Searching For Life At Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring

You cross a bridge over a burbling stream, clamber up a copper-toned hill and suddenly there it is: Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. Standing on a wooden walkway, I inhale the warm, earth-scented vapors that glide across the turquoise water. Otherworldly? Yes. But, surprisingly even here, in this stunning but inhospitable place, there is life and things are growing.

About

First described in 1871 by the Hayden Expedition, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the United States. Veiled in steam, it bubbles like a bathtub, offering a glimpse now and then into the churning caldron. The deep blue pool is impressive, but more surprising still are the tentacles of golden yellow, burnt orange and metallic green that fan outwards from the roiling waters, carving kaleidoscopic paths across the scorched soil.

Grand Prismatic Spring from new overlook trail

Upon seeing the spring for the first time, Ferdinand Hayden (the leader of the Expedition) wrote:

Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of color of these remarkable prismatic springs.

It’s enough to make your head spin.

 

Yellowstone’s hot springs

There are different kinds of hot springs at Yellowstone National Park. Grand Prismatic Spring is one. Old Faithful is another. Both result from groundwater that has been heated by molten magma and risen to the surface. In the case of Old Faithful, however, the hot water encounters blockages on its way up. This produces the famous geyser’s explosive eruption of steam.

Old Faithful

By contrast, the Grand Prismatic Spring is produced by hot water that rises to the surface through cracks in the earth’s crust. This allows for a continual flow of water that rises, cools and falls to the earth only to rise again.

Looking into the turquoise depths of the spring

Grand Prismatic Spring

Pouring almost 500 gallons of scalding water per minute into nearby Firehole River, Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest and most brilliant colored of Yellowstone’s many hot springs. The high temperature of the spring (estimated at around 160 degrees F) is responsible for the steam that hovers 24/7 above the crater.

Due to this cycle of heating, cooling and re-heating, the spring has developed rings of varying temperatures. The hottest water, which is located in the center, is too extreme for living things. However, as the water spreads outwards, it gradually cools, allowing for conditions more amenable to life to develop.

Bands of color at Grand Prismatic Spring

Happily, the viewing boardwalk provides safe passage for we humans atop the smoldering landscape. Embroidered with signs warning against the dangers of erring from the prescribed path, it features stories of how people have been scalded, children killed and family pets sucked into the vortex. Even standing too close to the spring can cause intense burns.

The viewing boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring

So how can life exist in such harsh conditions? The answer lies in the prismatic colors. Each of these stunning hues harbors billions of colorful microorganisms that live in the spring’s runoff channels. These ‘extremophiles’ (so named for their ability to live in conditions that were once thought too hot to host life) are not only surviving, but thriving, happily assembled in thick, microbial mats.

Forests in miniature

Microbial mats may not sound all that interesting until you consider that each of these burgeoning communities is in fact a miniature ecosystem functioning much like a forest. There’s a ‘canopy’ of microbes performing photosynthesis. And, there’s an ‘understory’ of organisms playing the crucial role of decomposition and recycling of nutrients back to the canopy.

The rainbow of colors that the mats produce depends on the temperature of the water. In the summer, the mats tend to be brown, orange or red and in the winter they tend to be dark green.

Microbial mats radiating outwards from Grand Prismatic Spring

Cynobacteria, marine bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis, are one common organism found growing by the Grand Prismatic Spring. In the world’s oceans, cynobacteria occupy an important position at the bottom of the food web. At Yellowstone, however, they have had to make some ecological adjustments. These are evidenced in the distinctive yellow/orange color of the spring’s outer ring.

Specifically, a certain strain of cynobacteria called synechococcus has learned to survive the heat by adjusting its ratio of chlorophyll to carotenoids. Yellowstone’s extreme temperatures, high altitude sun and lack of shade can quickly overwhelm the photosynthetic process. So synechococcus manipulate their photosynthetic pigments to reflect only certain wavelengths of visible lights. They do this by employing carotenoids as shields, which results in their summertime yellow/orange color.

