What to do if you see bear claw poppies on the trail

A bear claw poppy in bloom is tagged by Dixie State University students near one of many trails in the Bear Claw Poppy trail system just south of the Bloomington neighborhood of St. George, Utah, April 24, 2018 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Now that May is here, for another couple weeks at least, wildflower enthusiasts can still view bear claw poppies in full bloom. Striking clumps of white flowers with yellow centers may be seen until mid-May along the Bear Claw Poppy Trail and other locations near St. George.

Three of many bear claw poppies blooming on a ridge to the east of the Bear Claw Poppy Trail system. The poppies favor gypsiferous soil and are said to be found only in this and nearby areas with like soil makeup in the region. St. George, Utah, April 28, 2013 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

The bear claw poppy, also known by other names, such as the dwarf bear poppy and the Coville bear-claw poppy, is endemic to Washington County, meaning the species is found only there and nowhere else on earth. Its scientific name is Arctomecon humilis Coville. Listed as an endangered species, bear claw poppies grow only in areas where the soil is high in gypsum. They get their “bear claw” name from the shape of their leaves and typically bloom only for a couple months each spring.

Erin O’Brien, chairwoman of Dixie State University’s department of biological science, said there are seven known populations of bear claw poppy, all within a 20-minute drive of the DSU campus. Each population has anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand plants, she said.

“If you live right next to a healthy population, you’re not going to realize that they’re endangered because you may, in really good environments, see them every five feet in small little areas,” she said. “But the problem is … there are only seven of those small little areas.”

O’Brien and several of her students have been studying bear claw poppies for the past few years, conducting measurements and tracking data in the field, which is why observers may notice a yellow numbered tag affixed to the ground near some of the plants. A few of the plants in the study have also had a bag attached to one of the flower stalks for the purpose of collecting seeds. After the seeds have been measured and counted, they’ll be returned to the same location and returned to the soil, O’Brien said.

Erin O’Brien, chairwoman of Dixie State University’s department of biological science, talks about bear claw poppy seeds, St. George, Utah, May 1, 2018 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News

Due to the specific environmental conditions where they are found, including soil composition, temperature and rainfall, bear claw poppies cannot be grown outside their natural wild habitat, O’Brien said.

“If you tried to grow one from a seed, it would not germinate,” she said, adding the poppies also cannot be dug up and transplanted, due to their long taproots. The only place to enjoy them is in the wild, O’Brien said.

The DSU students are studying the bear claw poppy plants – monitoring them through their blooming season – to find answers to several key questions, O’Brien said.

“We’ve just been tracking the populations and their life history, meaning when do they make buds and when do those buds open enough into flowers? When do those flowers began to sort of shrivel and dry up?”

In addition to pollination and seed formation, O’Brien said another thing they are tracking is the actual reproductive output.

“That is, are there populations that are in danger because they’re not making enough seed?”

O’Brien said about 30 plants are tracked from year to year. An individual plant typically lives about three or four years.

This bear claw poppy is blooming among others dispersed across red dirt areas southeast of the Bear Claw Poppy Trail system in St. George, Utah, April 28, 2018 | Photo by Joyce Kuzmanic, St. George News

“One of the interesting things about endangered plants is that they are actually only protected on federal land,” she said. “Private land owners can do whatever they want to them and as long as it doesn’t cause any problems, it’s not illegal. It just makes them more endangered.”

To that end, O’Brien encourages wildflower admirers and anyone else who encounters bear claw poppies to treat them appropriately.

“Enjoy them. But in general, try not to walk up towards them. Be careful about destroying the crust, the soil around them. Feel free to take pictures of them. Please don’t pick them. They’re pretty, I know, but they don’t make good picked flowers, so they’re not going to be a nice thing in a bouquet. So don’t pick them, not just because they’re endangered, but because it’s not worth it.”

She also encouraged mountain bikers, hikers and off-road enthusiasts to avoid running over bear claw poppies and other native plants, and to stay on trails to avoid damaging the cryptogramic soil crust. She also said people should not cut or otherwise damage cattle fences, as cows can be attracted to the poppies and eat them when they are in bloom.

Ed. note: The term “bear claw” in the name of the plant (and the trail) is commonly written as either one word or two.

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  • Carpe Diem May 3, 2018 at 6:07 am

    It’s a treasure seeing these bloom in their fleeting greeting to spring. After the dry winter I was surprised to see how robust they are this year.

  • Craig May 3, 2018 at 10:22 am

    Per Jan Emming owner of the Destination:Forever Ranch and Gardens, a 40 acre desert botanical garden and sustainable living homestead in the Arizona desert with a nursery:

    Touring the western edges of the expansive Colorado Plateau, one can come across some very interesting habitats for plants and animals. Among the most unusual of these are gypsum hills. This is a uniquely difficult environment for plants to survive in due to what is sometimes called “high ionic strength soil”, aridity, poor nutrition, and rapid rates of erosion. In our recent tour of the region, we more or less stumbled across a critically endangered and beautiful plant on these gypsiferous hills named the dwarf bear claw poppy, Arctomecon humilis. Not knowing what it was at the time of discovery but recognizing it for the rarity it is, online research a day later inspired me to decide to feature this fascinating plant and its unique environment in this album.The rare and federally endangered dwarf bear-claw poppy (Arctomecon humilis) lives only in a handful of scattered populations in Washington County, Utah, in the far southwestern corner of the state very nearly upon the Arizona border.

