Kinnickinnick, or bearberry, which grows throughout the forests of the West, often goes unnoticed because it is not a showy plant. It is one of my favorites because each spring, when the arrival of warm weather seems utterly improbable, kinnickinnick’s bright red berries and tiny evergreen leaves are the first to emerge from under the snow. Its resilience always reassures me the earth will come back to life.
Originally, kinnickinnick was a trading term eastern tribes gave to all plants that could be smoked. The term moved westward with the settlers and soon became the name for this little member of the Heath Family, whose leaves and bark can be smoked.
Kinnickinnick’s berries, which stay on the plant through the winter, are edible but not very palatable. Regardless, tribes mixed the berries into soups or ground them up and moistened them with bear grease or salmon oil. They also popped them like popcorn. Dried berries were used in rattles.
The scientific name for kinnickinnick is Arctostaphylos urva-ursi.The leaves, which are referred to medicinally as “urva ursi”, are used in teas and tinctures to heal the urinary tract of infections and to ease arthritis.
In the wild, Kinnickinnick is an important colonizer species in compromised soils. For those of you who want a hardy, native ground cover, kinnickinnick is your friend! It takes abuse well, is easy to transplant, and spreads readily.
Beyond all that, kinnickinnick is just a fun word to say!
Fires alter wildlife’s food, water, and shelter forcing animals to either adjust or find new homes. In an intense fire the complex humus layer on the forest floor gets charred, depleting nutrients and causing soils to repel water. Erosion is greater and the compromised soil produces less nutritious food for the animals.
Despite the hit it has taken, nature starts healing. In the spring broad-leaved plants such as Rocky Mt maple, dogwood, willow, and aspen sprout from their roots and flowers like fireweed get established. Their leaves begin to shade the ash-covered slopes and cool the soil. This helps protect small mammals from predators whose burrow openings had been exposed by the fire.
Other species that benefit from the regrowth on the newly exposed slopes are insects and small birds that come for the pollen, nectar, and seeds produced by the shrubs and flowers. The leaves and twigs attract browsers such as deer, elk, and moose and their predators eventually follow. A species of beetles fire fighters call "fire beetles" can sense fire’s heat from miles away and come to dine on the dead trees. And then, or course, there are those species – ourselves included – who fatten up on the morel mushrooms that are so plentiful after a fire!
Lodgepole pines seeds germinate en masse after fires and their baby trees soon create more diversity in the deciduous regrowth, which in turn supports more species.
Animals such as the pine marten and wolverine that depend upon continuous older forest habitat and canopy cover take a hit when the canopy has burned. Wolverines also suffer because snow melts earlier when the canopy is lost. And fish get stressed because water temperatures increase when streamside vegetation is burned and the higher erosion rates add silt to the streams.
And then there’s the bears that have been visiting firefighters on the fire line. Even without a fire, bears are particularly stressed at this time of year because they need to fatten up for the winter. Hyperphagia is the term for it, and if their food is burned and their denning site is exposed bears have that much more work to do in order to survive. No wonder they are on the prowl.
The healing process after an intense fire is slow. It rebuilds in its own time, not ours. As these hotter fires continue to burn the landscape we must learn to regard nature needs above our own. That’s the only way we can turn this ship around.
Wildlife has evolved with fires over the eons. Though wildfire certainly takes its toll, not as many animals die as one might expect. However, more animals die if fires occur early in the season when babies are still being cared for or if fires are severe, as so many are today.
Raptors, like eagles and hawks, have keen eyesight and acute hearing, so are forewarned of fire before most other species. They easily escape the flames and also take advantage of the opportunity to prey on animals such as rodents, small mammals, and insects fleeing from the fire.
Birds’ respiratory systems pump far more oxygen than ours do, so smoke inhalation as well as deposition of toxins takes a greater toll. Smaller songbirds fly lower than raptors so they are far more vulnerable to dying from smoke inhalation.
Large animals such as bear, deer, mountain lions, and wolves generally survive fires by staying ahead of the flames, but can succumb to smoke inhalation or burning if the fire is erratic or fast moving.
The rodents that don’t get picked off by predators or that don’t panic and run into the flames, can survive fire’s heat by taking refuge in their burrows. As long as they get at least four inches below the surface and their tunnels have several openings they won’t asphyxiate.
If snakes aren’t molting they can slither away or take cover in a burrow. Turtles hide out in burrows and amphibians dig down into the muck and wait it out.
Some coping methods that don’t have good outcomes are the insect species that are drawn to fire’s warmth and therefore incinerated en masse. However, this creates a feast for many other species. Small mammals such as squirrels and porcupines that tend to flee into the treetops for safety also don’t fare well.
As our fires subside, the plants and animals will carry on. Their habitat has completely changed and they will either benefit from that change or will move on. More about that in my next post...
Smoke. More smoke. Ridiculous amounts of smoke. That has been what we in Seeley Lake have been breathing and looking through since July 24th. We know the smoke is impacting our health, but how is it impacting the trees and plants?
Plants breath and photosynthesis through openings called stomata. When wildfire smoke fills the air, plants reduce the size of their stomata, which means that just like us, they can’t breath as well, and their ability to photosynthesize is reduced. So yes, they’re stressed. And yes, they want the smoke to go just as much as we do.
