Shrubby-Reed Mustard: The Best Little Plant You’ve Never Heard of (13 Feb 2017)

Shrubby-Reed Mustard Bush, Hesperidanthus suffrutescens
Shrubby-Reed Mustard Bush
Hesperidanthus suffrutescens
Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis

Shrubby-Reed Mustard Blossoms, Hesperidanthus suffrutescens Shrubby-Reed Mustard Blossoms
Hesperidanthus suffrutescens
Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis

Shrubby-Reed Mustard Blossoms Closeup, Hesperidanthus suffrutescens Shrubby-Reed Mustard Blossoms
Hesperidanthus suffrutescens
Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis

Tucked into isolated pockets of the Uintah Basin’s arid wildlands is the best little plant you’ve never heard of. Known to exist only in Duchesne and Uintah Counties, Shrubby-reed Mustard seems to occupy only the semi-barren “islands” of white shale in areas of the Green River Formation’s Evacuation Creek region. The endangered plant features thick, almost succulent, blue-green leaves and small yellow flowers.

“The habitat of Shrubby-reed Mustard is visually striking,” says USU alum Matt Lewis, a botanist with the Bureau of Land Management in Vernal, Utah. “It grows in very shallow, fine-textured soils and shale fragments that form narrow bands in the desert shrub community.”

Among the first plants to flower in spring, the perennial herb is visited by large number of insects, including many native bee species that forage for pollen. Scientists believe these bees may be critical in the plant’s reproduction and survival.

Lewis says the plant, also known as Toad-Flax Cress and Uintah Basin Waxfruit, offers an understated beauty to the stark landscape. With a shrub-like form and multiple stems, Shrubby-reed Mustard grows to about 20 centimeters in height. Its leaves, which feel almost like leather, change to a bright purple in the fall.

The plant is also enticingly fragrant, Lewis says. “Its scent reminds me of roses mixed with apples and pears.”

Despite its fragile status, Shrubby-reed Mustard is a long-lived plant. USU ecologist Geno Schupp says some individual plants may be one hundred years old.

The elusive species has outlived scientists’ attempts to classify it and has undergone several taxonomic changes. It currently boasts the scientific name Hesperidanthus suffrutescens, placing it solidly in the mustard family.

Lewis knows of no history of Shrubby-reed Mustard as a culinary or medicinal herb, though documented reports of such uses for mustard plants date back to ancient times. The plant appears to provide welcome forage for some four-legged creatures, he says, as he recently witnessed plants that had been grazed completely and ripped from the ground.

“Whether that was due to livestock or native ungulates, I’m not sure.”

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis
Text:     Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University College of Natural Resources
Credits:
Matt Lewis, botanist, Bureau of Land Management, Vernal, Utah.
Eugene “Geno” Schupp, professor, USU Department of Wildland Resources.

Additional Reading:

http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/factsheets/ShrubbyReed-mustardFactSheet.pdf

http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/plants/shrubbyreedmustard/5YearReview2010.pdf

Pando the World’s Largest Discovered Organism

Pando the world's largest discovered organism at Fishlake in central Utah Image courtesy USDA Forest Service J Zapell, Photographer
Pando, the worlds largest discovered organism at Fishlake in central Utah
Image courtesy USDA Forest Service
J. Zapell, Photographer

Pando, a sprawling aspen colony and the world’s largest discovered organism, is dying. On the lip of Fish Lake in Central Utah, Pando germinated from a seed the size of a grain of sand thousands of years ago. Now he sprawls over a hundred acres with approximately 47,000 trunks. The combination of the trunks and the extensive root system has Pando weighing in at around 13 million pounds. This giant male, which might be one of the oldest living organisms on the planet, is also prone to disease, wanted by humans to burn in stoves, and targeted by ungulates as a food source. And although Pando consists of literally tons of mature, geriatric trees, there aren’t many young volunteers replacing old trees that die.

Dr. Paul Rogers, a Utah State University scientist who’s trying to save Pando, explained the problem to me while we searched for new growth and deer scat on Pando. He said it would be like depending on a room filled with 90-year-olds to repopulate and save the human race—it’s possible, but not likely.

The age of the current mature trees that make up Pando is about 110-120 years. These ages are gleaned from a tree coring device called a borer. This information combined with others findings show that Pando took a turn for the worse about when Anglo-Americans showed up in central Utah. As they hunted apex predators like bears, wolves and mountain lions, populations of ungulates such as deer and elk increased. White settlers also added other ungulates—sheep, cows, and horses—to the ecosystem. Both domestic and wild ungulates feast on young, nutrient-filled Aspen trees. Which makes it so Pando can’t recolonize himself.

