Denver EcoFlora Project's Journal

May 30, 2024

Results of 2024 Denver-Boulder City Nature Challenge are in!

The City Nature Challenge is a yearly event for folks in cities all over the world to observe and document biodiversity in their own backyards. To participate, people make observations of any organism – plant, animal, insect, and more – on iNaturalist for a few days in late April to early May. This is followed by a short identification phase—where a community of naturalists work on identifying all species observed.

In the Denver-Boulder Metro area, more than 4,500 observations were observed by nearly 400 people of almost 1,000 species! This year, our most observed species was American plum (Prunus americana). Fun species observed included black bear (Ursus americanus), beaver (Castor canadensis), summer tanager (Pirangra rubra), snowy egret (Egretta thrula), great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), and roundtip and front range twinpods (Physaria vitulifera and P. bellii). We even had 73 research-grade observations of 10 species that are listed as rare, endangered, or threatened by NatureServe or the US Fish and Wildlife Service. This effort to observe biodiversity also further enhanced our understanding of species distributions. For example, a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Denver found the first record of a parasitic orchid species (striped coralroot, Corallorhiza striata) at our own Chatfield Farms bioblitz!

For 2024’s global challenge, there were almost 2.5 million observations of over 65,000 species made by 83,000+ people from over 500 cities in ~50 countries around the world. Almost 4,000 of those species are considered rare, endangered, or threatened. The leading city for numbers of observations, species, and observers was La Paz, Bolivia with 165,000+ observations of more than 5,000 species! Congrats to La Paz!

Thank you to everyone who participated in this year’s City Nature Challenge. We are looking forward to participating with you next year for the 10-year anniversary of the 2025 City Nature Challenge!

Below are some incredible observations to celebarte!


The most commonly observed species in this area, American plum, observed by a 'super observer' in our local City Nature Challenge

A species of rust fungus that infects junipers

striped coralroot

Hybrid of a yellow-shafted and red-shafted flicker

Summer Tanager

Posted on May 30, 2024 09:53 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 29, 2024

May EcoQuest: Cowboy’s Delight

Scarlet globemallow, known charmingly as cowboy’s delight, or scientifically as Sphaeralcea coccinea, is a beautiful prairie flower to look for this spring.

Cowboy’s delight is in the Malvaceae or mallow family—which is composed of plants like hibiscus, mallow, hollyhock, okra, and even cacao (where chocolate comes from)! The Malvaceae family is characterized as mucilaginous plants with flowers that have numerous stamens fused into a central column (a great example is the hibiscus flower).

The genus Sphaeralcea is composed of perennial herbs with star-shaped hairs, and flowers that are orange to red, sometimes pink, and are commonly found in the western half of the North America. Parts of the plant are mucilaginous and known for their use in soothing burns, especially sunburns. In Colorado there are seven species in this genus, but S. coccinea is the most common and widespread in Colorado—other Sphaeralcea species are less common or located primarily around the edges of the state.

Scarlet globemallow is a low-growing perennial herb with deep orange to pink flowers. It is often found on sandy or rocky soil on roadsides or the prairie around 3,500 – 9,000 feet and is found blooming from May to September. The leaves are alternate, palmately divided and lobed.

It is grazed by deep and pronghorn, but mostly inedible to domestic animals. There are many uses by the Lakota and Cheyenne, including as a salve for burns and a sweet-tasting medicinal tea from the ground roots, stems, and leaves.

Connect with your inner cowboy by finding this delightful flower on the prairie. Share to iNaturalist to contribute to our global understanding of this species!



Posted on April 29, 2024 10:32 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

April 01, 2024

April EcoQuest: City Nature Challenge

Let’s celebrate Earth Day and our Front Range biodiversity by participating in the City Nature Challenge. This is a yearly event for folks in cities all over the world to observe and document biodiversity in their own backyards. Any living organism is fair game for observation – plants, animals, birds, insects, fish – they all contribute to the City Nature Challenge! To participate, make observations of any organism on iNaturalist for a few days in late April. This is followed by an identification phase—where you can join a community of nerdy naturalists to identify the species observed.

