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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Case of the Missing Flax

 Blue flax is practically a weed wherever it grows.  It's very pretty (love that blue color!), it's tough and drought-tolerant, and it reseeds by the bajillions, which makes it almost noxious in Laramie.  

Except for on the green roof.

We planted 32 individual plants of blue flax (Linum lewisii) on the roof in June of 2011.  They all survived into summer of 2012.  Then the epic green roof fiasco happened, and we moved them from the roof to the golf course and back again.  

Once spring 2013 rolled around... they were gone.  Poof.  Shazam.  What the?

About Blue Flax

From the book High and Dry: Gardening with Cold-Hardy Dryland Plants (Robert Nold, 2008):

"Linum lewisii is a common plant, found throughout the west (Alaska to Mexico), in various habitats.  Linear green leaves on stiff wiry stems to a foot or so... carry a profusion of clustered blue flowers.  Probably best for the wild garden: L. lewisii does seed about furiously."

From the book Wildflowers of Wyoming (Diantha and Jack States, 2004):

"Blue flax has sky blue petals with white or yellowish bases.  The flowers occur on slender, waving stems.  Leaves are linear and about 1 inch long.  Named in honor of Meriwether Lewis, this plant was first collected for science on the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805.  It is found throughout western North America and is common in all vegetation zones."

Why Wont It Grow?

According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service's plant guide (access here), blue flax grows splendidly on pretty crummy (infertile, disturbed, somewhat salty or acidic), well-drained soils.  It is winter and drought hardy.  It tolerates lots of sun but can be in some shade (where we planted it in the southwest corner of the roof has some shade).  

The site of the missing flax

Now if that all doesn't describe the green roof, I don't know what does.  It's a mystery.  A cold case.  The lack of blue flax is absolutely perplexing.

Do any of you have ideas?  If so, share them below!

Written by Brenna Marsicek, Biodiversity Institute


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Rock Stars in Rock Springs

Rock Springs, Wyoming is home to one heck of a pollinator enthusiast.  Bill and his wife Valjean have lived at their current house for 7 years, and have turned its yard from a barren, weedy wasteland to a lush, overwhelmingly productive heaven.  Seriously, I want to live in their garden.

Throughout their garden, you'll find dozens of brightly colored, oddly shaped, south or east facing boxes and bundles, all with tubes and tunnels, and decorated with flowers and glass beads.  Some call this garden art; but it has a greater purpose than that - these are bee houses.  Leafcutter bee houses, to be exact.  

In Laramie, we have a whole variety of bee species, many as common as others (bumble bees, masons, leafcutters, carpenters, sweat bees, etc.).  A variety of bees are found in Rock Springs too, but leafcutter bees are king.  You can ask me why, but I don't know.  Leafcutter bees are fabulous little pollinators that are solitary (don't live or work in groups), hairy (pollen collects on the bottom of their abdomen), usually striped black and gray, and have a scissor-like feature on their mouths that allow them to cut little half-circles from leaves to make their nests.  

A page from the "Laramie Area Pollinator Pocket Guide" -
available at Berry Center 231 or online here.

Who Cares?

When we asked Bill why he puts so much effort into keeping bee boxes in his garden, he said they had very low pollination in the garden before he started keeping native bees.  As in the cucumbers would flower but wouldn't produce any cukes - there was a critical piece missing.  And a good beekeeper knows that bees need primarily three things: food (flowers), water and... that's right, shelter.  Now that he's  providing all three components, their garden is flourishing!

These bee houses are all facing south or east to keep the nests warm without cooking them (west-facing houses would get hot afternoon sun).  They are at different heights, but the lowest is approx. 4 feet high, and the highest is approx. 7 feet high.  The blocks of wood are all at least six inches deep, with holes drilled into them perfectly horizontally (important for nesting), and they're secured firmly to whatever they're attached to (important for larvae).  

He uses a bunch of different mediums for nesting habitat: lumber, stumps, straws, styrofoam insulation, and lots of bamboo sticks.  The bamboo sticks seem to be very successful, as well as the insulation,  but the bees are actively nesting in all different mediums.  The holes that are plugged are active nests.

The Bigger Picture

Pollinators are the backbone to our food system and to our ecosystems.  Without pollinators, we wouldn't have things like raspberries, coffee and almonds, nor would we have places like flowering woodlands and prairies.  This example of proactively caring for pollinators shows that providing a little extra space for bees can turn a sad-looking yard into a beautiful garden, and maybe a sad-looking prairie into a beautiful meadow.

