The robust flower spikes that paint our forest floor purple are lupines. Though lupine seedpods look a lot like domestic peas and specific species were cultivated for thousands of years in the Andes and the Mediterranean, most species are poisonous and should not be eaten. The alkaloids in lupines have killed many sheep, horses, cows, and goats.
Lupine (Lupinus spp.) belongs to the Legume Family and we have ten species in Montana. In our rural environment where deer abound, lupines can be a rewarding addition to an unfenced flower garden because deer usually avoid them.
Besides being poisonous, lupines have developed other survival strategies:
- According to Daniel Matthews, author of Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper, bumblebees and lupines have developed a means of optimizing pollination. Most lupines have white spots on their upper petals. As their flowers get old and nectar supplies decrease, lupines communicate that fact by turning the white spots magenta. Bumblebees have learned not to visit magenta-spotted flowers, thereby conserving their energy and keeping old pollen out of the gene pool.
- Most lupines are covered with tiny hairs – referred to in botanical language as “pubescence.” These fine hairs reflect sunlight away, which cools the plant’s surface and reduces water loss. Pubescence also diminishes the wind’s drying effect.
- Lupines fix atmospheric nitrogen into a form that they and other plants can use, fertilizing and enriching the soil as they grow. This nitrogen-fixing ability enables lupines to colonize depleted soils.
- Lupines have long taproots, which can reliably draw moisture from deep in the ground, enabling lupines to stay hydrated during summer’s heat.
Clearly these hardy plants have figured out how to cope. If you ever need inspiration during trying times, you might contemplate a lupine.
I am so appreciative of the many successions of flower blooms here in Montana! After the remarkable beargrass show we just got down in the valley, the mariposa lilies have come on in full force. Mariposa means “butterfly” in Spanish and if you take a walk right now you’ll see the tiny bright “butterflies” of individual mariposas scattered throughout the forest. In my mind they are the epitome of delicate – three creamy white petals blooming at the tip of a grey green stalk bearing one long, slender leaf.
Mariposas are in the Lily Family. There are five species of Calochortus in the Rocky Mountains. The species that grows around my home in Seeley Lake is Calochortus apiculatus, also called Cat’s Ears because of the shape of its soft, furry petals.
Calochortus was an important food for native people. The tiny bulbs offers the most substantial nutrition, though the whole plant is edible. Native people were not the only ones to rely upon Calochortus. In 1848, when crickets decimated the Mormon’s crops, it is said they survived by eating Calochortus nuttallii, sego lily. In appreciation, they made the sego lily Utah’s state flower.
You know by now I am a bit of a botany sap, but I am so moved by each tiny mariposa lily’s beauty. The fact that collectively these small flowers have such a positive impact on me reinforces my belief that there is no such thing as an insignificant act.
Arnica has been blooming under the forest canopy for a couple of weeks now. As you drive north on Hwy 83 along Salmon Lake you can see swaths of yellow flowers nestled in mounds of dark green leaves that blanket the forest floor.
Arnica is a yellow daisy-like flower, and is often confused with balsamroot, but its flowers are smaller than balsamroot, it blooms a little later, and it grows in a forest environment rather than a sunny, ponderosa pine-bunchgrass habitat. Its leaves are a dark yellow-green rather than balsamroot’s gray green color.
Arnica has been used medicinally for centuries. The roots and flowers can be made into a compress for sprains and bruises to help with swelling and pain, but it is important to apply it only onto unbroken skin because it is poisonous if used internally.
Twelve different Arnica species have been identified in Montana. It is a little tricky figuring out which species a plant belongs to because different arnicas sometimes cross-pollinate.
You can see arnica’s yellow blooms throughout the growing season, from lower elevations up into the higher mountains. You can see more of my flower blog posts on ihiketowrite.com.
The shrubs on our hillsides that look like sponge-painted dobs of white are serviceberries. By late summer, their lacey white flowers will develop into dark blue berries, which are a little seedy but good to eat.
Serviceberries were a very important food for Native people – they were eaten raw, mashed into cakes and dried, or mixed with meat and fat and made into pemmican. Nowadays they are used for pies, jam, and syrups. The berries are high in iron and copper and the whole plant can be used for a wide variety of medicinals.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia ) is in the Rose Family - Rosaceae. Because its wood is straight grained and hard it has been used for tool handles, tipi stakes, canoe cross pieces, arrows and spears, and structural basket material.
Mock orange is another white-blooming shrub in our area that can be confused with serviceberry, but it blooms in late June and July and its leaves are shiny and come to a point whereas serviceberry leaves have a rounded tip edged with small teeth.
When the serviceberries are ripe, sit quietly near a bush and watch how many birds come and feed on the berries.
We were just out in the Valley of the Knobs near Ovando, learning about the wildflowers that were in bloom. What a great day! It was sunny, then windy, then we got hailed on a little, but we learned about the Lily, Purslane, Primrose, Buttercup, and Mustard Families represented by Yellow bell, Springbeauty, Shooting Star, Pasqueflower and Sagebrush buttercup, and the teeny, tiny Draba Verna. So much fun!
