Blowout Penstemon Part 1

There are four vascular plant species in Wyoming protected under the Endangered Species Act, and arguable the most charismatic of them is blowout penstemon (Penstemon haydenii). This showy, fragrant species has an extremely narrow habitat range; in Wyoming it is only known to occur on the vegetated, leeward sides of blowouts within sand dune habitat.

Blowout penstemon was thought to occur only on some sand dunes in Nebraska until BLM botanist Frank Blomquist found a population in Wyoming in 1996. The story goes that he stopped on the sand dunes for a lunch break and, while he was sitting there, noticed a penstemon species he wasn’t familiar with. This summer I’ll have the exciting opportunity to do some blowout penstemon monitoring with Frank, and I’m looking forward to hearing the story from his mouth.

A wasp visits a blowout penstemon flower

Since it’s discovery within the state in 1996, there has been a lot of work done to collect data on the three known populations of blowout penstemon in Wyoming.  However, there are still many square miles of sand dune habitat that remain unsurveyed. A big part of my internship so far has been searching aerial photos in ArcMap for habitat that looks similar to that of the known occurrences. When the plants start to flower in June my mentor and I, along with some folks from the BLM Rawlins field office, will be searching the areas I  identified in order to find undocumented populations. I  feel like I know the area well from looking at aerial photos, but I’m excited to see it in person.

My mentor here at the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (WYNDD – the natural heritage program for the state of Wyoming) has shared a lot of stories with me about how certain rare species or populations of species were originally discovered. A recurring pattern is that people who know the flora of the state really well see something different that catches their attention and it turns out to be a rare species – kind of like what happened with Frank Blomquist and blowout penstemon. This is extremely inspiring to me. I think that a lot people (including myself) probably encounter rare plants more often than they think but don’t have the baseline knowledge to know whether they are rare or not. The more well-trained botanists there are, the better we can get a grasp on where sensitive plants occur in order to more effectively manage their populations.

I’m planning my next post for right after the blowout penstemon survey; I hope to be able to report back that we found some more populations.

The first month of Solitaire

A few things about deserts I did not realize:

look, mountains!

1: The Mojave has MOUNTAINS.  Beautiful ranges with their sun baked rocks and volcanic origins.  Between the vast stretches of desert flats they look relatively close, but oh my are they far!  A lot of different plant communities are found at different altitudes among them (the desert is not a desolate place).

you don't want to fall down this shaft.


2: The amount of abandon mines here- and the hazards they pose.  Hundreds to thousands left behind, please do not go spelunking in abandon mines.  Though it does sound fun, they are quite dangerous from the unstable ceilings to the toxic fumes.  Although they pose a lot of danger for humans, abandon mines are good habitat for bats, which I will be doing out-flight surveys of bats living in abandon mines as part of my internship.

3:  The desert windy, when it feels like being windy.  You could start out the evening camping and not a rustle though the Larrea tridentata (a plant common as dirt out here) cannot be heard then bam!  An hour later there is enough wind to blow the edges of your tent up.  The wind here fascinates me for some reason, and I am thankful for it when it gets hot out in the field.

4:  The “Unusual Plant Assemblages” found here.  I think they should be called “Rare Plant Assemblages” instead since usual makes them sound alien or negative.  Plants such as saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea), which should only be found in the Sonoran Desert east of the Colorado River, to white fir (Abies concolor)  in the Kingston mountains.  The best part about the UPAs is that I get to monitor them as part of my internship. Score for the aspiring botanist!

I have been out here for over a month now, and I have to say it still feels a bit surreal being here.  I do occasionally think to myself, what am I doing here?  But once I get working out amongst the rocky outcrops or the washlets that stripe the desert landscape I realize that this place is special.

I am stationed in the Needles Field Office, and been having a bit of guidance from the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden (thanks guys!).  Though I have to say, even though Needles is a small town with small town folk and no traffic lights I am fine being here.  Perhaps it is my inclination toward being independent, or my enjoyment of solitude, or this is what I need right now to sort out my thoughts.

I have my inspirations: Desert Solitaire by Edward Abby.  I will probably quote this fantastic piece of literature a ton.  I can relate to this book in so many ways.  His discontent with society’s antics, living in a government issued trailer for a summer, going out and doing work alone in the middle of nowhere far from anybody USA, and a fascination and respect for this wild area.  Most people go to national parks to look for wilderness and escape from civilization, yet I feel like if you want to see wide open spaces without another soul in sight- go to the desert, you will find exactly that in out here.

As for Seeds of Success intern, I love it.  Being an aspiring botanist this is exactly what I do for fun on free time- ID plants I see, read about them and their ecological significance, and be OUTSIDE all the time!  Working as an intern has rekindled my enthusiasm for plant ecology and conservation.  I am also fortunate to have such an inspiring mentor, I could not have asked for a better one.  She has so much experience and I have much to learn from her, and that is one of the reasons why I am here in the desert.