Desert plants tend to look very different from plants native to other regions. They are often swollen, spiny, and have tiny leaves that are rarely bright green. A desert always has a limitation of water but the temperature may be hot or cold, high altitude and cloudy like parts of Costa Rica or low altitude and windy like the Cape Preserve in South Africa. The strange appearance of these plants is a result of their remarkable adaptations to the challenges of the desert climate. Desert plants have developed three main adaptive strategies with diverse implementations often in different species with convergent evolution to the same form: succulence, drought tolerance and drought avoidance in annual plants. Each of these is a different but effective suite of adaptations for prospering under conditions that would kill plants from other regions. These differences often extend to the cellular level with the development of special structures to store water in leaves and stems, the periodic shedding of leaves, and special adaptations to even the basic photosynthesis process. Chlorophyll (the green pigment in plants) is the only known substance in the universe that can capture volatile light energy and convert it into a stable form usable for biological processes (chemical energy) through the Calvin Cycle and the enzyme RuBisCO. Green plants use blue and red light energy to combine low-energy molecules (carbon dioxide and water) into high-energy molecules (carbohydrates or starch), which they accumulate and store as energy reserves. There are at least three variations of photosynthesis, all of which use the same basic mechanism, C3 carbon fixation used by most plants, C4 carbon fixation used in about 3% of plants and the CAM (crassulacean acid metabolism) carbon fixation pathway that evolved in plants like cactus as an adaptation to arid conditions.
Sometimes, looking for plants and flowers in winter can be interesting, particularly near a source of fresh water in the desert. In November, I visited Rogers and Blue Point Springs on the north shore of Lake Mead in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area. Rogers Spring and other springs in the “North Shore Complex” comprise one of the terminal discharge areas for the regional carbonate-rock aquifer system of eastern Nevada and western Utah. The source of the water to this spring and other regional carbonate-rock aquifer springs is uncertain. The prevailing theory suggests that much of the recharge water that enters the carbonate-rock aquifer occurs in the high mountain ranges around Ely, Nevada, located 250 miles north of Lake Mead. As this ground water flows south through the carbonate rocks, it encounters several faults along the way, including the Rogers Spring Fault, which has caused the older carbonate rocks (primarily limestone and dolomite) to be displaced against younger evaporite deposits of the Muddy Creek and Horse Spring formations. Here, the lower permeability of these evaporite deposits, along with high subsurface water pressure, forces the ground water in the carbonate rocks to flow upward along the fault and emerge at the surface as Rogers Spring.
The Company’s Garden is the oldest garden in South Africa, a park and heritage site located in central Cape Town. The garden was originally created in the 1650s by the region’s first European settlers and provided fertile ground to grow fresh produce to replenish ships rounding the Cape. It is watered from the Molteno Dam, which uses water from the springs on the lower slopes of Table Mountain. The Dutch East India Company established the garden in Cape Town for the purpose of providing fresh vegetables to the settlement as well as passing ships. Master gardener and free burgher Hendrik Boom prepared the first ground for sowing of seed on the 29th of April 1652. The settlers sowed different kinds of seeds and kept record thereof each day. Through trial and error they managed to compile a calendar which they used for the sowing and harvesting throughout the year. At first they grew salad herbs, peas, large beans, radish, beet, spinach, wheat, cabbage, asparagus and turnips among others. By 1653 the garden allowed the settlers to become self sustainable throughout the year.
Cape Point is in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve within Table Mountain National Park, which forms part of the Cape Floral Region, a World Heritage Site. It includes the majestic Table Mountain chain, which stretches from Signal Hill to Cape Point, and the coastlines of the Cape Peninsula. This narrow stretch of land, dotted with beautiful valleys, bays and beaches, contains a mix of extraordinarily diverse and unique fauna and flora. The Cape Peninsula (around 470 sq km) has 2285 flowering plant species. Table Mountain National Park alone has 1470 of these. Mountain fynbos dominates the park. It’s characterised by four main groups: protea shrubs with large leaves (proteoids), fine-leaved shrubs (ericoids), wiry, reed-like plants (restioids) and bulbous herbs (geophytes). Table Mountain National Park includes the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Point. Although the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve (or Cape Point as it is colloquially called) occupies only 16% of the area of the Cape Peninsula as given by Adamson & Salter (1950), the flora of Cape Point comprises 41% of the flora of the whole Peninsula. This illustrates the fact that many of the habitats and plant communities of the Peninsula are represented at Cape Point. Cape Point is the windiest place in South Africa and experiences only 2% of all hours in the year with calm conditions. I also want to mention that all of the following photographs were taken in October, in the middle of spring in the Southern Hemisphere.
When I first moved to Las Vegas there were virtually no mosquitoes and no flies. However as the population has increased and the local climate has changed with more landscaping and water we have seen a corresponding increase in bugs. That is not to say that there were no insects in the desert, as with flowers and plants you just have to look more carefully. There are an amazing variety of specialized insects living in the desert surrounding Las Vegas under conditions that would be considered hostile for any other insects. Again just like flowers and plants, the insects can come and go quickly over specific times like spring or after precipitation and are often found in specific areas suited to their needs. The Henderson Bird Viewing Preserve is a great place to see lots of unusual insects due to the presence of water and hospitable plants. Bees, wasps, dragonflies and butterflies are diverse and are part of the special ecology of the preserve, both prey and predator for birds and other inhabitants. Fortunately, there are very few mosquitoes, probably due to the dragonflies and the dry heat. Due to carefully selected and strategic native plants, there are a variety of native flowers all summer long which support a diverse and vibrant ecosystem. In this post I thought I would focus on some really interesting bees and wasps which I saw at the preserve.
