City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

June 14, 2017

June 10th

Sego Lilies and Cheat Grass

6:30 p.m. The jet stream has reconnected over the Intermountain west to its usual spring route, and this has brought back strong, cooling breezes. This evening, I drive to the end of the road at North Terrace Hills Drive to walk up the trail from the Avenues to the south ridgeline of the Salt Lake salient that looks down into City Creek Canyon. I am looking for the Sego lily which blooms this time of year. One-quarter mile below where the trail intersects the road, I find patches of this Utah state flower (November 30th) among the parched Cheat grass. It is a bulb flower that rises from the hard ground sometimes without any leaves, and its four inch blossoms have delicate cream petals that are yellow at the base surrounded by splashes of dark red-purple. Against this central yellow backdrop, contrasting thick, white-colored stamens rise. I estimate about 80 lilies along are within a 100 feet along the trail for one-half mile below the ridgeline. Like most native desert wildflowers, it is a metaphor for beauty under adversity.

Also along the road are blossoming Canadian thistles (Cirsium arvense). Although a weed, its three inch light purple blossoms are a visually pleasing example of complexity in nature. Hundreds of small, spike like petals surround a central circular whirl of about 150 short, cylindrical, vertical stamens. The whirl pattern in its stamens betrays two counter-spirals of stamens that are arranged in left and right spiraling Fibonacci series.

Near the Sego lilies, there is a 10-inch diameter coyote burrow in the road bank to the west of the trail. That it sits along a heavily traveled mountain biking trail – perhaps between 50 to 100 people traverse this route each day – is unusual. It is not clear whether the burrow is currently occupied. The mouth of the burrow shows no recent signs of entry or exit, but there is contrasting excavated soil radiating below the entrance.

Below the ridgeline back over a mile to the trailhead, Gambel’s oak forest covers most of the land to the west of the trail, but the oaks only cover patches of ground to the east. Birds sing from their hiding places. I see Black-billed magpies at the trailhead and a Green-tailed towhee within the first quarter-mile. Near the ridge, Song sparrows, Black-headed grosbeaks, a hummingbird, and chukars are heard. From their calls within one-third of a mile of the ridgeline, I estimate 150 birds are present. None appear to be flying.

I reach the east-west running ridgeline and begin to climb another 150 feet to a small peak to the east of the intersection of trail and ridge. As with my last visit to this peak (January 5th), wind is blowing strongly from the north. The reason for the song bird’s grounding becomes apparent: in the steady wind, an avian farmer, a Cooper’s Hawk, hovers motionless about 20 feet above the ridge. The low Sun is filtered through clouds to the north, and its light sets the yellow molted breast feathers blazing. The hawk continues for hover for another minute, turns and glides off to the east just below the ridgeline.

From the peak, which bears a concrete and metal Salt Lake City survey corner marker indicating an altitude of 4,905 feet, or about 900 feet above the valley floor, there is a clear view down 20 miles of Wasatch Front Mountain Range from Grandview Peak and Little Black Mountain on the north, to Lone Peak on the south. In the evening light, the two sandstone geologic “U”‘s synclines that define Red Butte Canyon, Emigration Canyon, and part of Parleys Canyon are easily seen (January 9th). These sit on top of a larger deeper “U” shaped syncline of limestone that stretches from City Creek Canyon on the north and emerges again in Millcreek Canyon on the south. Perhaps this geology also explains why the streams in Red Butte and Emigration canyons reduce to trickle. Unlike City Creek and Millcreek with their limestone upper canyons, the surface bedrock of Red Butte and Emigration are porous sandstone. (Parleys Canyon contains two dams that hold back the stream.) Underground water may not be trapped along limestone layers. This is speculation, and another possibility is that Red Butte and Emigration canyons, unlike City Creek, were never reforested after the foresting and mining eras of the last half of the 19th century. Summer surface water may simply evaporate. To the west, the jet stream is marked by a fast moving line of clouds that extends from the southwest to the northeast.

