Claytonia Rocks!

So these plants are considered to be ‘geophytes’ because they have underground storage organs, but I find this so-called classification to be much more meaningful than that for the tuberous perennial Claytonia. In order to better understand this, let me break it down a little bit.

Phyte – Greek, generally referring to a plant.

Geo – Greek, generally referring to anything of or relating to the Earth.

2013-05-30 11.44.33Pictured here is the habitat of the typical variety for the Claytonia lanceolata complex, C. lanceolata sensu stricto. At least in northern California, this taxon is known only from soils derived from granitic rocks. The suggestion has been that as a generalist, C. lanceolata (as currently circumscribed) occurs in a variety of habitat types across its range and thus is highly polymorphic morphologically. Well, there are some interesting substrates in southern California within very close proximity where one can find members of C. “peirsonii” complex occurring in nearly equivalent niche space across different substrates… Wait a second, am I studying geology or botany?!

2013-04-20 09.57.32Because bragging about how awesome the San Bernardino Mountains are is my favorite thing in the world to do, I’d like to take this opportunity to point to some interesting Claytonia there that occur on sedimentary carbonate rocks on the north slope of Bertha Ridge. This is the ridge that separates Big Bear Valley to the south from Holcomb Valley to the north. This is where I first encountered plants that match the description of Claytonia lanceolata var. peirsonii Munz&Johnston, or any plant treated as Claytonia lanceolata in the Jepson Manual or Flora of North America, while I was working as a Rare Plant Technician for the USDA Forest Service on the San Bernardino National Forest. More pictures of these plants can be found on CalPhotos.

IMG_9508These plants, as mentioned previously, are ridiculously cute (see related articles below and cast your vote!). More importantly for this story, these plants occur on dolomite, which is a particular type of carbonate rock containing the mineral dolomite.

2013-04-20 12.17.49And boy-howdy are these rocky hills STEEP! Unfortunately, this is an aspect of the habitat that many of the tuberous perennial species of Claytonia appear to have conserved across lineages, making field work incredibly physically demanding when sites are remote. But what is my point, exactly?

2013-04-20 14.20.56Pictured here, approximately 7 air-km to the north, there exists another population of tuberous perennial Claytonia that is primarily associated with the same species (Pinus flexilis, P. monophylla and Juniperus) but otherwise occurs on a different kind of carbonate rock than the population at Bertha Ridge. This becomes significant when you look at the morphology of the plants here, which is inconsistent with the plants at the Bertha Ridge population just 7 air-km away.

2013-04-20 14.21.55Not only do the plants at this more northern locality on gray dolomite have pink nectary guides, in contrast to the yellow spots at the base of the petals on plants from Bertha Ridge, but cauline leaf shape appears also to be strikingly different between these two populations. This interesting case of inconsistency in overall morphology, coupled with signs of genetic divergence among these populations (see my most recent phylogeny here), has gotten me very excited about patterns of evolution in this group that is already well known for complex histories of hybridization and polyploidy

ClaytoniaRocksAlthough it is all C. lanceolata for now, soon enough we’ll make some sense out of it!

If you’re going to hike 25 miles in one day, it better be worth it…

ImageThe utterly gorgeous Spring Beauty pictured here was a sight for sore eyes after I had a less than pleasant hike this day in March at Death Valley National Park. I drove past Badwater, the low point that most people are familiar with, and grabbed a dirt road that headed toward the Panamint Mountains on the west side of the valley in the direction of Telescope Peak. Little did I know that what I was expecting to be a well-graded dirt road turned out to be a 4-wheel drive only road, and my proposed 9 mile, 3500 ft gain and loss hike had just turned into a 25 mile, 7000 ft gain and loss hike if I wanted to see the Claytonia. Good morning from just above sea level!

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The road was long and grueling, with the trail being only slightly more forgiving. I made it up into the Pinyon/Juniper belt by the afternoon and I really started to feel good about the habitat I was seeing, but I was more than exhausted from the hike, and I had a rapidly approaching turn around time of 5pm. It’s got to be around here…

ImageMy 5pm alarm went off as I dug up the first couple of plants for voucher specimens. I had to work quickly and run down the mountain before dark set in too deeply, with my head on a swivel to watch for mountain lions. Did I forget to mention I was alone? I’ll definitely be back to this and other desert mountain ranges next spring in the very early spring months (Claytonia is often found blooming next to melting patches of snow). But next time, I’m bringing a truck! Long hike…

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