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     Abronia fragrans is a lovely, wonderfully fragrant plant, sometimes abundant on sandy flats and knolls.  It is easy to spot with its attractive masses of green leaves and its large snow-ball flower heads.  On a calm day, its fragrance pulls you toward it.  There is no disputing its beauty, but there is considerable disagreement about its scientific classification.  

     Abronia fragrans and Abronia elliptica are recognized as two distinct species by Kartesz, the Flora of North America, and Weber, but they are combined into A. fragrans by Welsh in his 4th edition of A Utah Flora.   The most agreed upon characteristic that separates the two as distinct species is the shape of the seed:  A. fragrans fruits are (in Weber's words) "thick-walled, hard, the wings leathery, not folded together".  A. elliptica fruits are (again in Weber's words): "thin-walled, delicate, the wings not rigid or stiff, 2 of them folded together to form a groove".   FNA further indicates that the fruit of A. fragrans is arrowhead-shaped versus heart-shaped in A. elliptica.

    Welsh indicates that the species (A. fragrans) is "tremendously variable", and although he recognizes that others have separated A. fragrans into two species (or into subspecies) on the basis of fruit and other characteristics, he indicates that both types of fruit can be found in the same head.  Welsh, therefore, concludes that "the separation [into two species or subspecies] seems to be arbitrary and is not correlated with other features".

    A personal communication to me from Bob Sivinski (noted New Mexico botanist) indicates that at least one of the photographs below (second from the bottom) does show A. elliptica, not A. fragrans, as evidenced at least by the close spreading of plants, probably from underground roots.   Bob indicates that although "none of the floristic manuals say it...,  A. elliptica has branching underground stems in most cases - you just have to dig deeply to find them".  Welsh addresses this point: "Recognition of the occasional rhizomatous plants, which occur sporadically through the range of the species, at any taxonomic level seems unwarranted". 

    One further characteristic that is sometimes said to separate the plant into two species is the hairiness of the stems, leaves, and/or peduncles.  But I can find no agreement from one authority to another on these characteristics.

   Those breaking the plant into two species or subspecies only generally agree on the range.  Both Kartesz and FNA show A. fragrans as a plant of the eastern Colorado plains, eastern Wyoming, just a few western counties of Kansas and Nebraska, much of New Mexico, northern Arizona, and only San Juan County (the very southeast) of Utah.  FNA agrees with Kartesz except that it omits most of Arizona and includes almost all of Colorado.  The two are more in agreement on the range of A. elliptica: It is found, they claim, in northern Arizona, most of Utah (Kartesz says "all of Utah"), the northwest corner of New Mexico, and central and southwestern Wyoming.  Kartesz also places it in eleven counties in Idaho and three in Montana. 

    Although Kartesz and FNA indicate that Abronia elliptica is found in much or all of Utah (actually having Utah as its central core of distribution), the acknowledged expert on the flora of Utah, Stanley Welsh, states that there is no Abronia elliptica, nor Abronia fragrans variety elliptica, in his state; all of the plants, says Welsh, are Abronia fragrans.

    One final twist on all of this:  In Harrington's Manual of the Plants of Colorado (1964), Harrington indicates that A. fragrans grows in Colorado, but he does give two supspecies, A. fragrans elliptica and A. fragrans glaucescens, separated from each other and from A. fragrans on the basis of the hairiness of the plants.  Harrington also defines two other species, A. carletoni (which Kartesz indicates exists only in a few counties of New Mexico and western Texas) and A. salsa, (which Kartesz indicates is a synonym for A. elliptica).

Abronia fragrans
Abronia fragrans
Abronia fragrans (Sand Verbena)
Nyctaginaceae (Four O'Clock Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Spring.
Corona Arch Trail, Utah, April 13, 2005.

Sand Verbena is quite common and often is found in large patches on deep sandy areas of Canyon Country.  Sand Verbena's large spray of visually attractive flowers are made even more attractive because of their fabulously sweet smell.  The little trumpet flowers are clustered in a sphere and are sometimes tinged with a hint of pink. 

The first four photographs show the progressive stages of the opening flowers.

A. L. Jussieu named this genus in 1789.  Nuttall collected this species near the Platte River in 1834 and named it Abronia fragrans in the description written by Hooker in 1853.

"Abro" is Greek for "delicate" or "pretty", referring to the flowers.

Abronia fragrans

Abronia fragrans

Abronia fragrans (Sand Verbena)
Nyctaginaceae (Four O'Clock Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Spring.
Corona Arch Trail, Utah, April 13, 2005.

In the top photograph at left, the drooping, unopened, greenish-yellow bracts covering several bud clusters surround white floral fireworks -- which still are not fully opened.  The drooping bracts will open widely, the flower stem will grow erect, and more floral clusters will open. 

In the bottom photograph at left, the individual trumpet flowers are almost fully opened. 

In the photograph immediately below on the left, the full beauty of the opened flower glows with white.

Abronia fragrans
Abronia fragrans (Sand Verbena)
Nyctaginaceae (Four O'Clock Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Spring.
Corona Arch Trail, Utah, May 5, 2005.

Abronia fragrans
Abronia fragrans (Sand Verbena)
Nyctaginaceae (Four O'Clock Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Spring.
Hunter Canyon, Utah, May 3, 2005.

Beauty and symmetry are evident even from the back.

Abronia fragrans

Abronia fragrans

Abronia fragrans (Sand Verbena)
Nyctaginaceae (Four O'Clock Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Spring.
Behind the Rocks, Moab, Utah, April 15, 2008.

As indicated in this photograph, Abronia fragrans may at times be rhizomatous, sending up new plants from underground roots.  Stems often sprawl along the ground and then grow erect.  The white stems are last year's growth that was vertical but in decay has now fallen.

Abronia fragrans
Abronia fragrans (Sand Verbena)
Nyctaginaceae (Four O'Clock Family)

Semi-desert, foothills. Openings. Spring.
Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, June 5, 2005.

This newly forming seed-head still shows the dried, brown remnants of once lovely white flowers.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Abronia elliptica

Range map for Abronia elliptica

Abronia fragrans

Range map for Abronia fragrans