Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/July 1897/Wild Flowers of the California Alps
|WILD FLOWERS OF THE CALIFORNIA ALPS.|
THE Sierra Nevada mountain range—with its lofty, snowcapped peaks and majestic glaciers, its serrated crags and romantic cañons, its foaming rivers, sparkling waterfalls, and dense pine forests—is the California Switzerland. The climate of this region more nearly resembles that of the mountains of the Atlantic coast than any other section of the far West; and the vegetation is in most respects quite similar, though there are many varieties of trees and plants that are peculiar to the State. Spring is late in these high altitudes, and the summers are of all too short duration.
Among the first flowers to greet the new year is the curious snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea), world-renowned not only from the fact that it is exclusively Californian, but on account of its rare beauty and individuality. It was first discovered by one of General Fremont's exploring expeditions on the slopes inclosing the valley of the Sacramento; and is common at the Yosemite and on Mount Shasta, at an altitude of from four to nine thousand feet above the sea level. Though generally supposed to be parasitic on the roots of the pine tree, eminent botanists, after careful investigation, now claim it to be a "saprophyte," or a plant growing from a rotten substance near the surface of the soil, like certain species of fungi, an aid to this conclusion having been found in the fact that the plants are sometimes known to flourish in open places considerably removed from any growth of timber. Their usual habitat is moist, sheltered forests, where the winter snows fall deeply; and they make their appearance when the spring sun warms the frozen ground and melts the fleecy snowdrifts. True leaves they have none; and the fleshy bracts, bell-shaped blossoms, and thick, brittle stems are all of a brilliant scarlet, icy to the touch, and of the consistence of crystallized sugar. The average height is about one foot, what corresponds to the underground roots or bulbs being of about an equal depth and of a much lighter tint.These plants are members of a suborder of the heath family;
though their resemblance to the sturdy manzanita, the fragrant rhododendron, or the velvet-limbed madrone is not at first apparent. They abound in gallic acid, giving them a sour smell, suggestive of ink or vinegar. In early summer the flowers are succeeded by hard, circular pods, containing numerous fine seeds like those of a poppy; and despite repeated experiments in germination, they refuse to grow in a foreign environment. Transplanting also always meets with failure, though specimens may be dried and kept for several months. A writer in Hutching's Heart of the Sierras thus graphically describes this matchless Alpine flower:
A pyramid of tiny tongues of flame,
Darting from out the rifts of dazzling white;
A strange bright phantom, born of ice and fire,
Flushing pale wastes with gleams of crimson light.
On the bleak, ice-bound heights, at an altitude of from eight to twelve thousand feet, is found the curious "red snow," a very low form of vegetable life, which, though common in polar regions, occurs in the United States only on Mount Shasta and at the head of Cross Creek, Colorado. When it is trodden upon in a half-melted state, the footsteps of the mountain-climber fill in with a clear, blood-red fluid, which leaves no stain, even if examined in the handkerchief. Some of the patches are of considerable size, while others are scarcely a foot in diameter; and the color varies from a deep magenta to the faintest shade of pink.
Rivaling the snow plant in general interest is the singular Darlingtonia, or California pitcher-plant, indigenous to open, marshy places in the northern part of the State from Mount Shasta to the coast, and the only species of its genus, though it is related to the Eastern Sarracenias, or side-saddle flowers. The pitchers, which are said to be in reality the enlarged and hollowed petioles, or leaf stalks, average about three feet in height, and are terminated by an arching hood or crest, furnished with a pair of mustachelike appendages, which are the genuine leaves. As these are provided on the under side with numerous honey glands, and are usually highly colored, they constitute the principal lure; though the cunningly devised, nodding flowers, conspicuously borne on the ends of long, bare peduncles, also contain an intoxicating nectar. The interior of the pitchers is lined with innumerable fine, downward-pointing hairs, which form a most insecure footing for the struggling victims and render escape almost an impossibility, while the glare through the lacy, domelike roof only adds to the general confusion.
The colorless liquid which half fills the tube must be secreted by the plant itself, as the covers of the pitchers prevent the accumulation of raindrops; and the insects ensnared are mainly winged varieties, such as flies, bees, wasps, and beetles, though ants, spiders, slugs, and other crawling creatures often share their untimely fate. In one of these omnivorous vegetable traps the writer once discovered a tuft of three straight pine needles, six California Snow Plant. inches in length, though how they ever worked their way, unbent, through the curved mouth, will ever remain an unsolved problem.
Intermingled with the pitcher plants and coarse grasses of the swamps is often found a tall, graceful orchid (Habenaria leucostachys), with spikes of small, white flowers, distilling the fragrance of the tropics; and in its company frequently grows the California Cypripedium, or "lady's slipper," which has leafy stems about two feet in height and from three to a dozen blossoms, with brownish, twisted petals, and a white lip veined with purple.
