Botanizing the Neighborhood, part 1
In an attempt to get back to my botany/plant ecology roots, I’ve take several trips to the surrounding areas, mostly the mountain valleys and semi-arid foothills of the Wasatch range, up to about 7,000 ft above sea level. My plant ID skills are a bit rusty, and I’m limited because my only western field guide is for the Rocky Mountains, so it doesn’t actually cover a lot of what we see around here. Still between that book, rambling through the local botanical garden, and what I could find with my iphone I was able to figure out an number of common species.
Gambel oak (Quercus gambelii Nutt.)
This is the only species of oak native to northern Utah (there’s another species in the south, desert portion of the state and they do occasionally hybridize where their ranges meet). It’s a scrubby little oaks that forms large stands across the foothills. Due to cool weather they mostly still don’t have leaves, so I spent days wondering what the masses of gnarly grey trunks were until the first leaves appeared – oak leaves are hard to mistake.
Big sagebrush (Artimisia tridentata Nutt.)
This is the most common sagebrush that dominates much of the landscape, although there are a couple other species (or a number of subspecies, depending on who you’re asking) in the area. They are scrubby, twisted things, about waist high most of the time, with light green, three lobed leaves covered in silky hair that smell fantastic when crushed. Sage brush is not good food for livestock (although some people think that heavy grazing on perennial grasses in sagebrush habitat has helped the sagebrush proliferate more than it had previously), but it is a vital source of food and cover for many birds and small mammals, notably the the sage grouse (Centrocerus spp.) and sagebrush vole (Lemmiscus curtatus Thom.)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana L.)
This is one from back home I really should have known! But I actually didn’t realize that it ranged over most of the country, and western chokecherry looks a little different from eastern (some botanists split them into separate varieties. Chokecherry is found mainly in the valleys around here – I mostly saw it in moister areas, like next to streams (along with our next species), but it’s also an understory plant in forests. It grows from suckers and can have many stems which grow very densely. The fruits are edible to humans, although very sour and are usually sweetened to be used in preserves, jellies, or wine.
Red Osier dogwood (Cornus serica L.)
This is another one from back home, but I recognized it more quickly (although I did have to check the scientific name – been a long time since dendrology). It’s a wetland shrub, but is often planted as an ornamental, particularly in places too damp for other woody plants. Its flowers are small and in clusters, much less showy than its flashier ornamental cousins like C. florida, but it has brightly colored red twigs that make it very attractive in winter time. The mealy white berries are not poisonous, but not particularly edible either. Native peoples mixed them with other berries and dried them for the winter, and some people claim to make jam out of them, but the general consensus seems to be that while they won’t kill you, they are basically unpalatable.
Creeping Oregon-grape (Mahonia repens (Lindl.) G. Don)
This little shrub threw me for a real loop. The leaves look so much like holly, but the flowers were all wrong. I should have looked in Berberidaceae right away, since so many species in that family have tough, prickly leaves, but I got stuck on the holly resemblance and it wasn’t until I found the flowers in my field guide that I got on the right track. Thank God for picture keys. This is a spreading, prostrate shrub found all over the lower foothills in this area. The bright yellow flowers and dark ripe berries are both edible, although the berries are pretty sour and are best picked after a frost (like persimmon). They are usually used once again in thing like jams, jellies, and wines where they can be sweetened.
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza saggitata (Pursh.) Nutt.)
This one is hard to miss – this time of year the hills around here are dotted with clumps of small “sunflowers”. Usually less than two feet tall with a yellow center, and large, silky, arrow shaped leaves, this species is fairly easy to identify. There are a couple closely related species it might be mistaken for, but the leaves are different and they all flower later in the year. This was an important food species for Native Americans, as the young leaves, immature flower stalk, and thick taproot from which it gets its name are all edible (although the root requires extended cooking before consumption).
Star-flowered false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum (L.) Link)
This lovely little plant looks like Solomon’s seal and like lily-of-the-valley, but really is neither. It grows in mountainous woodland habitats throughout western North America, and is often found near creeks or on rock slopes. It’s closely related to regular false Solomon’s seal, but has fewer and more delicate looking flowers. The berries, which are stripy when unripe and then turn deep red, are edible, both raw and cooked, and are said to have a mild flavor (although eating too many of them raw can have serious laxative effects) and the young shoots can be eaten like asparagus. I found this species growing in City Creek Canyon, alongside the chokecherries and red osier dogwoods.
Short-styled bluebell (Mertensia brevistyla S. Watson)
This one I’m not totally sold on, as a number of pictures I found for the species look significantly different (nodding heads and fuzzier, typical of other bluebells) than the one to the left and I can’t find the species in my field guide. However the plant in the picture is definitely the same one I found on my bench hike, and I’m going to trust Teresa Prendusi of the of U.S. Forest Service to make an accurate ID. (it also appeared on a plant list in the Red Butte Garden native area, where I saw a lot of it.) This took me forever to ID, since it wasn’t in my field guide. The square stem made me think it was in the mint family, but the alternate leaves and terminal flowers ruled that out. It’s actually in the related Borage family.
Milkvetch (Astralagus sp.)
I identified a type of milkvetch that looks like this only pinker, although I suspect it’s not field milkvetch (A. agrestis) as my Rocky Mountain field guide suggests. I will have to wait until my more location-specific guides come, and possibly until I have a dissecting kit – vetches hybridize like crazy and are often hard to tell apart at the best of times. Either way, they are pretty much poisonous to man and livestock so just look, don’t munch!
Next up: A mystery plant I need help with!