Ways Of Mazama Wildflowers
By Edwin Braun, Ranger-Naturalist
During the long winter, the slopes of old Mount Mazama are covered by a white blanket of snow. Except for the trees, evidence of life is absent; yet beneath the snow lie dormant the seeds, the roots and the runners of a host of plants, quietly resting.
Gradually the days lengthen, the snows cease and summer comes. The woods and meadows stir and begin to rouse from their dormancy. By June melting snow fills the creeks and gullies to the brim. At lower elevations the bare, brown ground begins to appear, at first only as small spots, but rapidly enlarging and merging one with another. Hardly has the snow left the ground, when small shoots, some red, some brown, some green, push their way through the soil. A few are impatient and grown through the thinning snow, spreading, their pale green leaves about it. Rapidly, leaves are produced, carpeting the bare ground in brilliant greens. Shrubs, whose bare but living branches have been buried under the snow, are set free and they, too, burst into green. These stages can be readily seen on any meadow during early summer. The white patches of snow are bordered by bare, brown, sterile-appearing soil, which in turn blends into brilliant green. Suddenly, in a matter of days, the green of woodland and meadow is flecked with colors, purples, pure white, bright yellow, blues, brilliant reds.
As the season advances, the retreating snows are followed up the slopes of the mountains by wide expanses of flowering plants. This riot of color lasts but a short while, then is gone. The porous soil dries, the green turns red and brown, seeds are shed. The year's growing season is over; soon the snows will come and again all will be white and silent.
This is the life of the wild flowers in the park. The summer season is short, and except along streams, the porous pumice soil is dry and dusty well before the first snows fall in the middle of September. Therefore, in order to survive and to propagate their kind, everything must be secondary, to the business of producing flowers, of having them pollinated, and of forming seed in the shortest possible time. There is no time to dally in the sun growing many leaves and tall stems. The typical plant grows close to the ground, and even before the first leaves are mature flower buds appear. In years of short growing season this early production of flowers may mean the difference between survival and extinction. Many plants continue to bloom so long as there is enough moisture to support them, the flower stalk continuing to grow, producing new blossoms at the tip and maturing the seeds of the older ones below. This device enables them to take advantage of an especially long growing season and thus produce a maximum number of seeds.
Some of these small plants prefer the higher and drier meadows and they rock ridges. The commonest plants of these dry places are the Scarlet Gilia, Western Wind Flower, Jacob's Ladder, Newberry's Knotweed, Douglas Phlox, Sulfur Flower and Rock Penstemon. They are adapted to rocky soils poor in organic matter. Others are at home only within the moist and shaded confines of the forest. Typically, Crater Lake Currant, Wood Rush, Coralroot Orchid, Pyrola, and Pipsissewa grow from the forest humus. Still others grow only in bogs and moist meadows where they root in the waterlogged soil. Every boggy habitat supports the Bog Orchids, the Shooting Stars, and the Elephant Heads. But whether its habitat be boggy or dry, sunlit or shaded, each plant in the park must successfully meet the problem of a short growing season to survive.
Why, it may be asked at this point, has so much time and study been spent upon these small and often inconspicuous organisms? There are several answers to this question. They have been studied to satisfy a curiosity of botanists; scientists often investigate nature just for the thrill of discovering something new. These plants furnish food and protection for many birds and animals. Their root grow into the soil and prevent it from being washed away by the water. When they die their bodies add humus to the soil, enriching it and forming a small part of the huge sponge of plant material which overlays the mineral soil. The importance of this sponge cannot be overestimated. It soaks up the melting snows and so prevents excessive runoff and flood during the spring. During the dry season it releases a steady supply of pure water to men living in the lowland. Further, the steady accumulation of this same layer of plant material prepares the way for the trees and shrubs which will eventually take over the areas now supporting only the smaller forms of plant life. The extent of valuable forest land is in this way increased. Study enables us to appreciate and understand these vital functions. Seek out the services of a competent nature guide and with his aid open your eyes to the ways of the wild flowers.
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