Three-Leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata)

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Three-Leaf-Sumac Rhus-trilobata, Photo courtesy Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database,, Licensed Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Three-Leaf-Sumac Rhus-trilobata
Photo courtesy Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Many think of the desert as a hot, dry, barren, and unforgiving place. However, Utah’s deserts are chock full of interesting and diverse plants and animals! One such plant, which grows throughout much of Utah, is rhus trilobata or three-leaf sumac.

Three-leaf sumac is a widespread deciduous shrub in the Rhus genus, meaning “with three leaflets,” or “trifoliate leaves.” Others in this genus include Rhus aromoatica and the infamous western poison oak. The leaves of this shrubby-type plant are toothed, feel stiff and they give off quite a strong scent when crushed. The strong smell of crushed three-leaf sumac leaves has earned it the nickname “skunkbush” as well as “ill-scented sumac.”

Three-leaf sumac is a low spreading, many-branched deciduous shrub, usually no more than 3 feet high but spreading as much as 8 feet wide. The small, trifoliate leaves and the branches are fuzzy. Given its many branches, three-leaf sumac provides both nesting material and structure for native bees. Flowers are yellowish and found in clustered spikes. They are followed by bright crimson to reddish, sticky berries. The fall foliage adds an extra pop of color to the landscape.

Three-Leaf-Sumac Rhus-trilobata, Photo courtesy Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database,, Licensed Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Three-Leaf-Sumac Rhus-trilobata
Photo courtesy Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Historically, three-leaf sumac has been used for medicinal and other purposes. The bark can be chewed or brewed into a drink for cold symptoms. Flexible branches were traditionally used for twisting into basketry and rugs. In fact, three-leaf sumac was a close contender to willow in desirability for basket-making. This common use of the plant earned it another nickname of “basketbush.”

My favorite part of three-leaf sumac, however, are the slightly hairy and sticky berries. Although historically eaten for gastrointestinal pain and toothache, the berries have a delicious sour flavor and can be eaten plain or used in oatmeal, ice cream, steeped in tea, or soaked in cold water to make a beverage similar to lemonade. These berries are high in vitamin C and have earned three-leaf sumac the additional nicknames of “sourberry” “lemonade bush” and “lemonade berry.” Other nicknames for this multi-purpose plant include squawbush, desert sumac, or scented sumac.

Regardless of which nickname you choose for three-leaf sumac, give the berries a try and see for yourself what you think! Be sure, however, that you properly identify the plant to avoid potential illness that can be caused by misidentification! One great resource that can help is the field guide “Rocky Mountain States: Wild Berries & Fruits.”

Three-Leaf-Sumac Rhus-trilobata, Photo courtesy Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database,, Licensed Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

Three-Leaf-Sumac Rhus-trilobata
Photo courtesy Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

For Utah State University Extension Sustainability, this is Roslynn Brain.

Images: Courtesy Hansen’s Northwest Native Plant Database,,,
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License
Text:     Roslynn Brain, Utah State University Extension Sustainability

Additional Reading:

Seasonal Changes and Amazing Adaptations

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Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell

Dark-eyed Junco “Oregon” Male
Junco hyemalis montanus
Courtesy & © 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell 

Biking daily from Smithfield Canyon to USU campus, combined with an early am run, I’m well aware of the drop in temperatures, as are those of us who find themselves outdoors on a more permanent schedule. I’m speaking of our relatives who reside in the wild- birds, trees, raccoons, and such.

While I put on an extra layer or two, plants and animals have far more sophisticated adaptations from behavioral to physiological to structural.

We are all aware of the marvelous migration and hibernation behaviors, so let’s add a few more amazing adaptations to the list.

I’ll begin with a bird that is very common at our winter feeder- the Dark-eyed Junco. which responds to the first shortening days of summer with a series of physical changes: its reproductive organs become inactive and shrink in size, hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers, and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead.

Thus the preparation for migration starts as soon as the days begin to shorten. And the process must operate in reverse when the bird is in its winter habitat in the United States. As soon as days begin to lengthen, the Dark-eyed Junco must gear up physically for the flight north and breeding season. If it fails to do so, it likely won’t survive a long-distance migration. So the cycle of life and its related migrations and transitions are deeply connected to the heavens.

Plants are no less amazing. Those in temperate zones must also set their calendars accurately in order to flower and, for deciduous species, develop and drop leaves at the optimal time. Plants set their internal calendars using several attributes from the sunlight they receive. In fact, the angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length.

That’s because plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. Direct sunlight is higher in red light, while indirect sunlight contains more far-red light. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.