I asked Rogers if the reason he wanted to save Pando was because it was the superlative organism—the oldest and biggest on the globe, and he was quick to correct me. He questions the accuracy of age estimates for Pando based on current available science. And he believes there may even be larger aspen colonies, but we just haven’t found them yet. We know about Pando partially because a paved road goes right over his spine and partially because he almost touches Fish Lake. Rogers says he’s interested in saving Pando because the existence of this huge organism supports many dependent species and it likely holds lessons for sustainable cohabitation of this planet. As an afterthought he added, “If the colony dies on our watch, we’re doing something majorly wrong.”

There is hope for Pando. Aspen do two things really well: die and repopulate. In recent years, efforts have been implemented to preserve Pando. Paradoxically, some sections have been clear cut or burned to stimulate growth. Both techniques have produced positive results, but not enough. It seems the simplest solution to this problem might be the best—protect it from foraging ungulates. Eight-foot deer fences now encircle parts of Pando. Outside the fences, there are no new trees. Inside, however, green shoots can be seen pushing up from the dry ground.

This is Russ Beck for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, J Zapell, Photographer
Text: Russ Beck

Sources & Additional Reading

Pando-(I Spread), Fishlake National Forest, USDA Forest Service, https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/fishlake/home/?cid=STELPRDB5393641

Pando-The World’s Largest Organism, Holly Strand, Wild About Utah, Sept 3, 2010, http://wildaboututah.org/pando-the-worlds-largest-organism/

Utah State Tree – Quaking Aspen, Utah’s Online Library, http://onlinelibrary.utah.gov/research/utah_symbols/tree.html

WESTERN ASPEN ALLIANCE is a joint venture between Utah State University’s College of Natural Resources and the USDA Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, whose purpose is to facilitate and coordinate research issues related to quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) communities of the west. http://www.western-aspen-alliance.org/

DeWoody J, Rowe C, Hipkins VD, Mock KE (2008) Pando lives: molecular genetic evidence of a giant aspen clone in central Utah. Western North American Naturalist 68(4), pp. 493–497. http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/aspen_bib/3164

Grant, M., J.B. Mitton, AND Y.B. Linhart. 1992. Even larger organisms. Nature 360:216. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v360/n6401/abs/360216a0.html

Grant, M. 1993. The trembling giant. Discover 14:83–88. Abstract:http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.3398/1527-0904-68.4.493

Habeck, R. J. 1992. Sequoiadendron giganteum. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/ [Accessed September 2, 2010].

Mock, K.E., C . A. Rowe, M. B. Hooten, J. DeWoody and V. D. Hipkins. Clonal dynamics in western North American aspen (Populus tremuloides) Molecular Ecology (2008) 17, 4827–4844 http://etmd.nal.usda.gov/bitstream/10113/27665/1/IND44127848.pdf

A “no-trouts-land” on the Logan River

Cutthroat Trout A no-trouts-land on the Logan River, Copyright (c) Chadd VanZanten, Photographer vanzanten-cutthroat_trout.250x184
Cutthroat Trout
Copyright © Chadd VanZanten, Photographer
Northern Utah’s Logan River is known for its solitude and grandeur. Drive just a few miles up Logan Canyon in Cache Valley and find yourself in a wild setting on the bank of a picturesque mountain stream. It would be difficult to find a place in Utah that is more accessible and yet so peaceful.

However, just a few inches beneath the riffles of the Logan River, a war rages.

This conflict has gone unresolved for more than a century. The combatants fight continuously all day, all night, and all year.

The indigenous defender is the Bonneville cutthroat trout, which migrated here hundreds of thousands of years ago from the west coast of America by way of the Snake and Columbia rivers. They’ve been here ever since, making this Logan River cutthroat army the largest wild and natural population of its kind. Presently, cutthroats hold the upper river, above Twin Bridges or thereabouts.

Invading from downstream is the brown trout, whose antecedents hail from Eurasia. The brown trout isn’t an intentional trespasser; they were stocked here in the 1880s by humans who wanted more fish to catch. However, brown trout are aggressive, and they don’t know or care that the Logan River used to belong to some other species. Brown trout dominate the lower river, especially in the neighborhood of Third Dam.

And so they fight.

The middle portion of the river is a “no-trouts-land,” where the two species meet to wage their desperate struggle. They contend for living space, compete for forage, and, when it’s convenient, they devour each other with gusto.

Which will prevail? Each species has its advantages.

The brown trout are indisputably stronger, tougher, and meaner. They tolerate low water quality and wide swings in water temperature. When brown trout encounter cutthroats of their same size, they aggressively drive out the more-docile cutthroats. Every year, the brown trout gain a little ground, pressing inch by inch upstream.