The rose-tinted, drooping Calypso, and the Spiranthes, or "ladies' tresses," are also lovers of wet places, the latter blooming in the late summer months and being easily recognizable by the curious manner in which the little, greenish-white flowers are coiled or twisted around the stem.
Somewhat allied to the "ladies' tresses" is the "rattlesnake plantain" (Goodyeara Menziesii), the leaves of which were used by the Indians as sovereign cures for snake-bites. From the center of the variegated, rosette-like foliage springs a pubescent stalk, about a foot in height, bearing a spike of one-sided white flowers, which bloom in the deep woods through July and August.
The epipactus (Epipacius gigantea) is found in the tangled undergrowth along the banks of mountain streams, and has slender, leafy stems and from three to ten brown and green blossoms, marked with purple; while the Listera, or northern tway-blade, may be distinguished by the stout oval leaves, clasping the California Pitcher Plant. low stem, and the downy raceme of tiny purplish flowers.
None of the above-mentioned orchids are parasitic; but there are at least two indigenous species which draw their nourishment from other plants. One is the well-known "coral root" (Corallorrhiza), so called on account of the fleshy rootstocks, which resemble branches of white coral. There are several varieties, inhabiting dry spots in mountain forests all over the State. Both flowers and stems are of shaded browns and yellows, and the plants readily escape detection, as they are so nearly the color of the surrounding dry weeds and grasses.
The other parasitic orchid is the Cephalanthera Oregana, a northern species of especial interest, suggesting the "corpse plant" or "Indian pipe" of the Eastern woods. It is wholly destitute of green leaves, and the stems and flowers are of a pure glistening white, somewhat startling in their unique beauty. Like the epipactus, it prefers the neighborhood of forest streams and hides itself in the shrubbery.
All along the banks of the foaming Sacramento there grows, as though planted by a landscape gardener, the giant saxifrage (Saxifraga pellata), locally known as the "umbrella plant," and also as the "Indian's rhubarb," certain portions of the plant being edible. Its generic name signifies "rock-breaker," as it is said to disintegrate the rocks from the clefts of which it springs. The graceful stalks, often a yard in length, are terminated by scalloped, circular leaves a foot or more in diameter, which resemble small parasols or umbrellas inverted by the wind. Though highly attractive in the spring and summer, they are especially ornamental in the autumn, when their clear, green tints are changed to yellows and russets. The clusters of small pink and white blossoms, on the ends of the long, fleshy flower stalks, ripen in June into little double seed pods, which, when shaken in the hand or brushed against by accident, produce a sound much like that of the dreaded rattlesnake. Sometimes these plants domesticate themselves upon submerged rocks, the leaves floating on the surface of the current like those of a water lily, while the masses of tangled roots threaten to trip up heedless fishermen. Though many varieties of saxifrage are found in different parts of the State, none equal, either in size or picturesqueness, these beautiful border plants of the northern Sierra streams.
At irregular intervals along the banks grow tall thickets of fragrant azaleas, or rhododendrons, reflecting their bright green leaves and pink and cream-white flowers in the limpid water below; and behind them are terraces of feathery purple or white ceanothus, or mountain lilac, beloved by deer and honeybees.
Then come the dogwoods, flaunting their showy white bracts full fifteen feet in air, and mingling their spreading boughs with those of the laurel, the alder, the cottonwood, the wild hawthorn, and syringa. At their feet appear the freckled faces of the
tawny tiger-lilies, the largest of which is the Humboldt, as tall as a good-sized man and with from four to six whorls of leaves, each whorl ten to twenty leaves in number; and rivaling them in attractiveness are the stately Washington lilies, with their satiny-white chalices, flecked with black and gold, suggestive of the Bermuda or Easter lilies of gardens and greenhouses. Among other lovers of moist localities are the Aralia, or wild sarsaparilla (the long, aromatic roots of which are sometimes used as a substitute for the genuine commercial article), and the poisonous Cicuta, or water hemlock, a member of the parsley family, easily distinguished by its lofty, hollow stem, large tripennate leaves, and umbels of numerous rays of small white flowers. On the borders of Lake Tahoe flourish the beautiful pond lilies, prized by boat-riders as trophies of summer excursions; the white Brasenias, or "water shields"; and the sulphur-yellow Nuphars, or "spatterdocks," the large flat leaves of which are the favorite camping ground for small green frogs. Most of the forest underbrush is composed of the manzanita, or "little apple" (Arctostaphylos), sometimes known as the "bear-berry," as Bruin feasts on the fruits. This shrub averages about five feet in height and has round, thick leaves and tiny white or rose-colored blossoms which ripen in early autumn into dull red, globular berries, resembling Indian beads. The smooth, mahogany-hued bark peels annually, like that of the madrone; and the larger boughs furnish a hard cabinet wood capable of a fine polish.