Looking at the lands around the peak, they are one-third green oak forest, one-third dried brown Cheat grass, and one-third still green native brome. It must have been an impressive spring sight of green meadows before the invasive grasses arrived. The peak itself is covered in Cheat grass about six inches deep, and because of this year’s heavy winter snow, an acquaintance reports stands several feet in height along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail below this peak. The cheat grass is read to burn, and within the last week across the state, six large cheat grass wild fires of over 1,000 acres have burned. Several smaller cheat grass fires of a few acres in size also occurred in Salt Lake Valley over the last week, but those were quickly suppressed. Although overgrazing immediately after the Euro-american colonization of the valley in 1847 quickly converted fire resistant native bromes and bunch grasses to non-native adventive grasses spotted with sagebrush (March 13th), cheat grass was not present in the valley or on the Avenues ridgeline. This weed grass was introduced in California in 1870 (id), and the grass followed along the railroads lines east (Monson and Kitchen, 1992, p. 24), but may have also traveled as a contaminant in feed grain (id at 33). Cheat grass was first collected in Utah in 1894 by M. E. Jones on Provo, Utah (Barbour and Billings, p. 264; Monson and Kitchen). How fast it overtook native grasses statewide is unclear, but in 1932, Pickford of the Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station noted that while Cheat grass, which he called Downy brome, was found in all areas of the north half of the state, it was only dominate in the Great Salt Lake area (Pickford, 1932; Monson and Kitchen, 24). Pickford found that Cheat grass was most dense (11 percent coverage) on plots that had been both grazed and then subjected to a grass fire, but it was absent from plots that had never been grazed or subjected to a burn. What makes Cheat grass different is the higher frequency of its burn cycle and the higher temperatures at which it burns (Monson and Kitchen, 24). There is a direct relationship between the level of the prior winter’s precipitation and cheat grass fires in the following summer (Monson and Kitchen, 24). One-hundred and twenty-three years later, this hot burning grass covers the Avenues ridgeline, more than half of the City Creek canyon walls of the Salt Lake salient, and much of the State. The state and federal agencies spend about 83 million USD per year fighting wildfires in Utah (Stambro et al, 2014, Chap. 9), and much of that total is related to cheat grass fires.

The peak is also covered in unidentified, one-half inch nymph crickets. When walking forward, every step raises five or six nymphs that jump forward to avoid being crushed. They are marvels of camouflage, and their dark brown, light brown, dusky yellow and dirty white colors perfectly match the surrounding dried grass. They move at the slightest provocation and it takes several attempts to locate one for a photograph. Even knowing where it is, I have to stare at the brown grass for fifteen seconds before I can make out the cricket’s outline.

Despite the invasives, the expansive view of the surrounding hills and mountains is inspiring, and I return home a happy and contented person.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 10th, 1853, he notes honey locust, black willows and blackberries are in bloom. He hears a robin. On June 10th, 1856, he watches a huckleberry bird and finds a pigeon woodpecker nest with young. On June 10, 1857, he sees a snake. On June 10, 1860, he examines a bat suspended in the daytime forest.

* * * *

The Fibonacci series seen in the whirls of the center of a bull thistle plant reappears in many plant contexts, including how seeds are distributed around a pine cone (Klar, 2002) and how branches are radially distributed around on tree (Nelson 2004). The study of the arrangement of leaves on a plant is called phyllotaxis. There are several competing hypotheses for how leaves self-assemble themselves themselves in a Fibonacci series, and the prevailing theory is that these spatial patterns are the result of most-efficient packing solutions (Klar). Hormonal diffusion is also theorized but the actual mechanisms are unknown (id). Limited progress has been made in defining the theoretical mathematics of how a circle of undiffentiated meristem plant stem-cell tissue can transform into a spiral pattern and on identifying candidate biochemicals that control the process (Flemming, 2002).

