2013 Desert Wildflower Forecast

Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Claret cup cactus in bloom
Arches National Park
Echinocereus triglochidiatus
var. melancanthus
Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert, Photographer

Hi, I’m Holly Strand.

It’s showtime for desert wildflowers in CA, AZ and NM. But in Utah’s deserts think April or May. Within those months the exact timing, type and quantity of blooms are highly variable. Flowering depends upon the pattern of precipitation from fall onward and on spring temperatures, sunlight and elevation. And of course, on the specific ecological requirements of each particular plant.

Annuals are plentiful in the desert. Annual plants germinate, grow, flower, set seed and die all within one season—often in the spring. To avoid water stress—some annuals will start their life cycle only when there is significant moisture. If it’s dry, they may stay in seed form waiting for better conditions. Likewise, many perennials—plants that live more than 2 years—can remain below ground as dormant bulbs, corms or roots. But when conditions are right, these water stress avoiders –both annuals and perennials–will flourish. When this happens we call it a “good year” for wildflowers.

I couldn’t find a wildflower hotline for Utah—so I called different parks representing Utah’s 3 different desert regions to get a flower forecast for 2013.

Nothing much is happening yet on the Colorado Plateau in and around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. It’s been pretty cold according to staff ranger Sharon Brussell. So the appearance of spring flowers is somewhat delayed. But in April we can expect to see evening primrose, twinpods and milk vetches. And in late April-early May, Princes’ plume, globemallow and yucca. The scarlet blooms of claret cup cactus will follow. If you miss what you are looking for in Arches or the Needles district, just go higher to Islands in the Sky, adds Nathaniel Clark of the Canyonlands National Park. Here–because of the elevation–flowering of similar species occurs 2-4 weeks later.

Snow Canyon is in the Mojave Desert region. Park Manager Kristen Comella told me that this is likely to be a typical year for wildflowers. Spectacled pod and lotus vetch are already out. Soon we’ll see bright yellow flowers of the Mojave’s signature creosote bush, and the deep purple flowers of indigo bush. Prickly pear and Utah yucca will soon follow. If you want to see early spring blooms on Joshua trees, go south on old highway 91 from Gunlock to see Utah’s one and only Joshua Tree forest.

To find out what’s happening in the Great Basin I spoke with Ben Roberts at Nevada’s Great Basin National Park. He says there has been a bit less precipitation than normal but it should still be an OK year for flowers. So far he’s only spotted one — Nevada lomatium. This brave little plant blooms even when there is snow still lying around. From a distance you might even think the low-lying white flowers are a patch of snow. In April desert paintbrush will appear, as will arrow-leaf balsamroot and purple sage. Wild iris, blue flax and prickly pear will follow in May.

For sources and pictures and suggestions for good desert wildflower hikes go to www.wildaboututah.org

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand.

Image: Courtesy NPS, Arches National Park, Neal Herbert, Photographer
Text: Holly Strand

Recommended hikes for viewing wildflowers

Great Basin National Park (Great Basin)
Baker Creek Trail
Lehman Creek Trail
Pole Canyon Trail

Arches National Park (Colorado Plateau)
Primitive Loop

Canyonlands National Park (Colorado Plateau)
Neck Spring Trail—Islands in the Sky

Snow Canyon State Park (Mojave Desert)
Hidden Canyon
Whiptail Trails

Sources & Additional Reading

Arches Flower Guide (by color, month, name and keys)http://www.nps.gov/arch/naturescience/flowerguide.htm 

Comstock, J. and J. Ehrlinger 1992. Plant adaptations in the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau. Great Basin Naturalist. Vol. 52. No. 3

Fertig, Walter. 2010. Utah’s Mojave Desert Flora. Sego Lily, newsletter of the Utah Native Plant Society. Vol. 33, No. 2. http://www.unps.org/segolily/Sego2010MarApr.pdf

McMahon, James. 1985. Deserts (National Audubon Society Nature Guides) NY: Alfred A. Knopf http://www.amazon.com/Deserts-National-Audubon-Society-Nature/dp/0394731395

Williams, David. 2000. A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country. A Falcon Guide. Helena MT. Published in cooperation with Canyonlands Natural History Association.http://www.amazon.com/Naturalists-Guide-Canyon-Country-Williams/dp/1560447834 

Grow Native!

Fire ChaliceCopyright 2010 Annalisa Paul
Stokes Nature Center

With the beginning of summer at our doorstep, many of us look out over our green grass yards and dread the coming heat that will endeavor to turn it brown and stale. One might begin to ponder if there is an alternative to these plants that fill our yards and demand so much of our water. In fact, there is.

Utah may be a desert, but not one naturally devoid of vegetation. Many plants have evolved to live within the bounds of the climate, insect pests, microbes and soil types specific to our region. Once established, many native plants need minimal irrigation beyond normal rainfall. And because they have coexisted for eons, natives have developed their own defenses against many pests and diseases, resulting in minimal pesticide use.

Backyards, gardens, parks, and roadsides planted with native plants also provide wildlife with a “bridge” to the natural areas that remain, interspersed among our heavily developed communities. As the cornerstone of biological diversity, native plants also do the best job of providing food and shelter for our local animals. Ready to get planting? Here are two natives that would be easy, attractive, and low-maintenance additions to many Utah yards or gardens.

