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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Seasonal Senescence

"Winter!  Thou art e'er the grand finale,
Bringing death to all the fickle folly,
Of thy fair, but transient sisters.
List their requiem, the wind-wailed whispers.

All browned now and withered lie the leaves,
Gone are the circling swallows from the eaves;
The cheery summer scenes and sounds are past,
Winter reigneth supreme and rides the blast."

-"Winter" from Prairie Poems and Others by F.D. Dibble

Laramie's scene now involves snow and chilly breezes, and the Berry Prairie shows that well.  Now under an inch of snow, the plants are hunkering down for winter.  Following their cues, the Berry Prairie blog writers will take their senescence now too, until the new leaves pop up in spring.

Winter Projects
A couple of prairie-related projects we'll be working on this winter:

1. Weather: You'll see in the photo below that we have installed a weather station on the green roof, which monitors temperature, pressure, humidity, wind speeds, precipitation, dew point, and more.  

That information is routed to a receiver inside the building, which retains all of that data and allows the user (ahem, the people in the Berry Center) to download the information to a computer where we can analyze and share the trends and current conditions.  

2.  Propagation: Karen Panter (you remember her, right?  She's a UW faculty member who propagated a number of the commercially unavailable plants that we installed in the prairie) will be raising a number of seedlings again this winter.  She's focusing on those that didn't grow well last winter/spring, and those that weren't quite ready to be installed this summer. 

The green roof is still open for interested folks to visit, though it's not quite as interesting with most of the plants covered up with snow.  

Have a great winter, see you in the spring!

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Friday, October 14, 2011

Biodiversity Scavenger Hunt

If you're in Laramie and are looking for a fun, family activity today and this weekend, check out the Berry Center's UW Biodiversity Scavenger Hunt!  There are nine questions and clues that will lead you all over the main part of campus where you'll discover some surprising and fascinating biodiversity tidbits.  

How to Scavenge: 

Wander around campus today (you need to visit some of the locales during business hours today - see the clue sheet for more information) and tomorrow to find the answers.

Once you've completed as many questions as you can, submit your answers online.

The Prizes:
The three individuals or groups (you can work in groups of no more than three people) with the most correct answers will win a ticket per person to one of the following locations (winner chooses):
  1. Denver Zoo (rawr!)
  2. Denver Museum of Nature and Science (best museum ever!)
  3. Denver Botanic Gardens (purdy!)

Email or call 307-766-6240 or stop in Berry Center 231 with any questions.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Snow Falling on Sedums

October 7 marked Laramie's first day of winter.  Not according to the calendar of course, but according to the weather.  And while it was a surprise to wake up on Saturday morning to three inches of snow, I'm sure the plants in the Berry Prairie were even more confused.  (Or maybe not... do they know more than we do?  Could they sense the snow?  Watch the next episode of the Twilight Zone to find out...)

The Berry Prairie was covered with snow on Monday morning.

But in any case, the snow on the Berry Prairie exemplifies one of the questions we have about how this green roof will over winter.  See the photograph above.  There is at least an inch of snow covering those plants, which is 1) maybe good for the plants (insulation for the winter, water supply, erosion protection, etc.), and 2) strange, considering most of the snow elsewhere had melted by Monday morning.

The roof over the Vertebrate Collection extends precisely to that line of snow-no snow boundary.
Monday, October 10

As you see in the photo above, the snow that is above the Vertebrate Collection, including the Berry Prairie and the patio directly south of it, hadn't melted even though snow on the rest of the true ground had. 

Is that a good or bad thing?  How will it influence plant survival over the winter?  Will there be other effects from the roof, light heating from below that causes the plants to not freeze over the winter?

What are your guesses?  Any thoughts on how snow piling and this roof-top environment will fare?

By now, much of the snow is turned to usable precipitation for the plants.  But that was just the first of many snowfalls this winter.  Stay tuned!

Most of the snow has melted by Tuesday morning.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Friday, October 7, 2011

Nomenclatural Frustration

Agropyron molle, Agropyron smithii, Agropyron smithii var. molle, Agropyron smithii var. palmeri, Elymus smithii, Elytrigia smithii, Elytrigia smithii var. mollis and Pascopyrum smithii are all names for western wheatgrass. Is this a mess, or what? We’ve all heard the argument that scientific names are preferable to common names because they are unambiguous and understood all around the world, but clearly this is not always true.

Of course, I’ve deliberately chosen an exceptionally messy example, but gardeners and botanists have all experience an inconvenient name change in a favorite plant. (Should pasque flower be Anemone or Pulsatilla? Is pincushion cactus Coryphantha or Escobaria?) Why can’t scientists make up their minds and settle on a single name? The answer: that is not the nature of science.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of
scientific nomenclature
Taxonomists, like all good scientists, adjust their hypotheses and conclusions when new evidence becomes available, and in the last decades a wealth of new evidence has become available. Since the time of Linnaeus (1707-1778), characteristics of the sex organs of flowers have been the most important features used in taxonomy, so that plants with similar flowers were placed into the same group. Linnaeus’s goal of organization, however, is not the goal of contemporary taxonomists. Now, we strive to organize plants into “natural groups,” groups that reflect common ancestry, not morphological similarity (though that can be a valuable clue).

