That just might be my best wildflower photo yet. Mountain Dandelion, Agoseris glauca and Nutall’s Larkspur, Delphinium nuttalianum. That indigo blue right next to the bright yellow is such a great contrast- I just can’t get enough of it. (I’ve posted previously about both flowers; you can follow the links if you’re interested.)
Side Note: You can also see teensy red dots in the Mountain Dandelion. These show up pretty often if you pause and look closely (pic right), and they’re a nice little bonus-distinguisher between Mountain Dandelions and “regular” Dandelions.
The great news about this photo though is that this same awesome sight is repeated over and over again, probably about a million times, just 20-25 minutes up I-80 from Salt Lake. This past weekend I mtn biked for the first time this year up around Kimball Junction- 24/7, Glenwild & lower Flying Dog on Saturday, Round Valley and Lost Prospector on Sunday. And right now the flowers up there are spectacular.
Tangent: This is a seasonal pattern with many mountain bikers (and trail users in general.) When the first trails in the Foothills melt out, we ride/run/hike them over and over. But as the season progresses, “newer” higher trails open up, we quickly forsake the lower trails in favor of new terrain.
In part this is because we’re just tired of riding the same old thing day after day. And of course as temps rise, and trails get dry and dusty, the riding is just more pleasant higher up. But with me there’s a 3rd driver that I didn’t recognize till this year: I’m chasing Spring.
Think about it. I started down in the Sonoran back in February, then moved to Southern Utah in late March/early April, then the foothills in late April/early May, now I’m up in the lower PC stuff, and soon I’ll be pedaling up through Aspen groves over 8,000 feet. Spring in the West isn’t just a season; it’s a wave, and you want to surf that wave upward for as long as you can…
These trails are ones I ride only briefly in the late Spring, before the forested trails melt out, and then again in the Fall (mostly on night-rides.) They’re open, fast, non-technical, and run across open, rolling, sage-covered hillsides at around 6,500 – 7,000 feet. I don’t know if this type of terrain has a proper name; I call it “High Rangelands”, and it’s reminiscent of a lot of the open terrain across Southern Wyoming. Soon these rangelands will get sun-beaten, hot and unpleasant, and I’ll retreat to the cover of more shaded trails, but right now they’re wonderful- endless fast trails lined with yellow and violet-blue, capped by a big bowl of sky.
The flowers include many of the same characters as down in the foothills. There are Bluebells , Wooly Milkvetch and clumps of big Arrowleaf Balsamroots. And the Singlestem Groundsels (pic left) are all over the place up here; if I had to pick a dominant wildflower at the 6,500 foot level right now, that would be it. And interestingly, the Mountain Dandelions, which I’ve seen only sporadically down in the foothills, are also super-common up here (though nowhere near so common as the Groundsels.)
But there are some new flowers up here as well, ones we haven’t seen down below. Far and away the most common of these rangeland newbies is the aforementioned Nutall’s Larkspur. (I blogged about a related, lighter-colored Larkspur species last month when I was down in St. George with KanyonKris, and blogged about Nutall’s Larkspur last year in this post.) Larkspurs have a way cool anatomy. When you fly by on your bike, the dark blue petal-looking thingies you see are actually the sepals, one of which- the top one- juts straight back horizontally to form the distinctive “spur” for which it is named.
To see the petals, you have to stop and peek inside; the petals are lighter- white streaked with bits of indigo. Right now they’re pollinated in large part by hummingbirds, and sure enough you’ll hear them buzzing about up there in the mornings this week. Later on, after the Hummingbirds move higher up, they’ll be pollinated more heavily by Bumblebees.
Larkspurs are also filled with alkaloids, making them toxic to livestock. I covered the chemistry of alkaloids in more detail in last year’s post.
Another newbie is just starting to pop up, but in the coming weeks it’ll be all over the place. This one’s trickier to pick out because the flowers are completely indistinguishable (at least to me) from Arrowleaf Balsamroot. But the leaves are way different. It’s Cutleaf Balsamroot, Balsamorhiza macrophylla. Once you know to look at the leaves, the 2 are easy to tell apart. They grow alongside each other along 24/7 and the South-facing Glenwild trails, but in most other parts of the Wasatch it’s one or the other.
Down in the foothills behind the U. for example, it’s all Arrowleaf; I’ve never seen a Cutleaf. And along the South-facing hills between Little Mountain Pass and Mt. Dell Reservoir, it’s probably 99% Cutleaf. My observation (haven’t confirmed this in a guide) is that Cutleaf prefers cooler and wetter, while Arrowleaf does better with hot and dry, and blooms earlier.
Of the 10 Balsamroots in North America (3 in Utah) Cutleaf (pic left) is the strangest and most interesting, both from a morphological and genetic perspective, and appears to be a relatively new species created by a past hybridization event, either between 2 Balsamroots, or between a Balsamroot and a Wyethia (Mules Ear) species. If you’re interested in the story/details, see this post from last June.
The slightly different mix of wildflowers got me thinking about one of the things I’ve most enjoyed about getting into plants- the sense of place they provide. For a while now, I’ve recognized that trees provide a great macro-level orientation of place; they can instantly give you a broad sense of where you are, whether in the Wasatch, or Southern Utah or the Sierra or New England or the Colorado Front Range. But what I’m coming to see now over time is that recognizing, understanding and associating the smaller plants- the wildflowers, shrubs and grasses- can give you an even more enhanced, or “drill-down”, perspective of place, one that varies not just state to state, but even between different microclimates, aspects and altitude within a county. It’s almost a “foveal” view of place through plants, and it’s a great example of probably my best overall lesson to date from this whole project: the more you learn about, recognize and understand plants, the more the world opens up, and you start to see all sorts of things that were always right in front of you, but which you somehow never saw before.
Tangent: This idea isn’t original. Another plant-blogger, the Phytofactor, has dubbed the tendency not to notice plants as “plant blindness,” an excellent description. On a lighter note, longtime Douglas Adams fans may recall the SEP field, which was described a low-cost alternative to full-blown invisibility. The SEP field, which stood for “Somebody Else’s Problem”, leveraged people’s natural tendency not to notice things they weren’t interested in or just didn’t want to be bothered with in order to make a particular object- say a spacecraft- totally un-noticed and effectively invisible, even though it was right there in front of them.
Being plant-blind is like riding past fields, meadows and forests that are hidden under an SEP field; there’s a blur of green, but you don’t really know what’s in that blur, and well… it seems like a bit of hassle to actually figure it out.
But if you learn just a little bit about plants, the SEP field starts to melt away, and suddenly you realize you’re seeing all kinds of things that other bikers aren’t seeing, and gradually, like waking up out of a long foggy dream, the world starts to make sense*.
*I wish it hadn’t taken me 40+ years to figure that out…
Little plants take more focus and effort to recognize and understand than trees, so the foveal sense of place they provide is something that comes more gradually. But wildflowers are a great place to start; you hardly have to look at all- they just pop out at you. About the only way you can miss the boat with wildflowers is to get too busy, too wrapped up in the day-to-day, and miss catching the blooms. So if you live in Northern Utah, take a moment and open up your calendar for this week and the next. Check it out quick and figure out what you’ll need to move, reschedule, cancel or just blow off to make sure you get up to Jeremy Ranch or Kimball Junction this week.