As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red phytochromes. The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. The amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

Some behavioral alterations worth mention beyond migrating and hibernation are herding and flocking, huddling to share body warmth, dietary change, hair & feather change- both color and structure, and many more but my radio time is ending, so now it’s your turn to explore more! It really does make you appreciated the wonders of nature.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Image: Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text:     Jack Greene, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Additional Reading:

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Animal Diversity Web,

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Boreal Songbird Initiative,

Jigang Lia, Gang Lib, Haiyang Wangb, and Xing Wang Denga, Phytochrome Signaling Mechanisms, The Arabidopsis Book, American Society of Plant Biologists, 2011, pdf

An Arizona Road Trip Back Into the Past

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Montezuma Castle, Courtesy US NPS

Montezuma Castle
Courtesy US NPS
Location of Hubbell Trading Post NHS in the Southern Colorado Plateau Network,  Courtesy US NPSLocation of Hubbell Trading Post NHS in the Southern Colorado Plateau Network
Courtesy US NPS
Hubbell Trading Post, Courtesy US NPSHubbell Trading Post Interior
Courtesy US NPS

Arizona is rich in history — from the 1800s all the way back to the Late Triassic Period. You can stitch together a road trip that winds out of Flagstaff to Montezuma Castle National Monument, to Petrified Forest National Park, and ends at Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site. Along the way you’ll experience fascinating chapters of geologic and cultural history.

At Montezuma Castle, 45 minutes south of Flagstaff and just off Interstate 17 (Exit 289), a short walk places you in front of a 5-story-tall cliff dwelling that offered safety from invaders: it stands 100 feet above the valley floor, nestled into an alcove.

The site was misnamed Montezuma Castle in the late 1800s by whites who thought the structure had been built by the Aztec people. The original owners, members of the Southern Sinagua (seen aug wah) people, called this area home from roughly 1100-1425 A.D.

Stroll the short trail that loops around a vegetated landscape below the “castle,” and you’ll find great views as well of the remains of Castle A. That dwelling once rose 60 feet and was home to about 100 residents.

From Montezuma’s Castle, it’s 95 miles via Arizona 87 to Winslow, and then 34 miles east on Interstate 40 to Holbrook. Finally, another 19 miles southeast on Arizona 180 leads you into Petrified Forest National Park and its unusual landscape.

There’s no lodging within the park, and you have to leave by sundown, so you will need to make some tough decisions if you have just one day. Do you take time to tour the Rainbow Forest Museum with its dinosaur displays, or hike out to Agate House?

A building built of petrified wood is pretty cool, so stretch your legs with a walk to the house. Then head north and deeper into the park to the Crystal Forest Trail. Wander this path and you’ll find yourself surrounded by petrified wood with its hues of yellow, red, and green, black and white.

Blue Mesa is another great stop. There’s a trail that takes you down into another colorful landscape of badlands and chunks, logs, and even slabs of petrified wood in shades of red, blue, yellow and black.

The northern end of the park road is anchored by the Painted Desert, a great place for sunset photos. Here you’ll also see the Painted Desert Inn, which some day could put the Park Service back into the lodging business but today is just a museum piece.

Back on Interstate 40, drive 22 miles east to Chambers, and then north on U.S. 191 for about 38 miles to Ganado and Hubbell Trading Post. This authentic trading post was opened by John Lorenzo Hubbell in 1878 on the Navajo Reservation.

Although it was added to the National Park System in 1967, Hubbell is not a museum piece but an active trading post. As such, it still holds richly woven Navajo rugs, jewelry, and other Native American artworks for purchase.

Schedule your visit to Hubbell Trading Post for May and you just might be able to attend the annual Native American Art Auction. Check with the park (928-755-3475) for the exact date.

If you have a little more free time, you could extend your your trip by heading 39 miles north on 191 to Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

For Wild About Utah and National Parks Traveler, I’m Kurt Repanshek.

Image: Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek,
Text:     Kurt Repanshek,

Additional Reading:

Montezuma Castle National Monument,,

Montezuma Castle National Monument, US National Park Service,

Geographic Area covered by the State of Deseret and Utah Territory, International Society Daughters of Utah Pioneers,

Best Snow

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Skier at Brian Head
Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service

As the mountains begin to take on hues of scarlet, gold and russet, many Utahns might be looking eagerly toward the coming months when those slopes will be blanketed in white. The Utah ski industry nurtures a whopping annual income of about $800 million dollars. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the state claims to have the “greatest snow on earth.” In fact, the state of Utah managed to make their slogan a federal trademark in 1995 after winning a lawsuit brought by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus group, who felt the catchy marketing phrase might be confused with their slogan, the Greatest Show on Earth.

The trademark must have worked, because Utah draws so many visitors to its slopes, it racks up about 4 million skier days annually. But disregard plenty of evidence that we do indeed draw a crowd, and the statement is pretty subjective. So what’s the science behind our legendary powder?

The ideal condition skiers hope for is a deep, fluffy snow that creates the illusion of bottomless powder. And finding it is a bit like the Goldilocks story. Too wet, and you bog down. Too dry, and there’s not enough body to create a floating sensation beneath the ski. If the terrain is too steep, the powder won’t stick. And if it’s not steep enough, you can’t build sufficient momentum to glide over the top.

