After a couple days camping and exploring along the Lochsa, we headed back over Lolo Pass into Missoula. As we rolled down into Montana, the Ponderosa forests seem strangely dry and open- we’d left the cedars, the hemlocks and all the other Columbian stuff on the other side. We ate dinner in town, and then spent the night, the last of our vacation, in a hotel.*
*Wyndham Inn, out by the airport. It has a pair of awesome (indoor) waterslides that are a huge hit with kids. Late that afternoon I kept an eye on the Trifecta while AW napped up in the room. I’m pretty sure Bird Whisperer went down in excess of 60 times.
Side Note: The Lolo Pass visitor’s center is well worth a stop. In addition to a great guidebook selection, the staff on-hand is both knowledgeable and helpful. I was fortunate to stop in while the wildflower expert was there (sadly I spaced her name) and she spent about 15 minutes poring over lame flower shots with me on my teensy camera screen, helping me to identify False Bugbane and Lovage, as well as answering a number of my questions about trees (specifically White Spruce and Grand Fir) in the area.
The next morning, before starting the long drive home I tiptoed out of the room before dawn and drove over to Rattlesnake Recreation Area. I rode here last summer on the way up to Glacier, and described the trees, so you can check out that post if you’re interested. On this ride my mind was more on flowers and… lakes.
I rode a different trail than last year, the Stuart Peak trail, though it bumped into my route from last year at a couple of points. The forest, changing as I climbed up, was lovely, and what was interesting was that the trail was lined, almost the entire climb, with white flowers. But the white flowers in question changed as I climbed.
First White Flower
In the beginning, climbing gently through grassy meadows, the trail was lined by Oxeye Daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare. It’s the prototypical daisy, with a similar color scheme to our native Engelmann Aster here in Utah, but with a denser array of ray flowers, creating the appearance of a fuller, more perfect flower. (Like all Asteraceae, or Sunflower family flowers, it’s a composite, so the yellow center is composed of lots of little yellow disk flowers, and the white “petals” are ray flowers.) Pretty, eh?
It’s one of the most successful, peskiest, most persistent weeds around. Native to Eurasia, it’s been introduced as an ornamental and is now naturalized in all 50 US states. Oxeye Daisy is a seed-producing machine, and also easily reproduces vegetative via root-cloning. It aggressively pushes aside not just native wildflowers, but native grasses. What’s interesting- and problematic- about this is that Oxeye roots are pretty shallow; it doesn’t hold the soil in place as firmly as native grasses. So Oxeye invasion can often lead to accelerated soil erosion.
It’s also a host for some viral diseases affecting crops, the best example being PotatoYellow Dwarf Virus (genus = Nucleorrhabdovirus), which causes stunted growth, cracking and malformation in potatoes. Oxeye hosts the virus, which is transmitted to potatoes by a species of Leafhopper, Agallis constricta*, which feeds on the tissues both plants.
*Leafhoppers are Hemipterans, or True Bugs, which I explained in this post.
Despite all this nastiness, Oxeye Daisy is still regularly planted as an ornamental, used both in public works projects (lining highways) and as a popular garden planting. Yikes- watch what you plant!
Side Note: In fact closer to home right now, blooming Oxeye lines the lower reaches of the “Center Trail” in Pinebrook. The developments in Pinebrook and Jeremy Ranch are a stew of planted/escaped exotics. You’ll also see Dame’s Rocket thriving in many yards, though it doesn’t seem to escape cultivation as easily up at that altitude. The planting of Oxeye up around Park City seems particularly sad and pointless in that Engelmann Aster (pic left) is blooming in plenty all around up there right now anyway*.
*Although in fairness Engelmann Aster doesn’t seem anywhere near as tolerant of direct sun as Oxeye, so probably isn’t an easy yard planting.
Second White Flower
After a couple of miles, the trail veered away from the meadows and creek and climbed stiffly for a bit. Heads-down, trying not to spin out, I didn’t pay much attention to the surroundings for a minutes. When the grade eased up and I started to look around, again, I was in an open Lodgepole- Douglas Fir forest, and the white flowers lining the trails were something else- Sego Lilies, Calochortus nuttallii.
I’ve blogged about Sego Lilies before, and you can check out that post for more info, but what struck me on this vacation was the range that they thrive in. I originally blogged about this flower down in Southwestern Colorado, where I encountered it in P-J woodland at 5,000 feet. ~600 miles North, at ~7,000 feet, it was all over the pace both around Stanley and up in Missoula. If anything Utah’s state flower seems to do better in Idaho and Montana than it does in Utah.
Third White Flower
As I climbed the forest became more open, and after another mile or so another white bloom started popping up here and there, another familiar sight from last summer, Beargrass (pic right) which I blogged about last summer as well up in Glacier, but hadn’t known it occurred this far South. Beargrass isn’t a “grass, but, like Sego Lily, is a monocot, and also a lily.
The trail worked its way switchbacking up a long, mellow slope, and now and again the forest opened up and afforded me a view to the South, back down to the Missoula Valley far below.
