Friday, June 1, 2012

Springtime at Longmire

At 5420 ft. elevation, Paradise is usually still covered in snow
until late in June.
Where is Longmire?  Short answer: it's on the road to Paradise.  Paradise (actual name) is up some 5420 feet on the side of Mt. Rainier in the state of Washington.  From July through September, it lives up to its name, as its alpine meadows are filled with an ever changing kaleidoscope of wildflowers.  But in May, it's still under about 10 feet of snow.  Fine for snowshoing and other snow-related fun, but not of much interest botanically.

Longmire, however, is several thousand feet lower in elevation (2761ft.), and a beehive of botanical activity.  Most visitors rush past this beautiful spot on their way up the mountain, or perhaps stop for lunch at the National Park Inn there.  Too bad, because there's a lot to see  there.  For the past two years, I've spent a few days there in May or June, staying at the rustic Inn, and enjoying the sights of spring. 

Western Skunk Cabbage fills the boggy meadows around
The first thing you see as you come into the  Longmire area are the conspicuous yellow blooms of the Western Skunk Cabbage, Lysichiton americanus.  They are everywhere, along with new horsetail shoots(Equisetum), and a variety of mosses and ferns, in the cold streams and swamps that surround the lodge and campground.  Violets, strawberries, and Trilliums bloom on the drier surrounding slopes, and maple trees offer reddish, nectar-filled flowers for hummingbirds that will gradually work their way up the slopes during the summer. 
Horsetails (genus Equisetum) arise in the
cold bogs and streams.
The forests around Longmire are dominated
by giant Douglas Firs (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

The skunk cabbage is a real surpise here.  It is a member of the mostly tropical aroid family (Araceae), yet it is one of the first plants out of the ground and in bloom after the snow melts.  The fact of the matter is that the western skunk cabbage, along with its eastern cousin, can actually help the snow melt, by producing metabolic heat.  They can achieve temperatures 10-12 degrees Celsius above ambient, getting a real jump on the competition.  The heat also helps attract pollinating insects, and that is a clue the origin of this habit.  Many tropical aroids, including Philodendrons, also generate heat, where you would think it would serve no purpose, but again it is for the sake of attracting pollinators. 

The purple violet at Longmire (above) is Viola adunca, while the
yellow violets are Viola glabella.

The mosses and some of the ferns are interesting, because they are evergreen.  They've lain flat under the snow all winter, and are ready for photosynthesis as soon as the snow melts. 

The western sword fern, Polystichum munitum, is evergreen, and
lays flat below the snow until spring.  These have not lifted
themselves back up to their normal position yet.

Trillium ovatum comes in both white and pink.
Meanwhile, Mt. Rainier beckons, spectacularly visible from my favorite room at the Inn, on a clear day.  We'll be back in a later posting to walk the summer meadows up there.
A mother Canadian goose make raises her family at Longmire.
A willow, Salix sitchensis, puts out its catkins
in May.
The reddish flowers of the maple, Acer circinatum,
 attract hummingbirds.

The new growth of Acer circinatum spreads out against a
background of dark conifers.

One of many mosses found at Longmire; this one in full production of
spore capsules.

The fertile, spore-bearing spikes of Equisetum telmateia come
up separately from the photosynthetic stems.

Strawberry flowers (Fragaria vesca) in May mean fruit in June.
Oxalis oregana is abundant in the forests of the
Pacific Northwest.