Dead Stick Botany

We’re officially into the hot and dry season here in Northeast Wyoming. The weather is hot (90’s most days) and dry, with regular afternoon thunderstorms. Nearly all of the plants we are monitoring have dried out, gone to seed, cured, or in other words died for the season. New challenges to AIM monitoring are presented by this late summer climate. First, we always have to be on the lookout for fire danger or rapidly changing weather. This particular lightning-caused fire blew up in less than an hour, and was only a few miles north of our site that day!

More commonly, our main challenge is identifying plants that have cured out, gone to seed, dried, or in other words “died” for the year. A lot of brown, brittle grasses tend to look the same, and some days it takes a few minutes to identify a plant we’ve been looking at all summer long. A few plants are still blooming, such as this yellow flax and the plains milkweed, but for the most parts are sites are dead and dying.

However, gaining elevation as a person moves up the mountains seems to take them back in time. At 7,000 feet the mountain meadows are featuring similar plants we saw blooming on 5,000ft BLM land in June. Up in the alpine zone, the main summer plants are in full bloom, taking advantage of the warmest parts of the summer before they are buried under snow in roughly a month. These sedums are in full bloom at roughly 10,000 feet, and the parry’s primrose is claiming its spot at 12,000 feet, among rocks where few other plants dare to grow.

The transition this time of year from the brown, smoking lowlands to the bright happy meadows of the alpine is amazing to witness. One of my favorite parts of studying plants is watching these phenological changes happen as the summer goes on!

However, for work this means our plant monitoring is almost done. As our crew finishes AIM for the season, we are becoming experts at identifying dead sticks. 🙂

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