City Nature Challenge 2024
Observations: April 26 – April 29
Upload and Identification Phase: April 30 – May 5

For last year’s global challenge, there were almost 1.9 million observations of over 57,000 species, with 2,570 species considered rare, endangered or threatened. These observations were made by more than 66,000 people from 482 cities in 46 countries around the world.

In the Denver-Boulder metro area, more than 3,500 observations were observed by 457 people of 666 species. The organisms observed were mostly plants, insects and birds. Fun species observed included black bear, bobcat, beaver and even northern spleenwort (Asplenium septentrionle), a vulnerable plant species in Colorado. Let’s see if we can increase our numbers this year!

It’s easy to participate – your iNaturalist observations will automatically be added to the City Nature Challenge 2024 Denver-Boulder metro project if they are made during the challenge event and occur in the greater metro area (see above link for map of included areas). Additionally, all plant and fungal observations will automatically be added to the Denver EcoFlora Project. Here at Denver Botanic Gardens, we select our favorite observations from the area and send out prizes! We can’t wait to see what you discover this year!

To learn more about this event, how to use iNaturalist, and to find details on local hikes and trainings check out our website.

Bobcat (Lynx rufus), observation by @donaldschaffer

northern spleenwort (Asplenium septentrionale) by @christian_nunes

Posted on April 01, 2024 10:17 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 26, 2024

Tracking Townsendia

Townsendia, or Easter daisy, are one of the first plants to bloom in the foothills. Like their common name suggests, you will typically begin seeing them bloom around Easter. Although the weather can be quite cold this time of year, Easter daisy is adapted to withstand freezing conditions and blankets of snow. These plants form low mounds close to the ground, a successful strategy that helps to maximize heat retention during colder periods.

As a member of the Compositae (Asteraceae), or aster family, these “flowers” are not all that they appear at first glance. Indeed, what looks like a single flower is actually a composite of many flowers arranged in an inflorescence called a head. Inside of this head, there are even two different types of flowers present – ray flowers, which are petal-like, on the outer periphery of the head, and disk flowers in the center. These heads are nested amongst a rosette of leaves, protecting them from potentially cold conditions.

There are two species of Townsendia in the metro area that you might see flowering – T. exscapa and T. hookeri. These two species can be very difficult to tell apart – the main difference being that T. exscapa has larger heads with disk flowers over 6.5 mm while T. hookeri has smaller heads with disk flowers under 6 mm in length.

Documenting the flowering period of species such as these can ultimately aid our understanding of plant responses to a warming climate. By comparing observations, in combination with natural history collections dating back over 100 years, we can better understand how seasonal patterns are changing, and even make predictions for the future.

See if you can locate some Easter daisies and help Denver Botanic Gardens document their flowering period by photographing as many plants as possible in the month of March. Post your findings to iNaturalist so they will automatically be added to the Denver EcoFlora Project.

T. hookeri

T. hookeri

Posted on February 26, 2024 06:34 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

February 02, 2024

February EcoQuest: Looking for Love(ly Lichens)

As Valentine's Day warms our hearts, let's explore the forest's most romantic residents—lichens! Imagine a love story where fungi and algae join forces, creating the ultimate power couple—that’s a lichen. Lichens are a symbiotic relationship between two or even three different species—one or two fungi paired with an algae or even cyanobacteria! These partnerships give lichens structure through the fungi and energy through the photosynthetic algae (you could say they’re a bit co-dependent).

In addition to being biologically fascinating, they are also ecologically important. They provide food, shelter, and even habitat for various other species. For example, birds will use lichens for building their nests—and tiny tardigrades (aka water bears) live within lichen like a real bear might live in a forest. Lichens perform ecosystem services like carbon capture, nutrient cycling, and can act as pioneer species, able to obtain nutrients from sheer rock and sunlight.

