After arriving in Rapid City, South Dakota, I promptly tested positive for COVID. This meant I spent the first two weeks quarantining alone and working from home. Home here is a little house in the hills surrounded by ponderosa pines, white-tailed deer, and the occasional turkey. But this last week I was finally able to go into the office and out into the field. And what a field it is!
Coming from the thickly forested west side of Washington state, the wide open spaces of the Midwest are something to get used to. There’s seemingly just grass for miles, with maybe a scrappy-looking cottonwood or two sprinkled in every now and then, almost as an afterthought. It makes me feel prone and nearly agoraphobic, causing me to empathize with rabbits and other critters that get spotted and scooped away by birds of prey.
My first day out in the expansive fields of Buffalo Gap National Grassland was spent working on our plot for BromeCast. Bromus tectorum, also known as downy brome or cheatgrass, is an invasive species that outcompetes the native grasses on rangelands. Oftentimes the cows will graze the grass down, but if it is missed, B. tectorum dries out and becomes fuel for wildfires. The BromeCast project aims to predict the invasion of B. tectorum in order to better control the spread.
In the fall, my mentor, Jacqueline Ott, planted B. tectorum seeds attached to toothpicks (for locating the plants later) along transects with bare and control conditions. Our job now is to record the amount of seeds that successfully germinated and were still alive and the surrounding plant composition. Unfortunately, the number of survivors was very low– we hypothesized that this could be because the toothpicks planted the cheatgrass seeds deeper than normal. It is an interesting feeling to be frustrated by an invasive species’ apparent lack of fecundity.
Although the vastness of the grasslands is new to me, a lot of the plants are familiar. The ponderosa pine forest system exists in eastern Washington and I was surprised that pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea), which is a flower I got tattooed with some other people in memory of an excellent field summer in Washington, is actually much more common out in South Dakota than there!
My coworker, Myesa, is also the type of person who stops at every new flower and can take an hour to hike half a mile. We went on a little day trip to Wyoming to check out Devil’s Tower and saw lots of neat plants.
Coming to a fresh ecoregion is exciting because it tests my plant identification skills: some plants I recognize as old friends, like Balsamhoriza sagittata; others I can identify the genus but the species itself is a stranger, as was the case with Castilleja sessiflora. And even further up the taxonomic tree, I am encountering families that are new to me: unpictured, but Myesa showed me some vegetative Apocynum androsaemifolium of Apocynaceae.
I’ve only been out and about for one week now and I’ve already seen so many new things. I’m excited for the summer and what it holds.
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
Steens Mountain trip
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
Though it’s already been a week, it’s very hard to believe that our internship in Boulder City is over! It’s been (a little under) 6 amazing months in Nevada – I’ve learned so much through this project, visited so many different National Parks, hiked many miles, camped more nights than I can count, and made a great friend. It’s been a busy last few months, and an even busier last couple of weeks as we wrapped up, but I wanted to post a few memories that have stuck out to me since the last time I posted.
I also wanted to say thank you to our mentors at USGS – Lesley, Todd, and Sara – and to Chris. I have learned so much about Joshua trees, climate change, and scientific research, and have felt very lucky to learn from them and have their support. They’ve provided invaluable advice in terms of future careers and schooling, and have been so encouraging and appreciative of our work with them. I will definitely miss working with them!
And another thank you to my co-intern, Maddy. We just wrapped up a celebratory end-of-internship road-trip to California to visit Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks, and it was a beautiful way to round out our internship. Can’t wait to visit you in Idaho!
Hard to believe it’s been almost 6 months since we first started at the USGS office in Boulder City. Bridget and I were talking about how it’s such a weird feeling that today is our last day -it’s a bittersweet mix of sadness, thankfulness, and some disbelief that it’s really over after today.
The past few months have been so busy that we haven’t reported on the blog in a while! Between visiting all 3 gardens every other week and side projects added on outside of that, there’s been little time to get to our laptops to type up our entries. But two highlights outside of our Joshua Tree Garden upkeep duties were helping out on a Mojave plant survey project back in early March, and collecting data on periderm-stripping of Joshua Trees across the Mojave (periderm is what Joshua Tree “bark” is called since it is a monocot). Periderm-stripping is when rodents such as rabbits and squirrels chew off the tree “bark” for nutrients when they aren’t able to get enough from their typical food sources. This is likely linked to climate change with fewer plants –rodent food sources– surviving as they receive less rain.