Studies have shown that conifers, like Douglas fir, recover more quickly from smoke exposure than do broad-leaved plants, like Rocky Mountain maple. Researchers speculate this is because conifers have evolved to resist fire with their thick bark rather than succumb and re-sprout like many deciduous plants. Persisting means the conifers must quickly get back to the business of living once the fires and smoke have passed.
Plants divide their energies between photosynthesizing and creating their own chemical compounds that deter insects, pathogens, and some herbivores from eating them. On a good note, fires temporarily reduce the amount of insects and pathogens that eat plants so after a fire, plants can spend more energy growing. And according to researcher, Amina Khan, when fire has burned out the forest canopy, causing sunlight to pass through the charred ground at a different angle, chemicals in the smoke make the surviving plants more receptive to the altered light, causing them to grow thicker, tougher stems, which makes them more likely to survive.
I am impressed to discover that plants possess such refined and complex adaptive abilities and that they have evolved to respond positively to smoke's messages. It gives me hope that they will find ways to persist in our rapidly changing environment.
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is one of my favorite flowers because it is tough and the deer don’t seem to like it. Its shallow roots make transplanting easy and it tolerates some neglect in the process. It is drought resistant and spreads by shallow rhizomes, so it fills my flower garden even when I forget to water it!
Yarrow is in the Composite Family, not the Parsley Family as some might guess, so please learn to identify it correctly before using it. To the untrained eye, some poisonous plants can be mistaken for yarrow.
With a magnifying glass you can see that the flowers in each flower head consist of a bunch of teenier flowers, which are, in fact, a conglomeration of the Composite Family’s signature ray and disk flowers.
Yarrow offers a wide array of medicinal properties and it’s helpful to keep some of them in mind no matter where you are. Yarrow’s most significant property is its blood-clotting ability. It has been used to staunch bleeding for thousands of years, earning it the name herbal militaris in ancient Greek times, and soldier’s woundwort during the Civil War. Its additional antiseptic and numbing properties help with just about any wound. You can use it on bee stings or yellow jacket bites or to stop nosebleeds. It’s aromatic fragrance acts as an insecticide and fumigant.
Yarrow also improves circulation of peripheral blood vessels so yarrow tea is helpful for certain types of headaches. It lowers blood pressure, breaks fevers, and helps reduce menstrual bleeding. It can cause miscarriages so pregnant women should avoid it, but tea taken after delivering your baby helps reduce bleeding.
Do your own yarrow research. You’ll be surprised at how much healing such a “common” plant can provide.
As the Rice Ridge fire pressed down upon us and I prepared to evacuate, my belongings felt like a burden. Protecting them was clearly not worth the loss of someone’s life. I couldn’t help but wish that our culture lived on the land differently.
When tribal people inhabited the West they co-existed with fires. Their homes were lightweight and portable so tribes could easily move their few possessions if needed. No one’s life was put at risk fighting fires.
Because fires cycled through frequently they improved habitats rather than devastating them by clearing out undergrowth and fertilizing the soil with ash. Many tribes intentionally set fires to increase browse for elk and deer, regrowth of quality basket-making materials such as beargrass and willows, and enhance productivity of essential foods such as huckleberries.
As European culture moved into the West its stationary lifestyle redefined the meaning of fire. Permanent structures and denser populations meant fire brought a threat rather than a healthy cleansing, and the era of fire suppression began. It seemed like the right thing to do and we were good at it. By the 1960s we had successfully reduced the annual number of burned acres from 30 million to 5 million.
But after years of suppressing fires we now understand forests have gotten too thick and fires burn too hot. Sadly, there is no easy way to thin our forests back down to less incendiary conditions. Fuel mitigation projects help, but not enough. Catastrophic fires will continue to threaten firefighters and towns, and scorch habitats.
We have lost two young men to Montana fires this season yet still the firefighters come. Their courage leaves me speechless. I, for one, wish our culture was not built around permanence. I wish our forests weren’t getting so ravaged. I wish we could bring those firefighters back to life.
I know I speak on behalf of all Seeley Lake residents in expressing my deepest regrets and appreciation to every firefighter here. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
When the bark beetles were in full swing I copped an attitude against lodgepole pines. They seemed weak and a waste of space in the forest. But I have come to understand their important role in fire ecology habitats and have adjusted my attitude.
Though short-lived, lodgepole pines, Pinus contorta, are the most common Rocky Mountain tree species north of New Mexico because they are fast growing, reproduce prolifically, and can inhabit almost any soil.
Lodgepoles produce normal cones and also serotinous cones, which are sealed shut with resin. Lodgepoles’ normal cones shed their seeds any time of year, but their serotinous cones need a wildfire to open. The heat melts the resin and the cones open, shedding their seeds, which quickly germinate.
Lodgepole’s regrowth after fire is so crowded it has earned the name “doghair stands.” The good news is they quickly protect the soil and provide habitat for other species. These thick stands eventually burn again and the whole cycle repeats itself.