Check out this website for more resources:

Written by Brenna Marsicek, Biodiversity Institute

Friday, August 16, 2013

Survivor: Green Roof Edition

The Berry Prairie made its professional ecological debut last week at the annual Ecological Society of America conference in Minneapolis, MN. And although the final survivorship numbers were not as high as we may have liked (~52%) the Prairie was well received and ecologist from all over the world were excited to hear about the roof and the ecosystem services it helped facilitate. 


As I mentioned, only about half of the total individuals planted on the Berry Prairie have survived (Table 1). It is likely that last summer’s untimely transplant had a large impact on the overall robustness of the plants resulting in a decline from ~94% survival in July 2012 to the ~52% in July of 2013.

This is not entirely bad news. After all, part of this experiment was to identify taxa that will do well… and doing well, even with all things considered, suggests that those groups of plants would be wise to consider for future green roofs in semi-arid environments. Further analysis of the vegetation data will help us determine which plants may be successful by evaluating functional groups, families and types of metabolism.


In layman’s terms: The bugs were a boon for the Berry Prairie. Our arthropod surveys have identified 13 orders within 3 classes of invertebrates and 8 families within 4 of these orders are noted for their pollinator services (Table 2).

Collembola refers to Springtails, those neat, tiny bugs that use their tail-like appendage to fling themselves up into the air if danger approaches.  Arachnida are, of course, arachnids or spiders.  Insecta, or insects, included flies, beetles, bees and wasps, butterflies and moths.

On a More Personal Note

This summer concludes my active evaluation of the Berry Center green roof. The Berry Prairie has been an incredible learning experience, an exciting challenge and singularly beautiful project to be involved with.

The Berry Prairie will continued to be monitored and studied, so stay tuned for all the exciting science to come from the Berry Center and the Biodiversity Institute.

Written by Kyle Bolenbaugh, UW Botany

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Prairie Update

Whoa, it's been a long time since we put anything new up here!  We've been hopping around the state doing outdoor education programs and pollinator awareness events, and haven't spent much time in the office.  Speaking of pollinators, I have a cool story for you about bees in Rock Springs - that'll come later.

Anyway, how about a green roof update?  I've been defending the term "green" roof lately, since the Berry Prairie isn't looking too green these days.  As you know, that's a term for a living roof, and our unusual plant selection doesn't always jive with the nomenclature.  I guess it's a tan roof with patches of green?  

Blooming Updates:

1. The beautiful Liatris (Liatris lewisii), also known as the Gayfeather, is in bloom.  This individual is short in stature, but the color packs a punch.  In larger bunches, these are pollinator meccas, with the flower heads usually vibrating with the number of bees on it.  Also, as you may recall, it was one of the only plants that still bloomed during the whole green roof removal debacle last year.

2.  The Laramie Columbine (Aquilegia laramiensis) has been blooming throughout the summer, one individual after another.  This is the largest of the blooms we've seen this year, isn't it fabulous?  

Trail Grasses Update

The grasses we are testing out with a few other green roofs are getting established.  You'll see that the Sun Sedge (which is not a grass) is loving life.  They've each put on new growth this year, and we're hopeful that this strand of blue grama will be a better fit for the green roof than the strand we have now.  So far the hairy grama isn't looking too spectacular, but it's still early.

New growth on the blue grama

Blue grama

Hairy grama
Sand dropseed
Sun sedge

Stay tuned for Kyle's post on the results of his survivability research, and on pollinators in Rock Springs, WY!

Written by Brenna Marsicek, Biodiversity Institute

Monday, July 22, 2013

Trial Run

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Richard Sutton, professor of agronomy and horticulture at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, sent us an email to see if we'd like to try out a few different prairie plants on the green roof.  It's part of a larger research project (see their website here) trailing three species' survivability and persistence through dry periods, cold, and varying "soil" depths. 

Dr. Sutton was kind enough to send us not only the three species they're studying to try out on the Berry Prairie as part of the study, but also a fourth that he recommended would do well - and four of each species.  We're curious folk over here, so thought we'd give it a whirl.

New arrivals!

So here's what we received and planted:

Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis 'Conard')

This common short-grass prairie species was already planted on the green roof, but this particular variety ('Conard') is new to us.  Blue grama is a staple in Wyoming, and on the Berry Prairie too - we have over 900 individual plants of this species planted!  Let's see how this variety does.

