Autumn Colors

Autumn Colors: Fall Colors in Cache County Photo © 2006 Bridgerland Audubon Society
Fall Colors in Cache County
Photo © 2006 Bridgerland Audubon Society

In autumn, our days shorten noticeably and frosty dawns become the norm across most of Utah. Now leafy plants must be preparing for winter. Their summer of intense metabolic activities must gradually give way to winter’s dormancy. Photosynthesis and respiration are gradually shut down as nutrients and sugars are withdrawn from leaves, to be shunted to the stem and roots for storage.

The brilliant autumn yellows of our aspens, ash trees and cottonwoods, as well as the crimsons of our maples and sumacs, are all indicative of leafy plants frugality with their valuable nutrient stores. The foliar pigment phytochrome first registers the lengthening nights, initiating the cascade of physiological events that prepare a tree for the icy blasts of winter. Before discarding their leaves, deciduous trees and shrubs rescue and store what they can of sugars and nutrients found in their leaves.

The key photosynthetic green pigment, chlorophyll, and its attendant enzymes are all broken down, their components moved to storage for recycling next spring. Essential nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are likewise extracted from foliage for later reuse. With chlorophyll gone, the other colorful leaf pigments are revealed in all their glory. These accessory pigments have been there all along, they just have been masked by the dominant green of chlorophyll.

These accessory pigments serve several functional purposes for the leaf. Some pigments protect the leaf from sunburn, some scavenge free radicals, but most capture energy from wavelengths of light missed by chlorophyll. The multi-hued spectrum of sunlight, as revealed by a prism or a rainbow, not only allows us to see splashy fall foliage colors, it is the reason for their existence.

For the plant physiologist and chemist, then, the palette of colorful leaf pigments have complex functional explanations. More mysterious psychological stirrings accompany the aching beauty of our autumn foliage, but it gives an undeniable tug at my heart. Standing before a blazing yellow stand of aspens, I smile to think that recycling can be so beautiful.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy www.bridgerlandaudubon.org
Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane, Linda Kervin

Additional Reading:
Utah Scenic Byways, http://www.utah.com/byways/fallcolorstour.htm
Utah Fall Colors, http://travel.utah.gov/Fallcolors.htm

Endemic Plants of Utah

Rabbit Valley Gilia or Wonderland Alice-Flower
Courtesy State of Utah:
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Ben Franklin, Photographer

Rabbit Valley Gilia or Wonderland Alice-Flower
Photo: Ben Franklin,
Courtesy State of Utah: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Other Utah Endemics on DWR pages:
Deseret Milkvetch
San Rafael Cactus
Welsh’s Milkweed

When something is unique to a particular geographic area it is said to be endemic to that area. Not too long ago, while preparing for a lecture on Utah’s biodiversity, I was amazed to discover that Utah ranks sixth in the nation for its number of endemic species. Only Hawaii, California, Texas, Florida and Georgia have more. The Hawaiian islands are totally isolated –a factor that encourages endemics. California and Texas have enormous land area so I’m not surprised they have the space for more species to evolve. And Georgia and Florida are warm and wet states where you would expect biological richness! So what’s Utah doing so high on this list?

It turns out that our unique plants give us this high ranking. Utah has 2602 plants in all plus 393 subspecies or varieties. With 247 endemics Utah has an endemism rate of 8.2%. That’s pretty amazing.

Some areas of Utah have a lot more endemic plants than others. The Colorado Plateau in the south and east of Utah has the most. On the Plateau, erosion has exposed a long succession of different rock layers, and the rock has weathered into a patchwork of locally unique soils. Ecologists have found that isolated or peculiar soil types are like a nursery for endemics. Fine textured soils, saline soils or those that are highly alkaline are associated with highest levels of endemism.

Environmental extremes in the desert such as high temperature or low rainfall prompt evolutionary adaptations that eventually lead to speciation. For example, cushion plants are common on the Plateau—these are compact, low growing, mats often with large and deep tap roots adapted to slow growth in a nutrient- poor and water-restricted environment. In Utah deserts, many different buckwheat and milkvetch species adopted the cushion plant structure thus forming new species.

