As a CLM intern I have learned so much about the desert that I’d like to briefly list some of the more interesting factoids –
-The Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) recieved its common name from Mormon immigrants, thinking its branches resembed Joshua raising his hands to the sky. Its fruits were once consumed by the extinct Shasta ground sloth (Nothrotheriops shastense); the branches descending presumably to allow the sloths easy access to its fruits. It’s theorized that the sloths were the primary seed distributor of the Joshua Tree.
-Picking up a desert tortoise will cause it to defensively urinate, causing it to become dangerously dehydrated.
-Coyotes need no source of standing water. They can get all the water they need from their food.
-The desert is most beautiful at dawn and dusk. This is irrefutable.
-The ghost town of Rice, California was an old stopping point for steam engines to replenish their water supplies. Now it is the site of the states most famous fence; decorated with old shoes donated by passersby.
-The Salton Sea supports around 30 percent of the North American pelican population.
After learning all this, the famous line from Lawrence of Arabia, “There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing” sounds so hollow! Over the last few weeks I’ve been focusing on getting as many seed collections as possible before the conclusion of my internship next month.
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden
In the last month the eastern Californian Mojave has experienced record rainfall. Because of the regular patterns and consistent showers, seed collections have been picking up again and species like Pectis papposa, Bouteloua barbata, and Kallstroemia parviflora have been carpeting large parts of my field area. It’s an exciting time to be a field botanist! I recently collected from Rattlesnake Canyon, just north of Pioneertown, a village that has been chosen by filmmakers as the setting for many westerns and frequented by actor Roy Rogers.
Most recently, the Sawtooth Complex Fire came through the surrounding area, destroying stands of Joshua tree and scarring the landscape. The Joshua trees are now resprouting in some locations, but the damage is widespread and it will take many decades for the stands to recover. Because of the recent disturbance at the site, it seemed fitting to spend some time scouting for plants that are fire and grazing tolerant. There are several grazing permits in the area and I ran into a couple of local cowboys — the first people that I have encountered in the field in 7 months — that were looking for their cattle as I descended further down into the canyon. I was searching for Brickellia californica and Chysothamnus nauseosus, two fire-adapted species that also seem to respond well to grazing pressure. We managed to locate populations of both species that were fruiting and it felt great to make seed collections that I knew were great candidates for restoration on highly disturbed lands.
Last weekend I attended the Southern California Botanist Symposium at the Huntington Botanical Gardens inSan Marino,California. There were many talks given on restoration and threats to our native flora. One of the most interesting talks entitled, “The Current Role and Future of Biological Soil Crusts in the Face of Climate Change” by Jayne Belnap, Ph.D. For those unfamiliar with soil crusts, they are a layer of soil that is a living community of algae, fungi, and cyanobacteria. They exist in many arid environments, including the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. She explained how undisturbed soil crusts act as an impenetrable barrier to invasive plant seed; the appendages on many non-native seeds cause them to be trapped atop the soil crust, never allowing them to penetrate and germinate.
After hearing this talk, I’m convinced that one of the most effective methods of preventing the spread of exotic plant species is to prevent future damage to these soil crusts by reducing impact from development and vehicular soil disturbance. Manual and chemical methods of removal will only go so far if the continued degradation of these communities goes unhindered. I’m very grateful to my mentor for inviting me the symposium. I got to hear all of these interesting and poignant talks and meet many botanists that research plants that I see every day!
Rabbitbrush – Chrysothamnus nauseosus
I’m also taking two refresher courses in GIS that will give me more experience mapping populations and will expand my knowledge of the program. A big thank you to Dean Tonenna and everyone at the BLM who helped make these courses available to CLM interns. They will broaden our skill sets and help prepare us to manage our public lands as we look towards the future.
Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden Office
In the past two months seed collection has been slow and my mentor allowed me to work with other botanists at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden on other projects in the field. The first project that I participated took me to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks to look for non-native and rare plants in the Jennie Lakes Wilderness Area. This consisted of 8 to 10 mile hikes and lots of surveying. We ran into groups of hikers from all over the world, from Japan to Germany. Leroy Gross, the senior curatorial assistant at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden led the trip. At the summit of Shell Mountain we found pockets of the rare Dicentra navedensis, a relative of the cultivated bleeding heart and clearly related to Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) if you happen to be from out east like I am. We made vouchers of all of the rare plants and associated species located in the area. No photos exist from the Shell Mountain population to our knowledge, so we snapped a couple and made our way back down the mountain.
Courtesy California Academy of Sciences, 1998 from EOL.org
In the high altitude meadows we visited we collected and documented several populations of Ivesia campestris. To our delight we found no non-native plants in the Jennie Lakes Wilderness. This was suprising, considering the amount of hiking and large number of horses that travel on the trails. My favorite plant was the native Phleum alpinum, a grass that has a light purple inflorescence. At first I thought it was Timothy (Phleum pratense), because of its association with horses.
