Let’s play Name That Tree!

As a botanist, I may be biased, but I think part of the reason most people get more excited about animals than plants is that we grow up with a language for them, an awareness of the details that make each creature unique and therefore worthy of our interest and excitement.  For plants, for many of us, they remain just plants. Or possibly in three categories: flowers, plants and trees. But, as I learned to recognize the details and patterns and relationships that define the plants, plants became more interesting.

Okay, perhaps I loved learning the language of plants because I am a huge nerd. Not perhaps, definitely. But, I do believe that the more people learn about plants and their patterns, the more interested they become. I’ve taken many lucky friends out on hikes where I gush about this little beauty and that cool shrub, and usually, my enthusiasm can rub off just a bit, as they learn a few plants. Our brains are built for patterns and problem solving, learning to identify plants is just one more (fun!) game.

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Introducing Enemy Number 1

Bromus grass carpets a hillside, 3 years after a fire in Nevada's Mojave Desert

Enemy #1 is actually two distinct species of a small, annual grass with Euro-Asian ancestry that have taken over many arid lands in the west. In desert ecosystems characterized by well spaced shrubs and perennials, these invasive grasses can spread into a carpet. This new source of fuel that can carry a wildfire across a landscape where fire is historically rare and enormous fires unheard of. Starting in 2005, enormous wildfires burnt through southern Nevada, fueled in a large part, by these invaders. Allow me to introduce these Bromus Brothers:

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How to build a map

Teakettle Junction, Death Valley NP

Once upon a time, I used to make my living making maps. Not making maps, really, using existing maps to collect data to build better maps. We collected data on the plant communities across national parks, to build vegetation maps that can be used to protect endangered plants, preserve critical habitat for animals, study the effects of climate change, and basically provide a baseline for any kind of ecological research that might be done in the park. I’ve worked on these projects at Denali, Lake Mead, Death Valley, and Mojave National Preserve. The process, at all of them, is pretty similar, although the temperature, scenery, and flora certainly varied. Here’s the story of how my crew mapped the plants across Death Valley National Park.

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Why plants are awesome! (part 1)

This is a post for my sister, Emily, who is currently working at a camp in the mountains, teaching about nature  to Los Angles middle-school kids.  Apparently, she’s having trouble getting them interested in plants.  Luckily, I love plants.  So, this is only the beginning of  my kid-friendly reasons that plants are awesome. In no particular order:

#1 Plants use showy colors, fragrances, and free food to entice insects and birds to help them have sex.  Okay, you can say mate or reproduce if you are worried about the repercussion of talking about sex with 6th graders, but the point remains that when we talk about flowers, we’re talking about sex.  Most plants, rooted to the soil, can’t get up and chase a mate, they can’t decide to mate with the male who sports the best display of tail feathers or the strength to win fights. They are stuck. Which is where the flowers come in.

Can you see the bugs crawling around, drunk on pollen? Beavertail Cactus in bloom. Opuntia basalaris

Plants give away free food, pollen and nectar, because as the pollinators go from flower to flower, they spread the reproductive cells in the pollen around.  Promiscuous sex!  Flowers have evolved for the pollinators they want.  Specific smells, colors, and shapes, all attract specific pollinators.  This specificity matters, because, from a plant’s perspective, they don’t just want to spread themselves out every which way.   Continue reading