A weekly nature series produced by Utah Public Radio in cooperation with Stokes Nature Center, Bridgerland Audubon Society, Utah Master Naturalists Program and the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University.
One thing I love about being a horticulturist is paying close attention and working with seasonal cycles, especially this time of year when it finally feel OK to slow down. This is the time of year when plants put all their energy into reserve for the winter and I think this is really cool. If you’ve never thought about it, or even if you have… imagine how vibrant the fresh, new, green leaves are in the spring, busting from the dormant branches of trees. Those first leaves get their start using some of the stored energy or sugary plant food from last year. Have you ever heard the phrase “when the sap starts flowing?” Plants are really smart. With the right ingredients, light, warmth, water, & and carbon dioxide, the cellular machinery makes the sugars and plant food necessary to grow. Then, at the end of the year after the plant gets done making a fruit or nut or seed, all the extra plant food in the leaves and stems migrates to the roots where it can stay viable all winter.
That stored plant food is also nutritious for humans. My good friend the ethnobotanist, Guy Banner, has been enticing me with knowledge about edible plants that are native in Utah. I always remember “Biscuit root” because it sounds, delicious. You can find biscuit root growing in almost any native plant communities and even in dry open rocky areas. There are several species that are edible. Biscuit roots are short leafy plants with yellow flowers arranged in an umbrella shape and a large tap root. The roots can be eaten raw or cooked, or dried and ground into a flour. Native Americans throughout the west also used biscuit root medicinally for a range of ailments.
Utah also has several species of wild onions that can be harvested and eaten. Wild onions have grassy leaves that die down and leave a small round ball of purplish flowers on top of a skinny stem. You’ll find them in dry gravelly sites. Two other plants with edible roots, which you may have heard of before, are the sego lily and cattails. The sego lily is our state flower and cattails are a very common sight in riparian areas. The bulb of sego lilies can be eaten, and the roots of cattails are so large, they come close to providing as much food as a potato. This might not sound supremely appetizing, but knowing how much food there can be in the wild may offer some comfort when you’re miles from the city on your next outdoor adventure.
For Wild About Utah this is Brittany Hunter.
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Brittany Hunter, Horticulturist, USU
Shrubby-Reed Mustard Blossoms Hesperidanthus suffrutescens Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis
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.”
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Matt Lewis
Text: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University College of Natural Resources
Matt Lewis, botanist, Bureau of Land Management, Vernal, Utah.
Eugene “Geno” Schupp, professor, USU Department of Wildland Resources.
Cinclus mexicanus is the only aquatic songbird found in North America, but it goes by several names—the American dipper, the water dipper, or the water ouzel. It is a grapefruit-sized bird that inhabits mountainous riparian areas. It has brownish gray plumage, stubby wings and tail, and ornithologists sometimes refer to it as “stocky,” “chunky,” and even “chubby-looking.” However, the dipper has no shortage of energy, and can be seen careening at low altitudes over mountain streambeds and crashing beak-first into fast-flowing water, always in the upstream direction.
The dipper hunts for food by diving into swift, shallow rivers and hunting underwater. It muscles its way upstream, picking off aquatic insect larva, crayfish, and even tadpoles and minnows. Several adaptations assist the dipper in this seemingly reckless feeding strategy. Nictitating eye membranes enable the dipper to see underwater, and specialized flaps of skin on the dipper’s beak seal its nostrils. Dippers produce more feather oil than less adventuresome songbirds, which keeps them warm and dry, even in near-freezing water. Perhaps most noticeably, the dipper has long legs and specialized, unwebbed toes to grip the stream bottom, hold steady in the current, and push along upstream.
The American dipper was once more commonly referred to as the “water ouzel,” after its European cousin, Cinclus aquaticus, but ornithologists changed the preferred common name to “American dipper” to better distinguish it based on a unique aspect of the bird’s behavior: American dippers dip.
The dipper bobs rapidly up and down by bending its legs—like deep knee bends. Dippers dip while paused on rocks between dives, they dip while feeding in the water, and they even dip while they’re still fledging in their nests.
So, why do dippers dip? There are a number of theories. First, dipping may help the birds visually isolate reference points beneath moving water, so that they can more accurately dive for prey. Dipping might also help to conceal dippers from predators against a busily moving backdrop. But the best theory about dipping is that it’s a form of communication between dippers within the noisy environment of mountain streams.
Ornithologists say dippers dip at different rates in different situations, sometimes as rapidly as 60 times per minute. Dipping could be used to convey messages such as “Go away, this is my territory,” or “Hi, I would like to mate with you.”
Unlike other songbirds of the United States, the dipper does not migrate to warmer climes in autumn—it stays put all year, usually moving only short distances to avoid iced-over streams or to take advantage of shifting forage availability.
