Tuesday, November 11, 2014

ear-shaped wild buckwheat ~ 11/11/14 ~ Pinnacles


I've been on a mission the past many months to learn, really learn to recognize the local buckwheats, given they're so important for butterflies as hosts and nectar sources.  Calflora currently lists 256 spp./var. of Eriogonum in CA, but I've primarily concerned myself with 17 of those listed for my two butterfly study sites.  I have to laugh at how completely lost I was 3-4 years ago when I first started even recognizing buckwheats as a group.  I mean, good golly!  I know I'm not alone with this feeling, because so many people I've talked to have also expressed confusion over distinguishing buckwheats.

Like with most of my IDs on Nature ID, I rely heavily on CalPhotos and various buckwheat image searches on Google and Flickr.  I've been fortunate to learn about local plants in the age of digital photography and internet sharing.  The main problem with photographs is that many are mis-ID'd online and in local field guides.  As a side project, I'm hoping to improve the situation by writing to the various authors and requesting they, at the very least, take another look at their own photos and maybe make corrections, because these mistakes get promulgated and adds to the general confusion.  As with everything else, I try to keep in mind that I could very well be wrong.  Honestly?  I often have to fight the urge to be full of myself, an ugly trait of which I'm not very proud.  Gah!

So, here's the dealio.  Looking at photographs alone is obviously not enough.  As I go out on my weekly study visits, I keep an eye out for newly blooming buckwheats.  They're so much easier to spot when they're blooming, especially the ones that are only 2-3" tall.  No joke.  Plus, just like with butterflies, they essentially sort themselves by timing, so it makes it easier to study them as the seasons progress and to take a closer look at the natural variations.  Week after week, I look at checklists, I look up photos, I look at real plants, I take pictures, and then I look at my photos and compare with existing photos, rinse and repeat.  It's methodical in its own way, and it works for me.  I've been enjoying my autodidactic process.

I believe I now have a decent handle on most of the larger local buckwheats (knee-high or taller) down to species (unfortunately, the numerous varieties are still tripping me up).  In fact, I've been arguing that I can distinguish certain buckwheats by photograph better than the local CNPS experts who trot out less-than-perfect keys with highly confusing and subjective vocabulary.  Eh-hem.  Is it me, or does there seem to be an elitist attitude among botanists who use keys and adore dead, dried, flatten specimens?  Hey, I look at keys, too, but it seems to help to already know what you have in order to follow the key properly.  Seriously.  I regularly read the Eriogonum species descriptions on Jepson eFlora and Flora of North America as a double-check, not that I ever measure miniscule plant parts or entirely understand all the fancy-speak.

"occasionally inflated"
ear-shaped wild buckwheat
E. nudum var. auriculatum

Back in September when the metalmarks were going gangbusters, Gordon Pratt (one of my butterfly go-to pros) suggested different buckwheats to look for as possible hosts, including the protruding buckwheat (E. nudum var. indictum) with inflated stems.  He also cautioned that it's frequently mistaken for another, more common inflated-stemmed buckwheat, the desert trumpet (E. inflatum).  So true!  Even well-respected butterfly folks who are in the business of documenting host plants make mistakes (I believe they show E. nudum var. indictum, not E. inflatum). Please note, naked buckwheats E. nudum var. auriculatum, var. decurrens, var. pauciflorum, and var. westonii can also have inflated stems to varying degrees.

 note the low placement of leaf growth, leaf shape, and type of fuzz on leaves
ear-shaped wild buckwheat
E. nudum var. auriculatum

So, how does one tell the difference?  In the case of the naked buckwheats (E. nudum vars.) vs. the desert trumpet (E. inflatum), look at the leaves.  They're different.  See here and here for what desert trumpet leaves look like.  I'm not even going to attempt to describe it in words, which is why I believe it's often mistaken by those who bother to look past the inflated stems and use a key.  Visually, it's obvious.  It worked in my favor that it had rained over the Halloween weekend, so there were a handful of fresh leaves to examine.  I noticed last week the long-stemmed buckwheat (E. elongatum) had sprouted fresh leaves and wondered about the possibility of protruding, too, which prompted me to get out there again.  The rest of the leaves were dried and impossible to distinguish.

ear-shaped wild buckwheat on a west-facing hill

Protruding buckwheat is not a common plant in CA, nor is it at Pinnacles, either.  I asked Paul Johnson (Pinnacles Wildlife Biologist) about it, and he had a vague recollection from a plant survey done over 10 years ago.  There are two distinct spots on record, one is closed to the public due to condor activity and the other is this hill.  This was my second attempt trying to find this remote patch of protruding buckwheat (which turned out to be ear-shaped wild buckwheat), because my first excursion ended prematurely after I spotted what I believed was a second mt. lion scat pile.  I quickly turned around to more human-populated areas.  Similar to comparing buckwheat leaves, it's easy to spot when something is not, like after seeing hundreds of smaller coyote/bobcat scat piles along the trails, then an extra-large one shows up?  It's way obvious.  Haha.  Andy came with me this time to serve as my mt. lion guard and backpack carrier.  Sweet!

ear-shaped wild buckwheat grazed down to knee-high

Coyote, bobcat, and mt. lion scat weren't the only poo bits I found on that first trip. On the west side of the Park's impressive pig fence, yet still within Park property, are meadow muffins.  Lots of meadow muffins.  I predicted to Paul that any protruding buckwheat I might find would be grazed.  Apparently, the neighboring cattle are free to roam ever since BLM days.  Yep, almost all the stalks (turned out to be ear-shaped buckwheat) in a roughly 50x30' area had been chomped.  Interestingly, the nearby long-stemmed buckwheat, also in bloom, didn't appear to be touched, except for a solitary clump.  While we found my first evidence of deer scat on the west side (there are reportedly more deer on the east side), it was located on the other side of the fence and far enough away from this hill to not be a contender.  Don't know if this could be a potential land management issue, or not?  I've heard both pros and cons about cattle.  There are a couple stories of butterflies that disappeared after the land was closed for their protection, because their host plants needed the regular disturbance to grow.  So, who knows if this is good or bad?

edited 11/15/14 - I originally posted this as protruding buckwheat (Eriogonum nudum var. indictumJepson eFlora and eFloras of NACNPS CRPR 4.2), because that's what the official Pinnacles veg map calls it.  And, I know I have the exact location, thanks to GPS.  Unfortunately, there isn't a Park herbarium specimen for this location and no known photos.  I've been trying to convince myself that it's a match ever since writing this blog post and looking up all the embedded links.  After all, the folks who did the mapping probably know way more than me. Right?  Ugh, I've finally decided this ID is incorrect, even though I've never knowingly seen var. indictum in person before.  Yeah, the nerve of me!  It helped that I found inflated stems, exactly this shape, on very clear E. nudum var. auriculatum at Fort Ord today and confirmed by David Styer.  What convinced me that this is also var. auriculatum are the hefty white flower clusters, white and pink anthers and green sepal/tepal highlights that appear to be typical of var. auriculatum, specific shape of the inflated stems, and notable lack of silvery-sage woolly leaves that's evident in all the online var. indictum photos that I've found.  However, it's a bit late (November!) to be blooming for var. auriculatum, but I've rarely found reported bloom times to be reliable.  Who knows, maybe var. indictum was also there and I just didn't find it?  Or, maybe 10 years ago it was var. indictum (Paul recalls distinctly yellow flowers) at this location and for whatever reason it's changed?  Although, I find this scenario highly unlikely.  I've made additional minor corrections in the original blog post above.