Tuesday, March 13, 2012

California Mountain High

Growing up in the oven called California's "inland empire," the greatest refuge from summer heat was to drive up into the mountains.  The San Bernardino mountains were close and great for a weekend getaway, while the vast Sierra Nevada sat to the north, inviting us to more extended adventures. 

Mountains, of course, add a vertical dimension to vegetative diversity.  Plant geographers long ago noted that one could see very similar changes on a journey from sea level to the top of a high mountain as from the same point along the coast to the nearest pole.   In California, that means chaparral at sea level shifting gradually into pine forests at middle elevations, to alpine meadows above the tree line, and to bare rock and permanent snow fields at the highest elevations.  Such a vertical journey can be made vertically on foot in a day or two in California.

The journy toward the pole would of course take much longer, and the species would be different, but the feel and overall appearance is the same.  Heading north, you'd go from chaparral to redwood and douglas fir forests, then to spruce and fir forests in the north of Canada and Alaska, on into the treeless arctic tundra, and finally the polar ice cap. 
The yellow or ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa)  dominates
mid-elevation forests in the mountains of California, though a
number of other pines, as well as firs and spruces also occur in
these complex ecosystems.
It is always marvelous to enter into the shady pine forests: scattered groves of sugar pines at first, then the lofty groves of ponderosa pine, or in sheltered valleys in the Sierra, giant sequoias.  Ponderosa pines give away to lodgepole pines and firs further up, then the trees give way altogether to the alpine meadows. 

Of course, during the summer, the high mountain meadows fillwith wildflower treasures,  something different around every bend.

Lilium parryi can be found in moist soil along
streams and rivers.
I share with you here, in this third installment on California, some of my earliest botanical memories and photos. They are just a tiny sample of what one can find in the mountains, and I hope this will lure some of you into the mountains of the Golden State to experience them first hand. I will let each picture speak for itself.

Flowers of Primula suffrutescens poke up from their moist haven
between rocks.

The wallflower, Erysium perenne is a relative of mustard and
Ledum glandulosum (Ericaceae) brightens a sunny corner of the
mountain forest.
Lupines (genus Lupinus) fill an open spot among ponderosa

At higher elevations, the lodgepole pine (Pinus murryana)
replaces the ponderosa pines.
The shooting star, Dodecatheon alpinum is
common in open moist meadows.

Linanthus montanus makes a colorful splash in a dry meadow.
Gentians, like this blue Gentiana affinis are
always a treat. 
Erigeron peregrinus is a common member
of the sunflower family (Asteraceae)

This Eriogonum is a relative of buckwheat.

Phlox diffusa thrives in exposed rocky places
above the tree line.

Soil between rocks on the bare alpine slopes become flower
gardens during the summer.
Ranuculus eschscholtzii thrives in rocky
crevasses at higher elevations.
Aquilegia formosa is a jewel found in
moist places throughout the mountais of
As the snow melts, the alpine meadows turn green, and wildflowers pop up from underground rootstocks and bulbs.

Near the summit of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in California, all vegetation seems to disappear, except for the lichens and mosses able to cling to bare rock.