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, it’s an important colonizer species in compromised soils. So for those of you who want a hardy, native ground cover, kinnickinnick is your friend! It takes abuse well, is easy to transplant, and it spreads readily. And beyond all that, kinnickinnick is just a fun word to say!
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.
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.
Sedges Have Edges
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.
More Colors on the Land
A glorious little flower found early in the spring amongst the sage and bunchgrass is the yellow fritillary or yellow bell, Fritillaria pudica. It’s a member of the Lily Family (Liliaceae) and it blooms in the grasslands and ponderosa pine country.
You can tell it’s in the Lily Family because the veins on its leaves all run parallel and its flower parts are in threes - three petals and three sepals. But the sepals, which in most plant families are green, leafy structures that protect the flower in bud stage and cup the flower once it blooms, look exactly like the petals with the same coloration. Botanists call them collectively, tepals.
Yellow bell nods its flower downward, its tepals forming an inverted cup. The entire plant is edible and it was once a main food source for native people. If you’re lucky, you may see the chocolate lily blooming at the same time, but its mottled color, makes it harder to spot. The yellow bell bloom is brief so if flowers make you smile, take a walk in the bunchgrass and see if you can spot some. Happy hunting!
Prairie Star (Lithophragma spp.), is in the Saxifrage Family (Saxifragaceae) and is one of my favorites because of its understatement. There are several different species common in our area . They stand eight to eighteen inches high with leaves low on the plant, so all you notice when you come upon it in the fields is its starlike creamy flowers floating above the earth.
Some species of Prairie Star reproduce by cloning from tiny maroon bulbs that are nestled in the axils of the leaves or branches. These little bulbs will germinate once the original plant falls to the ground.
If you see these leaves while you're hiking, they belong to Prairie Smoke, or what some refer to as Old Man's Whiskers, due to the nature of its seed head. Right now its leaves are coming out all over the hillsides. I'll tell you more about this plant once it starts blooming.
I'd like to be able to recognize all the different stages of the most common plants that grow in our area, but sadly, my brain doesn't completely cooperate. Each year I have to reteach myself. So I make a game of guessing what plant belongs to what leaves or buds as they appear. As the season rolls on and the plants leaf out and bloom and go to seed, I see how accurate my guess was. Challenging oneself to gather more details about the plants broadens the story they tell. It's fun. I highly recommend it. FYI - kids always surpass adults with this memory game so don't be too hard on yourself if you are over 40 and can remember much!
The Beauty of Spring
Springbeauty started blooming in the grasslands of the Seeley Swan Valley in early April and its bloom will gradually work its way up in elevation. It is in the Purslane Family (Portulaceae). One of the coolest things about this tiny plant is its ability to move through its life cycle quickly and successfully.
In the fall, when the growing season is done, Springbeauty starts growing from its tiny bulb. Its sprout continues to grow during the winter to just below the soil surface. By doing this it is primed to emerge from the earth as soon as the snow starts melting. When the tiny plant begins growing above ground it burns carbohydrates, which build up heat in its hollow stem, which in turn melts the remaining snow around the growing plant. The stored heat in its "greenhouse" enables springbeauty to photosynthesis, despite the cold air temperatures, allowing it to make an earlier appearance than most flowers. Once the plant has completed its flower and seed cycle it continues storing up carbohydrates in its bulb so that come September, it can start its efficient life cycle once again.
The world that our Montana winter suspended for the past five months is coming back to life. On my walk with Lily today I heard varied thrush, robins, and juncos singing in the treetops and Canada geese honking above us as they flew to the pond. It was delightful hearing bird music again.
Friends of mine who live in the lower elevation, ponderosa pine/grassland habitat have seen bluebirds. This means our bluebirds, who have claimed rights to the nest box on our deck the past two years, will soon return. We have also heard that the bears are out of their dens so sadly, we must wean the chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers of their sunflower seed and suet diet and pull the feeders in so we don't attract the bears.
Ever since Mom died, feeding her birds and watering her houseplants has been one way in which I connect with her. So this past Friday, which marked the year anniversary of her passing, I fed and watered those beings with a little more fanfare. I swear the little nasturtium "vine" that germinated in one of Mom's houseplant pots last year is Mom reincarnate! It grew into a diminuitive, lanky plant with a three-foot-long stem no thicker than a shoelace - an unlikely form for a nasturtium. After Mom died it put out three remarkable blooms. The nasturtium's dime- and silver-dollar-sized leaves, which stayed green throughout our long winter, have remained plastered to the window as if willing the garden outside to flourish with life. This little plant's determination to experience beauty and light is so much like Mom's that I can't help but speak to it as I would speak to Mom.
Our winter was foreshortened this year and though we need more snow I, too, am willing the garden to turn green. I am ready for life. As the garden beds reappear from beneath the snows I have been planning Mom's flower garden - a promise I made to her. I ordered the seeds she picked out from last spring's flower catalogs and will start them inside. Then in June I will transplant the seedlings into "Mary's Montana Garden."
As time has passed I have felt Mom's absence more and more deeply - something I can't shake off and don't want to. When my emotions consume me and I wish I could bring Mom back, I am grateful that the flowers and birds are who help me feel connected with her. They don't question the rhythm of their lives. They simply live. They come and go, never remain static. As I watch them I can hear Mom say "That's the way it is. You might as well just accept it."
And so I will. I can't think of a more joyful way to feel close to Mom.