Get in We’re Going to The Great Basin!

I cannot believe it is already my last week of this internship. Pack up and come along for the ride through all the Great Basin explorations of our summer!

The rest of the season can be broken up into 3 main stages:

Scouting for Sphaeralcea (Globemallow)

Collecting Globemallow seeds

Scouting for Eriogonum umbellatum (ERUM). 

Scouting for Globemallow 

Unlike LODI earlier this season, when scouting for globemallow we aren’t looking for just one species but rather any in the genus. This has made it interesting to see all the different species of globemallow. Trips to find this plant lead us much farther into the Great Basin and into very different habitats than LODI. We found that Globemallow liked to grow in quite disturbed places, often along roadsides or in old roadbeds. It also seemed to do better in the very hot, dry, and low elevation areas of the Great Basin with sandier soils. When on hills we noticed a pattern of Globemallow only growing in a narrow mid elevation band around the hillsides. In addition to the usual scouting process I outlined in my previous blog about LODI, for Globemallow, we have begun taking an herbarium specimen from each population. This means we dig up a plant or a few plants, while keeping most roots intact and attached and press it to be used for records and identification later. The goal is to have a pressed plant that takes up about two thirds of the page and is a clean presentation of the plant. To make a good herbarium we sometimes need to pluck off leaves and flowers to make it appear less cluttered. In order for the plant to press well we may also need to shave down the root so it can lay flat. In addition to the physical plant we add information about the habitat, soil type, surrounding species and exact coordinates from where the plant was taken. 

Collecting Seed

By early July some Globemallow populations were ready to collect. July become the month of the mad dash to get as much seed as possible before it all dispersed. 

When collecting, the goal is to get at least 2000 seeds from each population. This is why it is so important to find at least 200 plants when scouting a population. 2000 seed usually means collecting at least 400 seed heads depending on how much seed they each hold. Globemallow seeds are arranged in round seed heads that look like little “cheese wheels” when they begin to open, holding seeds in different slices. It’s important to keep in mind that we don’t want to deplete the population of all its seed. For this reason we only collect 25% of seeds in a population for that season. When estimating this 25% we include already dispersed seed heads or immature seed heads in the total count of seed for that season.

Mature seed heads( cheese wheels) ready to collect.

ERUM Scouting

By August most of the Globemallow seed has been dispersed and the plants are drying up. For the last few weeks of our internship we shifted to scouting for Eriogonum umbellatum (ERUM). the research station is in the early phases of incorporating ERUM. For this reason scouting looked a little different than LODI and Globemallow. For ERUm we did not need to find 200 plants. The minimum was just 10 plants in order to get all the leaf tissue needed. The goal for ERUM was also to get a larger amount of potential population locations to work with. Instead of getting just a few populations across a large region we wanted to scout regions much more thoroughly and get samples from the highest and lowest elevations in those areas. This type of scouting brought Sahalie and I a lot of fun variation in our last few weeks. Unlike working with globemallow in low disturbed places along roadsides, the ERUM populations we needed were often at high elevations. This meant that we sometimes got to have an epic hike up 10,000 ft mountains to get our samples.

My Great Basin bedroom

Since the start of the scouting season in April, Sahalie and I have camped 2-3 nights nearly every week for the past 4 months. Our “office” truly looks different everyday. We have traveled to Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Sometimes we even hit 3 different states in just one trip! This has led us to some incredible adventures in the most remote corners of the desert and on top of mountain meadows all over of The Great Basin. Here are just a few of my favorite views and campsites. 

Overlooking our campsite in the Thomas Mountain range in Utah
Wild horses in Nevada

What I’ve Learned

Throughout this season I learned many botany and field skills that I am excited to apply in my future career. Some of the most valuable skills and experiences being: 

  • Aerial imagery interpretation
  • How to navigate remote rough roads in 4×4 USFS trucks
  • Great basin Plant ID
  • Native seed collection
  • Herbarium specimen collection
  • Leaf Tissue collection
  • Botanical Keys
  • Population mapping
  • Habitat scouting for of our focal species and how climate, aspect, slope, surrounding species and soil type influence where the plant will occur
  • Seed collection cleaning
  • Dynamic decision making in the field
  • Independent field work and trip planning
  • Plant phenology surveys

What’s Next?

