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A Botanical Travelogue – East Bound I-80 to Gerlach

by Tipidan

Pilgrims to Black Rock Playa – Eastbound I-80 Donner Pass, CA to Gerlach, Nevada

As you roll eastward on Interstate 80 questing for variety and extremes, know that — to a botanist — you've found them by the time you pass Sacramento. From there to the Wadsworth turnoff, the climate change per mile is more rapid and more dramatic than anywhere else on earth. The World Climate map in your Atlas will confirm this.

And in the Nevada desert country it is common for summer temperatures to fluctuate up to fifty degrees from day to night. These changes and extremes of climate lead inevitably to a great diversity of biological habitats. In fact, Nevada is the fifth most floristically diverse state in the nation.

Fellow travellers! Nevada is a great deal more than sagebrush and dirt!

Herein we present, for the enjoyment and edification of Burning Man enthusiasts everywhere who travel through Nevada en route to their spatial and temporal goal: a botanical travelogue! I am a botanist, and this cyber-nature-walk will include many plants that you've seen by the side of the road for years in this desert. It's time you became better acquainted!

Permit me to join you at the descent from Donner Pass, as you enter the canyon of the Truckee River. Notice the effects of the increasingly arid climate. Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines replace red and white firs, and sagebrush can be seen in the understory, along with a taller, scraggly dark green shrub with three-tipped leaves that resemble those of sagebrush. This is bitterbrush, a member of the rose family with tiny, yellow, wild-rose-like flowers.

The tops of the ridges that flank the Truckee River are covered with growth of a very interesting tree, the Curl-leaf Mountain Mahogany. It too, is in the rose family. Its flowers produce seeds with long, silky appendages (similar to those of Clematis) that shine silvery in the sun. Its leaves are leathery and dark green on top, fuzzy underneath, and in-rolled at the edges.

Mountain Mahogany wood is extremely hard, wavy grained, and nearly impossible to cut with either axe or chainsaw. When splintered by huge weighted drop-mauls into wavy, pointed shards, it's prized by chefs — smoking and charring of meats with mahogany is a regional specialty. The coals are so hard one can grill a steak directly upon them, with superior results. The Basque sheepherders who once roamed these hills whiled away their isolated hours carving spoons of this wood: a daunting task!

Descending I-80 the pines begin to thin, and mixed with the sagebrush and bitterbrush one can find desert peach. Inconspicuous from the road in early September, it stands out in the spring with its beautiful sprays of pink flowers.

Along the Truckee River approaching Reno you may sight Black Cottonwood, various native willows, and Silver Buffaloberry: a native shrub larger than sagebrush but the same color. The pines have disappeared from the valley bottoms, and can be seen only on the ridgecrests above. You're entering the Sagebrush Zone: a distinct plant community with sagebrush predominating. Sagebrush makes a nice deodorant, rubbed briskly over the body after a hotspring soak. But don't put it in your stew: it's not sage. True sage is in the mint family; sagebrush is in the sunflower family. The culinary herb tarragon is a relative, as is wormwood, an ingredient of nineteenth-century liqueurs such as absinthe.

The City of Reno sits squarely within the Sagebrush Zone, but climate and human intervention have made Reno a much more interesting place. Reno has Japanese Red and Black Pines, numerous Ash, Big Tree Sequoia, Eastern Red Cedar, California Incense Cedar, true (Atlas) Cedar, Catalpa and my personal favorite, European Beech. There are magnificent English Oaks in people's back yards. The largest oak in Nevada is in front of the McKinley School, fronting on the Truckee River near First and Keystone.

To see some experimental plantings in a pleasant open setting, visit the May Arboretum in Rancho San Rafael Park, west of North Sierra St. in north Reno not far from the University of Nevada campus. The Kleiner Oak Grove in particular is delightful, and is the only place in Nevada where you can look up and see nothing but oak leaves. In the fall they are thick on the ground.

Truckee Meadows, the valley that Reno rests in, is one of the far outposts of the eastern United States. It has the traditional four-season climate: in Reno, the grass is green in the summer and brown in the winter; in California, just the opposite. Reno's climate, plus irrigation and soil enrichment, have welcomed many cold-adapted species from Europe and eastern North America.

