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Reporting on science, technology and innovation in Arizona and the Southwest through a collaboration from Arizona NPR member stations. This project is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.Additional stories from the Arizona Science Desk are posted at our collaborating station, KJZZ: http://kjzz.org/science

Yuma Botanists Collect Plants for Statewide Inventory

The Plant Atlas Project is an ongoing effort to catalogue Arizona’s native vegetation.

Upcoming winter rains will offer a window to collect some of the flowering plants needed for that inventory.

At first glance, the southwestern corner of Arizona might not seem like a great place to study plant life.

“When I first moved to Yuma, I thought that Yuma was botanically challenged,” said botanist Karen Reichhardt of the Arizona Native Plant Society. “Because it’s so hot and dry, and you don’t really see much in the landscape.”

But once it rains and the desert blooms, Reichhardt and her fellow volunteers hike the Gila Mountains near Yuma, looking for native plants.

“When we have winter rains or when we have summer rains, there are a lot of plants, a lot of little things that germinate,” Reichhardt said.

The North Gila Mountain Plant Inventory Project began in December 2014. So far, they’ve collected a total of 112 species for the statewide catalogue. And they hope to double this number.

The group has found microhabitats with unique plant communities known to exist elsewhere in the Sonoran Desert, but not previously documented in the Yuma area.

After volunteers collect the plants, they are then dried and stored in herbaria – or plant libraries – at Arizona Western College (AWC) and the Phoenix Desert Botanical Garden.

“These samples, once they have been curated and mounted and put into the herbarium, we expect them to last at least 500 years,” said Joann Chang, AWC biology professor and curator of the college’s herbarium.

These collections allow researchers to examine changes in plant ecology over time.

The Gila Mountain project will continue as long as the volunteers find new plants, said Reichhardt. Eventually, they would also like to collect plants in the Kofa Mountains and along the Colorado River.

The Plant Atlas Project is a partnership between the Arizona Native Plant Society, Grand Canyon Trust, Desert Botanical Garden, Northern Arizona University, Museum of Northern Arizona, and the U.S. Forest Service. The inventory is also available online.