April 2011, Connecting With Nature, NCW Greenways
by Susan Ballinger
Soft hues of green carpet the foothills while bright spots of yellow, blue and white blossoms pepper the landscape that surround our central Washington valleys in the month of April. It is hard to find a more beautiful time of year to get out and explore the wild lands of our region, especially for wildflower enthusiasts.
After five months of bitter cold, spring is a time when soils warm and water, released from snow, saturates the ground for a few brief weeks. Our foothills are dominated by big sagebrush, bitterbrush, bunchgrasses and wildflowers adapted to the 7 to 11 inches of total precipitation we get each year.
North Central Washington sits on the eastern edge of the Cascade Mountains, so our foothills rise steeply into forested mountains where precipitation is greater and Ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir trees grow. Valley residents can use their eyes to map the lowest elevation pine trees that form the transition zone between shrub-steppe and forest on our rising foothills. Ravines and gullies serve as vertical connectors, supporting taller shrubs like serviceberry, whose deep-growing roots tap into groundwater.
As you walk or drive around the valleys, scan the hillsides to spot blooming serviceberry shrubs. Their densely blooming, long-petaled white flowers create cloud-like bursts of white with a brief weeklong explosion of blooms.
As you drive the east-west corridor between Wenatchee and Leavenworth, compare the time of serviceberry flowering between the warmer and drier south-facing versus and cooler north-facing slopes. Often, wildflowers will bloom weeks sooner at the same elevation on a south-facing slope, compared to a nearby north-facing slope. Another blooming gradient to follow is elevational: Spring comes earlier at lower elevations, so if you miss the buttercups in March along the Columbia River, travel uphill.
Compared to mobile animals, plants can’t walk away when the weather gets severe and water is scarce. Plants employ several strategies that allow them to cope with water shortage and thrive in an arid environment.
Most shrub-steppe wildflowers are long-lived perennials whose above-ground stems and leaves die back, but underground roots remain alive. Our earliest blooming perennial wildflowers — like yellowbells, bluebells and shooting star — all concentrate their rapid above-ground growth of leaves, stems, flowers and seeds into a few balmy mild weeks and then quickly wither and die. Above-ground life exists for less than two months and then rest buried in soil until the next spring.
Some of our native plants require a viewer to get down on hands and knees for close-up inspections.
Healthy shrub-steppe soils are carpeted with a layer of living cryptobiotic crust: an interwoven population of mosses, lichens, simple plants, fungi and bacteria that form a multi-layered coating on the land. These simple organisms can quickly revert to dormancy when water is scarce. Try pouring a bit of water onto a patch of shrub-steppe soil and watch for a few moments to see crust suddenly green up as its living members start using sunlight to make food once water is available! This crust provides essential ecosystem services to other plants by trapping moisture in the soil, transferring nutrients and holding soil in place.
The crust is easily damaged by intensive animal and people traffic. It is very slow-growing, so you can spot lands that have been disturbed by the lack of a crust covering the mineral soils. By staying on established trails, hikers can help preserve the fragile, living crust.
The diversity of wildflowers in our region means travelers can find blooming plants from earliest spring into late fall. Start now by getting out to see the amazing display of color in our wild lands.
Susan Ballinger works as a consulting biologist with expertise in ecology and natural history. She serves on the Chelan-Douglas Land Trust board and is co-chair of the Wenatchee Chapter, Washington Native Plant Society.