose and 500 gallon water tank to water the whole garden! It felt great to be done with one garden, and we still had time in the day to drive back to the greenhouse, load up all the crates going to Ridgecrest, and pack up the necessary equipment for the next few days. Lesley and Karolina were going to drive straight to Ridgecrest that night to get a head start on drilling holes, while the rest of us were going to start our drive to Ridgecrest early on Wednesday morning.

We arrived to Ridgecrest around 11am, and were psyched to see how many holes they had drilled ahead of time! It made it so easy for us to jump immediately into planting, and since we were a well-oiled machine by that point, we planted super fast. Near 3pm, we were all afraid to ask the inevitable question of “are we gonna finish it all today?” for fear of jinxing it. And thankfully we didn’t jinx it! We finished planting around 5pm, then watered the plants, set some rodent traps for the night, and set up camp. The next morning after checking traps, Maddy, Alex, Karolina, and I worked on mapping the garden (two teams of two working from either end of the garden) while Lesley and Sara filled the 500 gallon tank so we could water the plants again.

Ridgecrest garden, planted and watered!

We left around 9am on Thursday to head back to the greenhouse to unload and re-pack for Utah, as Maddy and I planned to drive from the greenhouse to Utah (along with Lesley and Karolina) so we could get a head start on digging for the planting effort on Friday. As luck would have it, though, the route to the garden was blocked in multiple areas by Salsola (also known as Russian thistle or tumbleweed)! Maddy and I used pitchforks to clear the road, but each time we would clear one and drive a little further, another Salsola roadblock would be in the way. It was pretty comical, but it definitely confused us on our location, and we ended up missing the garden and having to turn around, find the right road, and then clear that road of Salsola as well. We eventually made it to the garden, tired but triumphant in our Salsola fight, to set up rodent traps and head to bed.

On Friday morning, after removing some Salsola inside the garden and making a plot for the new plants, Maddy and I volunteered to be the digging team. We had a quick lesson on how to use the auger, but learned that usually the Utah garden needs to be dug by hand because the soil is too dense. We started to dig, but the auger would turn off about halfway down the hole because it would get stuck. This was pretty frustrating, especially since digging by hand would take very long, but we couldn’t see any way around it. We dug about sixty holes to half depth, but on the third row we finally figured out a process to be able to auger to the full depth needed to plant the Joshua trees. It took a lot of time, muscle, water, and gas to dig to the correct depth, but it was definitely worth it as it helped us save energy and time. Maddy and I dug the holes, while Caitlin, Sharon, Alex, and Robin planted, Sara unloaded crates, and Lesley, Todd, and Karolina removed Salsola. We eventually finished with planting around 1:30pm, and after taking a quick lunch, mapped the garden layout and watered the garden.

The new Utah plot, planted and watered!

We then joined the Salsola removal team, which had made a huge headway. Before this day, the interior of the garden was pretty overrun with Salsola, and we never had enough time to make a dent in removal. With everyone’s help we finally cleared the garden of the Russian thistle! After throwing it over the high fence, we had to clear the outside fence line as well, before finally packing up and leaving. I still can’t believe we were able to finish all the planting in only one week. It definitely couldn’t have been done without the help of everyone on the team, and we were all very thankful to be treated to smoothies afterwards!

Maddy winning the fight against Salsola

Unfortunately, when we visited the Utah garden only 4 days later to assess the older population of Joshua trees, we found that a lot of the newer Joshua trees had already been damaged by rodent herbivory. It was very sad to see, especially because these plants would most likely survive here if not for the biting rodents. We had to cover all of the plants with a mesh cage (secured by landscaping pins at the bottom and by a zip tie at the top) to try to minimize any further damage, but we are nervous about the plants that have already been chewed. Lesley mentioned that if the meristem, which is where new growth is occurring, is chewed, then the plant will likely die. We are crossing our fingers that some of the new plantings survive this!

Very intense herbivory found on a Utah plant, only 4 days after planting 🙁
And the possible culprit that we trapped that night

After a few high-energy weeks to get this planting effort prepared and finished, it has been nice to relax a little! Maddy and I recently visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time (so cool to see so many fully grown Joshua trees), and have still been hiking every weekend around the Las Vegas/Boulder City area. The weather is definitely starting to warm up, so I am excited to be able to swim soon!

Some beautiful trees at Joshua Tree National Park!

