Sunday, July 20, 2014

Visiting Southern Colorado--the Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dune against the mountains
Great Sand Dunes against the mountains
I have seen sand dunes--Jockey's Ridge in North Carolina, Sleeping Bear in Michigan, the Nebraska Sandhills--so although I put the Great Sand Dunes near Alamosa, Colorado on my "to see" list, I didn't expect to be impressed. 

I was.

The road out of Alamosa takes you northward in open sagebrush country. The mountains draw closer. At some point you realize that the light area at the base of the mountain is a sand dune!

It's a beautiful area:
view from the Great Sand Dune visitor center
View from the Visitor Center
I don't have pictures of the Visitor Center, but it was large and full of helpful information.

Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes from the Visitor Center
We walked from the parking lot by the dunes toward the Great Sand Dunes. We didn't realize that Medano Creek ran between us and the dunes. In retrospect it seems obvious that streams wander around sand dunes when they can. The Platte River runs along the south edge of the dune system that is the Nebraska Sandhills.

The information in the Visitor Center pointed to Medano Creek as part of the attractions. The interplay of running water and the sand it carries results in the stream repeatedly damming itself with dropped sand and then breaking through its little dams. Very cool. And of course children of all ages can play in the water and sand.

stream at the edge of the dunes
approaching the Great Sand Dunes

The scale of the Great Sand Dunes swallowed the people. 

approaching the Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes

Great Sand Dunes
Great Sand Dunes
A dune is always a contest between plants which try to grow there and the forces of erosion that keep the sand moving and plant-free. If it is wet or the winds are light, plants invade. Drought, heat and strong winds evict the plants.

Looking back toward the parking lot from the dunes
Looking back toward the parking lot from the dunes
We were there in mid June. The Great Sand Dunes are at 8,200 feet (2,470 m) and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind them are even higher. So although the sun was bright, the wind was cool: a very pleasant experience. I was prepared for the dunes to be a furnace, and they probably are some of the time, but not when I was there.

The Wilderness Area beyond the dunes beckoned us to explore, but we hadn't allowed time for that. Soon!
Great Sand Dunes Wilderness Area
Great Sand Dunes Wilderness Area

Comments and corrections welcome.

Kathy Keeler

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wandering Plants -- Coconuts of Medieval Iceland!

coconut palm on beach, Pacific coast, Panama
coconut palm on beach, 
Pacific coast, Panama
A coconut in Iceland? in the Middle Ages?

I'm sure I could find one in the market in Reykjavik today. Coconuts are tropical but lots of tropical things are traded all over the world. For example, Icelandic chocolate is a favorite across all Scandinavia.

However, looking back into history, travel was slow and often difficult. Coconuts are native far, far from Iceland. 

Coconuts are the seeds of the coconut palm, Cocos nucifera (palm family, Arecaceae). Palms, like bananas and bamboo, are not strictly trees, because they do not form wood. The tough and flexible coconut palm trunk is made of the very tightly overlapping bases of the large leaves. Coconut palms can grow 80’ (24 m) high. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Plant Story -- Colorful Columbines, Aquilegia

Rocky Mountain columbines,  Aquilegia coerulea
Rocky Mountain columbines,
Aquilegia coerulea
Everybody knows columbine, right?

Columbines, Aquilegia species, are distinctive plants related to anemones and buttercups (in the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae). 

Actually, where you live makes a big difference to what you think a columbine looks like. In eastern North America, there is only one native columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. It has red sepals and spurs on the outside with yellow petals, stigmas and stamens inside. Click on the LINK !

The situation in Europe is similar. There is one common columbine, Aquilegia vulgaris. It has blue to purple sepals with white petals, stigma and stamens. Click on the LINK ! There are almost 20 rare columbine species in the mountains of Europe, but A. vulgaris is far the most widespread. In Latin, “vulgaris” means common, so the common European columbine is aptly named.

If you live in either of those areas, you are likely to have a particular image of columbine in your mind. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Plant story - the handkerchief tree, Davidia involucrata, the Chinese dove tree

Davidia involucrata, Gothenburg, Sweden
handkerchief tree
It is always a treat to actually see some plant I have only read about!

In May 1888, Irish plant-hunter Augustine Henry “was riding his pony through a river valley [in Hubei, China] when he spotted a single, spectacular tree flowering near the base of a large cliff. As he was later to relate, the scene was one of the strangest sights he ever witnessed in China. It seemed as though the branches had been draped in thousands of ghostly-white handkerchiefs.”  (O'Brien p. 79)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Visiting Kauai -- Native Flowers!

Last post I showed spectacular tropical flowers you can easily see in Kauai. (LINK) Those are from elsewhere in the tropics, brought to Hawaii because someone liked them.

Also in Kauai are native plants. It is believed that since the volcanic emergence of the Hawaiian Islands from the Pacific, 271 different plants have arrived without help from humans--as seeds, as pieces, traveling by bird, floating or on the wind--and established populations. From those 271 colonists, about 1200 species have evolved, spread over the Hawaiian Islands.  Here are some examples:

Metrosideros polymorpha, ohia lehua

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Visiting Kauai

eroded hills of Kauai
eroded hills of Kauai

This spring, we spent most of a week on Kauai, Hawaii.

The north- and east-most of the major Hawaiian islands, it is the oldest. The 10,000 foot mountains it once boasted now reach only to 5243 feet. But that doesn’t make them inconsequential. In fact, erosion reduced the mountains without considering humans. Kauai has canyons and valleys that are not--just simply are not--accessible. The only way in or out is by helicopter. In good weather. Wow, an island of 552 square miles (one third the size of Long Island, New York, 1,401 sq. miles) with  places you cannot hike or climb to.

eroded hills of Kauai

nearby cliff, Kauai

They call Kauai The Garden Island and there are wonderful plants.

hibiscus (Hibiscus sp.)

sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas)
sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas)

ohio lehua
ohio lehua, Metrosideros polymorpha
As a desirable place to live, Hawaii has attracted people from all over the world since the first Polynesians reached it. And those people brought their favorite plants, most of which prospered in the warm wet climate. Much of what one sees is introduced. Thus, I particularly appreciated the attempts of botanical gardens and museums to distinguish "native", "canoe plants" brought by the Polynesians (and they are trying to work out which wave of colonization brought which plants), and introduced since European contact. The last group is complicated because in the last 200 years people came from at least the United States and Canada, all over  Europe, Japan, China, the Philippines and Samoa, again with their favorite plants. 

Above, the hibiscus is a modern hybrid (although there are  hibiscus species native to Hawaii), sweet potato is a canoe plant brought by the Polynesians and ohia lehua is native.

Walls from pre-European times
Walls from pre-European times
Kauai is a beautiful place, with glorious plants, native to lately introduced. By airplane or helicopter, you can get a glimpse into the inaccessible canyons and the vertical cliffs.

steep mountainsides of Kauai
steep mountainsides of Kauai
And around it all, the Pacific Ocean.

beach, Kauai
Kauai beach (with beach morning glory, Ipomoea pes-caprae)

Kauai and the Pacific
Kauai and the Pacific

Lots to see in Kauai!

Kathy Keeler