Beard lichens are a specific genus of lichens called Usnea. Although lichens are notoriously challenging to identify, this genus is quick to spot—look for tangled masses of silvery-green threads hanging from tree branches and bark. This genus is prolific in its range and grows from the Arctic to the tropics. Usnea is often confused with Spanish moss (which actually isn’t a moss or a lichen and doesn’t grow in Colorado). To identify Usnea, pull apart the outer sheath of its main stem. If there is tiny, white central cord inside, with the pull of an elastic thread—it’ll be Usnea. If not, it’ll likely be a different genus.

Usnea, and other lichens are known for their valuable benefits to humanity. For example, they are known for their usefulness in traditional medicine. The species in Usnea aren’t edible but are widely regarded for their medicinal uses, especially for their antibacterial and antifungal properties. Lichens are also known as bioindicators, meaning they can be used to monitor changes in environmental health. Some lichens, such as the beard lichen, are sensitive to common air pollution contaminants, like sulfur dioxide. This means that they can only thrive in areas with good air quality.

We still have a lot to learn about lichens. Learning more about where they grow can help us better understand air quality in the Front Range. In February, get more acquainted with this romantic fellow and contribute to our understanding of beard lichens by searching for these fascinating forest lovebirds and posting your findings on iNaturalist.

Usnea hirta by @phyllisholst

Usnea hirta by @bolmstead42

Posted on February 02, 2024 09:33 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

December 18, 2023

January EcoQuest: Make the Grade

iNaturalist has unwrapped the Year in Review, showcasing highlights and scientific triumphs from the year. Let’s take a moment to celebrate our local community!

For the Denver-Boulder Metro EcoFlora project, in 2023 we contributed over 80,000 total observations—10,000 more observations than last year! We spotted 1250 plant species and 255 fungi and lichen species, for 1505 total species observed in the area. Kudos to the 5,500+ observers and nearly 1500 identifiers who made this possible! Shout out to the Research & Conservation department at Denver Botanic Gardens who contributed over 500 observations in 2023.

Despite this achievement, over 52,000 observations are eagerly awaiting their research-grade gold star! In fact, of the 323,560 observations included in the Denver EcoFlora project, 51% have not made research grade status. This month let’s work together to practice our identification skills by reviewing these observations so they can make the grade!

To achieve research grade, two or more reviewers must agree on the same species name. Once they’ve made the grade, these observations are uploaded to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility database of over 1 billion biodiversity records. Your observations can then be used by researchers worldwide to answer questions such as: the past and potential spread of invasive species, the influence of climate change on biodiversity, the role of rare species in protecting critical ecosystem functions, and the identification of priority areas for plant conservation.

You can also use this opportunity to hone your plant identification skills. Pick a few species – maybe your favorite wildflowers, or a group that’s piqued your curiosity. Learn the characteristics of these, and then apply this knowledge to the Denver EcoFlora observations. From the project page on iNaturalist , simply click on “Observations” and then “Identify.” You can narrow this list down by entering a specific species in the search box. We can’t wait to see how many observations make the grade!

Comment below the number species you observed or how many iNaturalist observations you contributed in 2023. Which species won your heart this year? Any thrilling discoveries you’re hoping for in 2024?

Here are some Denver EcoFlora specimens observed in 2023

Greater Sea-Spurry (Spergularia media) | @erniem

White Bog Orchid – Platanthera dilatate @zerkenbeck

Red-juice tooth (Hydnellum peckii) | @alexmerryman

Posted on December 18, 2023 05:01 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

December 04, 2023

December EcoQuest: Chasing Cattails

For our December EcoQuest, let's dive into the intriguing world of cattails! Cattails grow in or near slow moving or still waters—think of the margins of ponds, lakes, and streams. These species are easy to spot, even in December! They grow can grow up to 10 feet tall and have grass-like leaves, with long slender stalks topped with a brown, corndog-shaped flowering head.

Cattails, known scientifically as the Typha genus, are very useful. Every part of the plant, from roots to shoots, leaves, and the fluffy bits have practical use. For example, Native Americans would use the cottony fluff for dressing wounds and pillow stuffing, while the leaves were used for weaving baskets, mats, or roof thatching. In addition to practical uses, nearly all parts of the plant are edible. Flour can be made from the pollen or the roots and the tender young shoots are delicious steamed or fried.

