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.
Michael Pollan, author of “In Defense of Food” and “The Omnivores Dilemma”, called lambs quarters and purslane “two of the most nutritious plants in the world.” Weeding them would be a waste, both taste and health-wise!
Also called pigweed, goosefoot and wild spinach, lambs quarters is a common garden weed and is found with easy access in most urban settings. Sporting broad, green leaves and a powdery-white middle, lambs quarters can substitute as spinach in any dish, and is packed with nutrients too!
While most edible weeds are best harvested in spring, lambs quarters thrive throughout the entirety of summer. While young, the plant can be collected whole, but as it ages and becomes tougher, only the tender tops are recommended. Try it raw in salads or green smoothies. Seeds can be collected as an excellent source of protein.
Nutritionally, lambs quarters is a close competitor with spinach. 1 cup of boiled and lightly salted lambs quarters has a whopping 6g of protein, more than double your daily value of Vitamin A, 66 mg Vitamin C and 120 mg Iron.
Another common weed found growing between sidewalk cracks or in our gardens is purslane. Purslane is a succulent originally from India, but is now found as a wild weed in all 50 U.S. states. This plant grows low to the ground, contains slightly reddish stems and sports tangy succulent green leaves with a similar quality as okra.
The leaves, stems, and flowers of purslane can all be eaten either fresh or cooked. The health benefits rival many other green vegetables you work hard to plant and maintain in your garden, yet it grows effortlessly!
The fresh succulent leaves of this wonder weed contain more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable plant, and has five times the concentration than can be found in spinach! It also contains more omega-3’s than many fish oils in the grocery store. In a 100 gram serving of raw Purslane, you can get more than 1320 international units of Vitamin A, 21 mg Vitamin C, and a dense array of B-complex vitamins!
As Ralph Waldo Emerson rhetorically asked, “what is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”
For Utah State University Extension Sustainability, this is Roslynn Brain.
“Darling, I’m having a struggle with the trout. They are too much for me in the swift, rushing river. I lose ‘em. Went out yesterday… and lost two—one a large fish. The ‘June Bugs’ – a red bodied insect, as big as the biggest grasshopper you ever saw, fall from the leaves on to the river and are such large juicy mouthfuls that the trout have abundant food, and don’t care much for a fly.”1
That is an excerpt from a letter from U.S. historian and novice fly angler Frederick Jackson Turner. He was writing to his wife Caroline Mae on June 20, 1924, while visiting Utah Agricultural College in Logan. Turner didn’t know it at the time, but the large red-bodied “June Bugs” were actually salmonflies, a prehistoric-looking stonefly from the genus Pteronarcys. Turner was also unaware that his letter would become the earliest written record showing that salmonflies were once abundant in the Logan River.
Salmonflies are a type of large stonefly that live in many western rivers and are often called “rock rollers” or “shredders” because they hide under boulders and gorge themselves on leaf litter until early summer when they crawl out from under the rocks, shed their exoskeleton, and clumsily fly around hoping to bump into a mate. These bugs love cold, clean, oxygenated water, all of which are hallmarks of the Logan River. Existing records show that salmonflies were well established on the Logan River until at least 1951, after which time something wiped them out. The last time anyone saw a Pteronarcys on the Logan River was September 7, 1966, near Mendon Bridge.2
In 2001, the “Disappearance of the Salmonflies,” as it’s now known among bug enthusiasts, sparked the curiosity of Mark Vinson, former director of the Utah State University National Aquatic Monitoring Center, aka the “USU Bug Lab.” Vinson decided to compare the Logan River to nearby Blacksmith Fork River, which continues to support a healthy population of salmonflies. Vinson observed that the absence of salmonflies in the Logan River was one of the few differences between the invertebrate faunas in the two streams. He studied discharge and water temperature regimes between the two and found they were also similar and had not changed since the 1960s. He wrote, “Overall, the Logan River within Logan Canyon remains a beautiful stream and habitat, and water quality conditions have not changed much since 1960, at least not enough to prevent salmonflies from living in the river.”3 To test his observations Vinson decided to try and recolonize the Logan River with salmonflies from the Blacksmith Fork River. Between 2004 and 2007 volunteers relocated thousands of salmonflies in the hope they would once again call the Logan River home. Out of the thousands of immigrant stoneflies, Vinson only found two that survived longer than one year. The massive relocation effort was a bust, and proved that there was still something about the Logan River that these critters didn’t like.
