Field of Science

The Mancos Saltbush: Life in the Badlands

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Mancos saltbush Proatriplex pleiantha, from here.


Proatriplex pleiantha, the Mancos saltbush, is arguably not much to look at. It never grows very large (only about half a foot in height) and though a single plant may produce a lot of flowers, they are not very showy. Nevertheless, this little fleshy-leaved annual is something of a survivor. It grows on badlands in only a few localities in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, and may be the only vegetation to be found on the eroded clays that it calls home. It persists in this hostile environment by not persisting; instead, each individual plant will produce hundreds, if not thousands, of seeds during its short life that may lie dormant in the soil for several years, waiting for the flash of rain that will allow it to emerge.

The Mancos saltbush was first described in 1950; its vernacular name refers to the original collection locality near the Mancos River. It was originally described in the genus Atriplex, a diverse cosmopolitan assemblage of herbs and shrubs in the family Chenopodiaceae commonly known as saltbushes and oraches (the garden orache or mountain spinach A. hortensis has long been grown as a vegetable in Europe). However, right from the start it was considered distinctive enough to be placed in its own subgenus, later raised to the status of a distinct genus by Stutz et al. (1990). A molecular phylogenetic analysis by Kadereit et al. (2010) later confirmed that Proatriplex pleiantha is not a direct relative of Atriplex, instead being associated with other small North American Chenopodiaceae genera Grayia and Stutzia. Features distinguishing Proatriplex from true Atriplex include the succulent leaves, the flowers being borne in groups of three to seven in the axil of a single bract, and the presence of a five-segmented perianth around female flowers (Atriplex flowers are borne singly to a bract, and lack a perianth).

Because of its restricted range, the Mancos saltbush may be vulnerable to disturbances in its habitat; for instance, one of its main population centres in New Mexico is in close proximity to the Navajo coal mine. Nevertheless, this species is not currently listed by the US Fish & Wildlife service as being of concern, due to its being locally abundant in the areas where it does occur. Surveys of this species have been complicated by the dependence of its germination on suitable weather conditions: in years with little rainfall, it may appear to be almost absent, but the advent of a wetter year may prove otherwise. All it takes is a decent drop of rain, and you may see the badlands bloom.

REFERENCES

Kadereit, G., E. V. Mavrodiev, E. H. Zacharias & A. P. Sukhorukov. 2010. Molecular phylogeny of Atripliceae (Chenopodioideae, Chenopodiaceae): implications for systematics, biogeography, flower and fruit evolution, and the origin of C4 photosynthesis. American Journal of Botany 97 (10): 1664–1687.

Stutz, H. C., G.-L. Chu & S. C. Sanderson. 1990. Evolutionary studies of Atriplex: phylogenetic relationships of Atriplex pleiantha. American Journal of Botany 77 (3): 364–369.

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