While spotting a cattail might be quick and easy, distinguishing between species is trickier. Colorado hosts three common cattail species, broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia), narrowleaf cattail (T. angustifolia), and southern cattail (T. domingensis). The flower spikes are very helpful when distinguishing species. The corndog-like part of the spike holds the female flowers, while above is a thinner spike that holds the male flowers.

Broadleaf cattail doesn’t have a gap between the male and female parts, but narrowleaf and southern cattail do. In narrowleaf cattail the male and female spikes are roughly the same length, but in southern cattails the male spike is longer than the female spike. Additionally, narrowleaf cattail is typically taller and has narrower leaves (6-15 mm wide) compared to broadleaf cattail (10-30 mm wide). These species can be difficult to tell apart, especially in the winter when the male flower spike might not be present. If you can’t distinguish the species, leave the genus at Typha and take good pictures of the leaves and flower spike.

Cattails are ecologically important as they provide important habitat for animals. If you find cattail, notice what other creatures you might see or hear, in the water or perching on the stalks. Wetland habitats are important hotspots for biodiversity so monitoring the species present in these areas is a meaningful endeavor. So, Let’s bundle up for a frosty adventure, search for cattails, and post our findings on iNaturalist to better understand these useful and ecologically important plants.

Typha sp. by @bolmstead42

Typha latifolia by @nickmoore91

Posted on December 04, 2023 03:14 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 1 comment | Leave a comment

November 02, 2023

November EcoQuest: Searching for Snowberries

As we enter late fall and most plants go dormant, it gets trickier to identify species. It might feel as if quests for native flora will have to rest until spring, but some species stand out this time of year! Braving a wintry walk may bring into focus plants such as snowberry, which can be spotted even in the late fall and winter months due to their white berries that persist into the colder months.

Snowberries have ecological and ethnobotanical importance. For birds and small mammals, the berries serve as important winter food, while the woody shrubbery provides important habitat. Ethnobotanically, these species were used for a variety of purposes by Native Americans, from hair soap to tonics and eyewashes. However, these fruits are poisonous when consumed outside small amounts.

Snowberries, known scientifically as the Symphoricarpos genus, are in the Honeysuckle family, or Caprifoliaceae. Species in this family are often woody and have opposite leaves, pithy stems, and twin flowers and fruits. Symphoricarpos contain species that are small deciduous shrubs, with opposite leaves and bell-shaped pink to white flowers. "Symphoricarpos" is from the Greek "symphorein" meaning "borne together," and "karpos" meaning "fruit", referring to the closely packed berries.

In Colorado there are three common species in the Symphoricarpos genus: western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis), common snowberry (S. albus), and mountain snowberry (S. rotundifolius). These species can be challenging to tell apart, and they often occupy similar habitats. It’ll be tricky to identify to the species level without all the plant parts present—so take good pictures of the remaining berries, stem, and leaves and bring along a key or field guide.

This November, turn your winter hike into a scientific exploration by searching for snowberries! Help Denver Botanic Gardens document Symphoricarpos in the greater metro area by photographing as many as possible in the month of November. Post your findings to iNaturalist so they will automatically be added to the Denver EcoFlora Project.

Photo by Sue Janssen

I'd love to hear your feedback and connect with those participating! Post a comment below to say hello. Thanks for reading!

Posted on November 02, 2023 04:51 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 1 comment | Leave a comment

October 02, 2023

October EcoQuest: Leaf Peeping for Science

October has arrived and with it the leaves are beginning to change their colors in the Front Range. But have you every wondered why this happens and what determines the colors we see?

The green in leaves is a result of chlorophyll, a pigment which allows plants to make their own energy by converting sunlight into sugars through photosynthesis. Deciduous trees prefer to make the bulk of their sugars in the warmer seasons and store it for the winter, so they drop their leaves to prevent damage from snowfall and freezing temperatures. The shorter fall days reduce direct sunlight, causing chlorophyll to break down, unveiling hidden yellow and orange pigments in the leaves. Rich red hues in trees such as red maples or sumac arise from a different process. In order to drop leaves, a layer of cells is formed between the leaf and branch. When this happens, sugars become trapped in the leaves and produce anthocyanins, the source of deep auburn shades.