Each semester, watershed science students at Utah State University don leaky waders and wander up Logan Canyon to conduct aquatic invertebrate sampling. I was once one of those bright-eyed students, standing in the Logan River with a kick-net and dreams of finding the long-lost Pteronarcys. I never found one. Over the years, researchers have ruled out obvious factors like water quality, stream temperature, or habitat, that might limit salmonfly reproduction on the Logan River. Chemical spills and sagebrush abatement in Logan Canyon during the 1950s may have originally contributed to the bugs’ demise, but doesn’t explain why they can’t survive for long in the river today. Of course, anglers have their own ideas about what going on, including tales of a giant Sasquatch urinating in the river somewhere near Rick’s Spring.
Even today the plot thickens. Continued aquatic invertebrate sampling by the Bug Lab has shown that salmonflies are also absent from Left Hand Fork of Blacksmith Fork River as well as upper Rock Creek.4 Incredibly, both of these streams are tributaries to the main stem Blacksmith Fork River, which is full of salmonflies. This anomaly has everyone scratching their heads. All anyone can say for certain is that some variable, biotic or abiotic, or possibly even “Sasquatch-iotic” is keeping salmonflies from populating these two tributaries. Could it be the same variable that’s keeping Frederick Jackson Turner’s “June Bugs” from reclaiming the Logan River? The answer to this question, along with whether Turner ever did land a trout, has yet to be answered.
For Wild About Utah, I’m Brad Hansen.
Footnotes: 1. Ray A. Billington, “Frederick Jackson Turner and ‘Logan’s National Summer School,’ 1924,” Utah Historical Quarterly 37, no. 3 (1969): 327. 2. Nancy A. Erman, “Occurrence and Distribution of Invertebrates in Lower Logan River” (master’s thesis, Utah State University, 1968), 17. Available online at http://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1333&context=etd 3. Mark Vinson, “A short history of Pteronarcys californica and Pteronarcella badia in the Logan River, Cache County, Utah.” January 14, 2008. Available online at https://www.usu.edu/buglab/Content/Files/salmonfly%20history.pdf 4. Phone conversation with Joe Kotynek, USU Bug Lab Taxonomist, January 24, 2017.
Photo: Courtesy Wikipedia (Public Domain) and
Photo: Courtesy NPS and Yellowstone Association
Text: Brad Hansen
Penstemaniacs, the name affectionately given to members of the American Penstemon Society, will be gathering from all parts of the world to meet in Vernal, Utah, this June.
While here, they’ll be searching the Uinta Mountains for penstemons native to that area.
If you’ve ever hiked in the rugged, dry areas of Utah and come upon a vibrant flower with hues of red, purple, or blue, and wondered how such a beautiful plant could survive in such a desolate place – you may have found one of Utah’s native penstemons.
Over 100 full species or sub-species of the plant are native to the beehive state. They thrive in hot conditions and require very little water.
According to Robert Fitts, Botany Researcher for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, “Penstemons have adapted to very harsh places. Where other plants [couldn’t] grow they have grown.”
The common name for penstemon is beardtongue, due to the staminode that grows out of the center of the flower and looks like a hairy tongue.
In the spring, hikers can see beardtongue growing on mountain ledges, budding on desert floors, and rising from oil shale formations. Even people stuck in the city can see these native flowers blossom along urban roads since Utah Division of Transportation includes penstemon seeds in the mixtures used to restore vegetation along new and reconstructed roads.
Dr. Noel Homgren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the New York Botanical Garden explains, “Although penstemon distribution [stretches from] southern Alaska to northern Guatemala; Utah is the Center of Diversity for penstemon. There are more species of penstemon in Utah than any other state in the Union.”
To identify penstemon or beardtongue, ask these three questions while examining the plant: First, does the plant have opposite leaves growing out of the stem; second, is the flower a tubular shape, and finally, inside the flower are there four filaments surrounding one furry filament? If the answer is yes to all three of these questions, you have found and identified a penstemon.
With the increasing popularity of water-wise landscapes, many native penstemons can now be purchased in flower shops. You can have a little bit of native Utah growing right in your own back yard.
Firecracker and Wasatch are two popular penstemon choices. Both thrive in dry landscapes and require no fertilizer. Fertilizer actually shortens the life of penstemons.
The Firecracker blooms in mid spring and is cold hardy, it has a bright red tubular flower which hangs slightly downward – both these characteristics attract hummingbirds which can add entertainment to any backyard.
“If you’ve ever seen a hummingbird war where two or more hummingbirds fight over a plant it’s fascinating sight.”
The Wasatch Beardtongue has rich colored flowers with hues of purple, blue and lavender that bloom upward. It’s a favorite for the bumblebee. If you come close to these flowering plants you can hear the low humming of the bees hard at work.