Getting acquainted with Excel

Happy New Year! The past month has flown by quite quickly, much to my dismay, since that means less time left in the internship. I was very grateful to be able to travel home for the holidays – I got to see my family, my dog, and a little bit of snow!

In the past month we’ve collected a lot of new data, which has given us much to do in terms of data entry. Near the end of December we completed an entire greenhouse assessment of the Joshua trees, which consisted of us checking each individual plant band to see whether a seed has grown, and if so, how many blades it has and the overall health of it. Even though we’ve been working with the Joshua trees a lot and have been seeing them pop up above the soil, I was still very shocked to find out that we have over 1,600 plants currently alive! The health and number of blades varied a lot, since seeds were planted at different times (some have been growing since September), but this assessment should give us an idea of which matrilines have been more successful in the greenhouse, which will aid us in future planting in the common gardens. From our minimal amount of data, we have noticed that one population in particular has not been very successful in the greenhouse (it currently only has 25 successful seeds, compared to other populations with 100+), which could potentially correlate to the conditions that seed is genetically attuned to – maybe it is meant to thrive in conditions that are colder or have a higher altitude? Maybe it finds the greenhouse to be too humid? This data could help the researchers understand why certain populations are more successful in certain gardens (and in the greenhouse) than others.

Two seeds were planted in the same plant band, and both have successfully sprouted!

We’ve also made another monthly visit to the 3 common gardens to check on the Joshua trees that are out in the wild. It has rained a couple of times in the past month, which was evident when we went to the gardens! I saw many plants that were putting out tiny new blades (so small that I almost didn’t notice them and had to touch them to make sure they weren’t just a shadow). Other plants still seemed a little heat stressed, with leaf margins that were furled inwards, which could be a reaction from the summer heat that is still noticeable now. We luckily haven’t seen any active rodent herbivory, which would mean setting up traps, but have seen signs of insects – we are slowly trying to learn the difference between grasshopper and ant herbivory.

A fully grown Joshua tree near the Cactus Mine garden

These assessments and garden visits have given us a lot of data, which has provided us quite the opportunity to learn more about how this data is going to be used and what it could signify. It’s been very interesting to think deeper about the research and to consider how the data needs to be set up to make future statistical analysis more efficient and seamless. Maddy and I text Lesley, our mentor/the PI on this project, quite a bit when entering data to double check that we’re formatting it correctly, whether we need more columns or rows, and whether we need to include past data points on our current Excel spreadsheet. I’ve learned to think about it in terms of how the data will be used in the future – do we need to include past data in case of future analysis of trends for these plants? I tend to write a lot of notes when looking at the plants – will these notes be superfluous or could that data be helpful?

Overall, I’ve still been really enjoying the area! Maddy and I have been hiking every weekend, we camped in Death Valley (which taught us how cold it gets in the desert at night), and we plan to camp in Zion soon. I’m already growing quickly attached to the mountains, and hope that in the future I will still be in an area that has such accessible and beautiful hiking trails.

Maddy and I at the entrance to Death Valley!
We walked along the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes in Death Valley – it felt like we were in a movie!

Concerns over Water Usage, Drought and the Fate of Joshua Trees

How has it been over a month already? I have no idea. Time flies when you’re getting settled into a new place, a new job, and have so much exploring to do outside of work, too!

Here is a pic of Bridget & I doing just that! Exploring! –Death Valley National Park–

The past few weeks have had a heavy focus on data entry. We’ve needed to enter our records from the assessments we do at the gardens each month that rate the health status (1-3) and herbivory severity (1-5), as well as record the number of live blades each plant has, number of dead blades, and any notes.

That small light-colored trail near my finger tip is what ant herbivory looks like!