Here in Colorado, when we think of fall colors we typically think of the iconic quaking aspen. The scientific name, Populus tremuloides, reflects the ‘trembling’ characteristic of the leaves in the wind. Aspen is in the Salicaceae family, which was named after the chemical salicin found in the bark of aspen and its relatives. Salicin is converted by the body into salicylic acid—a major ingredient of aspirin. Many species in this family, such as willows, have been cherished for their medicinal properties for millennia.

In addition to their medicinal significance, aspen are also ecologically important. They serve as keystone species which support biodiverse forest habitats. They are also considered an indicator species for environmental health and can be sensitive to changes in soil conditions and climate. Unfortunately, aspen have been declining in North America for several decades. Consequently, monitoring their locations and health offers valuable insights into the effects of climate change and land management practices.

This October, let's turn our leaf peeping into a scientific adventure. As you marvel at the changing colors of our local aspen trees, consider making iNaturalist observations of your sightings. By documenting these moments, you're not only capturing the beauty of nature but also contributing to valuable research on environmental health and climate change effects.


Posted on October 02, 2023 03:12 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 0 comments | Leave a comment

August 30, 2023

Fungi Friends: Searching for Chlorophyllum

For September we are introducing our first fungal friend to the EcoQuest—the genus Chlorophyllum! Even though mushrooms aren’t plants, the term “botany” historically included all plant-like organisms, so terms like “botanical” or “flora” include fungi. Here at the Denver Botanic Gardens—we study fungi as well as plants!

Derived from Greek roots, the name “Chlorophyllum” means “green leaf”, or in this case “green gill,” as some species in the genus do have green spores. It was designated as a genus at a time when spore color was an important identifier for separating genera. Spore prints are a useful tool for identifying fungi—to make a spore print, place a mature mushroom cap with the stem cut, gill down on a piece of white paper overnight. Putting a container over it can help protect it from getting moved. In the morning, you’ll find a pattern of spores—the color of which can help in identification.

Members of the Chlorophyllum genus are often found in grassy areas, lawns, and woodlands in late summer to early autumn. Characteristics of this genus include a large cap that is often scaly and white, with a central stem and conspicuous ring toward the upper part of the stem. The stem is typically smooth and hollow with an enlarged base. The gills are especially distinctive in that they are “free”, meaning that they do not attach directly to the stalk.

In the Denver metro area, you can expect to find Chlorophyllum molybdites (commonly called “green-spored Parasol”), C. rhacodes, and C. brunneum. The latter two species are commonly referred to as “shaggy Parasol.” Chlorophyllum molybdites is poisonous, but unfortunately tastes rather good and as the other similar-looking species are edible, it causes more poisonings than any other mushrooms in the area. To distinguish, C. molybdites has green spores while the other two have white spores. Additionally, the textures of the caps are different, C. molybdites is softer, less scaly, and more granular. Telling these three species apart is challenging and especially discouraged for foraging, unless you are an expert.
If you stumble upon a Chlorophyllum mushroom in the Denver area, leave it as the genus Chlorophyllum on iNaturalist unless you are certain. Be sure to take a good picture of the ring—especially from the side, as this can help the fungal experts identify it to species level. If you can, make a spore print and upload a picture of it in your observation. Your contributions amplify our understanding of this captivating genus and urban ecology.

Help Denver Botanic Gardens document Chlorophyllum in the greater metro area by photographing as many as possible in the month of September. Post your findings to iNaturalist so they will automatically be added to the Denver EcoFlora Project.

Green-spored Parasol (Chlorophyllum molybdites) by @bradenmays

Shaggy Parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes) by @patcooper

Posted on August 30, 2023 07:23 PM by alissa_iverson alissa_iverson | 1 comment | Leave a comment