We were also able to make a few more weekend trips, including the Grand Canyon and back to Zion again to hike Angel’s Landing! It’s been so much fun to adventure/hike/camp with Bridget over the months and become such good friends through all of that, our long drives, and living and working side by side.
I’m keeping this post short and sweet, but I need to say a few more thank-yous to our mentors: Chris, Lesley, Todd and Sara. I’ve felt that throughout this time, our mentors have all cared so much about making sure we’re learning as much as possible, giving advice for our future careers/grad school, and encouraging and thanking us for the hard work we’ve put into the Joshua Tree Genome Project. They’ve taught us a lot about research, the desert ecosystem and what it’s like to work at the USGS, which has been so valuable.
Hi, my name is Sahalie, and I’m interning with the Rocky Mountain Research Station this spring and summer. RMRS is a research branch of the Forest Service in Boise, Idaho.
Since arriving in Boise, I have been doing interesting work in the field and the lab. In our first month, my fellow intern Alaina and I spent a lot of time doing surveys on plants grown by RMRS for research.
For each plant in these surveys, we note the plant’s developmental stage, the amount of herbivory, the number of nearby live plants, and the diameter of the leaf rosette. We also collect a leaf from a plant once it reaches the right stage. These sites will be surveyed over the next few months to track the growth and development of the plants.
In addition to conducting plant surveys, Alaina and I have cleaned seed collected last year to prepare it for cold storage. We first “de-winged” the seeds to remove the fluffy pappus of the seed by rubbing the seeds over a rubber mat. Then we put the seeds into an air column which blows air from below through a tube. We controlled the rate of air flow to lift the light fluffy pappus into traps at the top of the tube while the heavier seed stayed at the bottom of the tube.
In addition, we spent time counting seeds in Erigeron pumilus flower heads that were collected from the common gardens last year. We pulled apart the flowers with forceps and carefully removed and counted each seed. At first it was hard to tell the difference between the tiny seeds and other flower parts, but we got good at it with practice.
In the last week, we have begun scouting for plant populations that we will collect seed from later in the summer. We have traveled to eastern Washington and Oregon to look for Sphaeralcea and Lomatium dissectum populations. This work has been really interesting so far and I’m looking forward to traveling to other sites around the Great Basin!
In my free time, I have enjoyed exploring Idaho. I have biked along the Boise River greenbelt and hiked in the hills above the city. Alaina and I live near the Lucky Peak reservoir, and I have been on many evening walks along the cliffs above the water.
A couple weeks ago, Alaina, another co-worker, and I went camping by the Middle Fork of the Boise River. We visited a hot spring and a cave and made pancakes for breakfast!
I have had a great time in this internship so far and learned a lot, and I’m excited for the next few months!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Planting Joshua Trees has been quite the group effort and a lot of fun to work with people involved in different facets of the Joshua Tree Genome Project.
The week prior to planting involved meetings with the team, including Chris Smith, Karolina Heyduk, Jeremy Yoder and his graduate student Kate, and of course our USGS mentors Todd Esque and Lesley DeFalco. Basing their experience off of last year, they were concerned that there weren’t as many plants with 3 or more blades because those have shown to be more likely to survive once planted in the gardens. With that in mind, it was harder to choose the number of gardens to plant these seedlings in based on the likelihood that there would be fewer to survive. After assessing how many seedlings we had at each blade stage and their health rating (1-3), we decided on planting at 3 of the 4 gardens planted last spring. One of the gardens was easy to rule out since none of the seedlings survived there due to poor soil for Joshua Trees.
