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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wyoming Endemics

If you haven't met Bonnie yet, you're in for a botanical treat.  Bonnie Heidel is the Head Botanist at the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database (sound familiar?  It should, that's also where Joy works!) - and also a very talented photographer.  She wrote the piece below about Wyoming endemic plant species - and is open to your questions!  Comment at the bottom of this article or email to learn more about Wyoming's native plants.


Wyoming endemics are the elite plants and animals of the Cowboy State found nowhere else. Exactly 34 of the 2800 vascular plants in the most current flora are known only from our state, including two that grace the Green Roof: Laramie columbine (Aquilegia laramiensis) and Devils Gate Twinpod (Physaria eburniflora). 

Laramie Columbine (Aquilegia laramiensis)
Photo by Bonnie Heidel

Devil's Gate Twinpod (Physaeria eburniflora) blooming in the Berry Prairie

Biological Borders

Endemic refers to species that are restricted to a particular area and found nowhere else in the country - or world for that matter. The tally of state endemics (above) refers to an area defined by political boundaries.  But what do plants and animals know about state lines? 

Laramie Columbine habitat
Photo by Dennis Horning
Therefore, biologists may also refer to species as endemic to an ecological region, like the Greater Yellowstone region, or the sand dunes of Lake Michigan which transcend boundaries between Michigan and Indiana.  There are compelling arguments for using the term “endemic” to apply to biological regions rather than political ones. By biological standards, Wyoming has many hundreds of plants endemic to northern, central and southern Rocky Mountains or to the Wyoming Basin, Intermountain Basin and Great Plains regions. Many such endemics are extensive within their respective areas of the state, locally common, and stable. 

There are also compelling arguments for size standards to endemism rather than drawing direct comparison between the endemics of Rhode Island and Texas or between those of Appalachian caves and midcontinental shortgrass prairie.  No matter how what definitions are used, conservationists usually prioritize the endemics that have the narrowest geographic distributions, greatest threats, and greatest declines in numbers as species of greatest concern. 

Desert Yellowhead: Super Endemic

If you haven’t looked closely at the Berry Center’s logo, you might not notice that it highlights one plant species endemic to the Sweetwater River Plateau in Fremont County, central Wyoming: the Desert Yellowhead (Yermo xanthocephalus – say that 10 times fast!).  This species is like a super-endemic; it only occurs in two locations… in the entire world, and it’s right here in Wyoming!  

Desert Yellowhead (Yermo xanthocephalus) in bloom.
Photo by Bonnie Heidel

What does the presence of Laramie columbine and Devils Gate Twinpod at the Berry Center mean for their conservation? Their viability remains linked to the fate of their native habitat, but their presence on the green roof is a major educational contribution!   

Written by Bonnie Heidel, WYNDD, and Brenna Wanous, Berry Center


Friday, August 26, 2011

Grasslands of the High Plains

Here's Joy Handley of WYNDD (right in the blue plaid),
showing a group of Wyoming science teachers
around the Rocky Mountain Herbarium at the
University of Wyoming.
You remember Joy, right?  She's a botany pro at WYNDD with a love for sedges and grasses.  She wrote the article about the Berry Prairie's token sedge species earlier this month. 

Today, Joy is sharing her knowledge about grasses - specifically those that are found in the Berry Prairie.  Email with questions or for additional information.

There is also a grasses key available for you to use while you're walking through the Berry Prairie.  The key was put together by Emma Stewart, a master's student in Botany and former intern at WYNDD.  The key will help you identify which grass species is which.

