The Passion of Penstemaniacs

White River beardtongue Penstemon albifluvis Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, Photographer
White River beardtongue
Penstemon albifluvis
Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, Photographer
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.

Robert Fitts hunting penstemons in the Unitas Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Robert Fitts
hunting penstemons
in the Unitas
Courtesy and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
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.”

Graham's beardtongue Penstemon grahamii Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Graham’s beardtongue
Penstemon grahamii
Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
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.

Wasatch Penstemon and the start of Firecracker Penstemon in photographer's water-wise backyard landscape Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards, Photographer
Wasatch Penstemon and the start of Firecracker Penstemon in photographer’s water-wise backyard landscape
Courtesy & Copyright Dr Tom Edwards, Photographer
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.

Graham's beardtongue Penstemon grahamii In Uinta Shale Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
Graham’s beardtongue
Penstemon grahamii
In Uinta Shale
Courtsey and Copyright Robert Fitts, photographer
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.

Credits:
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

Sources & Additional Reading

American Penstemon Society: http://penstemons.org/

Utah Native Plant Society: http://www.unps.org/index.html

Loyola, Deena, Penstemon Conservation Agreement Finalized, Trust Lands Administration, State of Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, Aug 6, 2014, https://trustlands.utah.gov/penstemon-conservation-agreement-finalized/

Graham’s and White River Beartongues, Species, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Mountain-Prairie Region, https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/plants/2utahbeardtongues/

Penstemon grahamii D.D. Keck, Uinta Basin beardtongue, Plants Database, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=PEGR6

Wild Roots

Nineleaf Biscuitroot, Lomatium triternatum Courtesy USDA, Susan McDougall, Photographer
Nineleaf Biscuitroot, Lomatium triternatum
Courtesy USDA, Susan McDougall, Photographer
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.

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Brittany Hunter, Horticulturist, USU

Sources & Additional Reading

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

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: