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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