I stay close behind Melissa. She walks up the desert wash in Chaco sandals and a skirt. Her steps are swift and balanced. It is difficult for me to match her pace. She walks through the creek. I plant one huge hiking boot at the creek’s edge and look for a stepping stone at midstream—which I don’t see—then stretch my stride to reach as far across the creek as possible. Melissa, who works for the National Park Service on vegetation management, found last fall a new population of our likely new species of Mentzelia. Today, she’s taking us to the population. Melissa had been working with her vegetation survey crew to gather data on the effects of tamarisk removal. We arrived as she and her crew were finishing lunch. Melissa put down her lunch box to lead Wendy, Max, Heidi, and I the half mile or so up the side canyon to the location where she found the new population of the new Mentzelia.
Seeing the population will provide me with important details about the kinds of environments used by this unusual subshrubby lineage of mentzelias. I want also to collect some additional individuals so that we can understand better the variation characteristic of this new species.
“It’s along here,” Melissa says and slows to look at the gravelly hump along the spine of the creek’s channel “There it is,” she says a moment later and points to the plant. The Mentzelia is growing in compacted gravel and sand in a shallow bank along the creek. It’s an odd place for a Mentzelia of this sort—we usually find relatives of this species growing on steep slopes of loose rocks or on knolls that have gypsum crusts. “There’s another one along here,” Melissa says. I look up the creek and then see the other, smaller plant a few feet from the first one.
Wendy, Max, and Heidi arrive, and we all admire the new mentzelias. “We should expect them on these slopes,” I say, and we disperse to climb the loose, mud-colored stone of Muav limestone. Wendy is above me on a steep slope when I begin to find additional plants. She climbs to one of the plants that is growing on a stack-like outcrop of stone, and here she finds a single open flower. We had not expected open flowers in this population, which we expect to flower later in the summer like other closely related subshrubby mentzelias.
As I walk along the slope above the creek, I find more individuals of the Mentzelia. They appear to be most frequent in the angles where stone outcrops meet the talus slope, which probably offers some advantage in increasing the amount of water available.
Wendy sits in the wash to press our collections of the Mentzelia. We talk about the oddness of finding the plants growing in the unstable wash, which has the advantage of offering more water than the steep, talus slopes but would be prone to scouring floods that could wash the plants away. As we talk about the possibilities of the plant’s seeds to germinate and establish themselves in the wash, I look down and see five young seedlings of the Mentzelia. These are young plants that probably germinated earlier in the spring.
Finding the Mentzelia population has given me a huge energy boost—which I need because we are soon expected at the rafts to continue our trip downriver this afternoon. I fill my hat with water and put it on my head. We begin swiftly to walk down the wash.
[this essay dates to 4 May]