At the Cactus Mine and Ridgecrest gardens, the assessment doesn’t take very long between Bridget and I because many of the plants didn’t survive – there are only 23 seedlings still alive at Cactus Mine and 20 at Ridgecrest. Meanwhile, the Utah garden has a whopping 284 seedlings that are alive and —for the most part—well! This does mean a lot more crouching or kneeling, back up to standing, then shifting over to the next plant, and back down again, for Bridget and I as we assess about 140 plants each! Although it’s more uncomfortable for a longer period, it’s exciting to have one of the gardens flourishing! We are thinking the trees are doing so well here because it gets the most rain and is also the coolest out of the three. At the other end of the spectrum, Ridgecrest is the hottest and driest.

one happy plant at our flourishing Utah garden 🙂

Joshua Tree seeds have evolved to rely upon rains to germinate, which makes sense why the wettest garden would be performing the best. Unfortunately, looking at current and predicted climate trends, this is concerning because these rains that the Joshua Trees depend on to create new generations are not happening as often. Nevada officially declared a drought in 2002 that has continued to current times. Drought.gov provides information on current and historical (since 2000) drought conditions: currently, 68.1% of Nevada is in a severe drought, 24.2% is in extreme drought, and 7.5% is classified as exceptional drought.

Coming from a place of excess water, the idea of droughts and declining water source levels scares me. Along with this comes frustration that we are not doing enough to reduce water usage. At the individual level, around Las Vegas/Henderson/Boulder City, some houses have grass-covered lawns –one right outside of work even has sprinklers spraying their grass. It would be much better if they planted more native desert species and removed water-consuming grass. At the industry level, resorts use a lot of water mostly from hotel guests, who use more than 63 gallons per day on average, according to this article by Sam Bruketta, 2020. Although many resorts have been working to reduce water usage, such as MGM Resorts, which has reduced water use by 25% since 2007 (Bruketta, 2020). However, a truly unnecessary use of water is the Bellagio Resort fountains, which have been scrutinized for losing about 12 million gallons per year from evaporation (Bruketta, 2020). A different type of industry, is one of the biggest sinks of water, from watering grass on a larger scale than the individual homes mentioned earlier: golf courses. According to the Las Vegas Water District website, golf courses in Southern Nevada use an average of 725 acre-feet per year. My brain has a hard time imagining what this means… The Water Education Foundation website states that one acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons of water, and would cover one football field in a foot of water. So, for a visual of what an average Las Vegas golf course would use in a year, it would be enough to fill a 725 foot deep, football field-sized swimming pool! That is an insane amount of water.

The site also mentions that California households use about ½ – 1 acre-feet of water on average per year: about 163,000-326,000 gallons of water per year, each. That estimate brought my thoughts to the lifestyle I had this summer while living in a dry cabin in the woods of Alaska where I was working at the time. I’d never heard of a dry cabin before starting my housing search, but it was the cheapest option —for good reason— because they are cabins without running water, which means no toilet, no shower, no faucets of any kind. I was scared to live like that for three months having never been in a situation like that (besides short term circumstances when camping out for a few days). However, it made me realize how much water I use and waste under normal circumstances with the luxury of indoor plumbing —leaving the water running while washing hands, doing dishes, taking showers, or even flushing the toilet— everything!

this is my adorable little dry cabin in the woods that I miss!

How the water situation worked in a dry cabin, was we had two clear, five-gallon jugs that we’d fill up at the water-filling station in town, and set up on the counter over the sink which drained into a five-gallon bucket that we’d dump outside. And unfortunately, we did have a few times when we didn’t realize the bucket was nearly full, and spilled over some foul smelling water with chunky food bits/oily residue onto the floor as we scooted it out from under the counter to dump… Aside from those “oh crap” moments, overall, living in a dry cabin really wasn’t so bad!

With the goal being to take as few trips as possible to the water filling station; using as little water as possible to wash hands, do dishes etc. was the primary way to achieve this. We were so careful to reuse water when possible and use the bare minimum amount we could to get the job done. Although I dreaded the idea of living in a dry cabin at first, I’m so glad I had that experience to teach me so much about conserving water, which I’ve tried to hold with me since then. It makes me wonder if everyone lived like that for even one week, what difference it could make on our water usage overall in the US, especially in dry regions like this, where we need to be doing more.

First Glances of the Southwest

Hello! My name is Maddy Czymmek, and I’m one of two new interns with the Chicago Botanic Garden at the Boulder City USGS office. I’m working on the Joshua Tree Genome Project to understand how Joshua Trees are responding to climate change.

This is me! (taken on a weekend trip working in Alaska this summer)

After a 36 hour drive from my hometown: Ithaca, New York, it was a week of adjustments (which was to be expected from moving across the country)!

