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.
I didn’t fully appreciate how incredible our balsamroot bloom was until Juan and I took my mother to the Bison Range. Mom was a flower gardener and had lived back East her whole life so we weren’t sure how she’d respond to the drier habitat balsamroot prefers.
The flowers were at their peak, as they are right now in the Seeley Swan, and from the Bison Range vista point Mom looked out at the endless, overlapping hillsides cloaked in yellow blooms, interlaced with the purples, whites, and pinks from other wildflowers.
That night she thanked me, telling me the balsamroot were far more beautiful and moving than any horticultural garden. “I have never seen anything like it before,” she said smiling. “The earth made all those flowers with no help from human hands.”
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is a member of the Composite Family (Asteraceae) and the entire plant is edible. The name comes from its arrow-shaped leaves and the balsam smell of its taproot.
Balsamroot is a very important year-round food source for all classes of wildlife and domestic livestock and is being used to help restore landscapes and improve grazing lands.
Native Americans ate all parts of Balsamroot and also used it medicinally in a variety of ways because of its antibacterial properties. The seeds are plentiful, but only remain viable for five to six years, unlike some native grass and forb (flower) seeds, which can still germinate after being in the ground a couple of centuries!
Balsamroot sprouts each spring from its deep taproot, which can grow to be four inches thick and eight feet deep. Once the plant dies down, it’s brittle leaves litter the landscape. They are combustible and will carry a low fire, but balsamroot survives fire quite well because of its large taproot and actually benefits from low-intensity fires.
The girth of each plant gets wider over the years as it adds whorls of new leaves every growing season. If you examine a hillside of balsamroot you’ll see some are quite small but others can be two feet across at the base. Those are the “old growth” balsamroot and they can be up to 60 years old!
I couldn’t agree more with Mom. We are indeed, blessed each spring to be surrounded by such vibrant color and life!
The larches that have looked dead for the past six months have not disappointed us. They have greened up! Oh happy day! Our mountains are once again adorned with that incredible praying mantis green.
The fact that larches (Larix occidentalis) drop their needles defines so much of their existence. Most conifers keep their needles year round, enabling them to photosynthesize whenever the temperatures rise above freezing, but larches can only grow half of the year. They make up for this fact by situating themselves in full sun on mostly east, west, and north-facing slopes where it’s cooler and the soil stays moister. These factors enable larch trees to grow quite fast.
Losing their needles gives larch several advantages over other conifers. If insects damage their needles, larch trees just grow new needles the next year. If a late summer or fall fire burns the larch but doesn’t kill the cambium layer, new needles sprout the following spring.
Subalpine larch trees (Larix lyallii) have a couple other advantages over their year-round, needle-bearing conifer companions – by dropping their needles each fall, they do not lose life-sustaining moisture to the alpine winter winds. And their needleless limbs are way less likely to get damaged by deep snows. As a result, larches have the distinction of being the Rocky Mountain tree genus that grows at the highest elevations and the most northerly latitudes.
The Seeley Swan Valley is one of best places in Montana to see larches turn the mountainsides bright yellow in the fall, then decorate the forest floor with rusty yellow as the needles drop from the trees. Having been raised back East, I find their color display very satisfying.
If you take a walk through the woods right now and look close to the ground you’ll see tiny, chaotic puffs of creamy yellow at or near the top of what looks like blades of bunchgrass. But they aren’t bunchgrass – they are sedge plants.
Sedge flowers don’t have showy petals so if you move too fast you’ll miss them. But go slowly and use a magnifying glass or hand lens, and you’ll see that those puffs are made up of stamens coated with yellow pollen (the male part of a flower) and clear white pistils (the female part of a flower). They are the real thing and are all about getting pollinated! The flowering spikes may have both male and female flowers (bisexual) or only one (unisexual).
Sedge (genus Carex) is in the Sedge Family (Cyperaceae). There are 75 different species of sedge in the Rocky Mountains, so figuring out exactly what species you are looking at requires magnification and some patience. Many sedges grow in or near water and are a food source for water birds, but a lot of sedges grow in open meadows and forests at all elevations. The two most common forest species are Ross’s sedge (Carex rosii) and Elk sedge (Carex geyeri). Elk sedge is a very important food source for deer, elk, and bears.
The stems of almost all the sedges are solid and triangular. Their leaves are “v” shaped, thus the phrase you may have heard - “sedges have edges.” Most sedges grow in tight clusters, so once you get tuned into their existence, they are easy to notice. In fact, you’ll see them everywhere. Their clumps are pretty tough too, so when walking, if you have to choose between stepping on blooming flowers or on sedge plants, choose the sedge.