Three Dozen Lakes
I blogged about Lake Missoula last year when we were last up this way, the immense Proglacial lake that filled and emptied some three dozen+ times over a few thousand years. On my return this year, I kept an eye out for hints of its past around the valley
The Pacific Northwest is filled with evidence of the Lakes Missoula- scablands, gravel beds, bands of “rock flour”, and boulders hundreds of miles from where they should be. But the evidence in Missoula Valley itself isn’t all that obvious at first glance. There are plenty of shorelines, but they don’t stand out like those around Salt Lake Valley. Where Lake Bonneville maintained stable levels for centuries at a time- allowing wave action to cut the clear shorelines visible today at the Provo, Bonneville and Stansbury (and other) levels- Lake Missoula never endured long enough at a stable level to cut shorelines of the same scale. (The longest incarnation of the lake appears to have endured just 58 years, the shortest more like 9.) So the slopes around the Missoula Valley feature lots and lots of small, hard-to-pick-out shorelines. Interestingly, they’re often clearest on sunny winter days, when they stand out on the side of Mount Sentinel as the snow melts (pic left, not mine).
There are other clues. If you look up at the West-facing slopes of Mts. Sentinel or Jumbo from the valley floor, you’ll notice several straight drainages sloping down. But these “drainages” don’t really “drain” any basin above, and most never really run, because they’re not drainages, but collapses. When the lake suddenly drained, and the buoyant support of the water removed, these are spots where the ground partially collapsed and slid. Anyway, the Missoula Valley saw some dramatic events not too long ago. I wonder sometimes whether anyone ever witnessed any of them.*
*I doubt it. There may be a slightly better (though still slim) chance an observer could have been around to see the downstream effects in say NW Oregon around 12KBP, but then an even less likely chance that they would’ve survived to tell the tale.
Fourth White Flower
About 6 miles up the trail, the forest gradually changed to all Lodgepole. The floor was sunny and open, carpeted with blooming Lupine and a strange white flower I hadn’t seen before: roughly foot-high stalks, each bearing a dozen-plus white flowers. The petals of the flowers, each about ½” long, form 2 “lips”, the lower short and broad, the upper stretched up and over as sort of a hood. Together they create almost a beak-like aspect, lending to the plant’s common name: Parrot’s-Beak, Pedicularis contorta.
Extra ID Detail: Confusingly, another Pedicularis species, P. racemosa, is also called Parrot’s-Beak. Both flowers are also called Lousewort, sometimes Sickletop or Leafy Lousewort in the case of P. racemosa, Coiled or White-Beaked Lousewort in the case of P. contorta. The flowers are similar; the giveaway here is the leaves. Pinnately-lobed into long, narrow segments, they mark it as P. contorta.
Pedicularis is a a member of the Broomrape family, Orobanchaceae, the same family as Castilleja, the Paintbrushes. Like the Paintbrushes, and in fact all species in the family*, Pedicularis species root parasites**, tapping into the roots of neighboring plants for nutrients.
*One exception- the genus Lindbergia. There’s always an exception in botany…
**Root parasites are different BTW than the myco-heterotrophs, such as Pinedrop and Coralroot, that we talked about in the last couple of posts. A myco-heterotroph taps into fungus (though that fungus may in turn tap into another plant.) A root parasite taps directly into the roots of another plant.
BTW, speaking of Paintbrush, I saw plenty of Yellow Paintbrush, Castilleja occidentalis (pic left), around both Missoula and Stanley. I’ve never seen Yellow Paintbrush in the Wasatch, though I saw it last summer in the Uintas.
Parrot’s-Beak is a promiscuous parasite, not at all particular about the species of plant whose roots it taps into, and a single Parrot’s-Beak plant will often tap into several plants of multiple species. Pedicularis is a huge genus, with over 500 recognized species, making it one of the largest genera of flowering plants. The group seems to have originated around the Eastern end of the Himalayan Plateau, around China’s Hengduan Mountains, where the greatest range of species occurs. Pedicularis species are pollinated overwhelmingly by Bumblebees (genus = Bombus), and interestingly, the species distribution pattern of Bombus species is geographically similar to that of Pedicularis, which a heavy concentration near the Himalayan Plateau.
Extra Detail: Queen Bumblebees usually forage for nectar, while workers usually go for pollen. The best way to get at the nectar is to enter the flower right-side-up*, while it’s easier to access pollen if you go in upside-down. So if you see Bumblebees around these flowers, their position as they enter the flowers may give you a clue as to whether they’re queens or workers.
*Technically, entering a flower right-side-up is do to so nototipically, while entering upside-down is sternotipic. I’m not clear why special science-words are necessary in this case; “right-side-up” and “upside-down” would seem to describe the behavior just fine.