Since I spend a fair amount of time in Santa Clarita in California I thought that I would write some posts on good nature viewing locations near Santa Clarita. One of the nearest and also one of the best places for birdwatching, plants/flowers and hiking is Placerita Canyon. Placerita is an east-west running canyon featuring cool, shaded oak groves, a willow and sycamore-lined seasonal stream and numerous other interesting plant and animal communities. Placerita Canyon State Park encompasses oak woodland, chaparral, and riparian plant communties on the north side of the San Gabriel Mountains southeast of the City of Santa Clarita. The park not only serves to conserve a slice of the wild environment but also endeavors to educate the public on the value of undisturbed flora and fauna through wild animal presentations, nature hikes, and self-guided educational trails. Also, if you continue up the canyon, you can enter the San Gabriel Mountains, another great nature location.
Very few organisms consume nectar exclusively over their whole life cycle, either supplementing it with other sources, particularly insects (thus overlapping with insectivores) or only consuming it exclusively for a set period. Many species are nectar robbers or nectar thieves, performing no pollination services to a plant while still consuming nectar. Nectar-feeding is widespread among birds, but no species consumes nectar exclusively. Most combine it with insects for a mixed diet. Of particular interest are four lineages of specialized nectar consuming birds in the New World: the Hummingbirds (Trochilidae) and three members of the Tanager (Thraupidae) family; Bananaquits, Flowerpiercers and Honeycreepers. These groups have adapted to permit a nectar-central diet, showing higher activity of digestive enzymes which break down sugars, higher rates of absorption of sugars, and altered kidney function. Birds need the enzyme sucrase in their bodies, in order to digest the sucrose of nectar. And most simply don’t have enough. Scientists think birds that can readily digest sugar, like warblers, have an adaptive advantage. When they fly to the tropics for the colder months, they can tap into sources of sugar that other birds just can’t handle. That sweet tooth, it turns out, is important to their survival.
I have a few photographs that depict flowers found wild in Costa Rica (including the famous Hot Lips or Hookers Lips flower) some photos of butterflies and hummingbirds found on Porterweed and Lantana. One fine early morning on my most recent trip to Costa Rica, we visited a patch of wild Porterweed. This area was alive with small hummingbirds, maths and butterflies. In particular we saw the Rufous-Tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia tzacatl), the Violet-Headed Hummingbird (Klais guimeti) and a variety of moths and butterflies. In my estimation, there are no greater nectar producing species than Lantana and Porterweed. Every morning in Las Vegas, I have 5 to 10 hummingbirds waiting to feed at my various lantana beds. With the preferences of hummingbirds in Costa Rica, I plan to plant several patches of Porterweed to enhance my garden. As for the rest of the post, beautiful orchids and unusual plants will hopefully excite and amaze you. As for the butterfly at the top of the post, I found this butterfly at Frog’s Geaven. Nymphidium is a genus in the butterfly family Riodinidae present only in the Neotropical ecozone. Some Nymphidium are obviously secondarily transformed by mimicry, otherwise the almost exclusive colors are brown and white either of which being now and then preponderant.
Heliconia is named after Mount Helicon, the seat of the Muses, nine goddesses of the arts and sciences in Greek mythology. These are known as lobster-claw, wild plantain, flowering banana, parrot flower, macaw flower and false bird-of-paradise. Heliconiaceae in the order Zingiberales, are among the showiest plants of the Neotropical rainforest and represent a spectacular co-evolutionary adaptive radiation with hummingbirds. Heliconia originated in the Late Eocene (39 million years ago), making it the oldest known clade of hummingbird-pollinated plants. Heliconia, the only genus of the family Heliconiaceae, has approximately 120 species in tropical America and the western Pacific. These large perennial herbs have brightly colored bracts and bear numerous flowers. Heliconia are typically pollinated by hummingbirds. Most of the 194 known species are native to the tropical Americas, but a few are indigenous to certain islands of the western Pacific and Maluku. Several species are widely cultivated as ornamentals, and a few are naturalized in Florida, Gambia, Thailand and Costa Rica. The plants have stout, reed-like stems and are related to Tropical Gingers, Bird of Paradise, Bananas and Canna Lilies, whose leaves are all similar. These are all grouped in the order Zingiberales, which includes many familiar plants, and are used as ornamental plants (Bird of Paradise flower, Heliconias, Prayer-Plant, Tropical Gingers), food crops (bananas, plantains, arrowroot), spices and traditional medicines (ginger, cardamom, turmeric, galangal and myoga). I saw a nice selection of these plants when I visited Costa Rica this year and thought it would make an interesting post.
This past spring I visited Arcata California for a little bird photography. Whenever I am out photographing birds, I always take a second camera with a macro lens attached for photographing wildflowers and plants. Some days I get more pictures of birds while other days are predominantly flowers. Because of the cloudy Pacific Northwest climate, there are many interesting plants and beautiful flowers to be seen in the area. Also because of the climate there are many fewer people that both live here and visit, compared to the areas south, making it a good place to see wildflowers and birds. Again because of the climate, there are a fair number of unusual local plants and wildflowers that can be seen nowhere else. There are also a large number of non-native plants that while beautiful, affect the delicate balance of nature in this area. These “immigrant plants” should be a reminder that introducing non-native elements into an ecosystem can have unintended consequences. In any case, I came away with some photos of beautiful blossoms which I thought I would share.