Of Rocks and Wildflowers
Long ago, as an undergraduate, I spent a summer living out of a small tent in the southern Canadian Rocky Mountains. I was the field assistant to a woman who was working on her Masters degree in geology. She was working on one particular mountain, its strata folded over to form an “anticline”. It was a simple existence for me, enjoyable in every way except for a vague fear of grizzly bears. You’d think that the presence of two humans would scare off the animals in the area, but deer or mountain sheep tended to wander by the tent in the early hours, we’d spy an occasional marmot, and there were plenty of ground squirrels. One day we had to take a wide berth around a wolverine. And late in the summer I learned that an elk bugling not far from your tent will really rattle your bones. Luckily the grizzly bears at least were sensible, and did not come anywhere near us (as far as we knew!).
Each day up the mountain we would go, climbing ever higher and higher, one of us taking measurements all the way. I don’t remember doing much work at all. I hammered away at the limestone to dig out fossils. I became fascinated by the wildflowers that grew in abundance around our tent and up the mountain. I knew nothing about flowers or gardening at the time, but I was amazed at the sheer variety of plants that grew in the alpine meadows and in the rock crevices. Now I recognize that many of the plants were variations of plants that we grow in our gardens today, such as pentsemon, saxifrage, yarrow, and phlox. My favourite wildflower was, and still is, Indian paintbrush Castilleja miniata. Near our mountain this flower took on a beautiful purplish hue, instead of the bright red I’ve seen elsewhere (perhaps it was a different species). I considered the idea of becoming a botanist. And I learned that I loved the alpine.
Since that time I’ve spent a lot of time in the mountains in BC and the Yukon, and have never lost my interest in alpine flowers and plants, and their amazing ability to adapt to high altitude and harsh conditions.
I think the most extreme example of plant adaptation I've ever seen was on Maui at the Haleakala Volcano. The ahinahina plant, or silversword, is an endangered plant that grows only at high altitude on volcanic "soil" in Hawaii. A gorgeous plant, its silver foliage stands out strikingly against the dull volcanic landscape. Somehow this plant survives the relentless beating of the sun and has worked out a way to get nutrients and water from its harsh environment.
That first summer in the alpine of the Rocky Mountains was a life changer for me. I developed a true love of plants and realized that they are happiest in a place to which they are well-adapted. After that I worked three more summers in the mountains. During one of these summers, in the Cassiar Mountains, I met my husband. He's always been more interested in the rocks than the flowers, but they go together well.
* This post is in response to #GrowWriteGuild prompt #6 "Landscapes".
Imperfect gardener, learning everything the hard way.