The fall rains are causing the fall fruting annuals to spring to life. In some areas of the desert there has been 10 inches of rain in the past 2 months! We’ve gone from drought conditions and one of the lowest spring melt years on record to recieving 400 percent of the normal fall precipitation, all in one year. In areas above 4,000 ft., the contrast is astonishing. There we find Joshua tree savannahs, with large annual diversity, including 5 species of fruiting Bouteloua. I’m really looking forward to making seed collections, because the mid-summer was almost exclusively Bebbia juncea and Larrea tridentata collections. Insect damage was high, possibly because insects were eating outside of their preferred forage because nothing else was available. I’ve also completed my vouchers for the spring, labelling them and getting them ready for shipping.
This week I’m going out to the central Mojave in an area close to the Old Woman Mountains. This area recieved so much rain a month ago that 2 major highways were shut down because of the flash floods; we were conducting field work at the time and had to return to headquarters because of the conditions. I’ll be heading out with Dunan Bell, a botanist with an encyclopedic knowledge of desert flora. He scouts for populations of rare plants in the Mojave and Sonora deserts and I hope to make seed collections while contributing to his project.
I saw a bobcat for the first time in the Mojave two days ago while doing field work . I wrote this a short time afterward.
THE BOBCAT – by Aaron Sedgwick
Rising from the sand slinks the carnivorous grendel,
Jewel of the Mojave. Diamond eyes and cat-sized.
Shadows run from her gaze, Silent steps on the salt flats.
Maneuvering the wreckage of a thousand burned out buggies,
Glass bottle shards, Shotgun shells.
Fixed on the resting jackrabbit,
Tunnel vision stalking, buzzards hawking for the kill to come.
She… p o u n c e s
Bounding and bouncing jackrabbit shatters the calm.
Dust devil cage binds the pair together,
Freeing them when the howling stops.
Smiling and lapping the last drop from her chin,
She returns to silence.
I made three seed collections over the last two days! They were all from previously scouted populations that I had scouted for way back in April. It’s exciting to successfully utilize previously scouted information from the same field season that I’ve personally collected.
One difficulty with the abnormally dry conditions in the Mojave has been that population data and vouchers from previous wetter years do not reflect the current conditions and distribution of species in the field. Frequently, many of the populations that we are documenting are not even flowering , but the population data may be useful either next year or later in the summer when monsoon season begins. This means that every seed collection is sensational and precious this year. I’ve often thought that the plants that are producing seed this year could have particular sets of traits that are favored during dry years, making their genetics valuable for restoration. They could possibly be better adapted to the climate change projections for southern California, which predict a drier and hotter Mojave.
Over the last few weeks the Mojave and Sonora have become increasingly dry. It’s gotten to the point that even the Larrea tridentata is under stress in some places. Walking through fields of dead or dormant Ambrosia dumosa and Atriplex, I try to stay optimistic that the target species I’m looking for, hope beyond hope, is just around the bend. We’ve had to move to higher elevations, but even in places like the Orocopia Mountains things are bleak.
Despite the extremely dry conditions, we are able to collect many of the most common species and tissue collection for a tortoise forage nutrient study has begun. Wading through cheesebush (Ambrosia salsola), with my hands covered in a resinous coating of cheesebush glue and smelling like the sweetest limburger, I remind myself that this will benefit an endangered animal. But there is beauty in the simplicity of the act of collecting. I get into a rhythm, and feel connected to the desert around me in a very fundamental way. Or, maybe it’s all just a delusion inspired by the 110 degree weather we’ve been having. Regardless, I’ve seen a lot more wildlife and have been having a great time scouting for new seed collection locations.
Green Curcurbita palmata fruits!
Hello, my name is Aaron Sedgwick and I’m an intern at the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont,California! The territory my Seeds of Success internship covers spans an enormous area that includes the Mojave and the northern Sonora. As a native Midwesterner, the biggest challenge has been acclimating to the climate and learning an unfamiliar flora. The diversity is staggering. Despite the unusually dry spring this year and the lack of annual plants, I am consistently amazed at the variety and spectacular inflorescences of desert plants.
Ever since I learned about edible wild foods I’ve been fascinated by ethnobotany and ethnoecology. Learning about the how the Cahuilla people use native plants for food and medicine has accelerated the rate at which I learn species names and habitat types. I want to learn more about how the peoples of this region managed their resources historically. We stumbled upon what appeared to be a petroglyph in a rock face one day and I wondered at the diversity and complexity of knowledge that must have been required to live in such a varied landscape and harsh climate.
I had never experienced first-hand how limiting water is for wildlife and plants before I began working in the Mojave. I’m excited when I find dragonflies, because I know there must be a spring nearby. If there is one lesson that the desert has taught my thus far, it’s the necessity and sanctity of water.
I have been fortunate to participate in two Bioblitzes; one in Joshua Tree National Park at 49 Palms Spring and another at the Black Buttes documenting the flora and fauna in the area for the Save the Desert Foundation. Participating in these events gave me an opportunity to contribute directly to how the desert is managed for habitat and diversity (in the case of Joshua Tree National Park) and for commercial development (in the case of the Black Buttes).
Every day in the Mojave and Sonora is a reawakening to the resiliency of life. I can’t wait to see what’s hidden in the next canyon and what awaits me in the next wash!