The Joys of Research Under the Desert Sun

Like a well oiled machine headed down Route 66, we worked through another meeting regarding the Joshua Tree Genome project (JTGP). After hashing out questions, and weaving through theoretical discussions with an almost religious fervor, we finally felt ready to disconnect from our mentors and carry out our plan, and so we did. And in that single click, a wave of relief brushed over us momentarily as the tension of another video call rescinded. But this post-collaboration satisfaction came crashing down as soon as we opened our mouths again to reveal that all four of us interns had a completely separate and completely different understanding of what we had just agreed to do over the call.

“I think I’m just gonna call Lesley back”

“Thanks Olivia”

CLM Interns Michele Beadle (left) and Olivia Turner (Right) scrupulously working through our collected germination data in search of discrepancies

The above passage highlights some of the joys engendered by botanical collaboration under the desert sun. And despite its sweaty faults and confusing twists and turns, we still consider it fun. Fun in an esoteric “type-2” sense of the word, but fun none-the-less! This week’s “fun” has coalesced itself in the form of 3 main lessons.

Lesson #1: Sorghum cotyledons look pretty similar to Joshua Tree cotyledons. We had been enthralled with the idea that one of our mighty seedlings was growing so quickly! The seedling in question was one of the first plants we were able to observe as the germination experiment was just getting off the ground. In excitement we called over one of our mentors, Todd Esque, to show him our photosynthetic anomaly! Looking first to the plant, and then back to me, he couldn’t help but let out a gentle chuckle before asking why we were growing crops in the greenhouse. In hindsight it should’ve been obvious we were growing a member of the grass family, but hindsight always runs 20/20 (as we all know).

Two very healthy Joshua Tree seedling cotyledons
Our healthy sorghum plants serve as evidence that if research doesn’t work out, perhaps agriculture would be a successful venture for the 4 of us

Lesson #2: Joshua Trees are plants of the desert, and probably should not be sitting in pools of water. During our stint as sole operators of the greenhouse whilst our mentors took a much needed break, we followed a strict schedule. Water the crates every morning at 8:00 AM, and water more lightly every evening at 4:00 PM. We ritualistically followed these guidelines given to us, without even considering the warning signs of over watering. Some of these warning signs included the rust orange pools of filth gathering underneath our crates, the intensifying humidity of our work environment, and of course the emerging fungal “snow cover” noted upon the substrate of some of our plants. Luckily for us our head mentor, Lesley Defalco, pulled the plug on our 5000 attempted murders, and as a result our plants did not spend enough time swamped to be significantly damaged! We now follow a more conservative practice of watering only every other day, which saves water and cuts our work time as well!

A look at our crates, which will soon house 3200 young Joshua Trees

Lesson #3: We truly are in good hands here in Boulder City, Nevada. The work down here has been extremely rewarding, but it hasn’t been without its difficulties. Keeping up with the germination of 5000 plants, and then working to transplant well over 1000 plants all while tracking every seed meticulously on a daily basis has proven difficult for a team of 4. Add on top of this consistent temperatures of 110+ Fahrenheit, and no days off for 2 weeks straight, and you might get a disgruntled group of botanical goblins! But, while I would still entertain the label of botanical goblin, I would not say we became disgruntled, and this is because our mentors, sympathetic to our struggles, ordered that we take two days off in the middle of the week and recharge. Research is difficult, and working to create the best data possible for such an incredible and important project is a stressful proposition. But we 4 interns feel confident that, when push comes to shove, our mentors, the JTGP team, and The Chicago Botanic Garden truly have our best interests in mind.

All smiles from “The City that Built The Hoover Dam” as Michele Beadle transplants a healthy Joshua Tree seedling to its respective crate

That’s all for this week from the desert!

Stay Cool,

Nicholas Filannino

Botanical Exploration with Jerry Theim

The first real botanical adventure I experienced was in the Calico Mountains Wilderness on an expidition lead by Jerry Theim. Few people would think to place botany and adventure next to each other. But in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, where the terrain is a product of a unique geologic history and as rugged and rocky as anything, searching for rare species is anything but boring.

We met Jerry for the first time at a fork in the road, and as we climbed into his truck we made our acquaintances quickly. Being a very talkative man, he dove into explaining what we would be doing with him that week. His plan was to spend the next four days hiking through out the wilderness, checking various points of interest he had scoped the day before.

As we drove he pointed out the vast geologic expanses, telling us names of the rare species that live there. Steam boat mountain, where Caulanthus barnedbyii was recently found, and the Jackson range, where he spent a week during the last field season searching for a rare Pentstemon species. It was clear that he knew the area well. We pulled onto a 2 mile an hour road and drove up to the base of a canyon that was carved out by a long dried up water flow. “Let’s go botanize!” He exclaimed and we got together our gear for a day of hiking.

Being from Massachusetts, I had never seen anything like the range we were about to venture into. The Calico Mountain wilderness is a vast expanse of multi-colored slopes, most of them very steep and covered in tallus. We set out trailblazing through the canyon, and we approached a dark and ominous slope covered in tallus. I had never even heard of tallus before, let alone climbed on it. I was quite surprised as we began our ascent up the 60% slope of sharp, loose, MINERAL? that slipped and slid as we scrambled our way to the top.

We were headed for an ash deposit a the top of one of the smaller peaks of the bizarrely pigmented mountains. This one was splotched with green from oxidized copper, and brown and pink from other minerals. The ash deposit at the summit was bright white and is a unique soil type endemic to the Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area.

Jerry was a pro climber. I learned that day, among many other things about Jerry, that he is a native of Nevada and an avid outdoorsmen. Unsurprisingly he found his way to the top with ease. He is a modest man, and it was not until our last day out that Jerry told us of his botanical accomplishments. Apparently he was something of a local celebrity in the Great Basin plant community. In his exploration of Nevada he had found an abundance of species new to science, many of which now share his name.

During our climbs he told us stories of Arthur Cronquist and his time collecting for herbarium collections in NYC and Cambridge. He was also responsible for many of the collections that made possible the publication of Intermountain Flora, one of the best dichotomous keys for the Great Basin area. He even shared with us what he did when he was not botanizing- limosene driving for the casinos in Reno and carpentry.

He trained us in the methods he used for botanizing rare species, and gave us heaps of plant names common to the area. It was hard to take it all in, and our field books had many new pages filled with species lists. He also shared with us tips for navigating the area, and gave us valuable advice on survival in the desert.

On the way back from the trip, I was struck with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for having been given the opportunity to botanize with Jerry. His training served us well in later inventories for rare species of the area. I will always be thankful for participating in the CLM internship for this reason, and many others.