They grow big and healthy. Backyard Reno holds championship-size specimens of trees and shrubs. I know one Snowball Bush with stems as big as my calves, and a Lilac as big as a small tree. Because of our dry climate, common pathologies are absent. A rotten limb is almost unheard of.

Around older homes and surrounding the Quadrangle at the University of Nevada, there's a big surprise for tree lovers — the last of the American Elms! Yes, folks, this is it! Dutch Elm disease never made it to our little haven. Come and see our Elms, and hug them!

So Reno is really a grand horticultural experiment in an early stage. These exotic species have been growing here no more than 125 years; English Oaks can live for millennia. No one knows how long other species may live here. They may thrive and become naturalized, or they may fail to make it and disappear. But we know that as long as we can keep water to their roots, many cold-adapted species will keep on growing.

But let's get back on the road!

Re-entering the Truckee Canyon with Reno behind us, we appear to be back in a natural environment. In reality, the hills here have been burned many times and the native shrub cover has been replaced by growths of cheatgrass: the light-straw-colored grass with the nodding heads. It's an introduced annual that grows early, dries fast, and for the rest of the season poses extreme fire hazard to the native shrublands it invades.

The cottonwoods along the river here are Fremont's Cottonwood, the native southwestern riparian (streamside) species. Near homesteads they may be interspersed with specimens of Plains Cottonwood, which was brought here from the Great Plains by settlers in the last century, or with Black Willow, brought here by settlers from California.

You may notice a smaller, sagebrush-colored tree. It's Russian Olive, a thorny tree with fragrant yellow flowers in the spring. It was introduced from central Asia during the last century as an ornamental, and has become naturalized from California to Wyoming and beyond. It is a close relative to the native, smaller Silver Buffaloberry.

In the late nineteenth century, the Nevada agricultural extension agency searched world-wide for tree species that might thrive in the harsh dry climate here. They imported from central Asia the Siberian Elm. It is hardy, drought-tolerant, and produces heaps of seeds. Never a prized horticultural species, once it was introduced it rapidly naturalized (reproducing in the wild). It is now everywhere, even in Gerlach, and is considered pestiferous to the point that cultivation of Siberian Elms is illegal in Washoe County! But it is not completely useless; it can serve as a "nurse tree" for species requiring shade when they are young.

Once we leave the riparian zone of the lower Truckee River at Wadsworth and head north, we finally enter the Great Basin Desert of northern Nevada. In contrast to "hot" deserts nearer to sea level, like the Mojave, the Great Basin is considered a cold desert. There are several vegetation zones within it, each with a unique visual and aesthetic character. These zones form bands contouring the mountains and valleys, as temperature, precipitation and soils change with elevation.

At the tops of the mountains is an Alpine Zone, covered with low plants often no higher than one's ankles. Just below is the Mountain Sagebrush Zone, inhabited by tall, thick, rich, mild-smelling mountain sagebrush, often interspersed with aspen groves. Depending upon the mountain range, there may be conifers of various species. Limber and Whitebark Pine can be found in northern Nevada, and Bristlecone in the south. The mountains you see from the highway harbor these zones, but are nearly devoid of conifers.

Below the mountain sagebrush lies a zone that's usually a mix of Pinyon Pine and Juniper; but north of the Truckee River, Pinyons are unknown. So our "pygmy woodland" P-J zone holds only juniper trees. What you see south of Gerlach is Utah Juniper; north and west of the Black Rock Desert is Western Juniper, a larger tree.

Below and understory to the Juniper Zone is the Sagebrush Zone. Sagebrush is the "signature" plant of the Great Basin Desert, and is also the State Flower of Nevada. Its flowers are inconspicuous, greenish-yellow, and bloom in the fall. There are a great many species of sagebrush in Nevada, and sagebrush puts in an appearance in almost every zone. But in the Sagebrush Zone it dominates. The most common species here is Wyoming Big Sagebrush, a shrub about three feet tall.

As you climb the hill from the Pyramid Lake Basin to the Winnemucca Dry Lake Basin, look for an interesting phenomenon. The sand dunes here are covered with a well-developed, monocultural stand of tumbleweeds! Last year's are still in the ground. They never tumbled!

Tumbleweeds — the straw-colored balls that dot the dunes — are Russian Thistle (not a true thistle, just spiny like one). It's an introduced species that came into the Great Plains from Asia in a bag of seed. Though it has spread all over the West, there is nothing American or "Western" about it. All that "tumblin' along with the tumbling tumbleweeds" stuff was written by a Hollywood songwriter who didn't know his plants. Native sand-dune-dwelling plants often cannot compete with exotics, and on this site they have probably been eliminated by the invader.

Somewhere around the 4000-foot level the Sagebrush Zone transitions to the Saltbush Zone. These two zones have very different aesthetics and "vibes." The Sagebrush Zone is relatively lush, with dense growth of fragrant blue-gray-green plants tall enough to wave in a strong wind. The Saltbush Zone is stark, with greenish-brownish-gray shrubs, short and widely spaced, often rounded in form.

The difference is clearly noticeable near the divide between the Winnemucca Dry Lake Basin and the Black Rock - Smoke Creek Basin. Keep an eye out for the zonal transitions as you travel — you will cross back and forth as your elevation changes.

The hilly region surrounding the Black Rock Playa is botanically diverse. It's not pristine, but to the discerning eye of this former Range Conservationist it is native shrub rangeland in good to excellent condition, much of it. Along the east side of the Playa, just off the road that leads to Trego Hot Springs, one can find Wyoming Big Sagebrush, Littleleaf Horsebrush, Bud Sage, Spiny Hopsage, Shadscale, Green Rabbitbrush, Rubber Rabbitbrush, Fourwing Saltbush, Quailbrush, Nuttal's Saltbush, Nevada Ephedra, Bailey's Greasewood, and Purple Sage. And that's just the shrubs! The grasses and wildflowers are a study in themselves.

Purple Sage is a true sage (in the mint family). It is the only true sage native to the Great Basin and is relatively rare. It's a gorgeous plant, blooming in the spring. Its blossoms are purple with pinkish-lavender subtending bracts: they have a strong peppery smell that's unique and quite different from sagebrush. Purple Sage tends to grow in the Sagebrush Zone or in the transition to Saltbush, on rocky scree slopes or along rocky draws.

Around the periphery of the Black Rock Desert, the vegetation zones are "telescoped" and in some places one can easily walk from the Sagebrush Zone to the Saltbush Zone to bare playa in a matter of minutes.

The Saltbush Zone that immediately surrounds the playa is floristically simple. The larger greenish shrub with succulent leaves is Black Greasewood. It grows only where the water table is high. Understory to it is saltgrass, a rhizomatous, prickly grass. One can also find two plants with high salt-tolerance that may rate as "half-shrubs" (shrubby plants that die back to the ground each winter): Seablight and Iodinebush.

The hot springs that surround the Black Rock Desert harbor unique plant communities. Russian Olive is there, as well as two species of Tamarisk. Also called Salt Cedar, it's a flowering plant with scaly leaves like a "cedar" or delicate juniper. It produces lovely sprays of pink flowers in the spring.

Tamarisk was introduced into south Texas from the Mediterranean region as an ornamental in the 1840's and rapidly spread throughout the southwest by traveling up the Rio Grande drainage. It has reached the Wyoming-Montana border. The Tamarisk specimens around the Black Rock probably came from local, independent introductions: it has been observed around abandoned homesteads. Often seen only as a scraggly shrub, under the right conditions Tamarisk can grow into a thick-trunked tree with beautiful lacy foliage.

So there you have it, my Brothers and Sisters of the Burning Man: a brief exposition of the flora along the road to the playa. I bid you happy travelling and Godspeed on your journeys. May you now look at the landscape with a keener eye and a deeper appreciation as you travel along at 65 mph. Perhaps you'll even want to stop on the way more often now, for more than just a "pit stop"!

Yours always in service to the Burning Man community,

All my Love,
TIPIDAN, Senior Black Rock Ranger