Berry Prairie Grasses:

Due to a great deal of research into species’ relationships in the grass family (Poaceae) over the last few decades, there are many species with several scientific names (synonyms). Of the species on the Berry Center Green Roof, western wheatgrass is an example of this phenomenon; it is known as Pascopyrum smithii, Agropyron molle, Agropyron smithii, Elymus smithii, and Elytrigia smithii. Indian ricegrass has a slightly shorter list of synonyms: Achnatherum hymenoides, Oryzopsis hymenoides, and Stipa hymenoides. For the most part, the rest of the grasses on our green roof have been known by the same scientific names for a long time: blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), sideoats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula), prairie Junegrass (Koeleria macrantha), prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). Sandberg bluegrass (Poa secunda) was once divided into seven separate species but the overlaps in morphology and lack of barriers to hybridization caused it to be put into one, highly variable, species.

Western Wheatgrass is a very common species in Wyoming prairies.

The grass species on the Berry Green Roof, and the Laramie Basin in general, have an array of life strategies to survive on the High Plains. Western wheatgrass reproduces vegetatively with underground stems (rhizomes). This method of producing “clones” allows the grass to spread relatively quickly in an area of suitable soil to supplement unpredictable circumstances for sexual reproduction. The other species have varying amounts of cespitose growth habit, meaning they tend to grow in bunches, mats, or tussocks. Bunchgrasses clone themselves slowly outward; sometimes the older inner portions of the bunch will die off leaving a ring of genetically identical bunches. The tuft of a bunch grass are often able to survive fire, the outer portion of the bunch may burn hot enough to be killed, while the inner portion is insulated enough to resprout.

Grasslands just west of Laramie. 
Photo courtesy of jimmywayne

The Wyoming Plains have a short, cool but semi-arid growing season. There are two different photosynthetic pathways that give different grass species special advantages in diverse environments. The C3 pathway is the most common in the plant world and is most beneficial in cool, moist ecosystems. Green roof species that utilize C3 carbon fixation, and are known as cool season grasses, include western wheatgrass, prairie Junegrass, Indian ricegrass, and Sandberg bluegrass. C4 carbon fixation provides greater water use efficiency and is more favorable in hot, dry settings. The C4, or warm season grasses on the green roof are blue grama, sideoats grama, prairie dropseed, and little bluestem.

Written by Joy Handley, WYNDD


Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Buttercups Unite!

Did you know that buttercups can be blue?

 Photo courtesy of Dorothy Tuthill and her Photoshop skillz.

Actually, the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, is very large, and not all members are butter-colored. In Wyoming, there are about 75 species in 12 genera. The largest genus is Ranunculus; it includes the yellow plants we picture when buttercups are mentioned.

One of the buttercups found in Wyoming.  This one was found in the Cloud Peak Wilderness of the Bighorn Mountains.
Photo by Brenna Wanous
But that leaves 11 genera and 33 species that mostly are not yellow.  Ones to look for on the Berry Prairie include:

Colorado Blue Columbine, pictured in the Snowy Mountains just west of Laramie.
Photo by Brenna Wanous

Aquilegia caerulea—Colorado Blue Columbine
This beautiful flower can be found in mountains from New Mexico to Canada, and is the state flower of Colorado. Sure doesn’t look like a buttercup!

Laramie Columbine are smaller and paler than the Colorado Blue Columbine.

Aquilegia laramiensis—Laramie Columbine
Restricted to the Laramie Range in Albany and Converse counties, this diminutive charmer grows mostly in rocky outcrops. The Berry Prairie is an unlikely place to find columbines, but they seem to be doing well (see the last blog) and we hope they will thrive here.

The native Clematis scottii looks a bit different from the clematis in your garden, doesn't it!

Clematis scottii—Sugarbowl Clematis
The name should be a give-away that this plant is closely related to some floriferous vines that people grow in their gardens. But this plant doesn’t vine, and is rarely found in gardens. Around here, you’re most likely to find sugarbowl in the hills and mountains.

Pasque flowers are common in North American prairie.  The one pictured above was located in the Bighorn Mountains in northeastern Wyoming.
Photo by Brenna Wanous

Pullsatilla patens—Pasque Flower
Spring is here when the pasque flowers bloom! Yet another foothills plant, found throughout the American west.

