Thursday, December 22, 2011

Floristics in the Uncompahgre Basin and Greater Grand Mesa Area

Graduate Student, UW Botany Department

Summer 2011: 10,220 miles driven, 263 miles hiked, and 5,206 plants collected. Area: 4,335 square miles including 1,137 square miles of BLM land and 1,407 square miles of Forest Service land. May 27: 3 sites visited, 150 plants collected, 232 miles driven, 12 hours in the field. Don’t be fooled, these floristics projects are really a numbers game.

Adobe hills near Delta Colorado
Located in west-central Colorado, the Uncompahgre Basin and greater Grand Mesa study area ranges in elevation from 4,640 feet along the Gunnison River to the 14,150 foot summit of Mt. Sneffels. There are many trails to hike, lots of back country roads to explore, and innumerable rocks to flatten tires. The study area contains a variety of habitats including desert grass and shrublands, pinyon-juniper woodlands, spruce-fir forests, and alpine slopes. One of the most interesting habitats in the region is the adobe hill badlands. Derived from a layer of Mancos shale, these otherworldly looking hillsides are home to several endemic species including adobe hills thistle (Cirsium perplexans), Uncompahgre bladderpod (Lesquerella vicinia), adobe desert parsley (Lomatium concinnum), and adobe hills beardtongue (Penstemon retrorsus). Also found on these hillsides and in the surrounding desert landscape is the federally threatened Colorado hookless cactus, Sclerocactus glaucus.

Dominguez Canyon
Two major landforms in the region are Grand Mesa and the Uncompahgre Plateau, both excellent refuges when the temperatures in the lowlands top out at over 100 degrees. Grand Mesa, a large basalt covered mesa that reaches elevations of over 11,000 feet, is covered with spruce-fir forests, aspen woodlands, hundreds of small lakes, high elevation fens, and mosquitoes galore. The west and southwest sections of the study area are bounded by the Uncompahgre Plateau, a distinctive uplift that is part of the Colorado Plateau. Gently sloping up from the valley, it reaches elevations of over 10,000 feet. The plateau is ribboned with a series of canyons, created by down cutting of streams through mostly sedimentary rocks. One of the most beautiful of these is Dominguez Canyon with high, red sandstone walls, seeps that contain Eastwood’s Monkeyflower (Mimulus eastwoodiae), big horn sheep, and hordes of pinyon gnats.

A floristics project is not for the faint of heart – the days are long (this is not a 9-5 gig!), the work physically demanding, most of it solitary, and some of those backcountry roads…! However, with creativity, friends and family can be convinced to help. I owe much of my successful 2011 season to those who joined me in the field including Ernie Nelson, Linda Deeds, and Kim Hansen. Of course, being herbarium manger, Ernie had to help, but that makes him no less fun to be in the field with – especially since he presses what he collects. Non-botanist friends Kim and Linda traveled out from Nebraska to experience some time in the high country. Not only were they better at getting the whole plant than I, but they enjoyed pressing, and even numbered extra newsprint before heading back to the flatlands. The family dogs joined my husband Joe in the field with me on occasion. They were great company, but often more entertainment than help. As Joe has been totally supportive of this venture in more ways than one, he is forgiven for not wanting to help press plants. Botanical assistant of the year, though, has to go to my youngest son, Tyler. A graduate student at Montana State University, he made time in his busy mountain biking schedule to come down and backpack with me into Wetterhorn Basin. A pretty good botanist, not only did he collect the highest part of the basin, but he hauled out about 300 of the 400 plants we collected.

Colorado hookless cactus, Sclerocactus glaucus
The days are shorter now, but the hours are still long. The product of a field season and a half, about 6,500 collections, sit in boxes, most of which await identification. Now, there’s a number I don’t want to think about – especially since another full season is planned on the project! Classes, herbarium work, and commuting from Fort Collins have certainly slowed down the id process. And even though I enjoy herbarium work and identifying the plants I have collected, I find my mind wandering to the adventures of last summer. Flushing ptarmigan and sage grouse chicks, watching a bear and her cub climb a tree, long hikes, and backcountry excursions. What a job – driving down a road just to see what’s there, hiking, collecting plants, all in a landscape that can move me to tears. Is it summer yet?

Revised on: 3 Feb 2012

NOTE: Thanks to Dorde Woodruff for making me aware of the common name change for Sclerocactus glaucus.


  1. Lori, this is not "Uinta Basin hookless cactus" but Sclerocactus glaucus that grows only in Colorado. The Feds finally admitted that they are not the same, in a document in the Federal Register,Vol 74(177): 47112-47117 September 15, 2009. The original mixup was due to lack of knowledge back in the 70s. and because S. brevispinus and S. wetlandicus in Utah don't have hooked spines either - except wetlandicus does in part. Yours looks like authentic S. glaucus, though it is hard to tell with juveniles. Many hybrids with S. parviflorus in Colorado are not recognized as such.

  2. Hi Dodre, thanks for pointing that out. That's what I get for using a common name - I did have the scientific name correct. My resource indicated S. glaucus as Uinta Basin hookless cactus, but I see USDA Plants database as it as Colorado hookless cactus. I'll have to change that in my notes.

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