Favorite Travel Quotes

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
-- Mark Twain
Innocents Abroad

"Stop worrying about the potholes in the road and celebrate the journey." -- Fitzhugh Mullan

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." -- Lao Tzu

Botanical Adaptations to the Desert

©Bert Gildart: Several  days ago, I rode my bike by an area of Anza Borrego Desert State Park in which Hedge Hog Cacti were blooming in profusion. Next morning Janie and I drove by the same area and could not find a single Hedge Hog in bloom. I know that flowers of the species close at night, but apparently they remain closed when clouds are heavy and winds are blowing.

Hedge Hog is an interesting species for other reasons as well, specifically for the adaptations it has made to harsh desert conditions. In college, botany fascinated me and I took a number of courses on the subject as electives. Over the years I’ve used the information and hope others might enjoy hearing it here. Information about desert flowers is currently manifest because so many cacti are now in bloom.

BorregoCacti-1 BorregoCacti-2

Hedge Hog Cactus about mid day then (photo on right) early morning.

From memory and recent readings, I know that plants must open their pores (stomates) in order for photosynthesis to take place. But if they were to open them during the day, not only would they expel carbon dioxide but they would also expel water when it was needed most. Evolution and time, however, addressed that problem. At night, CO2 is converted into an acid and stored until day, at which time light helps complete the process of photosynthesis. (Remember photosynthesis is the opposite of respiration, the latter of which exchanges CO2 for O2.)

There are yet other plants that have  evolved over the eons to desert conditions and those are explained by examining PACK RAT MIDDENS. Pack rats have life styles that contribute much to our understanding of the past. Rat families use middens year after year and century after century, and some of the oldest date back 40,000 years.

Phacelia3 Forget-me-Not2 Phacelia

L to R:  Phacellia, Forget-Me-Not (Cryptantha), Phacelia sp.

By examining the “middens” – contents, which are preserved by urine that hardens to such an extent that it almost appears they have ossified – scientist have been able to peer into the past. For instance, biologists know from the presence of identifiable seeds that certain types of phacelia, Forget-me-Nots, and Primrose existed in the Mojave 10,000 years ago. Subsequent to that time, however, these plants disappeared but then, about 3,000 years ago, somewhat similar seeds reappeared in the nests of pack rats, i.e,. their middens.

Janice E. Bowers, in an extraordinarily erudite paper (written for a botany journal), suggests two possibilities. She says the climate may have changed and then changed back, or, she says, members of the genus Cryptantha, Camissonia, Phacelia, and others, might have evolved features to cope with today’s conditions. In other words, my examples posted here could be relatively new species.


Booth’s Primrose

If so, then, these plants are products of the late Pleistocene, an epoch characterized by glaciers and with subsequent glacial lakes that created relatively mild conditions. Those conditions, then, account for the reappearance of seeds from the three genera (Cryptantha, Camissonia, Phacelia) I’ve included here. Common names are listed above, but again, they include Phacelia, Forget-me-Nots, and Primrose.

I’m fascinated by the ways in which nature has learned to adapt to specific challenges, and hope you enjoy this sharing of enthusiasm. Of course, by providing this information I also have an excuse to post images. One image shows the plant at midday, the other at the approach of dawn.

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4th ed. Autographed by the Authors

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Hiking Shenandoah National Park is the 4th edition of a favorite guide book, created by Bert & Janie, a professional husband-wife journalism team. Lots of updates including more waterfall trails, updated descriptions of confusing trail junctions, and new color photographs. New text describes more of the park’s compelling natural history. Often the descriptions are personal as the Gildarts have hiked virtually every single park trail, sometimes repeatedly.

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One Response to “Botanical Adaptations to the Desert”

  1. Bill D. Says:

    Thanks Bert for your update on the Hedgehog Cactus and how plants adapt to the harsh desert conditions.

    I always enjoy your photos, posts, and articles in Airstream Life magazine!