About the Buttercups

These plants look different from each other, as well as from buttercups, so what are the features that unite them in the family Ranunculaceae? Since botanists start with the flowers, we’ll start there, too. The flowers are hypogynous. That means that the sepal and petals are attached below the gynoecium (the female reproductive structure), which is made up of three or more fused carpels. The gynoecium is surrounded by 10 or more stamens. 

Most members of Ranunculaceae lack petals. This may come as a surprise, given that they all have colorful flowers. In fact, those are usually petaloid sepals. Exceptions to this rule include Ranunculus and Aquilegia. In the former, it is the petals that are bright yellow, and the sepals are small and non-showy. In Aquilegia, both the sepals and petals are showy—the petals are spurred, and sepals make up the colorful whorl that alternates with the petals. 

Beyond the flowers, ranuncs usually have divided or lobed leaves, and are rarely woody. 

Perennial species often make rhizomes or small tubers that develop new roots each year. 

Last but not least, many members of the Ranunculaceae are poisonous. Aconitum (monkshood), Acteae (baneberry) and Delphinium (larkspur) are well known for their toxicity, but even columbine will make a person ill if consumed in quantity. All members of the family produce protoanemonin, which can cause rashes when touched and nausea or even paralysis when eaten, and some genera produce toxic alkaloids and glycosides in addition to protoanemonin.

None of the Berry Prairie’s blue buttercups have flowered this year, but we are looking forward to seeing them in their cerulean beauty next spring.

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center's Associate Director

Friday, August 19, 2011

Petulant = Productive!

Plants can be like little kids, especially when you're trying to make them do something.  Like grow on the green roof, for example.  When you put them in, you envision them growing tall and strong, with blossoms and foliage a'plenty.  Some of them, however, decide to dig their heels and refused to do anything seemingly productive.  You can almost see them crossing their arms and sticking their tongues out.  

For example, the sugarbowl clematis (Clematis scotti) crisped up and flopped over almost immediately after being planted.  We thought it was done for, the end, adios clematis.  See Exhibit A, below.

Clematis was suspected to be kaput.
Eventually they pulled through their tantrum and are now sending up new sprouts.  Maybe it was the peer pressure of the surrounding plants doing so well, or maybe it got tired of being petulant.

Adjustment to a new home:

Plants do go through a degree of transplant shock, particularly when they go from a protected green house or even a semi-protected high tunnel to a place like a roof where wind and sun dominate.  

Greenhouse life

High tunnel life

Versus green roof life

But many of the plants that had us worried seem to be recovering well.  Take a look yourself - if you walk through the Berry Prairie, look for the little green shoots or the bright green leaves on plants that indicate they've established their root structure and are giving it another go.

A new set of prairie smoke (Geum triflorum) leaves are nestled in the sun-shocked old leaves.

Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) with new bright green leafs, ready to shed its old, red ones.

Gayfeather (Liatris punctata) sending up a new sprout.

Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla patens) with a set of new leaves; adios crispy brown leaves!

Colorado Blue Columbine (Aquilegia caerulea) with a flush of green leaves.  The sunburn brown and red ones will decompose nicely.

Sugarbowl clematis is recovering well!

The green matter on the roof has increased dramatically since the plants were installed almost two months ago.  Compare the day after installation to yesterday, and the progress is clear!  We're happy the plants have settled in.

The Berry Prairie on the day after installation, June 29, 2011.

The Berry Prairie after almost two months of growth, August 18, 2011.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Prairie Seedlings: The Last Wave

Yesterday afternoon, Dr. Karen Panter, the greenhouse guru who propagated and raised the commercially unattainable plants for the Berry Prairie at the UW Greenhouse, brought the last set of seedlings for installation this year.  Already planted in the Berry Prairie were over 100 of Karen's seedlings, and with yesterday's batch, there are now an additional130 plants of various species.