Close-up of some of the microbial communities

And so it goes. As you move further from the spring, more and more lifeforms can be found. Synechococcus is now joined by chloroflexi bacger, whose combined colors read as orange. Finally, as the temperature cools, the communities of bacteria at the furthest points produce the darkest color, a molten shade of coppery-brown.

View of spring from bridge

Hard to believe these mini orange and brown ‘forests’ are existing right under our very noses. Life is pretty amazing.

 

How To Successfully Grow Lavender: A Maryland Expert Weighs In

One of the great things about being a master gardener is all the choice lectures you get to attend. Today’s talk following the board meeting was no exception. It happened to coincide with the very moment I was asking myself “Why is my lavender not thriving?”. Suddenly, here was professional grower Sophia Watkins, ready to provide answers to all my questions.

Watkins runs a family-owned, sustainable lavender farm located at the foot of Sugarloaf Mountain in Montgomery County, Maryland. It is the largest lavender farm in the state. She grew up on the 286- acre farm, 26 acres of which are now dedicated to the cultivation of lavender.

Soleado Lavender Farm

The family prides itself on its long history of organic farming, a practice Watkins’ father adopted in the 1960s when the farm grew a mix of soybeans and grains. For a child, it was a fantastic way to grow up. So when Watkins and her fiancé took over the farm, they knew that they wanted to continue that legacy.

“Our goal was about preservation even more than about gardening,” she said. “We wanted to protect these special parts of Maryland and keep them alive for not only our own child but for everybody else’s children as well.”

Why choose lavender? The couple was looking to grow a sustainable perennial that deer wouldn’t eat and from which they could make products for sale. They hit on lavender not only for its drought tolerant qualities, but also for its many decorative and culinary uses. Along the way they added bees for pollination and today the farm boasts nine hives with over 40,000 bees in each, all producing lavender honey.

In a nod to the Latin American heritage of Watkins’ fiancé, they chose Soleado as the name for their farm. As it so happens, in their first year of operation, they also found themselves ‘dying in the heat’ as they got things established. Soleado, meaning sunny or ‘just baking in the sun’ suddenly took on a new shade of meaning.

 

Tips for how to successfully propagate lavender

At Soleado, all of the lavender is grown from cuttings, a practice most nurseries have moved to given the lower germination rate of seeds. Watkins harvests soft and hardwood cuttings averaging around 5 inches. Once she has the cuttings, she strips them of their leaves and dips them in a root hormone. Her top choice for an organic one is (not surprisingly) honey.

Watkins has had the most luck with her seedlings using a ‘bulky’ growing medium that provides maximum space for roots to expand. She mixes her own from Leafgro and perlite, then she plants the cuttings in 2” plastic pots.

The potted cuttings may spend up to 8 weeks in partial shade or in the greenhouse (under shade cloths) until they grow decent roots, after which they’re transplanted to the field. Watkins noted that if the seedlings are planted first outside, the process is usually quicker.

According to Watkins, three is the magic number of years for a good-sized plant to establish, after which it may continue to grow for another four. What happens around year seven I asked? If taken care of properly, lavender can last a good deal longer, with 10 to 20 years not being unheard of. And some historical properties have plants that are as much as 80 years old.

A great combo, hydrangea and lavender

Once established, lavender is a sun-loving plant. No variety can tolerate shade and still produce flowers. Once the flowers are harvested, Watkins sprays the plants’ roots with fish emulsion for fertilizer. “We need to fortify them after they’ve put all that energy into blooming, “ she said.

 

Cut, cut and then cut again

There is so much conflicting information about when and how to cut back lavender. Watkins freely admits that her method might not suit everyone. But for them, 2 to 4 times a year is ideal. They sheer their lavender like sheep, cutting back all new growth 3 to 4 times a year until the plants flower. The cutting back starts almost as soon as they plant the seedlings.

