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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Prairie Spotlight: Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine

Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)

Where to start describing this beautiful gem of the mountains? Deeper blue than Colorado blue columbine, the slightly smaller blooms are held proudly above petit, dark green leaves.

The name saximontana directly translates from the Latin to Rocky Mountain (saxum = rock; montanus = mountain). True—this plant is found nowhere else; it is, in fact, restricted to the high mountains of central Colorado, reaching as far north as Larimer County, our neighbor to the south.

Perhaps a bit ironically, Colorado blue columbine grows all over the Rocky Mountains, from Arizona to Montana.

It's in the Spurs

Only four of the 21 North American species of columbine have hooked spurs like this one, and we have two of them in Wyoming.

Laramie columbine (A. laramiensis; also on the Berry Prairie, but not yet in bloom - shown in graphic below) has very pale blue to white flowers, with hooked spurs. Like Rocky Mountain blue columbine, it has a very limited distribution—the central spine of the Laramie Range.

(Our other hook-spurred species is smallflower columbine (A. brevistyla). It, too, is rare here, though abundant in Alaska and northern Canada.)

Petals or Sepals?

Columbines don’t have as many petals as you might think—half of what you see aren’t petals at all, but sepals. Sepals make up the outermost whorl of a flower, and they are typically green and not very interesting.

In columbines and many of their relatives, the sepals are as showy as (or showier than) the petals. On Rocky Mountain blue columbine, the outer round of deep blue “petals” are the sepals. The true petals grade from the deep blue of the spurs to almost white at their tips.

Pollinator Love

Who, besides humans, is attracted to the spurs? Pollinators, of course! The spurs have nectaries at their bases, forcing long-tongued hawk and sphinx moths to reach far in, coating their faces with pollen to distribute as they speed from flower to another.


So, not only are columbines interesting and beautiful by themselves, they attract other interesting species, which bring other interesting species, and interesting things happen, and …

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, UW Biodiversity Institute

Friday, June 5, 2015

Come Sit a Spell

Come drink your morning coffee on the Berry Prairie.  Or sit down with a sketch book.  Or just soak up some sunshine. 

The Berry Prairie is home to two benches that are just calling your name.  The green roof is open to all (except pets and litterers), any day of the week, pretty much any time. 

Come sit a spell in this rooftop landscape.

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Purple on the Prairie

The green roof continues to bloom like crazy - we are at over 30 species of flowering plants already this year!  The latest bunch of flowers all must have gotten the memo: PURPLE!

Blue Mist Penstemon (Penstemon virens) is a perennial favorite.  Not only is this little one tough as nails, but it also puts out many gorgeous blue/purple flowers.

The Rocky Mountain Iris (Iris missouriensis) is happily blooming in the southmost pocket of green roof. 

This little columbine we are trying to key out still - anyone recognize it?  It's very little (approx. 4 inches tall) and has this deep purple coloring.

The onion (Allium spp) shown below is another alpine cutie blooming on the north side of the green roof, next to the Fleabane.

And last but definitely not least, the Lambert's Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) is adding a punch of purple to the prairie section of the green roof.

You're welcome to take a walk through the Berry Prairie if you're in Laramie!  It's located at the UW Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center, on 10th and Lewis St. 

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

Friday, May 29, 2015

Lots of Lichens

We have a non-plant living on the green roof.  They're very common in Wyoming, but can be quite hidden from first glance.  They look like they could be plants, but they're two entirely different organisms put together.  What are they?  Lichens of course!

Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa, aka tumbleweed shield lichen, is far and away the most abundant lichen in Wyoming. It is unusual in that it is not attached to a substrate (like rock or bark), and it blows about, sometimes accumulating in drifts, especially where vegetation is limited.

Tumbleweed Shield Lichen

In drought years, when plants are not very productive, tumbleweed shield lichen seems really abundant, but likely that’s because it is more visible then. Unfortunately, there have been incidents during drought years when elk have eaten large amounts of the lichen. The organic acids produced by the lichen cause paralysis in elk, so they die of thirst. On the other hand, tumbleweed shield lichen is a favored food of pronghorn, and has long been used as a source of reddish dye and a cure for impetigo by the Navajo.

Lichens are super cool superorganisms! They are really two organisms - a fungus and an alga. Most of what you see is the fungus, but there are photosynthesizing alga cells just below the upper surface.

A cross-section of a lichen

In trade for the moist, sheltered, and nutrient-rich environment that the fungus provides, the alga shares the carbohydrates it makes via photosynthesis with the fungus. Both organisms win! This is a classic example of commensalism, a symbiotic association where both members benefit. And, it is a very successful relationship - there are more than 700 species of lichens in Wyoming, and at least 20,000 worldwide, with new ones discovered all the time.

To paraphrase E. O. Wilson, if you want to discover new species, you should become a lichenologist!

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, UW Biodiversity Institute