Dr. Karen Panter brought 130 seedlings to be installed in the Berry Prairie yesterday.

The species we planted yesterday include Laramie Columbine (Aquilegia laramiensis) which is a smaller, paler version of the Colorado Blue Columbine, Fewseed Draba (Draba oligosperma), Cushion Buckwheat (Eriogonum ovalifolium), Birdfoot Sagebrush (Artemisia pedatifida) and others.

Kyle Bolenbaugh is the Berry Prairie's dedicated graduate student, working on his master's of science in Botany.  Read more about Kyle and his project by clicking here!

Winter Propagation Plans

Laramie residents know this well, but for those of you elsewhere, this is about the latest part of the year one can plant seedlings in Laramie with hope for survival over the winter.  Evening lows here are already dropping to low-50's and before long, the green roof will be white. Plants need warmth and time to establish a sturdy root system to make it through the long, chilly winter.

Dr. Panter has worked for the UW and Extension for 13 years and has horticultural projects focused on high tunnels, green roofs, annual plant test plots and more.

Dr. Panter is keeping one group of Mountain Ball Cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii) seedlings over the winter, saying their cozy home in the greenhouse will allow them to develop enough for installation next summer.  She also has a list of approximately eight forbs (aka wildflowers) she will be propagating over the winter for installation next summer. 

Curious how Dr. Panter does all of this?  Stay tuned for an EXCLUSIVE interview with her later this summer!

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Monday, August 15, 2011

San Fran's Incredible Green Roof

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco is home to an incredible green roof filled with 1.7 million native plants.  Yep, million.  That means that the 197,000 square foot roof (check out the shape of the roof below!) is covered with approximately 50,000 biodegradable trays containing all those plants.  An amazing architectural and horticultural feat! 

The green roof atop the California Academy of Sciences in San Fransisco is home to 1.7 million plants!

The roof contains just 9 plant species, but they're all interesting: strawberries, poppies, plantains and others.  (Visit their website to see the full plant list, watch a video about how it was created and learn more about the building.)
In comparison, the Berry Prairie is much smaller -  about 3,600 square feet - and we have far fewer plants - approximately 4,400.  However, we are now up to 63 species, all native to the Laramie basin.

Berry Prairie as of August 15, 2011

Each green roof is unique, and their differences are what makes the green roof movement so intriguing and fun!  Anyone know of other interesting green roofs in the US or otherwise?

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Friday, August 12, 2011

Now in Bloom: Moss Campion

Moss campion is familiar to anyone who has visited a North American alpine area in the summer. Its cushions of bright green leaves become covered with many pink, star-like flowers as soon as the temperatures warm, often flowering first on the warmest, south-facing side of the mat.

Moss campion is now blooming in the Berry Prairie, where the photo above was taken.
Photo by Dorothy Tuthill

Cushion plants are common in the alpine, for reasons that are probably clear if you’ve been there. Those habitats are subjected to strong, desiccating winds, high ultra-violet radiation and rapidly fluctuating temperatures, not to mention extreme cold. Studies on alpine cushion plants show that temperatures within plant cushions are more moderate and humidity is higher than outside the cushion. That microclimate is good not only for the plant that makes it—cushions also make good nurseries for the seedlings of other plant species.  On the down-side, Silene acaulis, like most cushion plants, has a slow growth rate, estimated at about one quarter inch per year. A rare, large cushion of moss campion may be as big as six to eight inches in diameter, and many decades old. Plants in Colorado have been estimated to reach 100 years in age, and Alaskan plants may reach 300 years!

Moss campion in bloom near Lookout Lake in the Snowy Mountains, west of Laramie.
Photo by Brenna Wanous

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Laramie Basin but have an aversion to high places, no worries—you can see lots of cushion plants closer to home. Hooker’s sandwort (Eremogone hookeri) looks similar to moss campion, but with white flowers, and the petals are pointed rather than toothed, as are moss campion’s. Hood’s phlox (Phlox hoodii) also grows as dense cushions of small, spiky leaves, transformed once or twice a year into delicate pillows of small white blossoms. Hood’s phlox can grow so densely in disturbed areas that flowering plants can be mistaken for snow. 