To get to the bottom of why Utah’s snow is just right, we actually have to look even further westward, toward the slow warm waters of the North Pacific current. As water laden clouds move inland, snow first falls over the Cascades in the north and the Sierra Nevadas further south, with an average moisture content of 12%. Even in areas like Washington’s Mt. Baker, where annual snowfall comes in greater quantities than Utah, the moister maritime snow creates a heavy base that bogs down skis. By the time these winter storms cross the Great Basin and reach the skiers’ Mecca of Alta and the Wasatch Range, the moisture content will have decreased to about 8.5%. And that seems to be the sweet spot. The moisture content of Utah’s intermountain snow is just enough that powder from our first storms settles into a soft but voluminous base. As winter progresses, fresh snow falls in a cold and mostly arid environment, forming very fine, symmetrical crystals called dendrites. The microscopic structure of dendrites allows them to accumulate in well ventilated, incompact drifts, much like the puffy down in your favorite pillow or ski jacket.

And perfect powder isn’t the only advantage Utah’s ski resorts have over their neighbors. Our mountainous topography, with its wealth of winding canyons, means we have an abundance of slopes well protected from strong winds which could compact or carry away fresh snowfall. And while so many cold and overcast days might get you down, it also protects our top powder from radiation and air mass effect, which can create a crust along the surface. And that means our freshly fallen powder sticks around for longer.

So consider that Utah offers 26,000 acres of mountain, blanketed in more than 500 annual inches of perfect intermountain snow, and it’s no wonder we enjoy 5 times the number of “powder days” as our neighbors. “The Greatest Snow on Earth” starts sounding a lot less subjective, and more like truth. In fact, you just might be tempted to make like Goldilocks and make yourself at home.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Ru Mahoney.

Image: Courtesy USDA Forest Service,
Text:     Ru Mahoney, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Additional Reading:

Rainwater Harvesting

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Permaculture Garden
Moab Charter School
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain, Photographer

Before and After
Permaculture Rain Garden
USU Moab
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain, Photographer

Rain Tank with
Basins and Overflow Swales
Albuquerque Open Space Visitor Ctr
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain, Photographer

Rain Water Storage Tank
Private Residence in New Mexico
Installed by Jeff Adams of Terrasophia
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain, Photographer

Permaculture Rain Garden
USU Logan
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain, Photographer

A common saying in the west is “Whiskey is for drinkin’ and water is for fightin.’” As drought forecasts and associated water scarcity grow, many are turning towards water harvesting as a way to not only save money, but to also be more self sufficient. In Utah, thanks to a revised House Bill 36 in 2013, residents on any parcel of land can install a rainwater harvesting system and use that water on the same parcel. The total volume of rainwater that can be harvested is 2,500 gallons. Containers are recommended to be covered, primarily to reduce mosquito outbreaks, and can be above or below ground.

So how do you go about installing a rainwater harvesting system?

First, analyze your landscape and estimate your water needs by doing a water budget calculation. The Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program has a landscape water budget tool that you can use to help determine your water needs. This is calculated as gallons per month based on your landscaped area, plant types, and associated water demand per plant type. In Brad Lancaster’s book, Rainwater Harvesting For Drylands and Beyond volume 1, you can find formulas for calculating how much rainwater your roof can yield, based on yearly or monthly rainfall. This can also be found in USU Extension’s permaculture fact sheet. Once you have these two numbers – your approximate landscape water demand, and the approximate rainwater your roof can provide per year, you can better estimate a practical size for your rainwater container – also called a tank or cistern. Also consider the room you have, likelihood of using harvested water, and ease of use, in addition to your landscape needs.

Now you are ready to either purchase or build your rainwater harvesting system. Remember, each tank needs an overflow and that overflow should ideally be aimed towards plants with higher water needs. For recommendations on how to install and or build rainwater harvesting containers in Utah search “Rain Barrels in Utah” through USU Extension.

If you are putting in new landscaping, search Water Harvesting Earthworks for ideas of how to design in a way that best slows, spreads, and sinks rainwater. Or look up “Plant the Water before the Tree” by the Watershed Management Group as a starting point.

No matter what size of tank you choose to install, the beauty lies in actually using harvested water from your tank, especially during periods of drought.

As watershed management consultant Jeff Adams says, “It is what you can fill, fit and afford based on your patterns of use.”

This is Roslynn Brain of Utah State University Extension Sustainability.

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Roslynn Brain, Photographer
Text:     Roslynn Brain,

Additional Reading:

Watersense, Environmental Protection Agency

Lancaster, Brad, Rainwater Harvesting Drylands and Beyond,

Plant the Water Before the Tree – Help Your Tree Grow and Thrive with Rainwater!, Watershed Management Group,

Rain Barrels in Utah, USU Extension,