The land is still pretty brown but grasses are getting taller and many small sedges are blooming. We spent the afternoon with the calls of Sandhill cranes overhead and elk browsing the distant hillsides. We are so lucky!
Last week I hiked out into the lower reaches of the Seeley Swan Valley, close to the Blackfoot River, and discovered that the springbeauties and sagebrush buttercups are in bloom. The pasqueflower were in bud and should be blooming by now and shooting star leaves are everywhere.
We're still getting morning temps in the teens and snow/hail, but the ground is workable and there's just a little snow remaining. Seeley and Salmon Lakes are open. There's still lots of snow on the mountains.
Good News! There are still huckleberries up high in the Swan and Mission Mountains! And...in case you are wondering...flowers are still blooming in the higher elevations. Flowers worth hiking to see! Fireweed sets the tone for the entire landscape, its fuchsia blooms blanketing the mountainsides. Fireweed is especially striking in old burns like the ones we saw hiking up to Holland Lake Lookout and Hemlock Lake. The fireweed are joined by Indian paintbrush, showy asters, bright yellow goldenrod, hawkweed, arnica, gentian, Sitka valerian, red-stemmed saxifrage, senecio, grass of Parnassus, and a few late-blooming penstemon.
And then there are the wee "Belly Flowers" - a new name I learned from Emily, who learned it from her grandmother - meaning flowers you can only see when lying down on your belly, like veronica and foam flower. I love that term!!
When hiking, I highly recommend slowing your pace, bending down, parting the thick leaves of ferns, huckleberry, false huckleberry, and thimbleberry. Take a deep breath, open your mind, and look. What you'll find is an entire Lilliputian world of mosses, lichens, teeny flowers, spores, bugs, and rocks. If you look long enough - really look - your urge to "get to the peak or to the lake" may slip away and be replaced with a fullness and awe for the incredible grace and stamina of the tiny world living right against the earth. A world that is fundamental to all the larger species you see. There's enough going on in one square meter down there to hold one's attention all afternoon.
Have you ever felt euphoric after breathing in the sweet smell of the forest? Felt like you were home? Well here's a very cool fact I recently discovered. When babies nurse and lovers embrace, their bodies produce oxytocin, the bonding drug that helps people feel connected, helps them feel they belong. Well guess what? Our bodies produce oxytocin after we breath in the sweet scent of the earth - and why? My guess is so we feel connected to the earth, so we care, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. That tidbit, my friends, came from Robin Wall Kimmerer's book "Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants." A remarkable book worth delving into.
When I shared this with Emily during our hike the other day she proclaimed, "We need more people to huff duff!!"
I couldn't agree more!
At the valley bottom, our snows are about one and a half feet thick and light as corn starch - great for skiing and snowshoeing. The ski trails are groomed so that's an easy fix if you're looking for something fun. The yurt is up and is being heated on weekends by a crew of volunteers. The snowmobile trails are being groomed and we have had lots of snowmobiling activity. You can also skate ski on the snowmobile trails and take your dog, which you can't do on the ski trails. The Lion's Club has the skate pond just north of town in tip top shape! If you don't have skates, they have pairs at the rink you can borrow free of charge.
The snow depth is perfect for venturing off the trails and looking for animal tracks in the untrammeled forests and fields. With snows as light as we have now, it's a little tricky to identify who wandered by because the snow falls into the imprints easily, but based on the habitat they are in and their overall pattern you can usually tell what family of animal walked by....ungulate (moose, deer, or elk), canine (coyote, dog, fox, or wolf), weasel ( ermine, long-tailed weasel, pine marten, mink, or fisher), or cat (bobcat, lynx, or cougar). Bunnies are out in force as are various types of rodents and the bears are asleep.
Folks have been ice fishing since December though many of the lakes were not completely frozen until just recently, so I thought they were crazy for being out there! We have recently had below zero temps which have helped solidify the ice, but you will still encounter slush on top of the lake ice. I tend to be extra cautious about recreating on the ice. Springs can easily make weak spots in what seems to be solid ice, so always move with caution and have an exit plan should the ice get sketchy. When I lived in Minnesota people used to carry a rawhide slung over their shoulders that had an 8" spike-sized nail secured to each end. If a person were to fall in he/she could stab the nails into the ice and pull him/herself out.
I was skiing along the lakeshore the other day and saw lots of otter tracks. It looked like a family of three had been out romping and sliding. Then the tracks took off straight across the lake! It's always fun to try and imagine the animal as it looked while making the tracks. I also saw lots of weasel tracks and snowshoe hare. Elk, coyote, and fox too.
I almost always bring my mini Australian shephard, Lily, with me on my outings. She's my predator sensor. If she smells a large predator, she parks her little butt right down in the snow and won't go any further. I figure either a cougar, wolf, or coyote has recently wandered by, and even though I'm frustrated by having to turn back, I figure her senses are way keener than mine and I'd better trust her. I had to turn back once last week because she wouldn't go further, so I came up with an alternative route and she had no trouble going there.
Hope to see you up here! The moon is getting bigger again and the nights will soon glow! Full moon is January 24th.
Randi will write most of the blogs on this site, but Juan will weigh in from time to time......