In the last 30 years, many mysteries of molecular evolution have been at least partially resolved. Complex algorithms and DNA sequencing have made it possible to propose new taxonomic categories that more closely reflect our understanding of evolutionary patterns of both genotypes and phenotypes, and this has led to the rearrangement of groups and consequent necessary name changes. These changes have occurred at all taxonomic levels, from phylum down to subspecies, but are most noticeable when genus or species names are changed. Don’t be annoyed—think of it as progress and be glad that some botanist likes your favorite plants enough to work on them. Besides, since taxonomists don’t all agree on which algorithm is best, or on which DNA sequence most reliably represents evolution of the group, and new algorithms and genes are proposed, we can expect the changes to keep on happening.

Western wheatgrass

So, which name for western wheat grass is best? That depends on just which characteristic you think is most important in discriminating among species in the complex group that includes western wheat grass. In this case, the best name might just be the common one—we all agree on that one.

Written by Dorothy Tuthill—who used to be known by a different name

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Cities as Bee Meccas

The BBC published an article in early August with an intriguing spin on pollinator conservation: bring them into the cities!  The UK-based research/survey project is trying to determine how many and what kinds of pollinators use urban gardens as their food and shelter oasis.  What do you think - a reasonable idea?

Click here to read the article.

Byson, a student who visited the Berry Center this summer with the Children's Discovery Center in Cheyenne, made friends with a bumblebee who landed on his finger.  Read about their visit here.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Sun-Diet for Plants?

Harebells were the first plant
to bloom this summer, and the last
plant to bloom this fall.
Plants are shutting down now, as we approach the end of the growing season.  Thanks to the uncharacteristically warm weather in Laramie the past couple of weeks, grasses are still holding their seeds and harebells, which are the most persistent and stubborn bloomers I've ever seen (I'm half-way convinced they'll still bloom in the dead of winter), are still pushing out new flowers.

Sun-Hungry Plants?
But here's a little food for thought, now that we've moved from the season of greens to the season of oranges and reds.  The Berry Prairie is sandwiched between the Geology building (to the east, or the left in the picture below) and the Berry Center to the west.  With our shorter days, enhanced by the shade from these buildings, the Berry Prairie receives full sunlight from approximately 11:00am to 3:30pm - and it'll be this way in the spring too.  In comparison, plants that are on the actual prairies outside of Laramie receive full sun from about 6:30am to 7:00pm this time of year.  Horticulturalists define "full sun" as 6 hours of direct sunlight, which the Berry Prairie currently doesn't receive.

At the end of June, the green roof was entirely sunny at 9:30am.
In the beginning of October, the green roof is entirely shaded at 9:30am.

So what will happen to the plants on the green roof, which have evolved to soak up twice the insolation they currently get?  It's like the plants are on a sun-diet, the vegetative version of Atkins.  Will they notice the reduction in this vital resource?  How could they not?  How will they react as a result?  

Any guesses?

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A Better Understanding of Biodiversity

What do we know about the Berry Prairie? We know it is unique, we know that it is beautiful and we know that there are over 60 native plant species that now call it home. But it is not so much what we know about the Berry Prairie that makes it the unique and beautiful landscape that it is, however, what we do not know. 

For example: We do not know how the substrate we planted in will evolve. We do not know how the plants (all 60+ species) will survive or which species will recede or begin to dominate the landscape. We do not know what kind of animals (vertebrate and invertebrates) will inhabit this new, native-urban environment…. We don’t know…. But we will!

As grad student in Botany/Berry Center, I have spent the last couple of weeks accumulating the base line data that will spring board us toward our understanding of just how unique and just how successful this project will be.  On hands and knees, through rain and shine, through wind and cold I have gracefully (and not so gracefully) crawled my way through the Prairie getting to ‘know’ it up close and personal. 

Through stratified random sampling, a common approach to vegetation ecology, I have surveyed over 1400 individual plants and over 30% of the total area of the Prairie to assess above ground biomass and percent cover in order to establish a foundation of data that will be used in correlation with substrate samples, weather and precipitation data and assessment of animal diversity to help define what we will come know about the Berry Prairie.