Hooker's sandwort grows in the Berry Prairie and the surrounding Laramie basin.

Hood's phlox are a common and beautiful cushion plant found in the Laramie basin and beyond.

Hood’s phlox and Hooker’s sandwort grow not only on the Berry Prairie, but in many places around the Laramie Basin, often in the company of other cushion plants. Look especially on the tops of ridges. In fact, cushion plant communities are quite common in the harshest, driest landscapes of Wyoming. Why? Well, those habits are subject to strong, desiccating winds, high ultra…

You get the idea.

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Berry Center Associate Director

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Meet Kyle: Master in Training

This fall, the Berry Center is fortunate enough to hire a graduate student, Kyle Bolenbaugh.  Kyle will begin working on his Masters of Science degree at the University of Wyoming in the Department of Botany, working with the Berry Center's Director Greg Brown, who also hails from the botany department as a professor and department head.  Kyle will be monitoring and assessing multiple aspects of the Berry Center’s green roof, including species survivability, reproduction and seed set, adaptations, pollinators and more.  He received his bachelors degree from the University of Wyoming in microbiology in 2009.

Green Roof Wrangler

Some of you may remember Kyle from earlier this summer when he helped install the green roof in June (he's center-left in the photo below) as a volunteer turned hired-hand.  He has been watering the Berry Prairie every day since it was installed to ensure plants establish enough roots and biomass to make it through the intense summer sun and frigid winter... everything.  So far there have been less than a dozen plant moralities, largely due to Kyle's attention and dedication.

Kyle Bolenbaugh, in the center with the orange shirt, volunteered for the green roof installation project.  Starting August 22, he'll be the Berry Prairie's first graduate student.

Kyle also helped Dorothy with the group of day care kids from Cheyenne learn about plants, pollinators and their connections.

Kyle helps three children identify the insect they caught in their net.  July 29, 2011

The Big Picture

Supporting Kyle's research is one of the ways the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center seeks to ensure education, research and public engagement are its central focuses, and this includes the Berry Prairie in a big way.  The approach used in creating the Berry Prairie is fairly new in the green roof movement, so there is a need to systematically study its progress, challenges and successes, as well as widely share our findings.  Kyle's dedication to studying the science of the green roof will help ensure this mission is appropriately carried out.

You'll be seeing more of Kyle over the next two years - stop by and say hello if you see him watering, weeding, counting, observing or just generally hanging out.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Monday, August 8, 2011

Prairie Spotlight: Clustered Field Sedge

The Berry Center is lucky to house a group of extremely talented and knowledgeable scientists all studying topics related to biodiversity.  For the plant gurus out there, here’s a post for you.  Joy Handley is a botanist for the Wyoming Natural Diversity Database, a UW group that researches rare and sensitive plants, animals and ecosystems in Wyoming.  They work a lot with data collection and storage, as well as GIS and mapping of these species and ecosystems.  Check out their website or stop in to the Berry Center’s third floor to learn more.

Joy Handley, above, is surrounded by maps in her office in the Berry Center.
She studies and tracks
rare and sensitive Wyoming plant species, as part
of the
Wyoming Natural Diversity Database.
Joy is a sedge and grass pro.  Below is a description she wrote of the one sedge species present in the Berry Prairie.  Sedges are pretty neat species – they’re often mistaken for grasses, but serve a different and unique purpose in the natural environment!  Email Joy at thuja (at) uwyo (dot) edu with any questions.