Hairy Grama (Bouteloua hirsuta)

This cousin to Blue grama is found in the very eastern edge of Wyoming (see the Rocky Mountain Herbarium site).  Although it's not found within 30 miles of Laramie, as all of our other plants, it is an interesting grass.  See how the anthers dangle below the flower of the grass?  That's what makes it "hairy."

Hairy grama flower

Blue grama flower

Sun Sedge (Carex inops heliophila)

This sedge is found through the eastern third(ish) of the state - see the map here.  It's an early season sedge so is often one of the first plants to green up in the spring (Forest Service website). 

Sand Dropseed (Sporobolus cryotandrus)

This grass is a warm weather (late summer) bloomer that prefers dry, usually sandy areas.  It's found throughout North America.  [Prairie dropseed is my personal favorite of the Wyoming grasses, but perhaps this one will win my heart.]

Photo from Prairie Moon Nursery

Stay tuned for their progress.

Written by Brenna Marsicek, Biodiversity Institute

Monday, July 8, 2013

Paintbrush Update

About a month ago I planted 29 Castilleja seedlings, 19 of which are Castilleja sessiliflora and 10 are Castilleja integra. Each Paintbrush was paired with one of three different host plants: Fringed sage (Artemisia frigida), Firecracker Penstemon (Penstemon eatonii), and Rocky Mountain Penstemon (P. strictus).

All of the host plants seem to be doing very well. Some of the initial seedlings planted do not look very healthy; however, if you take a closer look there appears to be a substantial amount of new growth underneath. So far the Castilleja sessiliflora paired with the Rocky Mountain Penstemon look the best. This pair has some new growth and others that look about the same. The total number of dead Castilleja is 3, all are Sessiliflora and all three have a different host plant. We do not know the reason for these deaths, but transplantation is often very stressful for plants. There is not enough information to say that one host plant works better than another at this point.

I had the opportunity to transplant wild Paintbrush from my parents’ property in Monument, Colorado. This experiment will allow us to see how robust these plants are and if transplanting is an option for growing. My parents dug up associated plants, as well, but we can’t tell which plant is the host (if any). These transplanted Paintbrushes gave the garden color and attracted pollinators as well as viewers. It gave the garden the aesthetics it was lacking. They flowered for about a month; a few are still flowering and hopefully they will all return next year. We are not advocating that anyone collect paintbrush or any other wildflower from land not your own! Because one species of Paintbrush (C. linariifolia) is Wyoming’s state flower, it is protected, so in this state it should not even be picked. 

The Colorado flowers are fading.  We think these are C. integra.

The third experiment I am trying is to grow Paintbrush from seeds. It takes Castilleja seeds around 60-90 days to germinate and requires a cold treatment to break dormancy. We placed Castilleja angustifolia and Castilleja chromosa seeds in the refrigerator on April 11, 2013, and they are just now germinating. I planted them in a plug tray to see if they will sprout, and then hopefully plant them outside. 

These tiny seedlings are C. chromosa, one week after planting.

All of these plants are found near the South doors to the Berry Center. It is not very colorful at this time because they are not flowering. Come by and check them out for yourself and see if you can tell the difference between the Castilleja sessiliflora and the Castilleja integra.

 Written by Jenna Ramunno, Biodiversity Institute

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Germinator

As you may know, a number of the plants on the Berry Prairie were grown from seed, specifically for use on the green roof.  Starting wildflowers from seed can be as easy as throwing them on the soil.  More often, however, it takes careful and strategic processes that range from refrigeration to scratching to freezing to burning.  The post below gives an overview of the many ways we germinate seeds, including as it relates to Jenna's Indian Paintbrush project.


Seed Germination

Not every seed will grow as soon as it is in the ground. Seed dormancy is the failure of a viable seed to germinate under adequate environmental conditions; a seed will germinate after dormancy is overcome or broken. Seed dormancy is desired in the wild because plants depend on nature for survival. If a seed germinates but the conditions are not right for growth the seedling will die. Some seeds require stratification while others require scarification.

Penstemin eriantherus blooming on the Berry Prairie.

Scarification is where the seed coat is scratched to loosen the covering. The seed will not germinate until the seed coat is altered physically, to make it permeable to water. This happens in different ways in nature. One way is by a seed falling, or being scratched on a rough surface. Another example of scarification can occur is when it passes through the digestive tract of various animals. Strawberries and raspberries are an example. Frugivores, like bears, digest the fruit pulp, but the seed coat passes through the digestive system and the acid in the digestive track breaks down the seed coat making it ready for germination.