With this information decided, Bridget and I got busy tagging seedlings and getting them into the database, so that we can track each individual plant through the experiment. Lesley was then able to dedicate each plant to a specific garden. The two USGS Biological Science Techs, Caitlin and Sharon, helped us move each crate of Joshua Trees out of the greenhouse, so they could “harden off,” or acclimate to the full spectrum of temperature fluxes that the greenhouse tempers. You wouldn’t think such small stature Joshua Trees could weigh that much, but factoring in the nearly foot-long plant bands full of soil that they were contained in and then having 25 of those packed in each crate, they actually weigh quite a bit! In teams of two, we lifted and shifted the crates using a dolly and wagon, making sure to keep the order of crates the same out in the shade house as they were in the greenhouse. Our final step was to flag each plant for the garden they had been designated to – Pink for Cactus Mine (Local Nevada Garden), Yellow for Ridgecrest (Ridgecrest, California Garden), and White for Turkey Farm (St. George, Utah Garden).
We were ready to go for an early start on Monday morning!
Day 1: Monday – 7am – USGS Greenhouse – Boulder City, NV
Yawning and not mentally ready for the day, Bridget and I roll up on this lightly breezy morning (as they usually are in the desert) with many layers, hats, 2 water bottles a piece and a hearty lunch. We hook up the 500 lb water trailer to the back of our truck and drag the hoses to start filling it up while we wait for the U-Haul truck to arrive to load up the plants. The back of our truck is stuffed with buckets of gloves, watering cans, shovels, extra flags and foam pads to kneel on as we plant (the soil starts to feel harder and harder as the day goes on). All the crates with at least one pink flag are loaded –we create an assembly line of people lifting and carrying crates over to one person arranging them into the back of the truck. Then we all load up into our vehicles and we’re off to Cactus Mine!
We pull our truck up to the side of the garden to be in position for when we’re ready to water. We start by rolling out transect tapes to mark out as straight of lines as possible –Bridget and I know the straighter the lines, the easier it is to find plants once many have died because it makes the rows of plants less clear. Meanwhile, the auger is giving us trouble when we’re trying to start it for digging holes, so everybody grabs a shovel and we start digging by hand – a much slower process. They finally get the auger going, and we pop in our turquoise ear plugs and follow in their path as crates are opened up and plants are laid out into the holes for the planters to then take over the final step. After a long day, we’re treated by a beautiful sunset that seems to fully surround the sky around us and the mountains around our fading desert valley. We drive out with a near-full moon rising, most of the plants in the ground, and some peace of mind that we’ve got a much smaller bout to finish in the morning.
Day 2 – 7 am – Same location as last entry!
We roll up in the same fatigued mental state as the previous day, but with slightly declined physical states this time, including sore arms, tired backs and achy knees (don’t worry, we’re young, so we’ll bounce back!) Luckily, we finish up the planting around lunchtime; only leaving consolidating plants into fewer crates for the remaining gardens and picking up stray tags and flags and any other remains from our planting effort. Bridget and I hook up the fire hose to the water tank and spray the plants as gently as possible to avoid blowing them out. After that, we’re ready to head out with a little more time to recuperate and pack for our camp-out in Ridgecrest the next day.
Day 3 – 6 am – you get it by now
You can only imagine the toll on our mental and physical states by Day 3 with the hour earlier start tacked on…at least we have a four-hour drive to mentally prepare!!
I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect, but I’ll admit we were tired!
With the process down pat from two days of practice and a head start on drilling from Lesley, Todd and Karolina staying overnight to start that before the rest of our crew arrived that morning, Ridgecrest went so smoothly that we finished planting in one day!!
We patted ourselves on the back for that one. It shifted our plans for the following day, so that Bridget and I would join Lesley and Karolina camping out at Utah the following night to get another head start before the planters would arrive there, too.
Day 4 – 7 am – Ridgecrest Common Garden – Ridgecrest, CA (switching it up right when you get the hang of it)
Lots of driving today. The end!
Just kidding. After recording the positions of the new Joshua Trees in the garden and watering them one last time, we headed back to Boulder City. We loaded up the U-Haul one last time with the only remaining crates marked with white flags. It was a bittersweet moment..kidding again!!
We re-organized the cab of our truck that was in disarray after a few days of throwing equipment and various clothes/food randomly across the back seats. And with that we set off for St. George, another 3-hour drive to end the day. Which, Bridget and I decided, deserved a peanut butter chocolate milkshake -even though it was only about 50 degrees out 😊
We set up traps at the garden, then went right to bed, the gentle hoo-ing of owls lulling us off to sleep.