Because doghair stands produce tall, yet small diameter trees tribal people used them for tipi poles – thus the name lodgepole. They also hauled their belongings on a travois, created with two lodgepoles and leather slung over a horse. Lodgepole’s inner bark (cambium) was also a crucial source of food and medicine each spring when the sap rose.
When white settlers moved into the West, the abundant lodgepole provided them with building materials, especially logs for cabins and fencing. As a neighbor who operates a post and pole business stated, "Lodgepoles are the staff of life."
The recent widespread beetle kill was due to several converging factors: our warmer and drier climate, many lodgepole stands reaching the end of their 100-plus-year life cycle, and overcrowded forests due to years of fire suppression. The earth couldn’t support all those trees so something had to give. Contrary to what I once thought, lodgepoles are not “a waste of space” and the beetles are not ”bad.” They are simply part of the earth’s complex balancing act.
It’s a good beargrass year. The slopes on either side of Hwy 83 are filled with their tall, crazy looking flowers. It’s worth taking a drive or hiking up a trail to witness how beautifully their white blooms decorate our forest-covered mountains.
Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) is in the Lily Family. Each stalk has hundreds of flower buds, which start blooming from the bottom of the stalk and bloom upwards to the top. Blooming patches of beargrass light the forest up as if they were torches. The fun thing is you can enjoy their display from early June into July by going up to higher elevations.
It takes years for one clump of beargrass to store up enough energy to create a blooming stalk. Once it blooms the clump dies back but the energy stored in its tissues is passed on to an adjacent clump. Colonies of beargrass bloom every 3 to 7 years, sometimes all the plants in the colony bloom at same time.
Bears eat the tender leaf shoots in early spring, but by summer those leaves get tough with sharp edges and the only ones brave enough to eat them are mountain goats. Rodents, elk, and bighorn sheep eat the flowers and seedpods and pollinators frequent the flowers. The large leafy clumps provide great overstory habitat for rodents, and grizzly bears sometimes use their leaves in their winter dens.
Beargrass leaves are an important weaving material for Native Americans. Native people used fire to revitalize landscapes and beargrass benefited from this practice. It is quite fire hardy. The new shoots, which sprouted up quickly after a fire, were sought after for weaving.
The purple flower currently blooming in the flat lands is camas. As you drive along Hwy 200 through Potomac you can see several purple-tinged fields off to the north. The purple is the camas flowers.
Camas, Camassia quamash, is in the Lily Family. The root of purple camas was a main food source for Native people on the western side of the Rockies up into British Columbia. It was a highly prized trading commodity, especially with tribes who lived where camas did not grow. The bulbs could be eaten raw but were usually roasted in a pit from one to three days, which turned their starches into fructose making the bulbs sweet.
A word of caution: There are two kinds of camas – purple and death camas – and they grow in the same habitats. Death camas contains strychnine and will kill you if eaten. You can only distinguish between the two plants when they are in bloom – death camas has creamy white flowers and edible camas is purple. So please don’t dig any up. It’s absolutely not worth the risk.
Camas was cultivated by Native tribes. Families “managed” the same camas fields for generations. The bulbs were harvested with digging sticks, the land burned with low-intensity fires, and death camas weeded out. Under this intensive care the camas prairies thrived.
But when white settlers moved West and began plowing under camas prairies, it robbed tribes of a major source of sustenance and presented a real threat to their survival. The whites' destruction of camas prairies on Nez Perce lands in northeastern Oregon and the US government's efforts to move the Nez Perce away from their lands onto a small reservation in Idaho led to the Nez Perce War.
When I first moved West in the 1970s I fell in love with aspen trees because of what they represented to me in my early 20s – wildness and spontaneity, new adventures, and breaking away from entrenched paths.
But beyond all that youthful anthropomorphizing, aspens can completely stand on their own. It’s just plain hard to dislike them! Apparently, many species feel the same. Aspen groves support almost 200 species!
Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) is the widest ranging tree – north, south, east, and west – in North and South America. It is in the Willow Family along with cottonwoods, poplars, and of course, willows. Aspens can reproduce by seed but here in the West, they mostly reproduce by root shoots, which offers a more reliable beginning in our drier climate.
Entire groves are actually the same being – meaning each individual tree in a grove has the same DNA as its neighboring trees. They are clones. You can distinguish where one grove ends and another begins in the fall because each grove will display it’s own unique fall color. The largest living being on the planet is an aspen grove in Utah. It covers 106 acres and weighs in at 6600 tons. Scientists have estimated its age at 80,000 years.
Aspens survive all but super intense fires. Though the tree above ground will die, the roots quickly sprout new shoots. Root-sprouted aspens have so much more energy to draw from than seed-sprouted aspens, so they grow faster and get re-established much sooner. This is good for soil stability and soil temperatures as well as for all the critters that depend upon aspen.
An aspen leaf trembles because its leaf stalk is flat. In stiff winds this design enables clusters of leaves to lean against each other, reducing drag on and damage to branches. That scientific explanation is great but I am still inclined to romanticize the quaking of aspens. There’s something about that fluttering that lightens a person’s mood and makes everything seem possible. Perhaps they are modeling how to let things slide off our backs.