Cutting back encourages new growth

Since lavender has a tendency to open up in the middle, cutting back helps to encourage dense growth. This improves the overall looks of the plant and helps it get through the winter. It also allows more energy to go into developing strong roots, producing a thicker, healthier plant.

At Soleado, they cut back nothing thicker than a pencil, avoiding old wood. Watkins does NOT recommend cutting back old woody stems. If you absolutely must, she said to trim them back just to where the first bunch of leaves start on the bush.

They stop all cutting by the end of October.

 

Avoid shredded mulch

Along with lots of sun, lavender prefers to stay dry and ironically, once of its biggest threats to survival comes in the form of mulch. According to Watkins, shredded mulch is the biggest offender. Often harboring mold spores, this kind of mulch can spell death for lavender.

“What seems to really kill them is the mold spores that come in on shredded mulch,” said Watkins. “Given the amount of humidity we have (in Maryland), it’s really important to stick with a dry medium.”

If you’re using shredded mulch in the rest of your garden, Watkins advises keeping it at least 1 – 2 feet away from your lavender. At Soleado, they use crushed bluestone for mulch that they harvest from their driveway. Other great options include white gravel and seashells, both of which help to reflect light back onto the plant.

White gravel mulch

 

Wintering tips

Many of us have had the experience of losing our lavender plants over the winter. However, Watkins said, “Getting your plants through the winter does not have to do with size or age, even little seedlings can make it through the winter. A temperature of anything above 0 degrees Fahrenheit is OK.”

Frozen lavender

So what can we do to prepare for the colder months? The most important thing, according to Watkins, is to keep plants trimmed and thick. The thickness (or thatchiness) is what keeps the snow and ice out of the plants. (Although snow doesn’t seem to be as bad for lavender as ice.)

It’s a matter of creating a plants that have a good smooth cut on them so they become their own insulation.

 

No significant pests or diseases

Not only are its water needs low, but lavender is resistant to most pests and diseases. Watkins says occasionally she’ll observe spittlebugs on her plants, but that’s about it. The main concern is lavender’s super susceptibility to mold spores (mentioned above.) The main thing you can do for mold is to practice prevention.

Another great plus to lavender is that deer hate them, although Watkins observed that “Sometimes they’ll pull the seedlings out of the ground, ‘Just because.”’

Soleado Farms grows a mix of English, French and Spanish varieties of lavender. They’re always experimenting with new strains and have found that within each variety each year there are clear standouts. These days, Watkins is loving the “rabbit ear petals” on the flower tops of Spanish lavender.

Spanish lavender

To learn more about Soleado, tours of the farm and their lavender-based products, click here for the official website.

 

Life On the Edge: The High Altitude Plants of the Grand Canyon

Point Imperial, Grand Canyon North Rim

Anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon North Rim can tell you that hiking can be hard on the lungs given the altitude of just under 8,300 feet. And that’s just for starters, beautiful Point Imperial, the highest of the North Rim overlooks, tops in at almost 9,000. My daughter recently observed, while gingerly approaching the edge, that she felt as though she were slogging through a pool of molasses. This prompted me to wonder; how do plants grow under such challenging conditions? I set out to find the answer.

How they do it

The first thing I discovered was that plants that are able to live at high altitude are not like their lowland cousins. In order to survive, they have made some structural adaptations. These include irreversible, highly evolved physical responses to high-altitude environments not seen in low altitude plants. This mix of strategies, while particular to each species, often benefits the surrounding plant and animal communities as well.

Following are just a few.

The creamy flowers of cliffrose, blooming at 8,800 feet

Taking a breather

As chests heaving, we make our way to Point Imperial, I pause to reflect on the many plants that border the trail. How are these species thriving at altitudes of 8,000 feet plus? For one, air pressure is much thinner at higher elevations, making it difficult for my veins to pump oxygen throughout my body.

It turns out that at high altitude, the reduced pressure makes it harder for plants to pump water from soil to stem as well. But unlike humans, high altitude plants have come up with a solution. Rather than struggle to draw water and nutrients through inefficient transport systems, they have evolved smaller sized pathways. These vascular pathways allow them to channel fluids more quickly through a tighter area.

Firecracker penstemon, a desert native, growing at 8,800 feet

Partly due to these reduced hydraulic systems, trees and plants at high elevations tend to be smaller (to conserve energy) and to grow more slowly. They also are more likely to be spaced further apart. Western juniper, for instance, prefers to make its home on dry, rocky sites where there is less competition from larger species. And in exposed areas, it often assumes a stunted form, growing low to the ground.

Western juniper is sometimes described as looking like ‘polka-dots on the hillside’ for this reason.

Juniper growing on the slopes of the Grand Canyon

Taking it slow

Slower growth has the added benefit of longevity. Some of the oldest trees in existence grow at high altitude. This includes the bristlecone pine, which is said to be the oldest known living tree, with some believed to be over 4,000 years old.

An old bristlecone pine

Putting down roots

But I’m particularly impressed by the resilience of the Utah juniper, which can survive even the harshest of conditions. It can grow a 40 foot-long tap root that extends straight down through rocks and crevices, while its lateral roots can travel as far as 100 feet away. This strategy ensures that parts of the tree survive even if the tree itself is knocked down. In extreme cases, Utah juniper can even concentrate nutrients in just a few branches, keeping the main tree alive while the rest of the body shuts down.

Crooked remains of a Utah juniper – is it just conserving energy?

Drilling down

There’s no mistaking this shaggy, twisted shrub that grows high on dry rocky slopes in the Western United States. A member of the rose family, cliffrose has fragrant, creamy blooms that appear from spring to fall and provide important forage food for deer, cattle and sheep, especially during the winter. Its highly absorbent bark enables the plant to retain moisture as do its evergreen leaves.

Gnarled branches of cliffrose

But here’s the coolest thing about cliffrose; its mature seed has a long-tailed hair that attaches to the end of it. When the wind disperses the seeds, the hairs act like tiny parachutes and once the seed lands on the ground, the hair acts like a drill, rotating with the wind to drive the seed into the rocky soil.

A silver lining

Finally, who can resist the allure of gray and silver foliage? These plants employ an altogether different coping strategy. Gray and silver-leaved plants have tiny white hairs covering the leaf surface. The hairs reflect solar radiation, cooling the plant tissues and trapping moisture, which slows evaporation. This is especially important given the low moisture levels of the higher elevations.

Silver-leaved Winterfat, a species of flowering plant in the amaranth family

Gray-green Big Sagebrush growing on Point Imperial

One has only to look at the sun reflecting off their brilliant leaves to see these plants’ strategy at work.

These are just a few of the many fascinating plants that populate the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon. For more information on plant and tree life, as well as great hikes to see them, click here for the National Park Service’s Official Site. We stayed at the Grand Canyon Lodge, a spectacular property run by the Park Service, located on the lip of the North Rim.

 

Running High On The Hanging Gardens of Zion

Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park

I remember being in college the first time I heard of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I pictured these mythic gardens as masterpieces of flowers and greenery that were somehow suspended dozens of feet in mid-air. According to ancient texts, though, the gardens weren’t hanging in the literal sense, but only appeared to be floating; this was due to a remarkable product of human ingenuity. Continue reading

Catching the Wildflower Wave On Utah’s Patchwork Parkway

Wildflower meadow at Cedar Breaks National Monument

Just a stone’s throw away from Utah’s Bryce Canyon, there’s a scenic byway that cuts a 50-mile route across a series of breathtaking plateaus. Known as the Patchwork Parkway, it provides access to the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. In July, this stunning wilderness area takes on an added dimension: its meadows and slopes are painted with wildflowers. Continue reading

Pass The Vinegar, I Need To Water My Plants

After 14 days without water, only the plants treated with vinegar survived. NIKEN

Before you wrinkle your nose at this, hear me out, because it’s true. Scientists in Japan have discovered that ‘watering’ plants with vinegar can help them survive longer in drought conditions. I don’t know about you, but I’m reaching for that bottle of white vinegar right now to see if my hydrangeas wouldn’t like a swig.

Last week, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) published the results of a study in Nature Plants that reported they had uncovered a novel way to help plants survive drought. The study revealed that the researchers had stumbled upon a new biological pathway in plants that sprang into action in times of water stress. By further unraveling the pathway and the roles different chemicals played within it, the scientists discovered they could induce greater drought tolerance by growing plants in vinegar.

We all know vinegar’s miraculous properties for cleaning windows and removing stains from carpets, but helping plants cope with drought? Now that is shocking news indeed.

My hydrangea showing signs of water stress 

 

The study began with a collaborative effort to understand the plant Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress. A relative of cabbage and mustard, the genus of small flowering plants is the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced (which makes it one of the model organisms used for studying plant biology.)  Most importantly for the purposes of the study, Arabidopsis has a strong drought tolerance. This is due to a mutation to an enzyme called HDA6 (histone desacetylase6) that allows the plant to grow normally without water for extended periods of time.

Microscopic view of anther of Arabidopsis, also known as thale cress

Initial testing showed that when experiencing drought stress, Arabidopsis uses HDA6 to activate a biological pathway that produces acetate, the main component of vinegar. The HDA6 enzyme acts as a switch, controlling which type of metabolic pathway (sequence of chemical reactions undergone by a compound in a living organism) is active. While normal plants are busy using metabolic pathways to break down sugar for energy, in times of drought, the Arabidopsis plants switch to the acetate-producing pathway.

To find out how this switch works in times of water stress, scientists conducted an experiment. They grew normal plants under drought conditions, treating some with water, some with organic acids and others with acetic acid. After 14 days, 70% of the plants treated with acetic acid were still living while all of the other plants had died.

Microscopic view of stem epidermis of thale cress showing hairs and stomata

By measuring the amounts of acetate in Arabidopsis under stress, the team discovered that there was a direct correlation between the amount of acetate produced during periods of drought and how well the plants survived. And even more exciting, the team carried out the same experiment on rice, wheat and maize and found that their drought tolerance increased as well when grown in optimal acetic acid concentrations.

Close-up of rice plant

The implications of this research are huge. In an increasingly water-stressed future, this discovery might offer a simple, low-cost alternative to genetic engineering. I’m not sure if it will help my hydrangeas battle another scorching Maryland summer, but I’ll let you know.

 

 

Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Partial Shade Gardens

“Ferns are the embodiment of green thoughts in a green shade and if a leafy shadow could take root, moss would surely be the result” –Hugh Johnson ‘Principles of Gardening’

I was always drawn to shady nooks as a child, especially if they beckoned from around a corner. In my mind, a deep green space spoke of mystery and enclosure with its long shadows and dappled play of light. This fascination has continued into adulthood where these memories now inspire many of my designs, particularly when it comes to creating a partial shade garden. Continue reading

Denver Botanic Gardens Showcases the Best Of Western Design

Reflecting pool in the Denver Botanic Gardens

If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best display gardens I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to impress, and impress me it did, with its distinctive spaces presenting plants from all parts of the world. Continue reading

Having A Ball With Alliums (Ornamental Onions)

Allium giganteum, also known as Giant Onion 

They look like they’re right out of a Dr. Zeus book — giant purple balls stuck like lollipops on naked green stems. I love to watch the expressions on people’s faces when they encounter the colorful spheres for the very first time. Drought tolerant and virtually disease and pest-free, alliums (also known as ornamental onions) are a sure bet if you’re looking to liven up your garden. Continue reading

How to Keep Your Potted Plants In Shape All Summer

Most of us who grow flowers in containers in summer know it can be a constant battle to keep things looking their best. We feed and water our plants diligently, yet in no time the flowers stop blooming and the stems become long and leggy. As a garden designer, I find that how to care for plants in containers is one of the most frequent questions I am asked. So, what can we do to keep our potted plants in shape all summer? Continue reading