Variations in elevation can isolate species and create localized versions of widespread plants. High elevation areas can act as islands within the Colorado Plateau separating plants into distinct populations until they diverge over time. The La Sal, Abajo and Henry Mountains form mid-high elevation islands whose resident species are becoming more and more unique, forming endemics such as Chatterly onion, La Sal daisy, Cronquist’s buckwheat, Navajo Mountain penstemon, and Dwarf mountain butterweed.

We all know that Utah is a special place to live, but just knowing that our plants are so unique is another good reason to go out and explore.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy State of Utah; Division of Wildlife Resources

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Jessica Welsh and Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Stein, Bruce A. 2002. States of the Union: Ranking America’s Biodiversity. A NatureServe Report Prepared for The Nature Conservancy. Arlington, Virginia: NatureServe. http://www.natureserve.org/Reports/stateofunions.pdf

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources June 1998. Inventory of sensitive species and ecosystems of Utah: Endemic and rare plants of Utah an overview of their distribution and status.

Utah Native Plant Society. January 2007 Volume 30 No.1 UNPS Annual Members Meeting, Oct 21, 2006, Logan, UT.

Welsh, Stanley L.1993. A Utah Flora (second edition) Provo: Brigham Young University.

Remembering Euell

Serviceberry

Remember Euell Gibbons? He was famous as a naturalist and connoisseur of wild foods in the 1960’s. His best known works were the book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and the commercial where he asked “Ever eat a pine tree? You know …some parts are edible.” Well, I made fun of him when I was little, but now I understand that Euell was right. There’s good eating out there—and plenty to munch on in Utah. A word of strong caution for beginning trailside snackers: Take along a professionally written plant guide or preferably a plan expert before chowing down.

If you’re in the mood for something with a bit of a punch, then wild onions are for you. They are found in open meadows especially moist ones. Wild onions feature multiple flowers on a single stalk which create a globe shaped inflorescence. Identification is confirmed by the pungent onion aroma. All parts of the plant are edible: flower, leaves and root.

While difficult to harvest, stinging nettle can be pretty tasty. The stinging nettle has minute hollow hairs filled with formic acid–the same toxin produced by red ants,–which causes a painful, red rash when the plant is touched. Early season nettles have a sweeter taste and the very top of the plant has the tenderest leaves. Pinch leaves firmly between fingers and thumb; this will crush the hairs and prevent any stinging. Saliva neutralizes the effects of the acid, so leaves placed carefully into the mouth won’t sting.

Watercress is sweet yet with an acidic aftertaste. It’s found in moving or still water and has white or pink flowers typical of the mustard family. The peppery leaves are wonderful –it’s great as a snack or on salads with other greens. It is important to rinse off watercress leaves well with clean water before eating to avoid ingesting microorganisms such as giardia.

In late summer and fall you’ll find a number of berries to eat. Eat the tangy purple elderberries as the red ones will make you sick if they aren’t cooked; Thimbleberries resemble raspberries but with more seeds—they taste like raspberries too. The thimbleberry bush is thorny with large five-pointed leaves. Oregon Grape is a low-lying plant recognizable by its yellow flowers and holly-shaped leaves. Its sour berries are edible either raw or cooked—but sweet tooths might want to add sugar. Don’t forget the juicy, purple serviceberry which is common in riparian habitats on moist, wooded hillsides up to alpine elevations.

These are just a few examples of the many edible possibilities out there. Remember to double check with an expert or a reliable guide before eating any plants that are new to you. From all of us at Stokes Nature Center: Bon Appétit!

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy WaterwisePlants.Utah.Gov: http://www.waterwiseplants.utah.gov/default.asp?p=PlantInfo&Plant=313

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Cassey Anderson

Sources & Additional Reading

Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of The West. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Montana, 1997.

Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press, New Mexico, 2003.

The Basic Essentials of Edible Wild Plants and Useful Herbs Jim Meuninick. Globe Pequot Press, Connecticut, 1988.

Jack Greene – Many different educational hikes 2000-2008

Euell Gibbons advertising GrapeNuts, YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_XJMIu18I8Y (accessed July 16, 2008).

Euell Gibbons in the Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. “,” http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/GG/fgi38.html (accessed July 16, 2008).