Although it is getting late in the year I am excited to report that during sampling I saw a number of amazing flowering plants Campanula, Clematis, Erigeron spp. A vast array of grasses gone to seed Poa, Bouteloua and Sporobolus spp. and a number of invertebrates from true bugs (Hemiptera) and Lady Bugs (Coccinellidae) to bees (Hymenoptera) and bee flies (Bombyliidae) and a number of arachnids. Already, in these short months since planting, we are seeing success in survivability and biodiversity on our Berry Prairie and I as well as we look forward to what the Spring brings to our unique prairie landscape.

Written by Kyle Bolenbaugh, Botany/Berry Center graduate student

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Lookin' for Lichens

Penstemon and lichens in front of the Berry Center.
This is one of our favorite pictures of the Berry Center, because of the Penstemon blooming so prettily in front of the building. But, to the careful observer, the Penstemon is only a minor character in the picture—most of the biodiversity is comprised of lichens. Elegant in their colorful bodies and reproductive structures, and admirable for their tenacity in harsh conditions, lichens are truly unique among living organisms because they are formed through the union of two, very unrelated kinds of organisms. 

What's a Lichen?
Most of what we see in a lichen is the fungus body, which is capable of forming a strong attachment to the substrate and absorbing moisture from rain, fog, or melting snow. Lichen fungi are capable of producing a remarkable array of chemicals, some of which can break down rock (with important ecological implications), give muted or vibrant colors to the lichen, or protect the lichens from herbivory (more on that in a bit). 

But one thing that fungi cannot do, is produce their own food. Like all heterotrophs, fungi must digest organic molecules to get energy and building materials for growth, but they are especially clever at it. Instead of ingesting large particles, then digesting internally, fungi secrete digestive enzymes, then absorb small molecules through their cell membranes. 

Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa nestled among grasses and
forbs in the Laramie Basin.
Which leads to the obvious question: What are they digesting on a rock? These clever fungi are actually keeping their food source inside their bodies—in pockets or layers within the lichen, there are green algae happily (we suppose) photosynthesizing away, and making food for themselves and the fungus. What does the alga get out of the arrangement? A cozy home, attached to the substrate, protected from UV radiation, and more humid that the external environment. 

This arrangement between fungi and algae has been very successful—at least for the fungi. There are approximately 30,000 species of fungi that form lichens, and none of them can be found as free-living fungi. In contrast, only a few hundred kinds of algae (and a few species of cyanobacteria) participate in lichen alliances, and all of them can live on their own, though generally in much more moderate and moist habitats.

Berry Prairie lichen rock.  This rock has eight species
of lichens growing on it
All of this has been a long digression (on a favorite subject of mine), but now it’s time to bring in the Berry Prairie. Are there lichens on the Berry Prairie? Not many, to be sure. In fact, only on a couple of the imported rocks. But lichens are an important component of the native prairie, so we will be watching for them. How will they get here? The commonest of the prairie species is not attached to a substrate at all, so it could blow into the Berry Prairie.

The Black Sheep of the Lichen Family
Xanthoparmelia chlorochroa (aka tumbleweed shield lichen) is called a vagrant, because of it unsettled lifestyle. It can be found all over the Laramie basin, as well as most of the interior west, and is most easy to see where grass cover is low. It’s especially easy to find after a rain, when the body is swollen with moisture. Pronghorn eat lots of X. chlorochroa, especially in the early spring and during drought. Soaking and cooking the lichen in water yields a red dye that is prized among Navajo weavers and other fiber artists. 

Work in progress using yarn dyed with tumbleweed shield lichen.

The bad news is that sheep, cattle and elk can be poisoned if they eat X. chlorochroa. In 2004, several hundred elk died on the Red Rim of the Red Desert (south central Wyoming) after consuming unusually large amounts of the lichen, presumably because of reduced forage due to drought. Scientific investigations have shown that the culprits are acids produced by the lichen, including usnic, salazinic and norsticitic acids. Interestingly, the affected elk had red urine—the same color as the dye made by weavers.

Since we’re not anticipating that sheep, cattle or elk will be grazing on the Berry Prairie, we’re not concerned about any adverse effects of tumbleweed shield lichen. Rather, we look forward to finding it, as an indicator that our artificial prairie is become more like a natural prairie. If X. chlorochroa can get here, so too can many other organisms, and as far as we’re concerned, the more, the better.  

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center Associate Director


Thursday, September 22, 2011

One, Two, Skip a few....

Berry Prairie diversity.
The diversity of plants in the Berry Prairie is substantial.  Even to the untrained eye, there are quite a few species of flowers, shrubs and grasses.  We often get asked how many plant species are in the Berry Prairie – and we know there were 62 plant species installed over the summer.   However, we periodically find intruders, indicating that the true number of plant species is an unknown number greater than 62. Just yesterday, Kyle (a master’s student studying the green roof) pulled out three clumps of grasses containing pretty rubust weed grasses.  And you may recall the Globemallow Fiasco of 2011 from earlier this summer.

