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Botany Photo of the Day
In science, beauty. In beauty, science. Daily.

Townsendia condensata

Townsendia condensata
Townsendia condensata
Townsendia condensata

Taisha wrote today's entry with input from the photographer of the images.

Today's photos are of Townsendia condensata, or the cushion Townsend daisy (sometimes, cushion Easter-daisy). Picking up on a few entries written earlier this year, this species is also featured in the book Alpine Plants of British Columbia, Alberta, and Northwest North America by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon.

The photographs and distribution map are courtesy of Chris Lee (thank you!). Chris is a PhD candidate here at the University of British Columbia, working with Dr. Jeannette Whitton to examine patterns of relationships between members of the genus Townsendia. Chris also happened to be the teaching assistant for a course I completed over the summer, Plants and People.

Townsendia condensata, of the Asteraceae, is a cushion-forming species that grows only 1-2cm tall. It is stemless (or nearly so) with mostly basal, spoon-shaped, white hairy leaves. The solitary flower heads are made up of white or occasionally pink ray florets and numerous yellow to orange disk florets. The soft and hairy involucres are narrow and scaled (see: Parry, CC. 1874. Botanical Observations in Western Wyoming. The American Naturalist. 8:211-213).

This species is found at elevations between 10500 and 11500 feet (~2300-3500 meters) on rocky slopes, talus & fell fields and alpine zones in southwestern Alberta, Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah with a disjunct population in California. Chris commented that the distribution pattern of this species is interesting, noting that the disjunct populations in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California are separated from other Townsendia condensata not only by vast distances, but also by a huge dispersal barrier, the Great Basin. While the distance between the Rocky Mountain populations in Alberta and Wyoming is also significant, he points out that they are connected as a part of the same mountain range with potentially similar habitat, while habitat of the intervening Great Basin is vastly different than the mountainous Sierra Nevada Range and the Rocky Mountains.

Chris has a few suggestions to explain this distribution pattern. One, that in distant geological time, before the formation of the Great Basin, the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains habitat was more similar to each other, and that perhaps Townsendia condensata had a wider distribution spanning California to Wyoming. Over geological time, as the Great Basin sank and the mountains rose around it, the habitat of the Great Basin became less suitable for this species and thus only the mountain populations survived. This would imply that Townsendia condensata is quite an ancient species! Another option he suggests is that the seeds could have been dispersed by a bird, either from California to Wyoming, or vice versa. Lastly, he also mentions that members of these populations look nearly identical, but that they could still be different species altogether. This happens to be what Chris is addressing as a part of his research by using chloroplast DNA from dried leaf material of recently collected plants and comparing the differences in the DNA of both populations along with other species of Townsendia. If the DNA is dissimilar, then it may be two different species, but if similar, then the two biogeographic explanations would have to be researched further.

7 Comments

As soon as I saw the map I wondered about geological time, but not being an American I wasn't aware of the geological movements of the region. Great stuff. And such a cute little plant, too! Thanks for the coin scale, Chris, a big help.

I see a flower structure that looks strikingly like a protea from Australia/New Zealand.

The geological distance is indeed ripe for speculation, but how do we get to a working theory of dispersal?

What a fascinating little plant. I have tried to grow Townsendias from seed but for some reason no luck. After viewing this e-mail, have decided to order the book mentioned - Alpine Plants of BC and AB by Pujar and McKinnon. For an "elderly" lady, it will be a great pleasure to look at those photographs of plants I am no longer able to tramp through the mountains to see in person. Fran

Thanks for the especially beautiful (and informative) photo, the maps and an exceptionally interesting discussion. I am so grateful to Daniel and all those who do Botany Photo of the Day....I've learned a lot through reading these pages.

Thanks for including the penny. I've often wondered about the sizes of the plants. Sometimes it's hard to tell in a photograph.

Townsendia has 3 other congeners (for total of 4 species) in California - all occur on the far eastern edge of the Sierras, White Mts, Inyo Mts and Lassen/Modoc Plateau. Do these other regions have a similar number of related species? Maybe one area is more of the center of original distribution for the genus...

Thanks everyone for the comments on my photo of one of my favourite species in the genus. This species happened to be one of the first Townsendia plants that I had the pleasure to encounter when I first started my graduate program here at UBC. I'll try to respond to some of the comments above.
Growing Townsendia can be challenging, especially as many of the species are slow growing, long lived perennials. For the most part, the various taxa require good, well-draining soil that doesn't get waterlogged. In rainy Vancouver, try growing them on a slope, or in a place with an artificial rain break. Biennials such as T. parryi and T. florifer may be easier to propagate by seed.
Other states have many more Townsendia taxa than California. Utah, for example, has upwards of 17 taxa found throughout the state. Wyoming is also thought to be another area of diversity for Townsendia. Despite this, I think there is evidence that the origins of the genus are to the south around New Mexico. The most closely related genera to Townsendia include Boltonia, Dichaetophora and Astranthium, which I think have ranges somewhere around Texas. New Mexico and Arizona contain the species T. formosa, which looks morphologically most similar to the related genera.

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