Day 5 – 7am – Turkey Farm Common Garden – St. George, Utah
LAST DAY! Woohoo!
After checking traps first thing to make sure any caught rodents wouldn’t get too cold (none were caught today though), we got to work clearing an area for our new Joshua tree garden. Today, Bridget and I decided to volunteer to take over digging holes with the auger. We’d regret that one later! Mostly kidding…
The Utah garden has very sandy soil, but after getting a few inches down, it is very hard to dig past as the soil layer becomes harder. After my first go at it, where I only got a few holes to the necessary depth, Bridget found that by rotating the auger around and around for a few minutes could finally get the hole dug through that hard layer. We finished digging after a few hours, with shaky hands and tired wrists and forearms from holding the vibrating handles steady. The rest of the crew arrived and handled planting, while others got started on clearing Salsola away from the garden fence. Once planting was finished and lunch was had, we all jumped in on the Salsola removal, taking another few hours, but ending with the garden in great shape for Bridget and me!
Lesley and Todd graciously treated us to smoothies on our way out. This was especially nice when we hit standstill traffic that added an hour to our trip back home due to lovely construction and people heading to Vegas for the weekend! Just what the doctor ordered!
All and all, though, it really was a satisfying week of good ol’ fashioned manual labor and teamwork to get a big project done! Working side by side in the soil and getting to talk about life and our backgrounds that led us to the environmental science field was a lot of fun too, and I’m glad we go the chance to work together on such an important project that we all care so much about!
Hello! We have had a very busy past few weeks – moving the Joshua tree seedlings to the shadehouse to “harden off,” assessing the plants, planning which garden each seedling would go to, watering the soil in the gardens ahead of time so digging would be easier, organizing/packing up the Joshua tree crates, then finally planting in the gardens. It’s been a multi-step process, with a lot of help. The team consisted of the two CBG interns (Maddy and I), the three USGS mentors/researchers (Lesley, Todd, and Sara), other technicians (Caitlin, Sharon, Alex, and Robin), and university folk (Chris Smith, Karolina Heyduk, Jeremy Yoder, and Jeremy’s graduate student, Kate).
After much consideration between the investigators on this project, it was decided that we were going to split up the majority of plants between Cactus Mine and Ridgecrest, then plant a small subset in the Utah garden. The Utah garden is already so successful that it wouldn’t make much sense to plant populations that we already knew were physiologically adapted there – there is also less room to plant there since there are still so many live plants. We had originally planned to plant across these three gardens over the span of two weeks, spending two days at Cactus, three days at Ridgecrest (since the drive is so long), and then two days at Utah. However, the team was so efficient that we got it all done within five days!
We started off with the Cactus Mine garden, which is the garden closest to Boulder City and also the garden that gets the most public visitation. We loaded the crates containing plants designated for Cactus into a U-Haul, then made the trek to the garden. Upon arrival, we started to dig – both with an auger and with shovels, since the auger was acting a little finicky. We had to let the digging team get a little ahead of the planting team, since digging took longer on average and, though the auger eventually started working consistently, it was hard work and required breaks. Once there were enough holes prepared to start planting, we received a short orientation on how to plant (“Green side up!” was a funny tag-line we heard). The process went like this
The plant band (containing the Joshua tree) would be placed in the hole, but the planter would need to make sure the soil surface around the hole matched the height of soil in the plant band. If it didn’t match, the planter would either remove more soil from the hole or add soil
The planter would pack some soil into the hole around the plant band (adding water to the soil as needed), then wiggle the plant band a bit to make the plant band rise out of the soil, but the Joshua tree/soil within the plant band would stay in place
The planter would pack more soil around the plant band and wiggle the plant band some more, continuing to pull the plant band further out of the hole while the Joshua tree stayed in place. We repeated the packing/wiggling process about 3-4 times per hole, until the plant band could be completely removed and the Joshua tree was stable in the hole
We would organize the contents around the Joshua tree – making sure the metal tag denoting its number was still around the plant and not crushing any blades, moving the plastic tag denoting its matriline further from the plant so it was easier to read, and removing the bamboo stick that was used to keep the metal tag around the plant
We would water the plant and move on to the next one! If the water flowed quickly away from the plant and into surrounding soil (usually because of a discrepancy with the incline), we would pack soil into a donut shape around the plant to ensure that water would pool around it. Or if water quickly ‘glugged’ into the soil, it meant that we hadn’t packed the soil correctly while planting and there was an air bubble somewhere in the soil – in cases like that there wasn’t much we could do to fix it retroactively, but we would pack some more soil into the depression near the plant
The process started to move quickly once we got the hang of it. As Cactus was the first garden, though, we had to do the most organization when it came to pulling plant bands out of the crates. Since each plant within a crate was designated for a specific garden, sometimes a crate could contain plants going to Cactus, Ridgecrest, and Utah. We would have to bring that whole crate to Cactus, then pull out plants designated for either Ridgecrest or Utah and move them into a separate crate. So once organized, we actually had an easier time moving crates to Ridgecrest and Utah, since the crates were then sorted into almost exclusively plants going to those two gardens.
