Behold: A Frozen Rare Plant

Wyoming’s desert yellowhead (Yermo xanthocephalus) is the rarest of Wyoming’s four listed threatened plants.

It seems odd that any monitoring can really be done in a foot of snow, but not every state can be geographically located to have sunshine 360 days a year. While other states would likely call it quits the minute the precip charts start to stir (looking at you California), leave it to Wyoming to put on the gaiters and saddle up (yee-haw). And so, with a foot of snow on the ground, off we went into the badlands of Wyoming to monitor cheatgrass at one of the county’s only documented Yermo sites.

What in the world is Yermo? Nobody knew until 1990, when Robert Dorn, Wyoming’s very own resident plant expert, discovered the first population. When Dorn first came across the plant in spring he suspected it might be a new species of milkweed based on its leathery leaves and waxy yellow buds. When he returned to collect it in June he was surprised to find that the plant was actually a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae or Compositae) and not a milkweed at all! He noticed that the floral bracts were quite unusual in being bright yellow rather than green and leafy as in 99% of all other composites. Dorn realized that he had not only a new species, but also a new and undescribed genus. The plant was given the the name Yermo xanthocephalus by Dorn in 1991; yermo meaning “desert” in Spanish, and xanthocephalus translating as “yellow head”.*

Still, desert yellowhead remains known only from Dorn’s original population, despite extensive searching for suitable habitat. It was listed as threatened by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service under the Endangered Species Act in 2002.Today it is known as the rarest of Wyoming’s four listed endangered plants, being known in Fremont County, WY and nowhere else.

So you might understand why, even with a foot of snow on the ground, I was pretty excited to head out and uncover this thing. We hiked about a mile in and as we approached, I realized that I wasn’t dressed for the occasion. As we got closer our target area, at the foot of a large butte, my feet and ankles slowly began to freeze and I had vague visions of my mentor hauling me out, my embarrassment surpassed only by the disappointment of not getting to see the plant. But thoughts of my frozen limbs disappeared when I heard her excited shout. How she could find and recognize this remarkably rare plant in all the snow was beyond me, but I wasted no time asking questions and rushed over to behold the plant for myself.

Approaching the Yermo population

What I saw was akin to a frozen plant skeleton. Completely unspectacular and unremarkable in any way to the untrained eye. Partially buried in the snow, the plant had one to five stems up to 1 foot tall. Its leaves were alternate and slightly oval to lance shaped about 1 1/2 to 10 inches long, and often folded at the midvein. I learned that the plant grows new shoots each year from an overwintering taproot and usually begins flowering in late June and continues to flower over the entire growing season. Its unique among Wyoming composites in having bright yellow floral bracts that resemble a series of fleshy bananas, although it all looked dead and brown when we saw it.

Not much to look in the winter, but this little guy is actually doing pretty well here!

No one knows how long desert yellowhead can live. Long term studies have shown that population numbers fluctuate from year to year. We visited this population to monitor cheatgrass observed nearby. Although no cheatgrass was found among the plants, we did find some nearby. This could be worrying because cheatgrass is invasive and if established, could outcompete this delicate population. Management decisions today could easily influence this threatened species.

Its easy to see how this little plant could easily get overlooked and why some might question large efforts to remove and control invasive grasses in areas where no cattle grazing exists, however the BLM recognizes that plant conservation and protection is essential to sustain the ecological, economic, and aesthetic values of our public lands. For this effort, the Wyoming BLM is preparing a desert yellowhead conservation strategy in coordination with local, state, and other federal agencies.

No Yermo up on top, just amazing views!

Now that my season is wrapping up, I’m looking forward to the next adventure. In two weeks I’ll be leaving for Sacramento, where I’ll be working with the Bureau of Reclamation on water use policy. It’ll be important to remember all the pieces in the puzzle. From the many sagebrush all the way to the lone Yermo.

Gwen Robson, Lander BLM

* Bureau of Land Management. “Wyoming’s Threatened and Endangered Plant Species: Desert Yellowhead”. U.S. Department of the Interior.


Just Getting Started

While it seems that everyone else is packing it up and getting ready to leave, I’m only just beginning my time with CBG in Lander, WY as a Botany intern! Although I’ve been living in Lander for over a year, I’m new to CBG and will be hanging out until mid-January. I have to say, I’m pretty excited to see what CBG can teach me about my home. I’ve already learned about Wyoming’s rarest endangered plant, desert yellowhead (Yermo xanthocephalus), and have gotten a taste (and a smell) of our many varieties of sagebrush. I’ve also gotten to experience the joys of finding a bountiful seed set, the frustrations of searching endlessly for viable seed, and the cross-eyedness of trying to count tiny seeds only to sneeze and blow them all over the table. I’m enjoying the work though. I love getting lost in the meditative trance of collection, cleaning, and seeding. Despite the small frustrations, I find the process undeniably pleasant and I feel fortunate that we are able to have such great resources at our disposal! My last job working with seeds did not go as easily and is a stark comparison to the Seeds of Success (SOS) project I’ve been working on.

I came to Lander via Senegal, West Africa. I was stationed in Senegal for three years with the United States Peace Corps working as a sustainable agriculture extension agent. My job mostly consisted of consulting with farmers and working with local villages to create fruit orchards, community gardens, and improve sustainable cultivation practices. A large part of my job was also seed extension. The idea was to give improved seed varieties to farmers in exchange for them returning double the amount to me at the end of the year. The extra seed I received back would be given to other farmers to expand and grow the program. When I began my service, I had grandiose dreams of extending seeds across the region. I dreamt that my seed extension program would be so successful that it would evolve into a region wide seed collection effort in which, hand-in-hand, villages would skip into the African bush, collect seed, and together we would sow a new African forest, thus preventing desertification, increasing vital habitat, and increasing plant diversification across the country. It’s probably not a surprise that my big dreams did not come to fruition. In fact, in my first year of doing seed extension only half of the farmers I worked with returned seed to me. I spent hours collecting and cleaning seed by myself, only to have it blow away in a gust of wind, get eaten by insects, or in the off-chance that it actually made it to planting season, my new germinates would[delete] get eaten by merciless greedy goats. It seemed like so much work for such little gain. But the work was hard because I lacked resources. I wasn’t partnered with a government bureau. I didn’t have a car that could take me to remote areas where the best seed was. I didn’t even have a good pair of hand pruners. All this is to say, that I didn’t fail because I was a bad person, I failed because seed work can be hard. It’s hard to make a difference when one person is working by themselves.

The next year I clung to the farmers who had returned seed to me. They were my helpers and together we found more people who were interested in establishing a local seed bank. Although the seed program didn’t reach the region-wide scope I had envisioned, that year eighty percent of my farmers returned seed to me and they were excited to grow the program the next year. All of this opened my eyes to how important it is to work together on projects of this magnitude – it isn’t something that anyone can do alone. It takes a lot of people, and a lot of resources to collect and distribute that much seed.

And now I’m an SOS Botany intern tasked with collecting seeds to save and distribute for national reclamation projects. The great thing is, I’m not alone in this endeavor. I am one of many working on this momentous project. This is why I am so thrilled to be a part of this national effort as a CLM intern. Together, we really can make a difference.

-Gwen BLM, Lander Field Office

Gwen in 2015 creating seed bags to extend to farmers

Long leaf sage seed moments before sneezing it all over the table.