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.

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