We finished planting in Cactus on Tuesday afternoon, and Lesley and Alex walked through the rows of plants and recorded the tag numbers of each plant to make a garden map. Afterwards, Maddy and I used the fireman’s hose and 500 gallon water tank to water the whole garden! It felt great to be done with one garden, and we still had time in the day to drive back to the greenhouse, load up all the crates going to Ridgecrest, and pack up the necessary equipment for the next few days. Lesley and Karolina were going to drive straight to Ridgecrest that night to get a head start on drilling holes, while the rest of us were going to start our drive to Ridgecrest early on Wednesday morning.
We arrived to Ridgecrest around 11am, and were psyched to see how many holes they had drilled ahead of time! It made it so easy for us to jump immediately into planting, and since we were a well-oiled machine by that point, we planted super fast. Near 3pm, we were all afraid to ask the inevitable question of “are we gonna finish it all today?” for fear of jinxing it. And thankfully we didn’t jinx it! We finished planting around 5pm, then watered the plants, set some rodent traps for the night, and set up camp. The next morning after checking traps, Maddy, Alex, Karolina, and I worked on mapping the garden (two teams of two working from either end of the garden) while Lesley and Sara filled the 500 gallon tank so we could water the plants again.
We left around 9am on Thursday to head back to the greenhouse to unload and re-pack for Utah, as Maddy and I planned to drive from the greenhouse to Utah (along with Lesley and Karolina) so we could get a head start on digging for the planting effort on Friday. As luck would have it, though, the route to the garden was blocked in multiple areas by Salsola (also known as Russian thistle or tumbleweed)! Maddy and I used pitchforks to clear the road, but each time we would clear one and drive a little further, another Salsola roadblock would be in the way. It was pretty comical, but it definitely confused us on our location, and we ended up missing the garden and having to turn around, find the right road, and then clear that road of Salsola as well. We eventually made it to the garden, tired but triumphant in our Salsola fight, to set up rodent traps and head to bed.
On Friday morning, after removing some Salsola inside the garden and making a plot for the new plants, Maddy and I volunteered to be the digging team. We had a quick lesson on how to use the auger, but learned that usually the Utah garden needs to be dug by hand because the soil is too dense. We started to dig, but the auger would turn off about halfway down the hole because it would get stuck. This was pretty frustrating, especially since digging by hand would take very long, but we couldn’t see any way around it. We dug about sixty holes to half depth, but on the third row we finally figured out a process to be able to auger to the full depth needed to plant the Joshua trees. It took a lot of time, muscle, water, and gas to dig to the correct depth, but it was definitely worth it as it helped us save energy and time. Maddy and I dug the holes, while Caitlin, Sharon, Alex, and Robin planted, Sara unloaded crates, and Lesley, Todd, and Karolina removed Salsola. We eventually finished with planting around 1:30pm, and after taking a quick lunch, mapped the garden layout and watered the garden.
We then joined the Salsola removal team, which had made a huge headway. Before this day, the interior of the garden was pretty overrun with Salsola, and we never had enough time to make a dent in removal. With everyone’s help we finally cleared the garden of the Russian thistle! After throwing it over the high fence, we had to clear the outside fence line as well, before finally packing up and leaving. I still can’t believe we were able to finish all the planting in only one week. It definitely couldn’t have been done without the help of everyone on the team, and we were all very thankful to be treated to smoothies afterwards!
