Thursday, September 29, 2016

Botanizing on the Modoc Plateau

I mentioned that there would be a short series of geology posts coming up, but I can't seem to help myself: the plant life of Lava Beds National Monument is too enticing.  So first, before I get to the volcanoes, I will return to my first love: botany. 

Trail to Big Painted Cave & Symbol Bridge, Lava Beds National Monument.  It may look deserty and
uninviting to some people, but to me, it's a beautiful landscape, rich in diversity!

Actually, botany is my second love; my first will always be zoology.  As a biology major with a zoology concentration, my very first science class in college was Introduction to Botany.  It didn't make too much sense at the time, but it didn't matter because I fell in love.  Throughout my college career, I took more botany and "plant classes" than any other subject.  So you'll have to bear with me: this blog will gravitate toward plants frequently.

According to botanists using Jepson's ecoregions of California, Lava Beds National Monument is located in the Great Basin province of the Modoc Plateau region.  Geologists also agree that the region is unique, classifying it as the Modoc Plateau geomorphic province.

View from our campsite, looking east over the Modoc Plateau. 
The dark trees are Western Junipers (Juniperus occidentalis).

The World Wildlife Fund defines an ecoregion as a "large unit of land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions".  Similarly, a geomorphic province (or geologic province) is defined as a region with distinct landforms and geologic formations with a unique geologic history; often fault zones separate these regions.  As you might guess, the two methods end up dividing California into very similar chunks, based on different attributes (which are actually very much related.)  My point is, either way you approach the Modoc Plateau, whether from a ecological or geological perspective, the region is unique and beautiful, with a very special assemblage of both geologic features and plants.

But back to the task at hand:

A brief inventory of a few of the common plants found at Lava Beds National Monument, in Northern California on the Modoc Plateau.

Buckwheat (Sulphur Flower)  Eriogonum umbellatum polyanthum

Lava Beds National Monument supports seven species of Buckwheat in the genus Eriogonum.  This species, also called Sulphur Flower or Sulphur Eriogonum, is quite common in rocky mountainous regions of Pacific States.  The bloom period for the bright sulphur-yellow flowers is June through August.  I took this photo in late September, after the dried flower heads had developed a more golden hue and papery texture.

Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia)

The Desert Paintbrush (Castilleja linariifolia) is associated with the sagebrush scrub, pinyon-juniper woodland, and Joshua Tree woodland plant communities of California.  It's bloom period is from June through September.  Like other members of the Castilleja genus (such as the familiar "Indian Paintbrush"), the Desert Paintbrush is hemiparasitic, meaning it absorbs some of its water and nutrients through haustorial connections with the roots of its host plant.  Specialized absorptive organs, called haustoria, invade the root system of the host, drawing a portion of water and nutrients from the host plant.  Paintbrushes produce the rest of their food through autonomous photosynthesis.  Here, the paintbrush was growing intertwined in a sagebrush (Artemisia sp.).

Flowers of Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa speciosa)
Rubber Rabbitbrush at Lava Beds National Monument

Rubber Rabbitbrush (Ericameria nauseosa speciosa) is a member of the aster or sunflower family, Asteraceae, and is commonly found in arid regions of the west, often growing alongside sagebrush (Artemisia sp.) and thriving in poor, alkaline soil.  Brilliant yellow flowers bloom from July through October, providing splashes of "fall color" to our arid western landscape.  More importantly, the flowers provide a valuable source of pollen for insects late in the season, after other flowers have faded.


Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) growing among basaltic lava flows, east of Mount Shasta.
Leaves of Artemisia tridentata

I didn't take a very good photo of Common Sagebrush, or Big Sagebrush, because it is just that - common.  I've already mentioned it a few times in this post.  I am guilty of overlooking this ubiquitous gray plant on more than one occasion, even though it has great value, and even has its own plant community named after it (sagebrush scrub).  Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) is found throughout the intermountain west, and in California can be found in dry regions of the Sierra Nevada, Central Valley, Coast Range, mountains of Southern California, the Great Basin and Mojave Desert.  It is a member of the aster or sunflower family, Asteraceae.  In July and August, Common Sagebrush demands the attention of passersby as well as pollinators with bright yellow flowers.

Rose-like flowers of Desert Sweet (Chamaebatiaria millefolium)
Ferny foliage of Desert Sweet, also known as Fern Bush
Desert Sweet, with dried flower spires, growing among a basaltic lava flow at Lava Beds National Monument.

Desert Sweet, or Fern Bush, (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) reminds me at first glance of a taller cousin of Mountain Misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa), and they are both in the same family, Rosaceae, the rose family.  Desert Sweet generally grows to the east of the Sierra Nevada and Cascades, in the Great Basin province.  It grows in association with sagebrush scrub and pinyon-juniper woodlands, and in July and August produces lovely little white rose-like flowers.  Most of the flowers had turned a dry reddish-tan color by late September, but a few were still blooming.  The dried flower stalks of Desert Sweet caught my eye right away, as they lent an interesting textural element to the early fall landscape at Lava Beds.

Foliage of Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata)
Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) at Lava Beds National Monument

Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) is a common shrub east of the Sierra-Cascade crest and in the Great Basin, found in arid habitats in association with sagebrush scrub, yellow pine forest, and juniper woodland.  Antelope Bitterbrush blooms quite early in the season, in February and March, producing creamy rose-like flowers that give away its family ties: it also belongs in the rose family, Rosaceae.  The roots of Antelope Bitterbrush fix nitrogen in the soil, and its leaves and branches provide valuable forage for wildlife.

Foliage of Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius)
Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany, in tree form, growing in a basaltic lava flow.

Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) is a third member of the family Rosaceae found on the Modoc Plateau.  It can be a shrub or small tree, growing between 3 and 30 feet in height.  In California, Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany can be found between 3,000 and 9,000 feet in elevation, growing in all of the major mountain ranges except the central coastal range.  It grows in association with sagebrush scrub, pinyon-juniper woodland and yellow pine forest, as well as at higher elevations with red fir and lodgepole forests.  Curl Leaf Mountain Mahogany provides valuable forage for wildlife.

Foliage of Wax Current (Ribes cereum)
Wax Current at Lava Beds.

Wax Current (Ribes cereum) is one of four member of the genus Ribes found in Lava Beds National Monument.  Wax current grows in dry, open habitats in California, associated with pinyon-juniper woodlands and yellow pine forests, among others, and ranges into the Great Basin.  It is a member of the gooseberry family, Grossulariaceae. 

Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis)
Bark of Western Juniper
Berry-like cones of Western Juniper

Western Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) is a short tree, up to 30 feet tall, and a member of the cypress family, Cupressaceae.  Western Juniper is often found growing in a transitional zone between sagebrush flats and pine forests, typically scattered amongst sagebrush scrub.  In most of its range in northeastern California, it grows on soils derived from volcanic rock, such as the vast basalt flows of Lava Beds National Monument.  The berry-like cones are an important source of winter food for birds and rodents, and the bark is appealing to deer and elk, as well as some small mammals.

If you read this far, you've learned about a good handful of common plant species found on the Modoc Plateau, and should have gotten some idea of the biodiversity found in the northeastern part of California.  The Modoc Plateau, specifically the Lava Beds area, is not a barren high desert region with little life; it is a beautiful and thriving ecosystem.  

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