In the past, when I’ve been driving to a new place and the scenery starts to change, excitement comes over me. 20 or so hours into my road trip, it finally started happening, after the flat landscapes of western Oklahoma, southern Texas and Eastern New Mexico finally started to change. First with a few distant plateaus, then the Sandia Mountains ahead of me that I soon caught up with. As the sun set, I kept peaking in my rearview mirror, watching the cloudless sky become a light pink; the mountains a pale purple. The following evening, I had a similar feeling of awe. This time, I was nearing the Black Mountains bordering Arizona and Nevada. I came around a bend and the view opened up to a sea of purple mountains, various shades of purple waves stretching out to the horizon. The sun was setting again, creating a hazy, endless look to the mountains around me. So there was that feeling again. Entranced by this beautiful view. And excited that this was part of my new home that I’d get to explore for the next 6 months!

The landscape here is such a change from upstate New York’s lakes and rolling hills covered with a mix of farmland and forests. Looking around the area, it holds so much I know nothing about: the geology of the mountains and rock formations and so many plants I’ve never seen before that I want to be able to identify. Although my main internship project is focused on Joshua Trees, learning about desert ecosystems and whatever I can about the greater Las Vegas and Mojave Desert region, including issues related to climate change, water scarcity, and land degradation are also a priority for me. Living here and exploring is a learning experience on its own. 

Me snapping pictures at Red Rock Canyon outside of Vegas!

So here I am, nearing the end of week 3. My co-intern, Bridget, and I are getting into the workflow of greenhouse seedling maintenance and checking the incubating seeds. The seeds are separated by matriline onto petri dishes and kept in the incubator while waiting for them to germinate. For anyone unfamiliar with what a matriline is: for this project, groups of related seeds from separate geographical locations were collected and are referred to as different matrilines. It’s been interesting to note differences among the matrilines even at the seed stage. One group in particular has shown noticeably slow germination, has had many seeds develop a cloudy sheen and yellow leakage underneath them, and multiple seeds that have germinated have had drooping or even mushy radicles –not to mention the rancid smell when we take the lid off the petri dish! On the other end, some have been producing beautiful radicles that are long and sturdy with root hairs.

A Joshua Tree seedling with water droplets after watering

This week, we were able to visit the Cactus Mine Garden (about 30 minutes from Boulder City) and the Ridgecrest Garden (about 4 hours from Boulder City)! I’ve always thought it was cool that there’s so much public land out West, while most of NY is covered in “No Trespassing” signs. But especially with Covid, they are noticing an increase in land use and degradation. That was clear at Cactus Mine, where there were ATV and motocross tracks across the land, trash –even a deserted jet ski– and holes in the garden fence from people shooting at it. I’m not sure what could help improve land stewardship practices, but it was disheartening to see. Not only is it frustrating for maintaining the garden, but also the surrounding habitat that is broken up and disturbed by this destruction and trashing.

Cactus Mine Garden

To avoid ending on a heavy note, we got some rain in the desert this week! I’m not sure if I’ve ever been excited for rain in my life (back home, we usually get enough rain and cloudy days that it’s typically not something I look forward to). However, in the desert, especially since this area has been in a long drought, it actually felt like something to celebrate! We’re hoping that if we keep getting some rain, the wildflowers will pop for us in the spring, fingers crossed! 

December in the Desert

Hi! My name is Bridget Hennessy, and I’m a CLM intern working in Boulder City, Nevada! I moved here about three weeks ago, and have quickly adjusted to life here in Nevada. Being from Michigan, it has been quite the change of species, scenery, and weather. It’s truly amazing to be surrounded by mountains! It’s also truly odd to be experiencing warm weather in December! 

I’m working on the Joshua Tree Genome Project, which is a USGS research project focused on how Joshua trees respond to climate change. So far I’ve been helping in the lab, greenhouse, and common gardens. In the lab, my co-intern, Maddy, and I care for germinating Joshua tree seeds – making sure they have water in their petri plate and aren’t molding, and watching to see when they germinate. There are around 20-25 seeds per petri plate and, with all the moisture, it’s easy for the seeds to mold. Thankfully they are being kept at the right temperature, so it is also easy for them to germinate! Once seeds have a nicely-sized radicle (or primary root) we plant them in the greenhouse into plant bands. These plant bands and crates were set up before we arrived, so our main job has just been planting more germinated seeds and watering the Joshua trees. We have learned to balance the moisture level between plants, since new transplants need to have more water than plants that have sprouted blades.

