JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the Siskiyou Mountains west of
Grants Pass, Oregon, USA

April 13,  2009

OUT OF MISSISSIPPI
Last Monday, April 6th, I boarded a Greyhound bus in Natchez and headed south to Baton Rouge. From there I began taking a series of buses all pointed generally westward. Already by Tuesday morning at dawn just west of Dallas the effects of an ever-drier climate showed up outside the bus window in terms of oak forest much shorter than what I'd just left in Mississippi. The oaks' trunks were gnarly and black and their leathery leaves wore a silvery sheen. By Abilene the forest was scrubby and feathery-leafed Mesquite was showing up.

Wednesday morning, west of Phoenix, there was real desert with Giant Saguaro cacti along the roadside. As the day progressed we entered desert where there was nothing but a few widely spaced, low shrubs separated by short grass or naked sand and gravel. Drier and drier it grew. By California, barren wild desert framed irrigated fields whose surreal greenness and severe rectangularity hit the eye the way a heavy- metal drummer might blast his way through a Chopin etude.

Near Palm Springs a couple of hours east of Los Angeles I took my only picture of the trip, a snapshot through the bus window at a plantation of electricity- generating windmills that had grown a lot since I was last there. You can see a small section of it, the feeling of it all much different in the picture from what I saw because the big blades aren't rotating, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413wm.jpg.

In Los Angeles I got bumped from the bus because Greyhound had sold more seats than they had, but by late afternoon I'd escaped on a different schedule, now headed north, for any farther west would have dumped me in the Pacific. As the sun set that Wednesday afternoon I was on the floor of the Central Valley just south of Bakersfield, rugged, gray mountain ranges all around, but where I was it was irrigated fields and orchards, especially big vineyards and leafy-green orchards of almond and walnut tees and of just-leafing-out Pistachio trees.

Until now the whole trip had been a voyage into greater and greater aridness, but that Wednesday night, my third night in a bus, I lost the thread of things. My journey's narrative suffered a drastic discontinuity when around 2 AM Thursday morning in northern California I awoke to the steady beat of the bus's windshield wipers wiping away rain, and saw condensation on cold windowpanes as the bus's headlights wasted themselves in deep fog. Somehow in just a few hours I'd entered a whole new world, suddenly a cold, wet one, the deep-night callings of frogs back in spring-soft, balmy Mississippi long gone.

Thursday morning at sunrise I awoke to tall conifers along the road, and rain streaming down the windowpane next to me. Pressing my cheek against the glass, my flesh long accustomed to the Yucatan and southern Mississippi, I felt the full shock of simple iciness.

At 8 AM we pulled into Grants Pass, Oregon and I disembarked, steam billowing from my mouth when I breathed. I didn't have a coat heavy enough for this, but the station was warm as I waited for friends to pick me up. In an hour or so I was led into my new camp, a very comfortable and neat trailer surrounded closely by trees of Siskiyou National Forest (Siskiyou pronounced "SISS-kew" here) in the Klamath Mountains.

And that's how we begin this new chapter...

*****

PACIFIC TREEFROG
On my first walk through the woods, on a chilly, drizzly afternoon, I came upon the frog shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413pt.jpg.

That's a Pacific Treefrog, HYLA REGILLA, whose treefrogness is suggested by rounded toe-pads, adhesive for climbing trees, on the somewhat camouflaged foot atop the leaf immediately below the frog's throat. Back in Mississippi we could look for about eleven members of the Treefrog Family, the Hylidae, but here the distribution maps in my field guide indicate only one species present.

Pacific Treefrogs are a varied lot, their basic skin color ranging from green to light tan to black. The black stripe through the eye seems fairly constant but the field guide says that usually there's a dark triangle between their eyes, but ours doesn't have that.

*****

INCENSE-CEDAR
In reading about this area on the Internet one of the most insightful statements run across was this: In no other part of the world is the diversity of CONIFERS greater than here. A conifer is a gymnosperm, a CONE- producing plant such as pine, spruce, fir, Douglas- fir, hemlock, cedar, yew, larch, or Bald Cypress. And it's true: as I look out of my window now the forest is deep green with evergreen conifers of many kinds, while leaf-buds on the few deciduous trees mostly are just beginning to burst.

Around my trailer one of the largest, most conspicuous and handsome conifers is the California Incense-cedar, CALOCEDRUS DECURRENS, a member of the Cypress Family, the Cupressaceae. Incense-cedars reach 150 feet tall (45 m) and more so these are big trees. In general form they're like many other conifers, having a massive, straight central trunk with fairly short branches projecting out more or less at right angles. Up close the tree's branchlets show the interesting and fairly distinctive feature shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413ic.jpg.

The branchlets look like those of a juniper or red- cedar, except that they are flattened. You may have seen similarly flattened branchlets on the shrubs and trees much used in landscaping known as Arborvitae, genus Thuja, who are members of this same family.

In the Cypress Family, instead of leaves or needles, plants bear scale-like leaves easier to show than to describe. You can see the incense-cedar's at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413id.jpg.

California Incense-cedars are robust and aggressive here. In my friends' flower garden, they're the main weed-tree coming up in any neglected corner. Along the sides of narrow timber roads through the forest sometimes they create green walls, outcompeting other species for light the roads let in.

California Incense-cedar's wood is soft, moderately decay-resistant, and produces a strong, spicy-resinous fragrance. The odor of its wood might evoke strong associations because the wood is the main one used for wooden pencils because of its softness and ability to sharpen easily without splintering. One reason the species is often planted in cool summer climates is its drought tolerance.

California Incense-cedars are distributed from central western Oregon through most of California and the extreme west of Nevada, into northwestern Mexico.

*****

HENDERSON'S SHOOTING STAR
Approaching my new base on the one-lane gravel road snaking up and up a mountainside, through the car-door window I was gratified to see wildflowers blooming on the wet, spongy, deeply shadowed forest floor. Though abundant, they were "classic" wildflowers, nothing weedy or plain-looking about them, with showy, violet- pink blossoms nodding on slender stems arising from rosettes of glossy, waxy leaves. You can see one at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413do.jpg.

That's the Henderson's Shooting Star, DODECATHEON HENDERSONII, and you can see that its blossoms are something special. First, the flowers dangle from recurved stems so that what's usually the flower's "top" -- stamens, the slender style tipped with its stigma -- points earthward. Therefore, the blackish items at the bottom of the picture are grown-together male stamens while the slender thing projecting downward from the center of the cylinder the stamens form is the feminine, stigma-tipped style. The five violet-pink corolla lobes "should" curve downward cupping the sexual parts inside them but instead curve backward and upward.

In the Northern Hemisphere if you see a vibrantly colored flower like this with a yellowish center and starkly pigmented anthers and stamens arising opposite the corolla lobes, not alternating with them, a good first-bet is that you have a member of the Primrose Family, the Primulaceae, and that's the case here.

To confirm that the stamens arise opposite the corolla lobes you need to know that the filament -- the sticklike stem holding the anther -- is roughly wrinkled crosswise and its tissue extends up between the stamen's two anther-halves. The anther-half, or locule, of one stamen touches the anther-half of the contiguous stamen.

Henderson's Shooting Stars occur from California north to southern British Columbia and Idaho. It is "summer deciduous," which means that during the soon-to-arrive summer dry season it'll die back to the ground.

*****

HENDERSON'S FAWN-LILY
When I finally got to step into the forest, what a surprise to see that among all those "showy, violet- pink blossoms nodding on slender stems arising from rosettes of glossy, waxy leaves," there were actually two species! Moreover, one species was a dicot -- the above shooting-star -- while the other was a monocot, a member of the Lily Family. The latter was Henderson's Fawn-Lily, ERYTHRONIUM HENDERSONII, seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413ey.jpg.

A close-up of this species' nodding flower is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413ez.jpg.

How curious that two species occupying very different positions on the phylogenetic Tree of Life and with very different floral anatomy should share so many gross features yet. In this fawn-lily the six, dark violet, downward-projecting stamens are not grown together into a cylinder as with the above shooting- star's five petals. You can plainly see the fawn-lily's down-pointing, slender style arising from the oval ovary in the purplish center of the corolla.

When I find two very unrelated species like this looking the same while sharing an ecological niche, I guess that the forces of convergent evolution are responsible. Something in this habitat makes it advantageous to be an herbaceous species flowering at this time, to have the flower colors they do, to arise from basal rosettes as they do, and to produce drooping flowers on recurved stems.

With this season's abundant drizzle I can guess that drooped flowers keep their sexual parts drier than sky-facing ones. I can also guess that having rosettes emerging when fall rains come, then slowly gathering resources during the long, dim winters here, represents a good strategy for a plant needing to issue substantial flowers here at the springtime rainy season's end. And the colors -- remembering that insects see purple as black, and that anything black surrounded by bursts of paleness must catch a bug's attention -- I can even halfway understand the flowers' colors and patterns. Still, seeing the consequences of convergent evolution so prettily developed on the forest floor right before me is something special, a good beginning to this season of naturalizing in a new place.

Henderson's Fawn-Lily is endemic just to here -- southwest Oregon -- barely reaching into Northern California.

*****

LOUIS FOURNIQUET HENDERSON
In the Yucatan regularly we ran into rare and endemic plants bearing the species names "gaumeri," for they were named after George Franklin Gaumer (1850-1929), the US botanist who first collected those species. With the species name for the first two wildflowers identified here in southwestern Oregon turning out to be hendersonii, I knew that once again I was following the footsteps of an old-time botanist/explorer, and I had to look him up.

The species name hendersonii honors Louis Fourniquet Henderson (1853-1942), whose life story is about what I expected, except for the part about his father being an abolitionist murdered during a New Orleans race riot in 1866. Among Louis's accomplishments were being on the O'Neil Expedition to explore the interior of the Olympic Peninsula, collecting plants for the state of Washington for display at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and being the first professor of botany at the University of Idaho.

You can read a lot more about him and see his picture at http://www.oregonflora.org/ofn/v5n1/henderson.html.

*****

SERPENTINE & SERPENTINE BARRENS
One reason the flora of southwestern Oregon is so interesting and supports so many endemic plants is that much of the bedrock is serpentine. You can see a typical roadside serpentine rock in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413sp.jpg.

Serpentine often has a greenish color and a somewhat glassy, greasy or silky luster. I read that the name serpentine is based on the Latin serpentinus, meaning serpent rock. One serpent-like feature of serpentine is that it can be scaly, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090413sq.jpg.

Serpentine is actually a name given to about 20 rock varieties. Basically the serpentines are silicates like quartz mixed with fair amounts of magnesium, iron and water, and they often contain minor amounts of other elements, especially chromium, manganese, cobalt and nickel. The serpentines are metamorphic rocks -- heavy aggregates created when landmasses from the Pacific Ocean rose up, slammed into and added territory to North America's western coast, in the process smashing together rocks, melting them and reconstituting their minerals into what's in my hand.

That part about certain serpentine varieties containing varying amounts of minor elements is important because soils developed atop serpentine can be toxic or growth-inhibiting to many plants when nickel, chromium, and/or cobalt have concentrated in them. Vegetation developing on serpentine soils often supports many specialized, often endemic and slow- growing species. Around here sometimes you see whole mountain slopes with serpentine soil showing up as open barrens with scattered small trees, especially conifers, surrounded by regularly forested slopes. These open areas with serpentine bedrock are called "serpentine barrens."

I suspect that I'll be reporting a number of discoveries from serpentine barrens, for they are all around us.

*****

GHOSTLY GLOW ON THE GREYHOUND'S CEILING
As I have said before, these long bus trips slicing through vast arenas of geography, sociology and politics help me figure out what's going on with humanity these days. Let me tell you what on this trip most caught my attention:

This week I learned what you already knew, that people nowadays are much engaged with their cell phones and other handheld communication devices. Nearly always as we crossed deserts, ranchland and general mid-America ticktack, we on the bus could listen to at least two or three one-sided conversations. Deep in a certain night I awoke to find the ceiling of the bus's blacked-out interior aglow with the light of many LCD screens pointed upward, with text and thumbnail images scrolling endlessly toward screen tops, thumbs silhouetted against screens furiously probing.

Sometimes people in seats in front of me held their screens so that I could see them over their shoulders. Since those same people kept the backs of their seats jammed against my aching knees, sometimes I felt justified looking at their screens to learn what possibly could be so absorbing.

It was nothing worth seeing, as probably you know better than I.

It's similar to how being bombarded with information creates mind-clutter leading to more confusion and disorientation than before information was at hand. Nowadays as communication becomes ever easier and quicker, the quality of what is being communicated plummets.

I arrive at my new camp proposing to do precisely the opposite of what's going on in the world around me. I'm going to immerse myself in plants and animals randomly met on little walks. I plan to focus hard on just a few modest things, and in my own awkward way sing little songs of those things' prettiness and worth.

When the sun comes up, I want to help my friends with their gardening and getting in firewood for the next cold season. When the sun goes down I want to sleep, and never, ever awaken to see those luminous ghosts-of-what-could-have-been on my ceiling.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim