Published: Feb. 24, 2021

Aliciella SedifoliaThis alpine-endemic plant is now known from four sites in the San Juans of southwestern Colorado. The species was originally collected in 1892 at an uncertain type locality. (The “type locality” is that site from where a species is first described.) In the case of Aliciella sedifolia, there was a paucity of information on the original historical label, and its exact location had been a mystery for over a hundred years–until it was “rediscovered” by Sue Komarek, a Colorado botanist, in 1995. 

Twelve years later, Tim Hogan and Luke Tembrock, traversed a 13,000’ ridge, looking intently for fine gravel habitat in which Komarek had made her discovery. After carefully searching, a striking blue plant appeared from the pea-sized gravels, and a plant “lost” for 115 years had again been found!   

Documenting such a find is an essential responsibility of natural history museums and herbaria.  Collecting a “voucher” specimen provides tangible, objective evidence of a particular plant or animal at a specific time and place. It has been said, “without a voucher, it is only hearsay.” Our understanding of the distribution and abundance of life forms on this little known planet– the earth’s biodiversity – is based on the worldwide holdings in natural history museums and herbaria. These holdings come from the labors of many generations reaching back hundreds of years, and are, in a very real sense, our culture’s way of preserving the stories of our natural heritage.

Field notes from a botanical journey:

We traveled from the Boulder/Denver area on July 6th and drove over Stony Pass (12,588’) from the north (Silverton) side. In descending the other side a few days later, we discovered the north side is a less rugged 4WD road than the southeastern stretch between Rio Grande Reservoir and the pass. We made camp at the confluence of the upper Rio Grande, Pole Creek, and Bear Creek.  For the next three days we ‘commuted’ between this base and the country east and southeast of Stony Pass.  

Our first day of botanizing (July 7) was largely devoted to general collecting between the road and the 12,600’ pass ENE of Canby Mountain. The terrain was marked by moist meadows lower down, a nice rock outcrop further up, and alpine tundra on top of Peak 12,843 just above (ENE) the pass.  

On July 8th we headed directly for the previous day’s high point.  After collecting the alpine flora in the vicinity of the pass and Peak 12,843, we headed south along the broad, two-mile ridge leading to Sheep Mountain (13,292’). We initially searched barren sites for the Aliciella, before the ridge became more turfy with Kobresia and Acomastylis, and we quickened the pace. We approached the summit of Sheep Mt. via the steep, cobbly talus of its north ridge. Topping out on the flat summit plateau, we found two plants of Aliciella on a bare patch of pea sized gravels after a short search. With an afternoon storm appearing to gather, we continued to search, finding Papaver kluanense and Erigeron vagus, but no more of the stone crop gilia. Thunder and the threat of lightning drove us down, although in the end it never amounted to much.  

The next day we headed directly up Sheep’s west slopes (less than a mile from the road and 1200’ of elevation gain). Over the course of an hour, we found 15 more individuals within about 100 meters of our initial find (for a total of seventeen). Having documented (with photos and one specimen) the occurrence of Aliciella sedifolia at its type locality for the first time in 115 years, we decided to devote the rest of the day to searching the ridgeline and flat summit of Greenhalgh Mountain (13,220’), about one mile east of Sheep Mountain.  Despite the promising topography, we never found the flat-lying, fine-gravel substrate Aliciella seems to prefer. After an hour or more on top of Greenhalgh, in which we came to a greater appreciation of how uncommon that substrate might be, we descended from the saddle between the two Thirteeners, and traversed back to the truck below the steep and barren south slopes of Sheep Mountain.  

On July 10th we drove from our camp in San Juan County, down the rough road to Rio Grande Reservoir, and around to the Mill Creek Campground, above Lake City, in Hinsdale County. The next day we climbed six miles and four thousand vertical feet; relocating the site where Komarek collected specimens in 2003 and she noted “about one thousand plants present” on the broad south face “just before [the] hogback leading to the summit”. We found a similar number of individuals, growing with scattered Erysimum capitatum and Elymus scribneri. Curiously, we did not find any Aliciella above the hogback, although the slope and substrate seemed appropriate, and this was the site where Komarek made her initial (re)discovery in 1995. As on Sheep Mountain, we documented our find with photographs and specimens.  

Looking across the country from the two sites where we found Aliciella, it was impossible not to imagine suitable habitat on the surrounding mountains where the species might be growing. Surely, there must be more flat-lying areas, with the pea sized gravels where we found our plants. And sure enough, in recent years two other sites have been discovered by climbers with eyes for rare plants.  

A footnote to this is that during the week prior to our visit, Elaine and Dave Hill from Boulder, CO, spent several days camped at Cataract Lake, climbing mountains in the area with two friends, including the peak on which Sue Komarek had rediscovered the stone crop gilia. Elaine has a keen eye for plants and recognized the gilia as something unusual and of special concern. Over the next few days Dave, Elaine, and their friends kept an eye out for the plant and the habitat. They did not see any more of the Aliciella.   

An additional note pertains to Sheep Mountain. While we documented the population on the presumed type locality for the first time in over a century, the site had been searched by botanists in recent years. Dr. Ron Hartman and a graduate student from the Rocky Mountain Herbarium in Laramie, WY, along with Dean Earhard, a USFS ecologist with the Rio Grande National Forest, searched the summit in July of 2004 (Hartman and Earhard, pers. comm.). And Dr. Ken Heil from San Juan College in Farmington, N.M. reportedly searched Sheep Mountain in 2005 (J. Mark Porter, pers. comm.). Why these experienced botanists did not find the plant is not clear – is it possible the plant does not show itself every year? On the other hand, it is a small plant on a big mountain, and it would be easy to miss.  

Finally, it is worth noting that Peak 13,841 feet is among the one hundred highest Thirteeners in Colorado and climbing these “Centennials” is a goal for many of the avid climbers in the state. At least a half dozen people had climbed the peak in the week prior to our visit (summit register) and tracks were clearly evident in the Aliciella habitat. An additional threat to the species may be sheep grazing. Large allotments are open in the basin below Sheep Mountain and in the vicinity of Peak 13,841 feet, and while the specific sites where we found the stone crop gilia would probably not be attractive to sheep, it is impossible to say how many unknown populations might be extirpated without our ever knowing of their existence.  

From our peak, we were chased down earlier than we wanted by thunder and lightning. Nevertheless, there was a certain spring to our step as we walked out through the graupel and rain – happy to have spent some time getting to know one of Colorado’s rarest alpines. The next day we drove back to the Front Range beneath overcast skies.    

Tim Hogan
University of Colorado Museum of Natural History
Herbarium (COLO) 20
March 2008

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