Joshua trees planted in the greenhouse

We’ve also been organizing and counting Joshua tree seeds that were previously collected into new batches for future planting. These seeds were collected from different trees in different areas, so they have different matrilines, different adaptations, and different abilities to survive in the common gardens. The three common gardens are set up in California, Utah, and Nevada, all so that the Joshua trees’ survival can be tested in a variety of temperatures, soils, altitudes, and precipitation levels. We visited all three gardens over the past week and a half to assess the previously planted Joshua trees, and it was so interesting! We counted how many blades each plant had, checked whether there were signs of herbivory, and scored the overall health of the plant. Seeing the gardens in person definitely helped me recognize the differences between them – the Nevada garden had the most signs of herbivory, the California garden had super dry and sandy soil, and the Utah garden had very soft, moist soil. I’m very excited to assess them again and see if the plants grow more!

One of the Joshua tree plants in the Utah garden – it is super healthy and is sprouting a new blade!

This week we’ve been setting up for planting the species Eriogonum fasciculatum into soil in the greenhouse. These plants were cuttings from larger plants in the Mojave, that were then placed in perlite and watered frequently. The cuttings have now grown roots and are ready to go in soil. We cleaned crates, set up plant bands, and added a soil mixture to each band. We have now moved on to the planting stage, and are working slowly and surely to make sure the delicate roots aren’t damaged in the planting transition. It’s cool to see the crates slowly start to fill up with plants!

Maddy, Sharon, Caitlin, and I planting the Eriogonum fasciculatum

After work it’s been great to hike and explore the Las Vegas area. Maddy and I have visited Red Rock Canyon and Arizona so far, and are planning to camp in Death Valley soon. The nature here is so different from what I’ve experienced, and I love being able to see new species and such rich geology. I can’t wait for what else is to come!

Beautiful landscape at Red Rock Canyon!

Wrapping up in the Southwest

Ubehebe Crater in Death Valley National Park

This last month has been quite the whirlwind! I spent most of it working with a desert plant named Eriogonum fasciculatum, a common shrub found all over the Mojave. This project had myself and my co-worker going every which way, from up on the Pacific Crest Trail to down into the depths of Death Valley! Meanwhile, the Joshua Tree seedlings in the greenhouse continued to grow, getting more and more leaves. As well, when I completed my last field assessment in Utah, some of the plants had over 15 leaves! A long way from the 1-3 leaves they had when planted some 8 months ago! One of the most rewarding parts of this project was watching that kind of change, both in the desert and in the greenhouse, happen in real time.

A robust JT in UT

With the Eriogonum project, we are aiming to collect cuttings from wild plants, grow new plants from the cuttings, and plant those cuttings in the same sort of gardens where we have the Joshua Trees. Just like the Joshua Tree project, these plants were found in all sorts of climate zones, meaning a spectrum of harshness for the parent plants. Interestingly, usually seeds are used for propagation with this species, but we decided to use cuttings instead. This is because flowering and producing seeds have become much more variable as the climate changes in the Mojave. This biome, already a very difficult place to survive, has become harsher and harsher with continuing droughts and intense heat. So, taking cuttings is a potential way to continue to reproduce this, and potentially other, species without having to collect seed. In fact, this project is the largest-scale cutting collecting effort of this species ever recorded in scientific literature (that I am aware of)! It is always really cool to be a part of something completely new in scientific research, especially one that could help of save more and more plant species as desert conditions worsen.

Eriogonum fasciculatum cuttings packed into a sterile perlite substrate. Each cutting has been treated with growth hormone to encourage rooting

As I write this last post, I am already back home in Virginia, enjoying what’s left of the fall foliage. It’s nice to be back home, but I will always look back on this amazing experience with USGS and CBG. I’ve seen so much more of this country and learned some much about professional field work and research than ever before in my life! Beyond being a really cool plant, the Joshua Tree will always hold a special place in my heart. The Joshua tree is such a biological marvel, so complicated and resilient. It and so many other facets of our world need to be studied and protected, and I am so glad I could help, even for just 6 months. I am so grateful to Lesley, Todd, Sarah, Alex, and Chris for helping with these new life/work experiences! Thank you anybody who’s been following along online, I hope you enjoyed my photos and writing! Below are a couple last photos from Nevada, the drive back home, and finally Virginia. Happy Holidays!

Great Blue Heron right by my house in Virginia