Unfortunately, when we visited the Utah garden only 4 days later to assess the older population of Joshua trees, we found that a lot of the newer Joshua trees had already been damaged by rodent herbivory. It was very sad to see, especially because these plants would most likely survive here if not for the biting rodents. We had to cover all of the plants with a mesh cage (secured by landscaping pins at the bottom and by a zip tie at the top) to try to minimize any further damage, but we are nervous about the plants that have already been chewed. Lesley mentioned that if the meristem, which is where new growth is occurring, is chewed, then the plant will likely die. We are crossing our fingers that some of the new plantings survive this!
After a few high-energy weeks to get this planting effort prepared and finished, it has been nice to relax a little! Maddy and I recently visited Joshua Tree National Park for the first time (so cool to see so many fully grown Joshua trees), and have still been hiking every weekend around the Las Vegas/Boulder City area. The weather is definitely starting to warm up, so I am excited to be able to swim soon!
Happy New Year! The past month has flown by quite quickly, much to my dismay, since that means less time left in the internship. I was very grateful to be able to travel home for the holidays – I got to see my family, my dog, and a little bit of snow!
In the past month we’ve collected a lot of new data, which has given us much to do in terms of data entry. Near the end of December we completed an entire greenhouse assessment of the Joshua trees, which consisted of us checking each individual plant band to see whether a seed has grown, and if so, how many blades it has and the overall health of it. Even though we’ve been working with the Joshua trees a lot and have been seeing them pop up above the soil, I was still very shocked to find out that we have over 1,600 plants currently alive! The health and number of blades varied a lot, since seeds were planted at different times (some have been growing since September), but this assessment should give us an idea of which matrilines have been more successful in the greenhouse, which will aid us in future planting in the common gardens. From our minimal amount of data, we have noticed that one population in particular has not been very successful in the greenhouse (it currently only has 25 successful seeds, compared to other populations with 100+), which could potentially correlate to the conditions that seed is genetically attuned to – maybe it is meant to thrive in conditions that are colder or have a higher altitude? Maybe it finds the greenhouse to be too humid? This data could help the researchers understand why certain populations are more successful in certain gardens (and in the greenhouse) than others.
We’ve also made another monthly visit to the 3 common gardens to check on the Joshua trees that are out in the wild. It has rained a couple of times in the past month, which was evident when we went to the gardens! I saw many plants that were putting out tiny new blades (so small that I almost didn’t notice them and had to touch them to make sure they weren’t just a shadow). Other plants still seemed a little heat stressed, with leaf margins that were furled inwards, which could be a reaction from the summer heat that is still noticeable now. We luckily haven’t seen any active rodent herbivory, which would mean setting up traps, but have seen signs of insects – we are slowly trying to learn the difference between grasshopper and ant herbivory.
These assessments and garden visits have given us a lot of data, which has provided us quite the opportunity to learn more about how this data is going to be used and what it could signify. It’s been very interesting to think deeper about the research and to consider how the data needs to be set up to make future statistical analysis more efficient and seamless. Maddy and I text Lesley, our mentor/the PI on this project, quite a bit when entering data to double check that we’re formatting it correctly, whether we need more columns or rows, and whether we need to include past data points on our current Excel spreadsheet. I’ve learned to think about it in terms of how the data will be used in the future – do we need to include past data in case of future analysis of trends for these plants? I tend to write a lot of notes when looking at the plants – will these notes be superfluous or could that data be helpful?
Overall, I’ve still been really enjoying the area! Maddy and I have been hiking every weekend, we camped in Death Valley (which taught us how cold it gets in the desert at night), and we plan to camp in Zion soon. I’m already growing quickly attached to the mountains, and hope that in the future I will still be in an area that has such accessible and beautiful hiking trails.
How has it been over a month already? I have no idea. Time flies when you’re getting settled into a new place, a new job, and have so much exploring to do outside of work, too!
The past few weeks have had a heavy focus on data entry. We’ve needed to enter our records from the assessments we do at the gardens each month that rate the health status (1-3) and herbivory severity (1-5), as well as record the number of live blades each plant has, number of dead blades, and any notes.