While this is a goodbye to my CLM internship it is not my goodbye to Boise! Getting so lucky with a great crew and group of friends in the city, I just couldn’t bring myself to leave yet. Sahalie and I have moved out of the trailer and into a house in town with another one of our coworkers. I’m so excited for this new chapter in Boise where I can settle in and spend some time outside of my tent and the forest service truck for now. I’m planning on spending this fall gaining some farm experience on local farms around Boise. This farm experience combined with my CLM experience will give me valuable skills to apply towards my next step in my career. I plan on moving into soil health research and conservation planning within food production systems.

I am so grateful for this incredible summer with all the places I’ve seen, people I’ve met, and new skills I have learned!

A photo of Anna (our new roommate), Sahalie and I from our backpacking trip in the Sawtooths this summer.

On The Lookout for LODI

Hey blog! Since my last entry Sahalie and I have been all over Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. The scouting season has begun! Our target species to scout for at the moment are Sphaeralcea (Globemallow) and Lomatium dissectum (Fernleaf Biscuitroot/LODI). We quickly learned it was too early for the Globemallow to be flowering, making them quite difficult to scout for without their bright orange inflorescence. The last few weeks we have focused on looking for LODI populations to collect seed from later on. 

The scouting process

The scouting process begins long before we hit the road. We usually spend a day examining topographic maps, and satellite imagery for the regions we want to visit, along with a thorough search of herbarium databases to see specific locations LODI has been found in the past. All of these resources help us narrow down a few places we think we will be most likely to find LODI. For this species we are looking on the maps for steep eroding rocky canyons with north and west facing slopes. However throughout the last few weeks we’ve learned quite a bit more about LODI’s habitat preference that doesn’t always follow this pattern! It seems that LODI likes to have an adjacent hill or wall to shade the slope they are growing on. We have also found it thriving on south facing slopes and in little gullies coming off of mountain drainages. After finding LODI on the steepest eroding slopes it was surprising to find it in the much more subtle topography changes of these shallow gullies filled with tumbleweeds. 

On the ground

Once we arrive at the places we’ve circled on the maps, the real scouting begins. Sometimes we get lucky and find a huge population instantly, you can even spot it from the road. Other times we will spend the entire day barely scraping up a population of 200 plants. 200 plants is the minimum number of plants we need in a population in order to collect seed from it. Over the last few weeks we have found populations that range from thousands of plants, hundreds of plants to just over 200. Once we have established that our population has enough plants we will begin to map it. This entails walking through the population dropping waypoints approximately every 30 meters and giving an estimate for about how many plants surround each waypoint. By the end of this process we will have a point cloud of the population that gives us a sense of both the boundaries and how many individuals it contains. This information is super helpful for whoever has to find the plants again to collect seed in the future. As we map we also collect leaf tissue samples. For each population we will select 12 plants to collect tissue from, scattered evenly throughout the area. Finally, we will take photos for each population. Each photoset includes the plant’s inflorescence, leaves, stems, base, involucres, the whole plant, the plant in its habitat, and a landscape photo of the habitat from outside of the population.

This months best “office” views

Hells canyon

Lomatium dissectum overlooking Hells canyon
Our dreamy campsite
Self timer action shot mapping the LODI population.

Steens Mountain trip

Got stopped by a cattle run on the way in, feeling like the real wild west!
Our morning view of Steens from the Alvord desert where we stayed the night at some hot springs!
Globemallow spotted while looking for LODI! Unfortunately not a big enough population.
Scouting site north of Steens. Ended up finding lots of LODI in the small drainages coming off of these slopes.

I have absolutely loved this month of scouting. It’s such a good feeling to pick out a little point on the map of somewhere you’ve never been, and then to go there, see the landscape in person, and find exactly the plant you’re looking for! It has taken us to some absolutely magical and remote places and I cannot wait to see more of the Great Basin as the season continues!

Our crew has grown a lot this last month with several new Forest Service technicians joining the team. We have all become such good friends! Outside of work we have been climbing, camping, and having beach days by Lucky Peak reservoir. I’m feeling so lucky to have such a good crew and group of friends to adventure with out here! Here are few more pictures of what we have been up to.

Sahalie, Nyika, and Katie climbing at the Black Cliffs

Abby, Sahalie, and I at the top of our Lightning ridge hike
Sunset hike to the top of the hill next to our trailer

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.