A more interesting question would be: How many plant species are present in a spot of the Laramie Basin, in an area the size of the Berry Prairie?  Is 62 species per 3,600 square feet average?

Sadly, the answer is almost certainly: Nobody knows. There are a lot of botanists who work in and out of the Laramie, and they know a lot about the local flora.  But determining the “true” number takes lots of time on hands and knees and in the lab, and then, the number would no doubt change next year.

Grasses and a prickly pear cactus blooming in the Laramie Basin.  Does this look diverse to you?
Photo by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center

Counting diversity

When field botanists go collecting, the strategy is to stop the car, get out (or get off the horse, or stop walking and take off the pack), and collect all of the plants that are blooming or have fruit. Hopefully, the botanist can stop at that site more than once during the growing season, but inevitably, some plants are missed, as are plants found only in places between stops. Therefore, the best numbers that can be provided are minimum numbers. 

Some botanists argue that just counting species numbers is not the best method to measure diversity, because some species may be closely related and fill similar niches in the ecosystem. Those ecologists are interested in functional diversity, that is, the number of kinds of processes that the plant community participates in. Since it is impossible to measure or know the function of all species, often taxonomic diversity is used to estimate functional diversity.

Laramie Basin prairies are dominated by many, many species of grasses. 
Photo by Bonnie Heidel, WYNDD

Prairies also include a lot of forbs, or wildflowers - above is a penstemon species blooming in the Laramie Basin.
Photo by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center

Taxonomic diversity (has nothing to do with money)
Taxonomic diversity is determined by counting at a higher taxonomic level than the species, for example, at the family or order level. Consider a one square meter plot that contains 10 species of grasses and a couple of wildflowers, and another that has three grass species and seven wildflower species. Which is more diverse—the former with 12 species, or the latter with 10? Or how about a plot with three grasses, a moss, a fern, and a couple of wildflowers? Your answer depends, of course, on what kind of diversity you are interested in, because any one of those plots could be considered “most diverse.”  The best kind of diversity is that which spans beyond just an organism group (like plants) to positively influence other organisms (like insects, microbes, mammals, birds and humans).
Here, finally, are some simple answers to the question posed in the title:

Place                     Minimum number of known species
Berry Prairie               62
Wyoming                    2,800 (vascular plants only)
North America            20,100
World                          288,000
Estimated number of plant species (known and unknown) in the world: 400,000

So, while we may think that the Berry Prairie is pretty diverse, the plant species represent only about 2% of the plant species of Wyoming, and about 0.016% of the plant species of the world. And as for functional diversity? Well, that’s for students and other researchers to discover in the coming years. We’ll keep you informed!

A common scene in southeastern Wyoming.
Photo by Bonnie Heidel, WYNDD

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center Associate Director

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Prairie Underdogs

Everyone goes ga-ga for wildflowers and trees.  And for good reason - they're charismatic and grand, they're relatively easy to tell apart (making us feel better about our plant ID skills), and they possess wonderful aesthetics, making them common subjects of photographs and paintings.  

Ooh la la, look at those pretty flowers in the Tetons!

But who roots for the grasses?  (Ha! Get it?)  How many of us look at a flowering meadow and exclaim, "Wow, those grasses are GORGEOUS!"?  How often do we buy seed packets of grasses thinking their flowers and foliage will add dimension and character to our gardens? 

Grasses are certainly the underdogs of the native plant club.  To most of us, grasses all look the same.  They don't come in flamboyant colors like mauve and perriwinkle.  They're pretty darn hard to photograph, which is why most grass photos are taken on a scale like this:

Courtesy of

 and not like this:

A moss campion (Silene acualis) blooming in the Berry Prairie

But if we take a closer look, we'll find that grasses DO flower, and their flowers are varied in color, shapes and sizes!  We have seedheads that look like eyebrows, some that look like feathers, some that look like pipecleaners, some that look like stars, some that look like Charlie Brown Christmas trees.

A bouquet of grass seedheads from the Berry Prairie make an interesting and beautiful collection!

The Berry Prairie's grasses are the primary group of plants flowering right now.

The Berry Prairie is dominated by grasses, which mimics the native prairie around Laramie.  In fact, approximately three-fourths of the plants on the green roof are one of eight species of grasses (plus one species of sedge)! 

As I mentioned earlier, grasses are very difficult to photograph, so the only way for you to see what they look like in a prairie setting is to find a prairie setting.  Lucky for you Laramites, there's one right here in the middle of town, called the Berry Prairie.

Many of the Berry Prairie grasses are now in bloom, come check them out!

If you're interested in grasses, check out Joy Handley's post about "Grasslands of the High Plains" or her piece on "Clustered Field Sedge."  Also take a look at a photo of the beautiful Little Bluestem.

And for your grass ID pleasure, here is an identification key for species found in the Berry Prairie, put together by a UW Botany master's student, Emma Stewart.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center