Berry Center green roof sedge: Clustered Field Sedge (Carex praegracilis)

"Sedges are similar to grasses in that they are monocots with linear leaves, and have reduced “flowers.”  Sedge leaves mostly arise from the base of the plant, rather than along the culm (stem).  The saying “sedges have edges” comes from the fact that sedges generally have triangular culms, whereas grasses have round culms.  The angles of the sedge culm can be felt when it is rolled between the thumb and forefinger.   

Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica
Mountains National Recreation Area
The achene (dry, one-seeded fruit) of sedges is within a bract-like sac known as a perigynium.  The characteristics of the perigynium and the scale (bract) beneath it are important in identifying different sedge species.  Sedges are usually associated with the edges of ponds and streams, and other moist areas, although a few species grow in relatively dry grasslands.   

All sedges are perennial and have rhizomes (underground stems for vegetative reproduction).  Some species have very short rhizomes and are tufted, similar to bunchgrasses.  Sedges usually have high forage value for wildlife and livestock.
Photo courtesy of Illinois Wildflowers website
Clustered field sedge (Carex praegracilis) is found in moist to seasonally wet areas, often alkaline, and is widespread throughout Wyoming.  The spikes are tan to brown and are mostly androgynous, meaning that both male and female reproductive parts are on the same stem.  The spikes are grouped into somewhat egg-shaped bunches.  The color of the spike comes from the color of the bracts.  The culms are sharply triangular and the rhizomes fairly long, so it does not have a tufted appearance but may form dense colonies."

By Brenna Wanous, Berry Center, and Joy Handley, WYNDD

Friday, August 5, 2011

EPA Visits the Prairie

Yesterday the Berry Prairie hosted eight visitors from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Denver, who have a great green building (check out their website!).  Atop their great green building is a living roof that unfortunately isn't quite living anymore.  

The group came to Laramie because would like to revamp their green roof, maybe using the Berry Prairie as a model!  How cool is that?!   (And not to pat ourselves on the back too much, but they found us through the Berry Prairie blog.)

Greg Brown, Berry Center Director (center-left in the black shirt) explains the structure and plant list of the green roof to some of the EPA guests.

The group was interested in the Berry Prairie for its unique approach to green roofs - native plants?  No trays?  No monoculture?  Pretty uncommon in the green roof movement... for now.  So Greg and Dorothy led the group through the Berry Prairie to give them a close up,  hands-on look at all that comprises the green roof.

The group was interested in everything from plant selection to structural integrity, the soilless "soil" to irrigation regime.

The EPAers also took a tour through the rest of the Berry Center, including into the Vertebrate Collection, which is directly below the Berry Prairie, to check out how everything ties together.

Greg (center-left) explains how the Vertebrate Collection plays an important role in the Berry Center and its mission.  Not unintentionally, the Collection room is located directly below the green roof, where it benefits from more stable temperatures and climate control.

We were thrilled by their visit and hope to travel down to Denver in the near future to examine their green roof as well.  This is a learning process for everyone, and we're happy to form a new partnership with our friendly neighbors to the south.

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center

Thursday, August 4, 2011

New penstemon are in!

This morning Dorothy and I planted the Penstemon glaber v. alpina (Smooth Penstemon) that Dorothy had started from seed from Pumpkin Vine Pass (catch up on Operation: Globemallow-Penstemon Switch here).  Filling in some of the gaps left when we removed the sneaky Sphaeralcea munroana, we planted 20 patches of penstemon - a total of 67 plants.  When they bloom, they'll have sky-blue flowers.

I tease apart the roots of various Penstemon seedlings to distribute them throughout the Berry Prairie.

I don't look very excited, but I promise this was really fun!  Go Team Penstemon!

These little seedings had very impressive roots!  One of the contributing factors to their drought tolerance.

Dorothy tends the seedlings so they'll establish their root structures before winter comes (in Laramie, that's not too long from now!).

Penstemon glaber v. alpina ready to make a name for itself in the Berry Prairie.

Stop by the Berry Prairie to see if you can identify them in their new homes!

Written by Brenna Wanous, Berry Center