Finally the trail started to level off. I rounded one more corner, and I was at the end, the wilderness boundary, with the standard wooden sign, and a special “Bicycles Not Permitted” about 10 feet beyond, just in case a biker somehow missed the first sign. I’m one of those mtn bikers who actually thinks bikes should be banned from wilderness. It’s not for any of the “standard” reasons. Bikes are quiet and low impact. They don’t pollute, and I’m convinced they spread exotic seeds far less readily than hiking boots. And I’m not terribly sympathetic to mumbo-jumbo pseudo-environmentalist sentiments about “mechanization” somehow violating some supposed natural law. We hike into wilderness with GPS’s, gore-tex jackets, nylon tents and bear-spray. We cook freeze-dried foods packaged thousands of miles away on stoves powered by 300 million year-old forests drilled from under the ocean or out of a desert on the other side of the planet. The reason mtn bikes are banned from wilderness- the actual reason- is that hikers find them annoying. I don’t blame them; I find bikes annoying when I’m hiking as well. But that’s a reason for people, and if it that were the only reason, then when I rolled up to a wilderness boundary at 8 AM, 7 miles from the trailhead, 500 miles from home, well then… I’d keep right on rolling.
But I don’t. Not for any of the supposed reasons, not because I’m afraid of ticking off hikers*, nor because I’m afraid of getting caught**. I don’t ride in wilderness for the real reason, the reason that matters, the reason I can’t figure out why the pamphlets and signs don’t make clear: Bikes shrink distance.
*I could’ve easily popped in a couple of miles and back out before the day’s first hiker made it up to the boundary.
**Seriously, how often do you see an actual ranger on USFS land, actually walking on a trail?
The real problem with wilderness is that there isn’t enough of it, and that the pieces there are in the lower 48 are too small. They’re too small to support large predator/prey populations. They’re too small to let fire, blights, bark beetles and alien species invasions run their courses. We set wilderness up supposedly to protect the land, to protect wild species, but the truth is, we set it up for us. We take vacations and camp and hike and ski in it. We buy postcards and screensavers of it. Which is all sort of ironic, because the best thing for the wilderness itself would be if we didn’t go in it. Any of us. Not motorheads, not mtn bikers, not tree-hugging granola-head hikers.
That’ll never happen of course, and I’m selfish enough I wouldn’t make it happen if I could. So the compromise we work out is to make it a bit difficult, and more importantly, slow to penetrate wilderness. Walking is slow; it takes full day to cover a dozen+ miles on foot. But bikes are fast. In 2 or 3 hours a biker on a decent trail can penetrate 10 or 15 miles into a wilderness. And when anyone with a few hundred bucks can buy a mtn bike, throw it on the roof and drive to a trailhead, well, that’s a lot of people getting in deep and getting in fast.*
*A common objection here is that horses are permitted in wilderness. Horses don’t cover distance as quickly as mtn bikes. More importantly, horses are logistically impractical for the vast majority of visitors, which naturally limits their numbers and penetration.
Even so, being on smooth singletrack at wilderness sign with no one around is a little like finding a suitcase of money. If nobody knows, well then… I glanced at my watch and thought of the family waking in the hotel, shuffling down to the breakfast buffet. I could just go a little ways in, just to see what it looks like up ahead… maybe just 100 yards, or like a quarter mile or so…just for a few minutes…Catching myself, I turned around and started the long, fast descent down.
Fifth White Flower
Zipping downhill, I thought about the long drive home, and all the things I needed to do when I got there- work stuff, bike stuff, yard stuff. Down, down, down, through changing forests until at last I was speeding along the grassy meadows I’d started up at dawn, thinking about the yard stuff in particular, when all of a sudden I noticed one more white flower, one new and familiar at the same time, for it was the same flower blooming in my backyard just 2 weeks earlier, Mock-Orange, Phildelphus lewisii.
Philadelphus, a member of the Hydrangea family, Hydrangeaceae, is a genus of some 70 species of large shrubs scattered across the Northern hemisphere. Its hard-but-flexible wood was used by Indians to fashion baskets and other implements.
Genetic research into P. lewisii suggests a complex history. The group is thought to have originated in Southwestern North America, but since migrated back and forth between North American and Eurasia many times, separating, speciating, then meeting again and hybridizing. Adding to the complexity, some of the migrations “back home” appear to have been Eastward, from Europe. Philadelphus has washed around and back again, almost wave-like, around the Northern hemisphere for millions of years.
Today it’s widely grown as an ornamental, including in the Watcher yard, where it provides some measure of summertime privacy from 2 of our neighbors*. Every Fall we cut it back, and every summer it grows out again like crazy. I generally have a bit of a black thumb in the yard, but Mock-Orange is impossible to screw up; it grows like a weed. State flower of Idaho, yet waiting for me at home, it seemed an appropriate last flower for our vacation.
*These would be the homes of Mildly Grumpy Rich Old Guy and Space-Shot Babysitting Sisters. Both are actually fine neighbors, but the green wall is welcome just the same.
Note About Sources: Info on Pedicularis came from Phylogeny and the Evolution of Floral Diversity in Pedicularis (Orobanchaceae), Richard H. Ree. Info on Philadelphus came from the Master of Science, Plant Biology, thesis of Yuelong Guo, North Carolina State University. Info on Lake Missoula came from Glacial Lake Missoula and its Humungous Floods*, by David Alt.**.
*Yes, that’s really the name of the book.
**The same David Alt who authored Roadside Geology of Idaho. David Alt rocks.