Restoring areas contaminated with cheat grass has proven difficult and expensive in terms of both capital and labor (Barbour and Billings, p. 264; Monson and Kitchen). Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have spent over 150,000 USD since 2008 trying to rehabilitate about 180 acres (0.3 square miles) in City Creek and Parleys Canyons that are contaminated with both Yellow starthistle and Cheat grass (see May 21st). The best strategy for restoration is reseeding following a cheat grass fire, but its effectiveness is limited to level areas (Barbour and Billings, 264-265) and not the steep slopes of City Creek Canyon and the Salt Lake salient. Although the city considered a controlled burn program in City Creek in 2010 (Gray and Harrison, 1999; Salt Lake Dept. of Public Utilities 2010, Salt Lake City Corporation 2010a), it was not pursued, and currently the Utah Conservation Corps is using the labor intensive method of manually denuding and spraying fields in lower Pleasant Valley, including along a steep slope (May 17th and May 21st).

* * * *

On June 10th, 2006, students at the Design Workshop recommend daylighting City Creek Canyon stream from the mouth of City Creek, along North Temple, all the way to the Jordan River (Salt Lake Tribune). Daylighting means raising the creek which now traverses the city’s center in underground pipes back to the surface. (Prior U.S. Corps of Engineer and City proposals recommended daylighting City Creek beginning at 700 West.) On June 10th, 1898, the National Guard plan exercises in City Creek Canyon (Deseret Evening News).

November 30, 2016

November 30th

Filed under: Birds, California gull, People, Sego lily — canopus56 @ 3:19 am

A Thanksgiving to the Utes and Goshutes

9:00 a.m. It is a season of reflection and giving thanks. One story of giving thanks involves the archetypal Utah edible plant is the state flower: the Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttalli). It can be found along the ridges on either side of City Creek Canyon and that surround the City to its north and east.

Like most western states, Utah has a state pioneer narrative that has risen to become mythical. In California, that state’s pioneer myth is that culturally diverse group of pioneers came west to commercially exploit gold deposits, built part of a continent spanning railroad, and a powerhouse of innovation. That myth continues to drive California’s narrative and economy today. In Utah, its cultural narrative is tied to the religion of the Latter Day Saints (“LDS” a.k.a the Mormons) instead of commerce, although Utah, like California, was initially built on the riches of extracting precious metals, and not prayer.

The Utah L.D.S. pioneer narrative parallels our shared national mythology that first nation peoples saved the first Europeans settlers from starvation. With a gift of knowledge about native plants, the Utes also saved the first LDS pioneers from starvation. The popular current narrative of the LDS entry into Salt Lake Valley emphasizes that its industrious members plowed and planted fields on the first day of their arrival in the valley, and they then diverted water from City Creek Canyon to those fields. LDS members also celebrate their “miracle of the sea gulls,” in which those first 1848 crops were protected from locusts by divinely sent flocks of California gulls (Larus californicus), and thus, the first LDS settlers were saved from starvation. This event is memorialized by the sea gull being adopted by Utah as the state bird, and a statute was erected in the gulls’ honor on the LDS temple grounds.

The history of this state’s flower reveals that those first crops were insufficient. Notwithstanding the gulls’ intervention, and the first LDS pioneers faced starvation. Early pioneer women may have discovered from watching the Ute or Goshute First Nations peoples already in the valley that the underground bulb of the Sego Lily was edible (Cannon, 71), and the lily’s bulbs and other thistles sustained the first LDS pioneers through their initial hard seasons (id). Later, first generation Mormons served and ate cooked Sego Lily bulbs during the holidays in order to illustrate their privations to subsequent generations, and in 1911 as a remembrance of the tenacity of those first LDS Utahans in the face of hunger, Utah adopted the Sego Lily as the state flower (id, 74).

This season, remember to thank a Ute or Goshute tribe member for saving from starvation your ancestors who were among first Mormon settlers.

A version of this entry was published as a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune on Nov. 26th, 2016.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 30th, 1858, he describes a winter setting sun. The low sun is a white-silvery disk. He describes an approaching winter storm seen twenty miles away with snowfall underneath that encroaches on a clear sky.

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