Some native penstemons are quite rare and found in very limited areas. Two of these are the Graham and White River penstemons, found only in the oil shale outcrops of the Uintah Mountains.
To help preserve these rare flowering plants, Utah’s Department of Natural Resources, through the Division of Wildlife Resources, partnered with USU to use modeling as an aid to determine where the rare flowers grow.
By using survey data from the Utah Heritage Program, which tells where the rare plants have been found, the data is entered into the model and fined tuned so it can more accurately tell the researchers other locations where the rare plants may be.
Mindy Wheeler, the Rare Plant Conservation Coordinator from UDWR explains, “it’s as if we become detectives.” We gather the clues for the model, then go out into the areas where the model tells us the plants may be found.
Often when I come upon a rare pentsemon, I’m so relieved and happy that I drop to my knees and with my hands in the dirt examine it closely.
“Every piece of data we gather goes back into the model to refine it.”
Dr. Tom Edwards, Research Scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, professor in the Department of Wildland Resources, and Principal investigator on the project, said – once we have the models and understand where the rare plants are, it allows management agencies to work with their stakeholders (who include tribal nations, energy groups and ranchers) to decrease the impacts they have on these rare plants.
Wheeler adds, “It’s been helpful to find…rare penstemons which are a conservation priority because it either helps with conservation actions or in a best case scenario finds enough plants so they no longer need as much protection.”
Utah residents who would like to add penstamon to their yards, can go to the Utah Native Plant Society’s website, to find the closest supplier in their area.
Edwards adds, “Penstemons bloom at different times of the year so if you plan carefully you can have vibrant rotating color in your gardens all summer long.”
To become a Penstemaniac simply go to The American Penstemon Society website and join.
This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright Dr Robert Fitts
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
The next time you take a walk in the deep woods or even a stroll through a local park, listen closely. You may hear the trees ‘whispering in the wind.’ We use this familiar phrase to describe the soothing sounds of a gentle breeze through the forest canopy; but it may delight and surprise many to know that this figure of speech is now a proven scientific fact. The trees are talking.
They don’t talk like you and I talk, of course. The spoken word is foregone by the plant kingdom, for now. Theirs is a much subtler form of communication. ‘The Wood Wide Web’, as the scientific journal Nature once dubbed it, is the woodland social network. Within it, trees send electric signals coursing through their roots in order to relay important messages to their neighbors.
Travelling at the speed of about a third of an inch every minute, these timber telegrams take quite a while to accomplish such a task; but what this system lacks in speed, it makes up for with complexity. A tree’s roots will often expand through the soil to an area twice the width of its crown, resulting in the ability of a single tree to grasp the roots of and pass messages to multiple far-away friends at once.
In undisturbed soils, these messages can be expedited symbiotically. Subsoil fungal networks, which intertwine with the roots of trees for nourishment sake, can relay messages much more quickly by connecting otherwise distant, unconnected trees to one another. This becomes quite important when the message pertains to danger: an invasion of damaging pests, for instance.
Usually, though, if a tree needs to get a warning out to its neighbors more quickly, it will do so by other means. When trees are attacked, they emit scent compounds through their leaves. These arboreal aromas can be registered by distant parts of the same tree, far-flung trees in the same grove, or, amazingly, even members of the animal kingdom, which trees will summon to their defense. Even more astonishing is that each scent is custom-catered. Trees will identify their attacker by its saliva and emit a corresponding pheromone meant to attract that attacker’s natural predators. Once they are warned of an invading pest, other trees in the grove may respond similarly.
The usefulness of a tree’s ability to communicate with its neighbors goes beyond emergency warnings or the spreading of other important information. Trees have developed a sophisticated redistribution system in which the strongest trees compensate for weaker ones by sharing their surpluses of sugar. In fact, this system is so efficient that, in the end, each individual tree is nourished at the same rate of photosynthesis. This means that every tree in a grove receives the same amount of sugar per leaf in its crown as every other tree, regardless of its own ability to photosynthesize. As it turns out, trees are highly sociable beings. They take responsibility for friends and family members and see to it that their loved ones are well cared for.
Not all groves are created equal, though. These natural behaviors can be inhibited by intensive thinning of wild groves or absent altogether in planted, monocultural forests. However, when granted enough space and time to be itself, even the most artificial forest can ‘return to its roots.’
So, whenever you find yourself following that wooded path into the forest, think of what secret messages might be coursing through the soil or floating invisibly upon the airwaves? Consider these possibilities, and your walks may now be a little more mysterious.