Bishop Field Office

Desert Vegetation on the Tableland

Photo taken from Chalk Bluff looking west towards Sierra

Snowy day at the Happy BouldersClimate:  The Owens Valley is situated in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada which stops the flow of maritime air and associated moisture into the valley.  Mean annual precipitation is 5.6 inches in Bishop of which >50% occurs between December and February and < 10% June-August.  Temperature regimes vary from a cold desert in winter to a hot desert in summer.  The average low temperature in winter is 21oF (-6oC) during the month of January, the coldest month and hard frosts occur on most nights during the winter.  The average frost free season is only 5 - 1/2 months long from May to October.  The average high temperature is 99oF (37oC ) during the month of July, the warmest month.

Bouldering on the Bishop Tuff at the Sad Boulders



Soils:  The welded Bishop Tuff that comprises an area over 1000 km2 has a depth of 45m and the soils associated with this formation are very shallow and well-drained.  Rocky and loamy soil textures dominate and are generally nutrient poor often having very low (less than 1mg/kg) levels of inorganic nitrogen and plant-available phosphorus.  Plant litter in the form of leaves and other organic matter as well as cryptobiotic soil crusts make up the bulk of the nutrient cycling material in this arid landscape.



Annual plants along Chalk Bluff Road


Vegetation:  The plants that comprise the desert-scrub plant community of the Volcanic Tableland have evolved under extreme temperature and associated high evapotranspiration regimes.  Peak plant growth occurs in spring when soil moisture levels are at their highest and slows when temperatures have warmed and most of the soil moisture has evaporated from the root zone.  Despite these extreme conditions, the Volcanic Tableland support a diversity of plant species which can be especially vibrant in early spring (April-May) in wet years when carpets of annual plants grace the desert slopes and canyons.  Some of the most dominant plants include;


  • AF = Annual Forbs (plants that complete their life cycle in one growing season),
  • B = Biennial Forbs, 
  • PF = Perennial Forbs,
  • PS = Perennial Shrubs,
  • PG = Perennial Grasses,
  • AG = Annual Grasses.
Species List (Dominant Plants):
  • Asteraceae (Sunflower Family)
    • Anisocoma acaulis - scale bud - AF
    • Artemisia spinescens - bud sage - PS
    • Layia glandulosa - tidy tips - AF
    • Lessingia lemmonii - vinegar weed - AF
    • Malacothrix glabrata - desert dandelion - AF
    • Tetradymia axillaris - long-spined horsebrush - PS
    • Xylorhiza tortifolia - Mojave aster - PF
  • Boraginaceae (Forget-me-not Family)
    • Amsinckia tessellata - fiddleneck - AF
    • Cryptantha confertiflora - golden forget-me-not - PF
    • Cryptantha utahensis - fragrant forget-me-not - AF
  • Brassicaceae (Mustard Family)
    • Lepidium flavum - yellow peppergrass - AF
    • Thelypodium laciniatum - tall Thelypodium - BLupinus flavoculatus
  • Chenopodiaceae (Goosefoot Family)
    • Atriplex canescens - four-wing saltbush - PS
    • Atriplex confertifolia - shadscale - PS
    • Krascheninnikovia lanata - winterfat - PS
    • Grayia spinosa - spiny hopsage - PS
  • Fabaceae (Pea Family)
    • Lupinus odoratus - royal desert lupine - AF
    • Psorothamnus arborescens var. minutifolius – indigo bush - PS
    • Psorothamnus polydenius- spotted dalea - PS
  • Hydrophyllaceae (Waterleaf Family)
    • Nama aretioides - sagebrush nama - AF
  • Loasaceae (Stickleaf Family)
    • Mentzelia albicaulis - little leaf blazing star - AF
    • Mentzelia nitens - venus blazing star - AF
  • Onagraceae (Evening Primrose Family)
    • Camissonia brevipes - sun cups - AF
    • Camissonia claviformis - brown-eyed primrose - AF
  • Polemoniaceae - (Phlox Family)
    • Eriastrum wilcoxii - wilcox woolly star - AF
    • Gilia inyoensis - AF
    • Gilia leptomeria - AFo    Gilia latifolia – AF
    • Gilia sinuata - AF
    • Linanthus aureus - golden linanthus - AF 
    • Linanthus dichotomus – eveining snow - AF
    • Linanthus parryi –sand blossoms -  AF
  •  Polygonaceae - (Buckwheat Family)
    • Chorizanthe brevicornu var. brevicornu – brittle chorizanthe – AF
    • Eriogonum inflatum var. inflatum – desert trumpet – PF
    • Eriogonum davidsonii - buckwheat - AF
    • Eriogonum nidularium - bird´s nest buckwheat - AF
  • Poaceae (Grass Family)
    • Achnatherum hymenoides - Indian rice grass - PG
    • Achantherum speciosum - desert needlegrass - PG 
Due to the environmental extremes of the Volcanic Tableland, the recovery of the plant communities following disturbance takes decades and even centuries depending on the intensity of the disturbance.  In addition, conditions suitable for plant establishment occur very infrequently and it can take up to 60 years to reach pre-disturbance biomass production levels and up to 180 years for recovery of species diversity to occur.  The key impacts to the ecological function of the desert-scrub community following disturbance may include;
  • Increased soil erosion
  • Reduced water infiltration and soil moisture holding capacity
  • Increases in radiation and commensurate increases in evapotranspiration
  • Reduction in seedling establishment due to changes in overstory plant cover and structure
  • Reduction in nutrient cycling capacity
  • Increased proliferation of  non-native weed species