Castilleja chromosa seed just starting to germinate
after 2 months in the fridge.
Stratification is when a seed undergoes a cold or hot treatment to break dormancy. This happens in nature when it snows in the winter. Many of our native wildflowers require stratification. For example, when Karen Panter started Penstemon eriantherus for the Berry Prairie, she kept the moist seeds in the refrigerator for up to three months before planting! Seeds can be put in moist soil or perlite, or even just in plastic bag with a bit of water, before refrigeration. We used this last technique to germinate Indian paintbrush seeds—read more about that soon.

Another way to stratify seeds is to plant them during the late autumn or winter, and leave the pots outside over winter. Some plants will germinate even better the second year, after overwintering twice.

The fires that occurred this summer and last in Colorado have created a lot of destruction. Even though it does not seem like it, the fires have also created growth. The heat of the fire actually weakens the covering of some kinds of seeds enough to enable it to intake moisture and germinate. This is common for pinecones; they are tightly shut and the heat allows them to open and release the seeds.

The wildflower Corydalis aurea is common after wildfires.
Fire stimulates its long-lived seeds to germinate.

Written by Jenna Ramunno, Biodiversity Institute

Friday, June 28, 2013

Water Wise?

We have spent a lot of time boasting about the native plants on our green roof, and how they're naturally drought-, wind-, and sun-tolerant, so are ideal for this rooftop setting.  I've also mentioned a few times that Laramie is quite arid – we typically receive around 11 inches of precipitation (including water weight in snow!) per year – only 1 inch more than what classifies a place as a desert. 

So what's with the sprinkler?

As much as we'd like to think that we're perfectly mimicking a natural prairie on our green roof, it's obvious we can't do it in every way.  We can't let pronghorn loose on the roof (though that would be sweet!) and we can't set fire to it (oh goodness, can you imagine the ruckus?).  

And we can't recreate all of the benefits that groundwater, soil depth and topography bring to plants in a natural setting. 

Native v. Natural

We need to be careful when we describe the green roof as mimicking a local prairie.  To clarify:  We use native plants.  We don't pretend this is a natural environment.

In a natural prairie, plants have incredible root systems that, depending on the plant, can grown many, many inches, even feet, into the soil to access groundwater and moisture that our 8-12 inches of green roof soil medium can't provide. 

Topography can also play an important role in a short-grass prairie, providing nooks and crannies for plants to grow in, protected from constant wind and sun and benefited by piled snow and rain run-off. 

The green roof is also surrounded by concrete and brick – increased evaporation due to heat island effect is likely a player as well.  And while we're on the topic of evaporation, look at the color of the soil on the roof compared to the native prairies.  We suspect the dark color absorbs more heat from the sun and evaporates moisture more quickly than in prairie soils.

Natural prairie soil

Green roof "soil"

Furthermore, this isn't just a green roof, it's also a showcase garden.  As such, the aesthetics do matter to some extent.  In order for the Berry Prairie to look as beautiful and healthy as possible, we want to give it an extra boost with supplemented water every so often. 

We also have an drip irrigation system set up, which allows for us to soak the roots when the soil dries out.  We can verify whether the soil is saturated, moist or dry through manually trenching or coring the soil, or through the soil probes we have set up throughout the roof.  The probes are set 4 inches below the surface and measure soil temperature and moisture every hour of every day.

Water Usage

With all this said, we try to be really careful to water only what we need to in order to ensure the health of the plants.  We have watered 4 times so far this summer using a sprinkler and the drip system.  It's a manual process, not automated, so if it rains or if it's cool, we don't need to turn on the sprinklers.

What do you think?  Is it right to water our green roof?  How much, how little, how often, and at what cost?

Written by Brenna Marsicek, Biodiversity Institute

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Prairie Spotlight: Stonecrop Sedum

Stonecrop sedum (Sedum lanceolatum) is a drought-tolerant, sun-tolerant, wind-tolerant, abuse-tolerant plant that is common found on green roofs for those reasons.  In addition to is toughness, it also has beautiful flowers, shown below.

Stonecrop sedum in bloom on the green roof, June 25, 2013

Note the round, spongy leaves of stonecrop (shown below)—an adaptation for survival in extremely dry environments. In the wild, you may find stonecrop growing in very thin soils on rocks, where the only moisture is from recent precipitation, quickly lost in the hot sun. Stonecrop is a succulent, a plant that holds lots of water in reserve within its own tissues—like a cactus, another succulent. Stonecrop has another adaptation that further enhances its ability to succeed where normal plants would shrivel, which involves its ability to retain its precious water reserve.

