Sunday, August 4, 2013

Plant story: miner's candle, Cryptantha virgata

miner's candle
miner's candle,
Oreocarpa virgata, 
forget-me-not family

   Like common mullein (previous post) miner’s candle makes a tall spike of flowers in the Rocky Mountain front range. And yet these plants are very different.

   Miner’s candle, Oreocarya virgata, formerly Cryptantha virgata, grows on rocky slopes of the Rocky Mountains. The Rocky Mountains extend 3000 miles (4800 km) from northern British Columbia in Canada to New Mexico in the southern United States, so there would seem to be a  lot of similar terrain where miner's candle could grow. But it doesn't . It is found only in Wyoming and Colorado. (See records in Rocky Mountain herbarium)
miner's candle habitat
miner's candle habitat


   I have no idea. 

    The genus Oreocarya has 62 species, all in the western United States. Some are widely distributed but others are found only on sand or deposits of volcanic ash. Weber and Wittmann imply miner's candle prefers gravelly granitic slopes, but I don't think those are confined to Colorado and Wyoming.

   Despite its narrow geographic distribution, miner's candle can be quite abundant where it is found.

    Miner's candle sends up a flowering spike that can be 2 feet (70 cm) tall. The flowers look like large white forget-me-not (Mysotis spp.) flowers, because they are in the same plant family, the Boraginaceae, the forget-me-not family. The leaves have coarse hairs. 

    How long does miner's candle live? Nobody has studied it but is certainly a perennial, living two or more years.

miner's candle
miner's candle
   I could not find one paper in the professional literature on miner's candle. It is mentioned in plant lists for natural areas and included in papers relating the species in the its genus to each other, but that's it.  
  The contrast with common mullein is striking--only one common name, no studies of life cycle or plant chemistry, no reported medical uses, no folklore. 

   This, sadly, is the case for a substantial number of the world's plants: all we know about them is their name.

miner's candle
miner's candle
Cryptantha virgata
     Easily recognized, of limited distribution, unstudied, miner's candle is a plant of more questions than answers. We think we know so very much here in the 21st century, but at best that's only true relative to the past, not to what there is to find out. 

     Where can you see miner's candle? Not in cultivation. Maybe in a native garden in Colorado or Wyoming but I don't remember ever seeing it. It is more likely that you can see it in the wild, although that means in Colorado and Wyoming. Once there it is actually pretty easy to find. These pictures of mine are from Round Mountain Nature Trail, along Route 34 going up Big Thompson Canyon toward Estes Park, CO.

Comments and corrections welcome.

References I consulted

Ellis, James.2006.  Rocky Mountain Flora. The Colorado Mountain Club Press, Golden, CO. print

Guennel, G. K. 2006. Guide to Colorado Wildflowers. Plains and Foothills. Westcliffe Publishers, Boulder, CO. print.

Kristen E. Hasenstab-Lehman1,2 and Michael G. Simpson. 2012. Cat’s Eyes and Popcorn Flowers: Phylogenetic Systematics of the Genus Cryptantha s. l. (Boraginaceae). Systematic Botany (2012), 37(3): pp. 738–757

Nelson, Ruth Ashton. Handbook of Rocky Mountain Plants. Skyland Publishers, Estes Park, CO

Rocky Mountain Herbarium, University of Wyoming

Weber, William A. and Ronald C. Wittmann. 1996. Colorado Flora. Eastern Slope. 3rd. ed. University Press of Colorado, Boulder CO. print.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist
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  1. I love that there is still so much to learn! Your blog is rich in study topics! I enjoy reading it immensely. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

  2. Might want to add Montana; miner's candle was pointed out to me this past weekend by a retired botanist/wildlife biologist from Glacier NP in an area along the Rocky Mountain Front northeast of Choteau, MT.

  3. There are about 115 species of _Cryptantha_ in the western U.S. I wrote about _Cryptantha virgata_ which the USDA and the Rocky Mountain herbarium only show as from Wyoming and Colorado. The online Flora of Montana calls _Cryptantha scoparia_ miner's candle; the USDA and Ackerfield's Flora of Colorado call that species pinyon desert cryptantha. So I'd need to know that _Cryptantha virgata_ had been identified in Wyoming--certainly a reasonable location--and that it was not _C. scoparia_ The photos online make the two plants seem very different: which did it look like to you?