    The city of St George, Utah can be seen from the hills where the dwarf bear-claw poppy and several other rare species manage to survive. A fenced-off preserve has been created for these plants to protect them from off-road vehicle abuse and mining which destroys their only habitat.

    Showy white flowers with yellow stamens and a green ovary appear in late April and early May. Plants stand only about 8 inches/20 cm tall and 12 inches/30 cm wide, but the dense hemispheres of flowers are quite noticeable on the landscape since there is little else that can survive the habitat they live in, leaving the ecological niche open for the poppies. A rare solitary bee has evolved to be a primary pollinator of this poppy, further isolating this plant from the wider landscape and ensuring its limited presence.

    In the 3rd photo of mine, if you look closely you can see where the bear-claw poppy gets its name from. Three-toothed leaves somewhat resemble a cartoon version of tulip blooms in outline and are supposedly reminiscent of the imprint of a bear’s paw. (I see them as similar to three-toed dinosaur footprints that are found fossilized in nearby geological strata in southern Utah.) This small plant has many charms.

    The gypsiferous hills of this region are derived from what is known as the Moenkopi Formation, a type of muddy or silty substrate that was laid down in oxygen-poor, slow-moving waters such as prehistoric swamps or shallow lakes. The Moenkopi frequently contains fossils such as petrified wood, and is often quite colorful in shades of red, purple, pink, yellow, white, or gray based upon which minerals predominate in that section. The gypsum-bearing sections near St George Utah tend to be white or gray, although other exposed portions elsewhere in the region are a pleasing lavender color. In no case does much vegetation grow upon the Moenkopi, and many of the few species that do are rare and restricted to living only upon it. Note the white globes of the endemic dwarf bear-claw poppy (Arctomecon humilis) dotting the hills in the distance. The poppies do not live anywhere else, only upon these few hillsides within 10 miles of St George.

    Of great importance to the rare dwarf bear-claw poppy is the presence of the cryptobiotic crust community that coats the surface of the hills. This crust is up to two inches (5 cm) thick if undisturbed and contains a diverse variety of lichens, algae, cyanobacteria, mosses, and fungi, as can be seen here in this close-up image. The microorganisms that comprise the crust weave together into a mat that helps stabilize the soil, drastically slows erosion, and fixes nitrogen and other important nutrients into the poor soils of the Moenkopi Formation for use by the rare plants that grow here. It also provides a seed bed for the poppy, retaining moisture after rains for long enough that the seedlings can develop and grow large enough to prosper.

    A term I have heard used for gypsum-rich soils, limestone, and other difficult environments is “high ionic strength”. This nifty-sounding phrase describes the chemical characteristics of the soil, with elevated levels of salts, minerals, and other ion-producing molecules that bind up critical nutrients, increase water stress, and generally complicate basic functions of plant physiology. The white segments of this landscape view are places where gypsum, a calcium sulfate dihydrate molecule, is the dominant soil component. High gypsum soils are notoriously difficult for plants to survive in, especially in dry deserts, since the point of water stress is reached much sooner than in more normal soils due to the soluble ions inherently present. It is so significant a barrier to most species that many plants simply cannot tolerate it, leaving the niche wide open and often sparingly occupied. The few plants that can overcome the challenges found by growing upon gypsiferous soils are frequently stunted from normal appearances, or conversely can grow only here and do not compete well in more typical situations. If you are a botanist, naturalist, or ecologist you will usually come to understand that some of nature’s most interesting plants (and animals for you zoologists and entomologists) live in the difficult, marginal environments such as these.

    Since the White Dome Nature Reserve was created by the Nature Conservancy and the Utah Division of Wildlife in 1979 the dwarf bear-claw poppy’s habitat has been 95% preserved out of private property that had once been slated to be mined for gypsum, a mineral used in construction drywall and other industrial products. Off-road vehicle use was banned since the trails were ruining the fragile cryptobiotic crust the poppy requires for seeds to germinate and grow in, and adult plants were being mashed under careless tires. The ORV tracks are still visible decades later, although the poppies are successfully growing again in some of them and the crust is gradually reappearing.

    Efforts to artificially propagate the poppy in captivity have to date failed. Whatever complex conditions required for successful germination and seedling growth have not yet been deciphered, and therefore protecting the wild habitat of this plant is mandatory for its survival.

    For now, the White Dome Nature Reserve appears to have reasonably secured the future of the dwarf bear-claw poppy, although there will always be significant threats to a naturally rare species such as this one. But this can for now be considered a conservation success story.

    • comments May 3, 2018 at 9:54 pm

      better just to put a link, craig. not everyone wants to see a copy/paste novel.

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