Botanizing the Neighborhood, part 2
So I finally have some locally relevant field guides, although I may still need to get more because what I have is very focused on flowers and not as technical as I would prefer. And I struck gold at the library – a copy of “A Utah Flora”, the definitive guide to plant life in Utah, a real heavy-duty botany manual that I’ve been drooling over on Amazon for a month. But it’s $202 there. I wonder how many times the library will let me renew one book…
In any case, I’ve been having a lot of fun learning more of the plants around here, so I thought I would share another batch. First up we have some real nasty pieces of work who don’t belong in Utah at all.
This alien-looking plant is myrtle spurge (Euphorbia myrsinites), also known as donkey-tail or creeping spurge. As you can see, the succulent leaves grow in a spiral around the stem. The flowers themselves aren’t much to look at but the bracts around them turn bright yellow (the same way the colored leaves of a poinsettia do). For reasons beyond my understanding it’s a popular ornamental in many places, including here (where people are obsessed with their front gardens). Probably because it’s highly tolerant of dry conditions and vaguely attractive all year round. The problem is, it doesn’t stay in the garden. The same things that make it valuable as a plant for xeriscaping also makes it an ideal weed in Utah. It has escaped into the foothills and quickly taken over large swaths of land. It is currently on the state list of noxious weeds and is probably the “most wanted” invasive offender we have at the moment. It should not be planted in gardens, as it will get out. If you see it anywhere, remove it. But be careful – not only is it destructive and poisonous to eat, but the sap can irritate eyes and cause chemical burns to the skin so wear gloves and goggles before you tangle with it!
Another foothill weed in danger of taking over around this joint is Melilotus officinalis, also known as yellow sweet clover. This one is actually kind of pretty, and doesn’t stick out like as much of a sore thumb as the spurge, given all the native pea family species we have around here. But it still doesn’t belong here and is edging out our lupines and vetches that do belong. It’s got bright yellow flowers in a raceme and typical clover-type leaves. This one is an agricultural stray – it’s grown for hay for cattle and as green manure but the seeds are easily scattered to the winds. It’s an interesting choice for cattle food, as if it’s not properly dried and gets mouldy in storage it produces a toxin which causes internal bleeding and death in those same cattle. In fact, that toxin is extracted commercially from the species for rat poison! Not really something I want growing in my nature preserve (even if plenty of our native plants are just as toxic – at least they evolved here!)
Lastly in the bad boy category we have Dalmation toadflax (Linaria dalmatica). What is it with yellow and invasive plants? I’m gonna start thinking every yellow flower I see is a weed – and that would just be sad! Anyway, this plant actually looks a little bit like spurge before they both flower – it has a very upright stem with sessile leaves in somewhat of a spiral arrangement grasping it. They had me confused for awhile But as it gets closer to flowering it starts to branch and form flowers at the leaf axils – clearly pea flowers. The flowers have a very long spur on the bottom which distinguishes them from other pea relatives around here and are, of course, bright lemon yellow. It too enjoys open, sunny areas like we find in our sagebrush foothills and montane habitats where we should be seeing lupine, sunflowers, and native vetches. This is another escaped ornamental, although it’s haphazard branching is a little scraggly and screams “weed” to me. It’s mildly toxic if you eat it, but mostly its crime is, like the clover above, crowding out the natives.
Okay, onto some lovelies! My new favorite genus is Penstemon. Now, this is a large genus with representatives in North America and Asia, but there are a fair number of native Utah Penstemon species, which are beautiful blooming perennials found in the deserts, foothills, and woodlands of the state. If you want to grow something as an ornamental, grow these! Here are three that I’ve learned to recognize so far (all three I saw in Arches National Park, but they have been known to grow up here as well).
From left to right we have P. eatonii, P. palmeri, and P. utahensis, known commonly as firecracker penstemon, pink wild snapdragon or scented penstemon, and Utah penstemon, respectively. All Penstemons share some traits – they are generally upright, with opposite leaves that usually clasp the stem (sometimes to the point of surrounding the stem, as in P. palmeri). The have tubular, two lipped flowers and although the dimensions may vary, they nearly always have three lobes on the bottom lip and a haiyr, curling, infertile staminode in the mouth of the corolla which gives them the common name “beard tongue”. P. eatonii has one of the longest, narrowest tubes with the least flare at the end, and is usually bright orange-red. P. utahensis is similiar but with a bit more flare of the tube lips and tends to be a more purply red with slightly larger flowers. P. palmeri can be recognized by it’s large size, sweet smell, distinctive flower shape, and the leaves that completely surround the lower stem.
Finally, a yellow native flower! Last time I brought you Balsamorhiza sagittata, our early spring blooming “sunflower” with the fuzzy arrow-shaped leaves. Well, that is done blooming now, and we’re starting to see another sunflower that at first glance looks just like it. Wyethia amplexicaulis, northern mule’s ears. Closely related it begins blooming just as arrow-leaved balsam root finishes it’s show. It is a bit taller than it’s cousin, and the flowers have smaller centers, and longer and more slender ray flowers – and fewer of them. But the most obvious difference to the naked eye is the leaves. Instead of soft and fuzzy arrow-shaped leaves, northern mule’s ears have dark green, glossy, elliptic leaves tapering to a point. They tend to grow rhizomatously in small stands and they help keep the sunflower show going on through the summer here!
Last but not least is a dainty little flower I spotted on a hike up Bell’s Canyon this weekend. Small-flowered woodlandstar (Lithophragma parviflorum) is aptly named. These little, delicate blooms with feathered petals grow straight up on slender stalks, one to three each (although they can have as many as 14 flowers per stalk), and dotted the mid-elevation moist meadows just like stars. I find them completely enchanting. The basal leaves are small, a little scraggly, and deeply, unevenly, palmately lobed, bearing a little resemblance to some carrot family relative (which it’s not – it’s in the saxifrage family). They can be found in any number of open habitats, from montane to sagebrush desert to prairie, but they do seem most at home in woodland clearings. They don’t tend to form stands but rather dot a large area with a couple plants here and a couple there, so they are a constant, understated presence.