Like the American dipper, I too am a year-round denizen of mountain streams. I enjoy fly-fishing all year, even when it’s very cold, and aside from trout, the dipper is the creature I most enjoy seeing while I’m fishing. I figure that if a 6-ounce bird with feathers and bare legs can brave summer’s roasting heat and winter’s bitter chill, then so can I. But more importantly, the American dipper is known as a “biotic indicator species,” meaning this bird is known to thrive in streams with clean water and robust forage, while it abandons streams which are impaired or polluted. So, when I see American dippers dipping and diving in my home waters, I know I’m fishing in a river system that is healthy and strong.
On May 12, 1871, Albert Perry Rockwood, the recently appointed Territorial Fish Superintendent of Utah, arrived at Silver Creek, a small tributary of the Weber River near present-day Rockport Reservoir. After setting up camp, Rockwood went to work catching native Bonneville cutthroat trout, which he placed in crates and milk cartons and loaded on wagons bound for Salt Lake City. This was no vacation. Rockwood was on official business on behalf of Brigham Young and the newly created Zion’s Cooperative Fish Association, Utah’s first fish-culture company. Rockwood’s mission was to transport as many live cutthroat as possible to rearing ponds in Salt Lake City, get them to spawn, then put the fry in Utah Lake. The project didn’t go as planned. Many of the fish died from lack of oxygen in the cramped storing crates, the bigger fish ate the smaller fish, and the cutthroat that made it into the rearing ponds alive wouldn’t spawn.1
Although Rockwood didn’t have much success farming native trout, his subsequent efforts with fish stocking yielded fruit. After some consideration, he decided that the answer to Utah’s declining trout populations was not to replace dying native trout with more native trout, but rather import exotic fish species and let them fill in. It helped that he had the support of the Mormon Church, which funded his fish stocking escapades through Zion’s Cooperative Fish Association. Over the pulpit, Mormon leaders encouraged members to do their part and declared fish “to possess brain making material to a greater extent than any other animal food.” They even went so far as to approve the use of prison inmates to build fish ponds near what is today Sugarhouse Park.2
During his time as Territorial Fish Superintendent, Rockwood experimented with American shad, black bullhead catfish, king salmon, Sebago salmon, eastern brook trout, lake whitefish, lobsters, oysters, American eel, Asian carp and a host of other species.3 Many of the exotics came from Rockwood’s east coast friends, including the biblical looking Seth Green and pragmatic Spencer Fullerton Baird, Director of the newly created U.S. Fish Commission. Today we might think some of Rockwood’s experiments cruel, like the time he attempted to farm lobsters and oysters in the Great Salt Lake, but at the time it was cutting edge fish culture.
On the surface it is obvious Rockwood was attempting to improve Utah’s fisheries, whatever that may have looked like at the time. However, if you look closer you can also see a man trying to make Utah into something more familiar. Historians have long established that throughout the American West, settlers introduced nonnative plants, animals, and fishes in an attempt to make the foreign and wild landscape into something domestic and manageable. It’s not surprising, then, that Rockwood, an East Coast transplant from Massachusetts, would bring to Utah many of the fish he had caught back home. Rivers and lakes were laboratories, not ecosystems, and in the end, if a fish survived, Rockwood believed it meant God wanted it there.
Today, in a twist of irony, our values have moved toward valuing natives over nonnatives, and we’re trying to quickly undo what Rockwood and others did. For example, millions of dollars are being spent to remove carp from Utah Lake and restore Bonneville cutthroat to the tributaries of the Weber River, those same tributaries where Rockwood camped and caught trout 145 years ago. I think we are doing right by the world, but in his time, so did Albert Perry Rockwood.4 And in case you’re wondering, Rockwood eventually solved the mystery of the cutthroat trout that would not spawn. In his notes he wrote: “I was on the headwaters before the females arrived, consequently, caught nothing but male fish…This solves the problem, why my trout did not spawn…”5
For Wild About Utah this is Brad Hansen.
Footnotes: 1. Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, Twenty-Second Session, for the Year 1876 (Salt Lake City: David O. Calder, Public Printer, 1876), 101-102.
Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, Twenty-Third Session, for the Year 1878 (Salt Lake City: J.W. Pike, Public Printer), 97-110. 2. Ibid. 3. Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, Twenty-Second Session, for the Year 1876 (Salt Lake City: David O. Calder, Public Printer, 1876), 101-102; Boris Popov, “The Introduced Fishes, Game Birds, and Game and Fur-Bearing Mammals of Utah” (Master’s thesis, Utah State University, 1949), 38-77; Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Utah, Twenty-Third Session, for the Year 1878, 97-110. 4. Anders Halverson, An Entirely Synthetic Fish: How Rainbow Trout Beguiled America and Overran the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 187. 5. Ibid, 102-103.
Photo: Courtesy and copyright Brad Hansen
Text: Brad Hansen