Cutthroats may not be great fighters, but they are resilient, having survived clear-cut logging, overgrazing, and the damming of the river. The cutthroats were here first, too, so they hold the high ground, and it’s much easier for fish to move downstream than up. And the cutthroats rule the upper tributaries of the Logan River, which they use to spawn and replenish their numbers. But perhaps most importantly, the cutthroats have an immensely powerful ally: humans.

That’s right. The race that brought the brown trout here in the first place now sides with the cutthroats. The humans could easily exterminate all brown trout in Logan River, from its headwaters to the confluence of the Bear River, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead, conservation measures, such as strategically placed barriers to fish passage and fishing regulations that protect cutthroats during their spawning season, give the natives a fighting chance against their fierce invaders.

Fly anglers, too, favor the cutthroat trout, which they fondly refer to as “cutties.” Fly anglers seem averse to harvesting cutties, releasing them instead unharmed after capture. Opinions vary among experts about how much catch-and-release practices actually help the Cutthroats, but this is war, and these natives, besieged by a relentless and superior foe, can use every advantage they can get.

For Wild About Utah I’m Chadd VanZanten.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy and Copyright Chadd VanZanten, Photographer
Text:     Chadd VanZanten


Additional Reading:

The Cutthroat Trout, Anna Bengston, Wild About Utah, July 10, 2014, http://wildaboututah.org/cutthroat-trout/

Cutthroat Trout, Native trout of the interior west, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/cutthroat-home.html

Small Stream Cutthroat Trout, Matt McKell, May 10, 2016, http://wildlife.utah.gov/blog/2016/small-stream-cutthroat-trout/

Ancient Native Plant Relationships Reviewed

Ephedra, Ephedra viridis Coville
Ephedra
Ephedra viridis Coville
Courtesy USDA, NRCS. 2016. The PLANTS Database (http://plants.usda.gov, 6 February 2016). National Plant Data Team, Greensboro, NC 27401-4901 USA., BLM Photographer

Hi I’m T.J. Knudson and I’m Gilbert Young.

Stretching from the snowy peaks of the Wellsville Mountains, south to the sandstone shadows of Beaver Dam Wash, an ancient, native relationship provided unity to the diverse landscape. It is admired in the haunting tune of a wind pipe, it comports like a wool blanket; and its tapestry goes beyond the cliff art at Potash, and preceded John Wesley Powell and Brigham Young.

The Ute, Shoshone, Piute, Goshute, and Navajo cultures each echo today an enduring sustaining relationship bonded to the reliable plant life in a diverse land. this relationship sustained our state’s ancient culture, but little is understood about these gifted craftsmen in utilizing the materials and fibers.

In southeast Utah, the shepherd Navajo nation found a companion in the Prickly-Pear Cactus. Despite his short stature and sharp countenance, this ally was able to provide a fleshy, refreshing fruit. After rolling repeatedly through the direct to lose his spines, and soaking in water; there sparks a reaction of the most spectacular die; which was often orchestrated into many shades of red. Despite his stature on the lonely desert floor, the prickly pear creates a color that epitomizes the Navajo beauty and lives on to future generations.

As our ancient travelers would ascend upward into the hills, they would spend time in the Pinyon/Juniper woodland to collect pine nuts. Natives would also search for three other valuable resources: pine pitch, firewood and shelter materials. Underneath the pines and junipers plentiful sumac, can be found; the sumac branches provide the means to develop a midnight-black die and was also an essential basketry material. The third element needed to create this black color was ocher (okerr), a yellow mineral abundant in Navajo territory. The Pinyon-Juniper woodland met the needs of native people, much like modern superstores. Like these plants working together as a team, we all have an opportunity to join others in creating a unified community.

Prickly Pear Cactus, Opuntia ficus-indica
Prickly Pear Cactus
Opuntia ficus-indica
Courtesy US FWS

Across the canyons, a lone plant is found that nursed and comforted tribes long before the hospitals and prescriptions. Ephedra was a medicinal hero, when sharp cold winds swept the valleys. It could be boiled into a delicious tea that combated the common cold, allowing airways freedom of congestion. Also known as Brigham Tea, Natives shared this knowledge to the early Utah Pioneers in their time of need. The evergreen stems of Ephedra offer healing and a comfort that aided the native people and settlers. We also have the ability to heal our souls by intimately connecting ourselves to nature’s bounteous gifts. We can also provide healing to those who are in need of comfort and guidance.

If the past could speak to us today, it would remind us of connections and relationships that have been forgotten. Our hope today is that you may connect with these ancient relationships for yourselves. For more information, check out the Wild About Utah website.

For Wild About Utah this is T.J. Knutson and Gilbert Young.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy , Photographer
Text:     T.J. Knutson and Gilbert Young.


Additional Reading: