Plant Reports, Death Valley Trip, 2016

Fig. 1. Left: Mimulus rupicola, rock midget, a Death Valley endemic growing in a crack on a limestone cliff in Echo Canyon; photo by Tom Chester. Right: My reaction when I saw this species here, the first time I had ever seen it; photo by RT Hawke. Click on the pictures for larger versions.

I, along with a wonderful group of fellow botanists (see below for names and a picture), visited Death Valley 19-21 February 2016, at the peak of the glorious wildflower bloom in the Badwater Basin area. This was a once-in-a-decade bloom, with the previous one being 2005 (see Plant Reports, Death Valley Trip, 2005).

This was an utterly-fabulous trip, filled with flowers, including a number of species I'd never seen before. Perhaps the highlight was when I climbed up on a limestone cliff to view a monkeyflower that made my heart ache, and took my breath away, when I saw it up close, since it was so pretty! See Fig. 1.

For a list of all the species observed in bloom on this trip, as well as other species found in the southern end of the Badwater Basin, see Some Death Valley Plants That Bloom in February and March.

For a set of beautiful photographs of nearly all the species seen in bloom on this trip, see Michael Charters' Photo Gallery (seven pages; click on the link at the bottom right of each of his pages to advance through the pages)

This report is in chronological order of the trip.

Day 1, 19 February 2016

Nancy Accola and I left her house in Temecula at about 10:00 a.m. to drive to Death Valley. Unlike in 2005, there was no wildflower display in Walker Canyon. In fact, we saw no wildflowers at all driving along I-15 to Baker until somewhere just before Baker, perhaps beginning in the Cady / Soda Mountains / Afton area. The wildflowers were sparse along I-15, and appeared to mostly consist of Geraea canescens, with some Camissonia brevipes (= Chylismia brevipes).

There were more places along the road where there were some stands of Brassica tournefortii in fruit, but fortunately with many fewer plants this year than in 2005. The mustard was concentrated along the roadsides and in the bottom of the drainage valley between the lanes of the freeway, and still only in patches.

More flowers appeared along Highway 127, some Abronia and Camissonia claviformis (= Chylismia claviformis), but there were no stands at all comparable to what we knew were in Death Valley, so we didn't even stop along the way for the flowers.

Geology was our main interest along Highway 127, following Bob Sharp's wonderful Southern California Field Guide. The Dumont Dunes were impressive from a distance, as was the narrow gap in a rock ridge cut by overflow from Silurian Lake back in glacial times. We stopped to admire the beautiful dissected Tecopa lake bed sediments, with the backdrop of the sedimentary layers in the mountains just beyond. I did quickly check the small plants found in that area: they were mostly the non-native Schismus, the half-native Plantago ovata, and a few cryptanthas.

I did look hard for any cactus along Highway 127, and saw only a single pathetic specimen of Cylindropuntia echinocarpa.

Highway 190 from Death Valley Junction to Furnace Creek was different, especially at its higher elevations near the saddle at 3000 feet. The plants became more abundant in general, and we saw a number of C. echinocarpa as well as cotton top, Echinocactus polycephalus. The C. echinocarpa looked odd, though, with a number of specimens appearing as if their lower quarter had been chopped off, with the rest of the plant sitting on the ground.

Descending to Death Valley was exciting! The wildflowers became more abundant, with a number of Geraea, C. brevipes and a pretty phacelia, either P. crenulata ambigua or P. calthifolia.

We stopped at Zabriskie Point. As we walked to the Point, I looked at the Badlands without finding any plants at all. But on the way back, Nancy wandered over to the flattish area east of the parking lot, and found a number of interesting plants in bloom. I quickly went over, and was surprised that almost the first plant I saw was the Death Valley endemic Gilmania luteola! There was a beautiful purple mat in bloom, with a number of large flowers. I got the checklist with some key characteristics that I had prepared beforehand, and quickly identified this as Nama demissa var. covillei, a different variety than we have in the Borrego Desert.

Nancy found a beautiful Phacelia, with large blue flowers, which was Phacelia calthifolia, another species mostly endemic to Death Valley. We also saw gravel ghost, turtleback and broad-leaf gilia in bloom.

Wow! Not bad for an area that didn't appear to have many blooming plants at all.

And this was just the start for this trip.

Nancy and I stopped at the Visitor Center, then decided to head north along SR190, since we would be going south on Badwater Road the next day. It did not disappoint. We quickly were in fields of Geraea. We stopped frequently, but the diversity was pretty low; Geraea pretty much had this area to itself.

Fig. 2. Field of Geraea canescens at sunset against the mountains north of the Visitor Center. Click on the picture for a larger version.

At our last stop of the day, we were in a little wash, and I found the largest, most-woody Chamaesyce plants I'd ever seen. I surmised that these must be C. parishii, since it didn't look like any other Chamaesyce I'd ever seen.

We also saw some dead sprawling woody shrubs that I had no idea what they were in life. Nancy looked around, and saw scattered creosote, and surmised that must be the plant. I walked over to the nearest creosote, got a dead branch from it, and took it back to our sprawling woody shrubs. It was an exact match.

We both wondered what killed off the creosote plants in this little washlet, since they were still alive elsewhere in the vicinity. This location was just above the salt pans, so maybe the slightly lower elevation of the washlet created a more saline environment not to the liking of the creosote bushes, that may have gotten their start in the wetter year of 2005.

Meanwhile, Michael Charters and Kate Harper were botanizing Titus Canyon, driving up from the California side to the end of the two-way road. Michael told us later that if he hadn't planned on meeting Kate there, he would have turned around before reaching the dirt road into Titus Canyon, as there didn't seem to be much in flower along the road as he went further north. But once he got out of his car at the mouth of Titus Canyon, a carpet of flowers greeted him, and he was glad he had made the commitment to meet Kate there!

Kate wrote:

Flowering at the open mouth and in the steep-walled Canyon were a mix of Death Valley endemics, Mojave desert plants, and plants that span the Mojave and the Colorado deserts that we regularly see in Anza-Borrego--which was true at all locations we visited. Titus Canyon blooms included Mentzelia reflexa, Chylismia brevipes ssp. brevipes, Mohavea breviflora, an unknown Cryptantha, Phacelia crenulata var. ambigua (stamens unequal), Eriogonum inflatum, an unknown Eriogonum like thomasii (but not that species), Lepidium lasiocarpum var. lasiocarpum, the stunning Salvia funerea, the largest Senecio mohavensis that Kate had ever seen, and a lovely Xylorhiza tortifolia var. tortifolia.

Day 2, 20 February 2016

We planned to meet up with our companions at the Visitor Center at 9:00 a.m. Michael and I had gotten there early. As I was putting on my hiking boots, I heard the people returning to their car, parked next to mine, say the magic word botanists. I immediately asked them if I had heard them correctly, and I had! Their group had converged on Death Valley from Colorado and New Hampshire. And they were a high-power group! One member, Jennifer Ackerfield, had just finished her Flora of Colorado, a 15 year project! When RT Hawke arrived, he found a number of connections with that group and his work in Montana and surrounding areas.

I invited them to join us for the day, and I gave them some of the extra copies of the printed checklist I had made for this area. That worked out great, since that gave us more sharp eyes in the field, and it was a lot of fun to botanize with their group.

Our group consisted of Keir Morse, Katie Gallagher, Michael Charters, Kate Harper, Nancy Accola, RT and Shaun Hawke, and Mary Blackburn, along with Katie's parents, and the Colorado / New Hampshire group had seven people (I don't have all their names yet). See a group picture taken by me of all of us in front of a wonderful wildflower display that was hidden behind us, as well as another picture taken by Shaun Hawke with me in the photo at upper right.

We all took off for the south end of the park, since the best blooms were reported to be along the road west of the West Side Road that leads to Warm Springs Canyon. Both Keir and RT et al had checked out that area very recently, so they were great tour guides for places to stop.

As we drove south on the Badwater Road, eventually we could see the yellow fields of Geraea in the Warm Springs Road area. (That just gave us a visual indication of the spot we were headed to; there were a large number of other yellow fields of Geraea in other places, too, but few in that area on the west side of Badwater.)

We stopped first in the wash of the Amargosa River, just after the beginning of the bottom end of the (dirt) West Side Road, at 200 feet below sea level, at about 10:00 a.m. Keir wanted to try to photograph Cistanthe ambigua in bloom, but I told him that in the Borrego Desert it generally only opens for an hour or so around noon, so he probably would have to come back to see it in bloom. Michael Charters did manage to find a half-open flower on one plant.

We had a lot of fun there with Cryptantha and Camissonia, and might have spent much longer there, but fortunately Keir and RT herded us to the next stop on Warm Springs Road, 1.4 miles west of the West Side Road, at 240 feet elevation, with promise of seeing Tiquilia nuttallii / Nama pusilla there, along with a number of other treasures.

This spot did not disappoint! We were in that fabulous field of Geraea, with the plants in full bloom. We were also greeted by a large number of five spots in perfect bloom, with open flowers showing the five spots without any assist from the photographers! Nemacladus tenuis var. aliformis was a star, with everyone waiting their turn to photograph the many open flowers on the only plant we found there. Amazingly, the plant survived all the attention given it; Fig. 3 shows a flower I photographed after everyone else had finished with this plant.

Fig. 3. One of the amazing flowers of Nemacladus tenuis var. aliformis held between my fingers. Note the clear rods, called processes, which may attract pollinators by glinting in the sun or moon light. Glints from these flowers were apparent as we were photographing them.

The Tiquilia nuttallii / Nama pusilla was spotted, and then our attention turned to: "What species is that?" Keir had found this plant the previous day, too, and had tried to key it out. It appeared to key to Tiquilia, but Keir had found what he thought was Tiquilia later that day at a different spot, so he suspected it was actually Nama. These plants had no fruit, so the key distinction between these genera was not available. It was amazingly difficult in the field to figure out what it was. Katie attempted to see if the stamens were attached at the same level, a very difficult feat in the field for such a small flower (3-5 mm length, 2 mm width).

We left the plant with about half the group thinking it was Nama, and the other half thinking Tiquilia. Keir promised we'd see the other plant later in the day. At least for me, the suspense built as time went on.

RT was anxious to hit the next spot, which had a number of different interesting species, including a Sibara that Aaron Schusteff had alerted me to. I had never even heard of the genus, which is Arabis spelled backwards. So RT took off while the rest of us were captivated by the plants here. I eventually noticed that RT was gone, so I took off, too.

Fortunately, someone in the Colorado / New Hampshire group flagged me down as I started to drive away. To my great pleasure, they had found a species I really wanted to see, with the great name of lilac sunbonnet, Langloisia setosissima ssp. punctata, with beautiful spotted petals! Although it was in full bloom, we were a bit disappointed that in the noonday sun, by eye, the spots didn't look as dramatic as we'd seen in photographs. But the camera found that our flower was indeed that dramatic; see Fig. 4.

Fig. 4. Langloisia setosissima ssp. punctata, lilac sunbonnet. Left: entire plant. Right: flower close-up. Click on the pictures for larger versions.

Someone quickly discovered Nemacladus orientalis in full bloom nearby, too.

After recovering from that excitement, we all drove to the next spot, 3.2 miles from the West Side Road, at 250 feet elevation. We got there at 1:00 p.m., so the first order of business was for everyone to eat lunch in the shade of the cars.

After lunch, we wandered around the drainage at that stop, finding a number of wonderful species. We were sitting by the first as we were eating lunch, Mentzelia reflexa. The wash was a garden of beautiful species, far better than any planted garden could be, with a forest of five spots in full bloom (Fig. 5); huge Phacelia crenulata var. ambigua plants; and honking Rafinesquia neomexicana plants in full flower. Some of us questioned whether the last two species were really that determination, since they were so large!

Fig. 5. A bank of the wash filled with blooms of five spot, Eremalche rotundifolia. Click on the picture for a larger version.

The Sibara was quickly located, although it was now mostly in fruit. This especially made Michael Charters happy, since it was a new species for him, which is hard to come by when you've photographed 2,433 species from southern California. And he was able to find a few remaining flowers to photograph.

We soon came across a mystery plant, which was not yet in bloom. RT soon found one in bloom, an Asteraceae with just three slender ligules, and I knew immediately what it was -- but I couldn't remember its name! It wasn't on the list I had put together, so that wasn't of any help. I told RT where we'd seen it, and he knew exactly what species it was, too -- but he couldn't remember its name. So I headed back to the car, which was just a few hundred feet away even though it was now a full hour after we had arrived here, to get my Jepson Desert Manual. As I was walking back with it, someone met me with something close to the common name, and I immediately remembered the species name: bright white, Prenanthella exigua. I had only come across this species twice before.

Next to it, we came across Calycoseris parryi, yellow tackstem, not yet in bloom, but with its amazing red-colored tack-shaped glands below its bud. Everyone ooh-ed and aah-ed over it when they saw the glands in their hand lens.

RT and Keir suggested that we move along to a wash in the canyon proper to see if there was anything different there. We left at 2:30 p.m., and drove to Warm Spring Canyon itself, 7.4 miles west of the West Side Road, arriving at 3:10 p.m., and did a quick exploration there.

The drainage was nearly completely covered with flowers! At one point, there was a field of Cryptantha maritima on the left side as we walked up drainage, with a field of C. angustifolia on the right. We found a few additional species, but by then we were all pretty tired from being out in the full sun all day, and the suspense of the Tiquilia nuttallii / Nama pusilla was killing me. So we decided to call it a day in this Canyon, and go see Keir's other plant.

We drove up to the Grantham Mine to turn around, at 3:40 p.m., and got back to the Badwater Road at 5:00 p.m., after stopping to watch a wasp dig a hole to bury a caterpillar it had just killed. Katie had found this drama in action, seeing the wasp carry the caterpillar between its legs to a storage place on a plant while it dug the hole. It abandoned its first hole after an ant entered the hole, and was digging another hole when we left.

Keir's second plant was clearly Tiquilia, from the sunken veins on the leaves, so we finally knew for sure the first plant was Nama pusilla. See Nama pusilla and Tiquilia nuttallii for pictures of these two species from here.

We wandered over to the basalt ridge with a beautiful display of Geraea amidst the boulders. The boulders caught my eye, since they were so fresh looking, with interesting patterns on their surfaces. Later that night I read a vignette in Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley about these rocks. They are 1.5 million year old rocks that have been continuously sand-blasted! The sand blasting produces grooves, pits, and flutes. It is amazing to think of all the Geraea seeds lying on the ground while such extreme processes are going on all around them - heat, cold, dryness, and sand-blasting.

On the drive back to Furnace Creek, Kate Harper and I were astounded to see a coyote in the middle of our lane, walking toward our car! I slowed way down; the coyote looked directly into our eyes and continued moving toward the car. By this time we were almost stopped, afraid I might hit this strange-acting coyote. The coyote then came to my driver's door looking for a handout! The Death Valley Park Newspaper had warned against feeding coyotes, since a fed coyote is a dead coyote. This one surely wasn't going to live long if it approached cars at nighttime like this. It had obviously been fed by humans before. Sad.

We made a brief stop along the road in the fading light to identify the mounds near the salt pan; they were Allenrolfea, as expected.

Day 3, 21 February 2016

After meeting up at 9 a.m. again, our group went to Echo Canyon, where RT, Shaun and Mary had camped the previous two nights. They had found a few species we all were very interested in seeing.

As we drove up Echo Canyon Road, I was astounded by the display of Camissonia brevipes, with almost no Geraea in sight.

We stopped at their campsight, which had a robust plant of Anulocaulis annulatus, ringstem, with flowers. We were astounded to see this, since it is a close relative to Boerhavia. It had small flowers like Boerhavia, but the leaves appeared to bear no resemblance at all to it. I was so taken by the gestalt of the plant that I wouldn't have noticed the "ring stem" if Mary hadn't fortunately pointed it out.

We were very excited about seeing Salvia funerea, Death Valley sage. As soon as I mentioned it in the car, Nancy said "Stop! There it is!". There was a beautiful specimen in full bloom.

Fig. 6. Salvia funerea, Death Valley sage Left: entire plant. Right: flower close-up. Click on the pictures for larger versions.

Kate was especially struck by the densely-tangled fine, white hairs enveloping the calyx of each flower, making the flower appear to be emerging from a ball of cotton.

I then wondered how exactly can a plant produce such a densely-tangled ball of hairs like that, since it presumably has to grow them from the base of the fuzz ball. Trying to push a string into such a shape wouldn't work; they must have a more-clever method to form them.

I asked Jane Strong about it, and together we thought one possibility would be if a dendritic hair could grow its branches which would then get tangled with the branches of other hairs.

Right next to the Death Valley sage was Bahiopsis reticulata, another species I'd never seen. This is a much-larger-leaved relative of our B. parishii in the Borrego Desert.

The petals of the Eschscholzia minutiflora here struck me as being larger than the ones in the Borrego Desert. I measured some, and found a range of 6 to 10.5 mm in length, much bigger than the range of 2-6 mm for our ssp. minutiflora. The petal length here fits the lower part of the range of 6-18 mm for ssp. covillei.

Up canyon, we found some Asteraceae bushes that we need to determine, as well as our only fern of the trip; some fresh blooming plants of Sibara; as well as a Brickellia we couldn't recognize at first, but then realized it might be Brickellia atractyloides var. atractyloides. However, the outer phyllaries were not widely ovate, so I'll have to work on the determination.

We also found blooming Xylorhiza tortifolia var. tortifolia, which was nice to see how it contrasted with our X. orcuttii in the Borrego Desert.

The canyon proper was filled with Cryptantha utahensis, scented cryptantha. Kate had the presence of mind to smell it, and by golly, we all agreed it had a nice fragrance!! We also saw a cryptantha that looked like C. decipiens. Later, at home, I found it was actually C. inaequata, another species I had never seen before!

On the drive out the canyon, we spotted a chuckwalla sunning himself in close proximity to the Mimulus rupicola.

Michael wanted to see the Nama demissa var. covillei and Gilmania luteola at Zabriskie Point parking lot, so we went there next to end our trip in this area.

We headed out via Stovepipe Wells and Panamint Valley.

We stopped at the Mesquite Dunes, which had a few small plants of Eriogonum trichopes just beginning to flower in the area just outside the dunes. All the plant species here were small, typical of an average year. This area apparently did not receive as much rain as the Badwater area.

The Dunes themselves appeared to be barren of plant life except for mesquite and creosote, with nearly every other square inch completely trampled by people, at least near the parking lot. Perhaps farther away from the parking lot the dunes harbored some other plant life, but it was too hot and too late in the day to explore it.

As we drove out, we saw few blooms, and no plants of interest, except for some honking dead stems of what is probably Stanleya elata, the Panamint Princes plume.

Nancy and I stopped at Darwin Falls to get in a bit of exercise at the end of the day, and hiked to the Falls and back. The Falls was pretty, and did indeed have flowing water, as advertised. The most interesting thing botanically probably was finding a honking plant of Eucnide urens at the side of the wash, something like three feet tall and wide. Other plants were in the wash, instead of being on the rock walls. I was surprised after just seeing them on rock walls in Echo Canyon! But I see the ecology is Cliffs, rocky slopes, washes, so that fits.

There were very few plants in bloom on the Darwin Falls hike, but one of them was the night-blooming Camissonia refracta = Eremothera refracta. But it felt good to get in a bit of a hike.

Our hike used up the last bit of sunlight, and we drove home very pleased with our Death Valley trip.

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Copyright © 2016 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 6 March 2016.