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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Summer Highlights

The Berry Prairie has been ROCKING this summer.  Apologies for the lack of posting (the author just returned from maternity leave), but you gotta see what it's been doing these past couple of months.  Below are a few overview photos, as well as close-ups of a couple of extraordinary plants.

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

Confier Casualties

You might recall or have noticed that we planted some conifer trees on the Berry Prairie.  TREES?! you say?  Yes trees!  But they're dwarf conifers, meaning they'll get maybe 4 or 5 feet tall, and that's about it.  We really wanted to plant a few species that would add some vertical interest on the roof, and these dwarf varieties of native (or near-native) species seemed like a good fit. 

For those of you scratching your heads, conifers are trees with needle-like leaves, such as pines, spruces, firs, etc.  They usually are evergreens, meaning they drop only about 1/3 of their needles each year; however, there are a few (larches, for example) that drop all of their needles every year like other deciduous trees (think oaks and aspens).  But they're still conifers!  Just a fun fact for your Friday.

These larches aren't dead - they're conifers that drop all of their leaves (needles) each fall.

The conifers on our roof are all evergreens.  So if they're not green right now, it's not a good sign.  We have had a few apparent or near casualties amongst the conifers so far this spring - 3 of the dozen or so that are out there are looking a little dry and winter burnt.

Conifers all over Wyoming are looking pretty tough this spring.  Arborists are connecting the dead-looking trees with the major cold snap we had in mid-November - we went from the mid 50's and low 60's to sub-zero temperatures over-night, which wreaked havoc on plants that hadn't entered dormancy, and the evergreens.  Read more about it here:

We don't know if that's what hit some of our conifers on the green roof, or if it's something else.  But we won't yank the poor things out yet.  We'll wait to see if they recover over the next year or two - they might look a little shabby but we'll give them a chance to get back to their green glory (like the other trees below).

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Old Man of the Mountain - and his friends

We're excited that one of the new species we planting last summer, with the charismatic name of Old Man of the Mountain, is in bloom in the Berry Prairie!  This species naturally grows above tree line in alpine areas of the Rockies.  It is short and stout, with impressively hairy stems and very large, showy, yellow flowers.  By the name of it, this plant should be a crotchety ol' thing smoking a cigar, but look at how cheerful this plant looks.

Old Man of the Mountain (Tetraneuris grandiflora)

In addition to this flowering plant, we also have a few other new bloomers:

Waxleaf Penstemon (Penstemon nitidus)

Like most penstemons, the Waxleaf Penstemon is a beautiful plant that blooms in early summer.  This species has an electric blue flower with waxy, almost blue-tinted leaves.  Found in the Rockies and western Canada.

Golden Banner (Thermopsis montana)

This is a common plant around Laramie, displaying beautiful yellow flowers on stalks that can get to over 2 feet tall.  This is in the pea family, so you might recognize the shape and size of the flower as similar to the common garden pea.

Pacific Anemone (Anemone multifida Poir. var. multifida)

This anemone is blooming in the very back corner of the Berry Prairie.  The burgandy color you see near the flower are actually not petals, they're sepals (a different part of the plant)!  If the flower is pollinated, the seedheads are densely filled with wooly seeds that disperse on the wind.

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Sand Cherry

It's a gorgeous day in Laramie (which makes us all wonder what the heck we're doing inside in front of the computer?!), and one of our flowering shrubs on the green roof is starting to bloom to celebrate.

The sand cherry (Prunus pumila v. bessyi) is a drought-tolerant shrub that typically grows 3-5 feet in height - though our relatively shallow growing medium might limit that.

One of the sand cherries on the green roof.

Sand cherries have lovely white flowers in spring and semi-edible fruits in summer (as in they're very tart and might need processing to be palatable - and it's possible that if the seeds are eaten you might experience some unpleasant side effects). 

Flower of the sand cherry

Sand cherry berries - this is not from any of our green roof plants, but if ours produce
cherries, this is what they'll look like!

But it's a tough, attractive shrub that is great for pollinators, so here's hoping it'll keep up the good growth!

Another one of our sand cherries on the green roof.

PS - there was a happy little bumble bee (Bombus huntii) foraging on a Sharpleaf Twinpod today too!

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

Friday, May 8, 2015

Bloom-Fest 2015

The Berry Prairie is rockin.  Eighteen - yes eighteen, as in ten plus four plus four, as in a couple less then twenty - plants have bloomed already this year.  That's practically more than what bloomed all of last year!  Chalk it up to a mild winter, the recent rain and snow falls, the redesign, or maybe it's me and Dorothy sitting out there reading encouraging stories like The Little Engine That Could to these beloved plants.  Whatever the cause, the green roof is alive with whites, yellows, pinks, purples and blues.

Come check out the Bloom Fest in person, or take a tour through the pictures below.  Leave a comment with your vote for your favorite plant!

Start here at the entrance:

Looking ahead, you can see some of the color showing up already.

And if you look just behind you, you'll find a fun little clematis in bloom:

Rock Clematis (Clematis columbiana)

Take a few steps forward, and you've already run into a batch of blooms:

A collection of blooms, including Devil's Gate Twinpod (white; Physaria eburniflora), Sharpleaf Twinpod (yellow; Physaria acutifolia), and the Mountain Ball Cactus (pink; Pediocactus simpsonii).

The Twinpods we've covered before in a previous blog, but the cactus is a new one.  Take a look at the close-up of the flower - gorgeous!

Mountain Ball Cactus (Pediocactus simpsonii)

A little further up the path and to the left, you'll find that the one hold-out of the Fewseed Draba is still in bloom.

Fewseed Draba (Draba oligosperma)

Moving into the foothills, next on the tour is the Dwarf Pussytoes, this compact plant with a sweet white flower.

Dwarf Pussytoes (Antennaria parviflora)

A little further up the path, closing in on the alpine section, we have Prairie Smoke (a personal favorite).

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum)

Here's a closer picture of the plant and flower:

Finally, in the alpine section, we have Dwarf Phlox and the tiny little Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine (not to be mistaken for the larger, showier, much more common Colorado Blue Columbine).

Dwarf Phlox (Phlox condensata)

Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine (Aquilegia saximontana)

And with that, you've arrived at the end of the path with the pleasure of turning around and heading back the other direction!

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Some Tough Cookies

Before this surprising snow buried the Berry Prairie beneath a foot or more of snow, several species had been fooled into thinking spring was here. Now, with the snow melting away, a few look a bit haggard, some look like they barely noticed, and others look positively thriving.

Here's a sampling:

Sharpleaf Twinpod (Physaria acutifolia) - a bit flat, but otherwise looking fine.

Sharpleaf Twinpod (Physaria acutifolia)

Stalkpod Locoweed (Oxytropis podocarpa).  This photo was taken before the big snow, because he looks somewhat less handsome now.  Locoweeds are a new addition to the Prairie last year - they're a scrappy group of plants in the pea family, which do well in Wyoming's harsh conditions.

Stalkpod Locoweed (Oxytropis podocarpa)

Cutleaf fleabane (Erigeron compositus) must have really liked the snow! Today the plants, freshly emerged from the snow, are covered with buds that look like they’ll open tomorrow. No one should be surprised--this species thrives in gravelly, windy places most of us would find daunting.

Cutleaf fleabane (Erigeron compositus)

The snow brought much-needed moisture to the Berry Prairie (and the rest of the Laramie Valley), so expect lots more flowering soon!

Written by Dorothy Tuthill, UW Biodiversity Institute

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Season of "Sprinter"

Laramie is in its classic shoulder-season: Sprinter. The time of year where spring and winter collide, and you might grill out in your flip flops one day and shovel 8 inches of snow the next. Literally. Like the weather we've experienced this week.

But Sprinter is a super necessary season for our native plants that rely on the slowly melting, heavy snow that soaks into the soil. This is good for plant growth, fire prevention, water resources for local communities, etc etc. 

So no complaining about snow! After all, the Berry Prairie plants that you can't even see aren't complaining. If they could, they'd be grinning leaf to leaf!

Written by Brenna  Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Before Its Time

When you live in Laramie, you quickly learn that springtime can be such a tease.  One day it will be sunny and 60, the next a blizzard - and this lasts usually through May!  
The emotional rollercoaster of springtime in Laramie.

But this year, we've had an unbelievably warm "spring," and the plants (and insects - my first honeybee sighting was March 14!) are falling for her tricks.  In fact, one poor soul on the green roof - the Devil's Gate Twinpod (Physaria eburniflora) - began budding out in February, only to get frozen out a few days later.  It became the laughing stock of the garden plants, poor buddy.

But one plant in particular, the Fewseed Draba (Draba oligosperma), is a tough plant that is consistently the first to bloom.  This year was no exception!  This year it began blooming particularly early: March 23.  Last year, it bloomed on April 21, in 2013 on April 30, and in 2012 on March 30.

Fewseed Draba in bloom

Draba buds - more flowers to come!

Maybe it's just not the warm weather though... the blooming plant in question is located on a south aspect of one of the berms we installed last year (inside the red circle below).  That means it likely gets more sun and warmth than other locations on the roof.  Or maybe the mulch is allowing all plants to move ahead in their phenology - and other plants will bloom sooner than normal too.  

What do you think?

Location of the flowering plant in question.

Can't even see the little Drabas from here - but they're there!

We have a long ways to go until Spring actually arrives, and we look forward to seeing how the Berry Prairie springs to life!

Written by Brenna Marsicek, UW Biodiversity Institute