Littleleaf Mock Orange is a compact shrub which produces clusters of wonderfully fragrant white blossoms. In the wilds of Utah, it is often found growing in rock crevices and dry, gravelly areas, so it will likely do well in those bare, difficult parts of your yard. It is browsed by mule deer and also provides shelter for native birds.

Little leaf Mock Orange
Philadelphus microphyllus
Image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Photographer: Stan Shebs

Fire Chalice, alternately known as hummingbird flower, is a low-profile plant with bright red tube-shaped flowers. The plant’s nectar is irresistible to hummingbirds and can help attract a number of native pollinators to your yard.

As with all plants, the right native must be matched with the right spot. Thankfully, there are native plants that thrive in every habitat imaginable. And the best thing is, natives include all different types of plants from mosses and ferns to wildflowers, shrubs and trees. A little bit of research should help you find the best species for your hot, dry slope, that wet swale in the back, or the dry shade under your trees.

For those interested in learning more, the Alterniscapes Garden Tour on June 25 provides an opportunity to view gardens in Millville, Nibley and Providence that feature water-wise and native plants. For more information on native plants or the Alterniscapes Tour, please visit us online at www.wildaboututah.org.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.


Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Annalisa Paul, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org
Courtesy & Copyright: Intermountain Native Plant Growers Association, inpga.org
Little leaf Mock Orange image licensed under the
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Photographer: Stan Shebs
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org
For more information about the upcoming Alternascapes Garden Tour:
Cache Master Gardeners, Alternascapes Garden Tour, Saturday, Jun 25 – 11:00AM to 4:00PM, http://extension.usu.edu/cache/files/uploads/Alterniscapes%20Handout%20Bi-fold%20for%20Web.pdf

For more information about Utah’s native plants:

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

Utah Master Gardeners: https://extension.usu.edu/mastergardener/
Additional Reading:

United States Department of Agriculture, Plants Profile: Littleleaf Mock Orange. Found online at: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=PHMI4

United States Department of Agriculture, Plants Profile: Garrett’s Fire Chalice. Found online at: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=EPCAG


Steershead & Turkeypeas

Steershead, Dicentra uniflora
Image Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane

There is surprise and joy when discovering a flower peeking up at you from near the lingering snow. Long after winter weary eyes have devoured the early floral offerings of gardens here in the valley, our local natives are stirring higher up. As you wander thru mountain sagebrush and meadows, you may encounter scattered groups of two native wildflowers, Steershead and Turkeypeas. Both are a delight to the eyes, but difficult to find initially, as their diminutive nature keeps them hidden amid the surrounding plant litter.

Steershead, or Dicentra uniflora, lives up to its common name. A close cousin to the bleeding heart, it has four white to pinkish petals tinged light brown to purple, two of which are spurred. The longer pair bend back, while the shorter pair are fused at the tip, providing the “cow skull” appearance of the flower. Diminutive plants, they send forth leaves and a single flower from thickened, spindle-shaped tubers. Just a few inches tall, this small plant packs a lot of charm and a bit of poison for protection against plant eaters. Steershead occurrs singly or in small clusters, so it is easily overlooked.

Turkeypea, Orogenia linearifolia
Courtesy & Copyright Intermountain Herbarium
Mary Barkworth, Photographer

Turkeypeas, Indian potato or Orogenia linearifolia, on the other hand, grows in extensive colonies, making this 4 inch tall plant a bit easier to find. A member of the carrot family, Turkeypeas produces very small whiteish flowers in umbels atop a short stem. Arising from a fleshy tuber, the leaves are divided into long linear segments (hence the name ‘linearifolia’). The starchy root is edible, though small, and historically was collected in large numbers by indigenous peoples in the spring. The tubers are avidly sought by squirrels.

So as the snow melts off the hillsides, look for these little darlings. Found only here in Western North America, I’m sure they will charm you as well.

Pictures and links are available on our wild about utah website. Thanks to Michael Piep of the Intermountain Herbarium and Utah Native Plant Society.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane
Courtesy & Copyright Intermountain Herbarium, Mary E. Barkworth, Photographer
Text: Michael Piep, Utah Native Plant Society/ Intermountain Herbarium

Additional Reading:

Intermountain Herbarium: http://herbarium.usu.edu/
Encyclopedia of Life: http://www.eol.org/pages/596191
USU Extension: http://extension.usu.edu/files/publications/publication/HG_506.pdf

Anderson, B.A & A.H. Holmgren 1996, revised. Mountain Plants of Northeastern Utah. USU Extension Services. Logan, Utah.

Shaw, R.J. 1989. Vascular Plants of Northern Utah. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah.

Shaw, R.J. 1995. Utah Wildflowers. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah.

Welsh, S.L., N D. Atwood, S Goodrich & L.C. Higgins. 2008. A Utah Flora, 4th Ed. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah. http://www.amazon.com/Utah-Flora-Stanley-L-Welsh/dp/0842525564

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.


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.