Other flowering shrubs include the heathlike bryanthus; the Audiberta, or white sage; the rabbit brush, and the Oregon grape or holly-leaved barberry (Berberis), a low bush with prickly, polished foliage and racemes of yellow flowers, succeeded by round blue berries much like those of the elder. In great patches under the pines grow the Chamobatia (a little evergreen plant about a foot in height with blossoms like those of the strawberry), and the trailing Vaccinium, or "squaw's carpet," recognized by its small, serrated leaves, and round, pale-pink bells, or hard, reddish seed vessels. The Alpine phlox clings to the rocks in high altitudes, together with the arctic willow and dwarf conifers, while the juniper redeems barren, sandy sections from utter desolation.
Two pretty little wood plants, nestling in the dry leaves under the trees, are the Pyrola, or "shin-leaf," and the pipsissewa, or "prince's pine" (Chimaphila), the former having radical variegated leaves and nodding white flowers, suggesting those of the lily of the valley, and the latter being known by its shining evergreen foliage and terminal clusters of waxy, flesh-tinted blossoms of delicate fragrance.
Near by usually grow the quaint little "Dutchman's breeches," with their fine compound leaves and drooping, pink corollas, as well as the Asarum, or wild ginger, so called on account of the rootstock, which has a pungent flavor. This is an odd-looking herb, with several heart-shaped leaves, and a curious, brownish-purple flower, about the size of a large thimble, which makes its appearance just above the surface of the ground, and has no petals, but a three-parted calyx. In open, rocky places one is apt to come across the downy, pink and white "pussy's paws" (Spraguea umbellata), together with clumps of gorgeous lupines—lilac, yellow, or rose-color—and patches of golden coreopsis, purple pentstemons, and lovely gilias, godetias, and Indian pinks; while tall columbines, larkspurs, and wild roses peep from the tangled shrubbery. The beautiful Mariposa lily, or "butterfly tulip," a member of the calochortus family, Azaleas. derives its name from the large dark spots on the petals and through June delights the eye with its yellow, violet, or snow-white chalices.
In the early spring the wild flowers run riot everywhere, carpeting sunny, open spots with a veritable crazy quilt of bloom, chief among them being the large, purple-spotted Nemophila, or "baby-eyes," the white forget-me-not, the blue, white, and yellow violets, the wild agapanthus, the yellow iris, the wild strawberry blossom, and the far-famed Eschscholtzia, or California poppy, the emblem of the State. In these mountains there are a good many varieties of old-fashioned
herbs, which have been used medicinally for ages, and are sacred to the memories of the spicy garrets of New England country farms. The chamomile and the aromatic peppermint and pennyroyal head the list; then come the aconite, or monk'shood, the flannely-leaved mullein, useful for lung troubles of man or beast, the woodsy yarrow, the yellow tansy, the wintergreen, and the Brunella, or self-heal—a cure for quinsy and all sorts of wounds.
On the outskirts of the Mount Shasta meadows, where the plowman stands knee deep in rolling billows of red clover, timothy, and redtop, there grows a singular floral torch, known as the California veratrum. This plant is a member of the lily family. and resembles the yucca or Spanish bayonet of the southern counties, the small, greenish-white flowers being borne in a dense panicle on the summit of a stout stem, from three to seven feet in height. The long, narrow leaves are smooth and grass like, and are suggestive of corn or sugar cane. Close at hand, the spirea, or steeple-bush, waves high in air its feathery white or
magenta plumes; and beyond are thickets of wild plums and hazelnuts, mingled with low bushes of thimbleberries, huckleberries, and large, prickly gooseberries.
There are a number of roadside and pasture plants, known by farmers as "weeds," which nevertheless seem to have imbibed the very spirit of midsummer. Among them are included the dainty evening primose (Enothera biennis); the clematis, or "virgin's bower," festooning itself gracefully from tree to tree, with the wild grape and ivy; the milkweed (Asclepias), with its dull pink flowers and big, oval seed pods, filled with brown seeds and silky white down; the yellow sunflower; the flame-colored Castelleia, or "Indian's paint brush"; the golden-rod, three to six feet in height; the aster, dandelion, and the bright-eyed little Hypericum, or "Saint John's-wort," formerly used in certain parts of Europe as a charm against evil spirits. In sandy places, on the edge of the woods, grows the curious "horsetail," or telescope reed, sometimes known as "file-grass," as the rough, furrowed stalks were once used for polishing purposes. Being without true or visible blossoms, this plant belongs with the ferns, mosses, and other cryptogams, and is said to have deteriorated from the coal ages.
Toward the end of September a change creeps over the face of Nature, and a solemn hush heralds the approach of autumn. The great, towering yew tree clothes itself with scarlet berries, and the dry, yellow leaves of the maple flutter downward through the quiet air, the chokecherry dons a robe of scarlet, and ripens clusters of astringent fruit of an equally vivid hue; the deciduous azaleas drop their foliage into the sparkling river, and the dogwood and poison oak assume a garb of solferino, while the continual dropping of pine cones breaks the silence of the mountain forest. Then the snow falls like a fleecy blanket, and winter sets in, with its rigors of ice and sleet.