At the Cactus Mine and Ridgecrest gardens, the assessment doesn’t take very long between Bridget and I because many of the plants didn’t survive – there are only 23 seedlings still alive at Cactus Mine and 20 at Ridgecrest. Meanwhile, the Utah garden has a whopping 284 seedlings that are alive and —for the most part—well! This does mean a lot more crouching or kneeling, back up to standing, then shifting over to the next plant, and back down again, for Bridget and I as we assess about 140 plants each! Although it’s more uncomfortable for a longer period, it’s exciting to have one of the gardens flourishing! We are thinking the trees are doing so well here because it gets the most rain and is also the coolest out of the three. At the other end of the spectrum, Ridgecrest is the hottest and driest.
Joshua Tree seeds have evolved to rely upon rains to germinate, which makes sense why the wettest garden would be performing the best. Unfortunately, looking at current and predicted climate trends, this is concerning because these rains that the Joshua Trees depend on to create new generations are not happening as often. Nevada officially declared a drought in 2002 that has continued to current times. Drought.gov provides information on current and historical (since 2000) drought conditions: currently, 68.1% of Nevada is in a severe drought, 24.2% is in extreme drought, and 7.5% is classified as exceptional drought.
Coming from a place of excess water, the idea of droughts and declining water source levels scares me. Along with this comes frustration that we are not doing enough to reduce water usage. At the individual level, around Las Vegas/Henderson/Boulder City, some houses have grass-covered lawns –one right outside of work even has sprinklers spraying their grass. It would be much better if they planted more native desert species and removed water-consuming grass. At the industry level, resorts use a lot of water mostly from hotel guests, who use more than 63 gallons per day on average, according to this article by Sam Bruketta, 2020. Although many resorts have been working to reduce water usage, such as MGM Resorts, which has reduced water use by 25% since 2007 (Bruketta, 2020). However, a truly unnecessary use of water is the Bellagio Resort fountains, which have been scrutinized for losing about 12 million gallons per year from evaporation (Bruketta, 2020). A different type of industry, is one of the biggest sinks of water, from watering grass on a larger scale than the individual homes mentioned earlier: golf courses. According to the Las Vegas Water District website, golf courses in Southern Nevada use an average of 725 acre-feet per year. My brain has a hard time imagining what this means… The Water Education Foundation website states that one acre-foot is approximately 326,000 gallons of water, and would cover one football field in a foot of water. So, for a visual of what an average Las Vegas golf course would use in a year, it would be enough to fill a 725 foot deep, football field-sized swimming pool! That is an insane amount of water.
The site also mentions that California households use about ½ – 1 acre-feet of water on average per year: about 163,000-326,000 gallons of water per year, each. That estimate brought my thoughts to the lifestyle I had this summer while living in a dry cabin in the woods of Alaska where I was working at the time. I’d never heard of a dry cabin before starting my housing search, but it was the cheapest option —for good reason— because they are cabins without running water, which means no toilet, no shower, no faucets of any kind. I was scared to live like that for three months having never been in a situation like that (besides short term circumstances when camping out for a few days). However, it made me realize how much water I use and waste under normal circumstances with the luxury of indoor plumbing —leaving the water running while washing hands, doing dishes, taking showers, or even flushing the toilet— everything!
How the water situation worked in a dry cabin, was we had two clear, five-gallon jugs that we’d fill up at the water-filling station in town, and set up on the counter over the sink which drained into a five-gallon bucket that we’d dump outside. And unfortunately, we did have a few times when we didn’t realize the bucket was nearly full, and spilled over some foul smelling water with chunky food bits/oily residue onto the floor as we scooted it out from under the counter to dump… Aside from those “oh crap” moments, overall, living in a dry cabin really wasn’t so bad!
With the goal being to take as few trips as possible to the water filling station; using as little water as possible to wash hands, do dishes etc. was the primary way to achieve this. We were so careful to reuse water when possible and use the bare minimum amount we could to get the job done. Although I dreaded the idea of living in a dry cabin at first, I’m so glad I had that experience to teach me so much about conserving water, which I’ve tried to hold with me since then. It makes me wonder if everyone lived like that for even one week, what difference it could make on our water usage overall in the US, especially in dry regions like this, where we need to be doing more.