The Quest for Panamint Daisy

My obsession with plants didn’t necessarily start with plants themselves. It started with an obsession for exploring wild places. I wanted to see and explore places that felt untouched. I was after a purity of sorts – to experience life far beyond any place impacted by humans. So I did a lot of hiking and backpacking to immerse myself in so-called wild places. At the time, I was living in a dense urban city and breaking away from that environmental felt natural. There was no conscious thought or reason to what I was doing or where I was going. I just went to where I was drawn. It just happened.

Over time, I developed a desire to travel further and further from life in the city. But when it came to multi-day backpacking trips that would allow me to disappear into a wilderness area, I quickly hit my physical limit. I could not complete long distance multi-day backpacking trips far off trail. Carrying 50 lbs of gear and food on my back was just too much over long distances. I tried and failed on many occasions and doing so no longer became fun. So, day hikes in and out of places became more my thing. They remained fun. And it was then that I also started to take note of all the plants I saw. As I started to learn more and more plants, I also started to know more and more places. Places became known by the plants that were growing there. I also started to know plants based on all the different places they did and did not grow. I began to see relationships. And it was then that I was hooked. The obsession had been born. It didn’t matter how far off the pavement I was. My spirit to explore wild places was satiated by exploring the world of wild plants.

For years on end, the Panamint Daisy captivated my imagination. How could such a seemingly big and bold plant grow in such a dry and difficult environment? And why is it so severely limited to just one mountain range? And at that, primarily limited to just one side of that range. How?

Before I learned there was such a plant as the Panamint Daisy, I first discovered the Panamint Valley. I was immediately drawn to the valley. I first visited it on a trip to Death Valley. While Death Valley was beautiful, it was the Panamint Valley that really hooked me. There was something about it that intrigued me more than most places. Death Valley had the lowest point in the country, but the Panamint Valley felt deeper. It was obvious to me that the rugged, bold and beautiful mountain range running along the east side of the valley had something special going on. I figured there had to be things hiding up there.   

Eventually I connected the dots that the plant in the California Native Plant Society logo was a plant named the Panamint Daisy. At first I was kind of bewildered. You mean the Panamint Mountains have a namesake plant? Then I looked it up. Oh my.   

At this point I had spent several springs out in the valley, never before knowing of the Panamint Daisy. I had kinda sorta come to know the area a bit. And I had kinda sorta failed to realize that such an amazing looking plant was hiding up in the mountains. But I soon learned and just after that, the quest was on.

Just as my love affair with the Panamint Valley was building, a child came into our lives. An easy going and well-tempered child that took to spending hours in a car and nights away from home. But travelling up and down dirt roads and over miles of washboard was not the easiest for any of us now that we had a young baby. Solo trips also seemed out of the cards for the time being. So even though the Panamint Daisy was not such a hard plant to find, in reality, it had become more difficult for me to find. The logistics of family life didn’t necessarily revolve around when I might see this plant in bloom. We still made trips to the valley, with several attempts at venturing up into the Panamint Mountains, but never once did I catch the plant in bloom. Instead, I spent many warm spring evenings pondering this plant's existence as I peered up and down the valley while eyeing the Panamint Mountains. I was taken by the enigma of it all. The enigma of how such a bold and beautiful plant could be so limited in range. And why? Is it the geology? Is it pollination? Is it seed dispersal? Is it seasonal rainfall? What’s going on? 

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View looking at the Panamint Butte at the NE corner of the valley. The Panamint Butte carries an impressive presence over the valley, especially as a setting western sun lights up the butte's layer cake of geology. About mid way up the slope is a layer of limestone that is likely home to some rare desert flora.  

View from the valley floor looking east towards the Panamint Mountains with Telescope Peak at center of the view. The west side of the Panamint Mountains includes a number of sharp and steep canyons that cut through layers of different geologic substrate. The canyon at center of view is Hall Canyon. 

View from the valley looking west towards the Argus Range. The west side of the valley includes a more gentle and rounded topography with broad bajadas that sweep down to the valley floor. 

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The Panamint Daisy is botanically known as Enceliopsis covillei. The genus Enceliopsis is a relatively small genus with only a few species living throughout the drier portions of western North America. Enceliopsis covillei is the rarest and most restricted in range of all the species in the genus. The Panamint Daisy is endemic to the Panamint Mountains with the majority of its population limited to the western side the mountain range. Specifically, it prefers the steep and rugged canyons that descend west from the ridgeline of the Panamints. 

The Panamint Daisy, or Enceliopsis covillei, is also a big and bold plant. In Spring, flower heads the size of a jumbo sized donut emerge well above a rosette of silvery grey foliage. Having seen this plant several times before seeing its actual flowers, I acquired a good appreciation for the leaves. They are a color all to themselves, with a slight blue tint added into their silvery grey appearance. The leaves are also fleshy and generally soft to the touch, despite whether the leaves are covered in fine hairs or not. They always seem consistently soft and fleshy. But yes, by far the greatest attraction are the flowers. For living in such a dry and stark environment where water is a severe scarcity and solar exposure is a definite liability, the fact that this plant displays such large and prominent flowers is an anomaly. In this desert landscape where small and discrete have become the adaptive traits for minimizing exposure to desiccating conditions, the Panamint Daisy seems to buck that trend. Then again, it is rare and severely limited in range. 

Having visited several populations of Eneceliopsis covillei, a trend I notice quite often is its distinctive growth habit. To me, it appears to grow in clumps with successive basal rosettes of leaves occurring near the tops of each clump. This has also been most evident for those plants growing along drainages where repeated flash flood events or high runoff may have scoured the drainage course. I suspect, and with no scientific basis whatsoever, that a large central root embeds itself deep into the rocky substrate as if anchoring the plant in a somewhat predictable water source. If my speculation holds any plausibility, I would also speculate the plant maintains its anchored root by reaching further and further down into the substrate. As the drainage source itself is scoured, the plant maintains its foothold. I guess this may explain how a plant would persist barring no other means of long range dispersal – you literally cling to existence wherever water is known to show up. But again, this is only speculation on my part.  

Exactly what factors cause the Panamint Daisy to be so rare will remain a mystery to me. I could not find any research or study that outlined a documented reason. But on the day that I first saw the Panamint Daisy in bloom, any questions I held about this plant faded away.

It was a perfect spring desert day. A warm sun floated over the valley and a light breeze moved up the mountains. The desert was in its sweet spot, fresh in blooms under a big and open blue sky. Still, it was no less certain that I would find the Panamint Daisy in bloom. The year had been dry and, as I had learned time and time again, timing was everything. I checked on old populations with still no luck. Then, on a whim, I climbed up a steep talus slope to see what I could find. And find I did. Not one, but three. All in bloom. For over an hour, I simply sat. The desert was quiet and still. Several very large and prominent flower heads swayed in the breeze. I felt like I was in the presence of an oddity that didn’t quite make sense. I could not quite comprehend it all. And so I ran with it, taking pleasure in the quiet stillness of a perfect desert day and enjoying beauty for the pure sake of beauty. No questions needed. No answers either. 

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It seemed as if I came to understand this plant best by missing it flower. Finding dried clumps tucked away amongst a hard scrabbled terrain was like finding clues to a mystery – a mystery with an unraveling series clues that has ended with no real resolution. Better yet, these clues were not hidden in some extremely remote or untraveled hinterland. They were lying just beyond a light hike from the car. Once Wildrose Canyon had reopened, they were even visible from within the car. Distance and remoteness were not the limiting factors, but yet, a mystery remains. And like all good mysteries, there was great intrigue in simply wondering. Why here, of all places? Why this one mountain range amidst a sea of basins and ranges? And how exactly? How does such a fleshy and robust plant grow where life has adapted to being small and understated? What is it that we we are not seeing? 

Happy travels.

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