Sunday, September 13, 2020

Alpine Tundra in Northern Colorado

Tundra is the ecosystem where it is too cold for trees. It can be too cold because the growing season is too short or because the soil is frozen (permafrost) much of the time and, in the brief periods when it is not frozen, shifts, knocking trees over, usually both. Tundra is found in the Arctic (in the Antarctic, ocean fills the area that would have tundra) and high on mountains. It is the coldest ecosystem on earth.



alpine zone, Rocky Mountain National Park
alpine tundra is above the highest trees

Ecologists try to reduce the world's ecosystems to a minimum number. Of land ecosystems, called biomes, they can be reduced to forest, grassland, desert, and tundra. For people in the lower 48 United States, tundra is hardest biome to see. There is no arctic tundra in the lower 48 and alpine tundra occurs only on the tops of mountains. There are areas of alpine tundra high in the mountains of New York and New England, a chain of spots of tundra along the Rocky Mountains above 10,500 feet, and a similar chain of tundra when you get high enough in the Sierras and Cascades. Rocky Mountain National Park has the most accessible alpine tundra, because Trail Ridge Road will let you drive right up to it. And it is pretty extensive, something like 149 square miles in all the park (though some of it is way too steep for people or on an isolated peak). I wanted to see all the biomes of the world. Tundra was the last of the four I reached.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Robert Fortune, Tea, and China

Robert Fortune (1820-1880) was a plant collector who did a lot of work in China. I encountered him reading about plants from China that are now common garden plants in Europe and North America (forsythias, peonies, wisteria and more), in Sarah Rose' book on tea, For All the Tea in China, How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History, in London at Chelsea Physic Garden where he was curator, and his home nearby. British sources talk of him as a talented and brave plant collector. Sarah Rose's book and some thought about how the Chinese might view it, complicates that picture. 

sign from Robert Fortune's house in London
This placque is on the house at 9 Gilston Road,  Chelsea, London

Robert Fortune house, London

The language we choose is so evocative. Robert Fortune stole tea from China. He broke the Chinese monopoly on tea. He spied in China, disguised as a Chinese. Despite great difficulties, he collected and successfully brought many important Chinese plants to England. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Plant Story--St. John's Wort, Klamath Weed, Hypericum perforatum

Today, you mostly hear of St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum, St. Johns wort family, Hypericaceae) as a medicinal plant. It has been shown to be effective treating depression, anxiety, and sleep disorders and is widely used for those. But when I studied ecology in graduate school in the 1970s, under its American name, Klamath weed, it was the weed in a major weed-control story. So here are both tales.

Hypericum St. John's wort
St. John's wort, Klamath weed, Hypericum perforatum

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Messy Forests


Rocky Mountain National Park

Walking in Rocky Mountain National Park, there are many places where fallen trees lie. It looks messy. 

                        Fallen trees, Rocky Mountain National Park

The visitor might think: they should clean that up, but perhaps they don't have the budget, or the spot is inaccessible. 

It is more complex than that. Leaving fallen trees lie may be the best use for them. 

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Plant Confusions--More than Three Coneflowers

coneflower, Rudbeckia
coneflower 

If you are confused when someone points out a coneflower and it is not what you expected, you are not alone. I count forty different plant species in five genera that are called coneflower. Some you will probably never encounter, but three genera, Echinacea, Rudbeckia, and Ratibida, are relatively common and sold as garden flowers. I'll start with those.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Plant Story--Cinquefoils, Potentilla

"If any man will ask any thing of a king or prince, [cinquefoil] giveth abundance of eloquence, if he have it with him, and he shall obtain that which he desires," wrote Albertus Magnus in the 13th century. Well, not really. Albertus Magnus (d. 1280, biography) was a real person, a famous medieval German scholar, but The Book of Secrets of Albertus Magnus was an anonymous work of folklore and superstition that appeared in the 16th century. But, clearly, cinquefoil was considered a powerful plant.


Cinquefoils were medicinal and magical plants in Europe. They are a group of plants in the rose family (Rosaceae) with pretty five-petal flowers, usually yellow, and distinctive leaves with five lobes like a hand. The common name, cinquefoil, means five-leaf in French. Old English names included five-finger grass (grass meaning "plant" in this context), but some species had distinctive names, for example silverweed and tormentil.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Plant Story--Shrubby Cinquefoil

shrubby cinquefoil Dasiphora fruticosa
shrubby cinquefoil, Dasiphora fruiticosa

Cinquefoils are cute little flowers, usually yellow, in the rose family, Rosaceae. Traditionally they were in the genus Potentilla. Shrubby cinquefoil of the northern and western North America (see USDA map link) was for many years called Potentilla fruticosa. It is easily distinguished from the 68 native and 8 introduced species of Potentilla in North America because it is the only woody shrub, not a non-woody herb. Then, some years ago, DNA and other evidence indicated that shrubby cinquefoil and the other cinquefoils that are shrubs (11, all from Eurasia) were pretty different from other cinquefoils, so they were reclassified into another genus.