The leaves of the Stonecrop sedum

CAM Photosynthesis

All plants must open their stomata (small pores on the leaf surface) to allow CO2 to enter, in order for photosynthesis to occur. But, open stomata also allow water vapor to escape. Some plants have evolved a more efficient method to fix the CO2 (called C4 photosynthesis) that doesn’t require keeping stomata open all the time (see grasses blog), thus reducing water loss. Stonecrop, and its relatives in the sedum family, Crassulaceae, have taken C4 photosynthesis one step further—not only are they efficient so that stomata are not open much, but the stomata are open only at night.

Most plants are just the opposite! Since photosynthesis can occur only when the sun is up, that’s when they take in CO2 to make sugars. At night, when sugar can’t be made, they shut their stomata to conserve water, even though the lower temperature and higher humidity of night mean less water would be lost then. But these clever succulents have evolved a method to store nighttime-collected CO2 until it can be used the following day. The CO2 is incorporated into organic acid molecules and stored in vacuoles during the night, then converted into a usable molecule for photosynthesis during the day.

This process is called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism, or CAM, named for the sedum family. But it’s not restricted to one family—a variety of very drought tolerant plants use it, including yuccas, agaves, cacti, some orchids, even some unusually drought tolerant ferns. We have several CAM plants on the Berry Prairie, and you may have them where you live, too. 

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Biodiversity Institute

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Prairie Spotlight: Sagebrush

Wyoming residents tend to have a misconstrued conception of sagebrush: “The brown-green stuff that grows everywhere.” Many ranchers would like to reduce its abundance because it is poor livestock food; it competes with preferred grasses for water and nutrients. However, wildlife biologists recognize sagebrush as feed for deer, elk, and pronghorn antelope during the winter. Some view sagebrush as barren land, while others appreciate its unique aroma especially after a summer rain. [1] 

Artemisia tridentata: the name means
3-toothed, a feature of the leaves.
There are five major types of sagebrush in Wyoming: Artemisia cana (Silver sage), Artemisia tridentata (Big sagebrush), Artemisia frigida (Fringed sage), Artemisia nova (Black sage), and Artemisia pedatifida (Birdfoot sage). All of these can be found on the Berry Prairie. 

Artemisia peatifida: this sagebrush is restricted
to most of Wyoming, and only a small part
of south-central Montana.

Why Care about Sagebrush?

Sagebrush is interesting because it grows in places like Wyoming where there is little rain, winters are harsh, and high winds. It depends on the wind for pollination. Second, it provides critically important habitat for a number of wildlife, such as sage grouse, sage thrasher, sage sparrow, and pygmy rabbits.[2]  Third, sagebrush is interesting because the genus belongs to the family Asteraceae, the same family as the sunflower even though it does not have the pretty flowers as the sunflower does. 

Photo by Cody Bish
Finally, sagebrush is an important host plant for a favorite wildflower. It is often used as a host plant for Castilleja or Indian paintbrush. The roots of sagebrush display an opportunistic growth strategy. It produces a taproot that elongates into the ground to reach available soil moisture, and also a network of roots that spreads laterally, giving the Castilleja haustoria roots a network to connect with.

[1] Dennis H. knight Mountains and Plains. The Ecology of Wyoming Landscapes

[2] Pocket Guide to Sagebrush

Written by Jenna Ramunno, Biodiversity Institute

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Rock Garden

Penstemon virens is in bloom! It’s a lovely purple gem on the Berry Prairie, but it blooms even better on the rocks of our patio. These rocks—and those all across campus—were collected in the hills to the east of Laramie, and came with their own rock gardens! 

Blue Mist Penstemon (Penstemon virens)

Penstemon is a large genus of wildflowers with snapdragon-like flowers, usually in red, pink, purple or blue. The Berry Prairie is home to five species, one of which white—an atypical color for penstemons. More on that one later—its buds are still small.  “Virens” means green, a reference to the shiny, dark green leaves of P. virens. Despite its relatively small size (usually less than 10”), it provides lots of color this time of year because it’s both abundant and floriferous. It can be grown easily from seed, if you want it in your garden, and can sometimes be found at nurseries, too.

Our rock gardens include more than P. virens:  A quick sampling includes a currant bush, a groundsel, and a scientist on lunch break!

Groundsel growing with penstemon virens

Current bush in the rock

Homo sapien amongst the vegetation

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, Biodiversity Institute