Early Spring Flowers at Crater Lake National Park
By Dr. Ruth E. Hopson, Instructor, Field School of Nature Appreciation
Where the heavy snows of winter have recently lain, such plants as creeping Crater Lake currant (Ribes erythrocarpum) and trailing raspberry (Rubus lasiococcus) are pressed into the soil. Soon the warmth of the sun is reflected in the growing energy that enables the twigs and leaves to lift themselves from the ground to their summer position. Inconspicuous racems of small saucer-shaped bronze flowers are present almost by the time the leaves are freely exposed to the air. The white strawberry-like flowers of the trailing raspberry require more time to develop.As the weather grows steadily warmer in early June and the days of sunshine begin to out-number those of storm, the snow banks slowly dwindle in the park. In the damp, brown, bare spots that appear under the outer branches of the mountain hemlock trees and in the open spaces beyond, the pale yellow-green spears of smooth woodrush (Luzula glabrata) replace the snow. The leaves, even before they have obtained their full quota of chlorophyll, separate to expose a flat-topped cluster of tiny flower buds. Sometimes several of these grass-like plants may be found about the thinning edges of the snowbanks, each plant in a circular pit of its own making. A typical display contains all stages of development from spears appearing above the ground that is still wet from the recent snowbanks to fully developed plants with their green ribbon-like leaves and their feathery brown inflorescences. To one familiar with the forests of mountain hemlock of the Hudsonian Zone and with the succession of plants that is found there during the short growing season, the smooth woodrush is the herald of coming summer, the promise of the gorgeous display of mountain flowers that is to follow in the meadows close by.
The yellow faces of the smooth woodland violet (Viola glabella) reflect the bright light upon the mountain hemlock trees. This violet is one of the earliest flowers to bloom. In the forests along the coast and in the valleys of Oregon, the smooth woodland violet blooms in February or March, at Crater Lake in June or July.
Edging groves of hemlocks, especially on the back slopes of Applegate and Sun valley, the lamb’s tongue, or glacier lily, (Erythronium grandiflorum) var. pallidum) nod their yellow heads as snow banks dwindle beside them. Steep rocky hillsides that have south or southwestern exposures are among the earliest places to be free of snow. Here rock-loving perennial plants are waiting to take advantage of the early moisture to enable them to display their flowers and mature their fruits. The western wind flower(Anemone occidentalis) is one of these plants. While the leaves are still tightly folded along the midrib of each linear segment the translucent white sepals, purple tinged without, form a cup of delicate beauty on top of each thickened stem. Later in the summer after the stems have grown tall, heads of plumose achenes (one-seeded fruits) will have replaced the white cup-like flowers. Backlighted by the sun, each head then appears with its own hair. One of the most beautiful sights of the high mountains may be had by looking toward the sun across a hillside or meadow of western wind flowers when their pale green fluffy heads are fully matured. Near the summit of Garfield Peak, a smaller anemone with pale blue flowers, Drummond’s windflower (A. drummondii), is found. The achenes of this species are densely covered with cotton. Heads of the achenes of Drummond’s windflower are therefore much less showy than those of the western windflower.
Exposed rocky cliffs such as those of the Garfield Trail are clear of snow early. Here crevices afford footing for several species of rock-loving plants. Three species of plants that bloom among the first are usually found elsewhere in the Cascades only above timberline in the Arctic-Alpine Zone. The flowers of the mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna)are inconspicuous, but the color scheme of red and green and the pattern of circles and straight lines formed by the kidney shaped leaves and the straight racemes of tiny flowers make this plant easy to recognize. The slender polemonium or Jacob’s ladder(Polemonium shastense) is a delicate study in pastels. The large clusters of pale blue and yellow flowers often just balance the soft green mass that is made up of long pinnately compound leaves. A lone plant of feather-leaved fleabane (Erigeron compositus), with its finely divided leaves, grows from a soil pocket in the cliff about half way up Garfield Trail. By the time the slender polemonium is in profuse bloom, the fleabane is just lengthening the strap flowers of its single flowerhead.
Two crucifers bloom early along the trail. Members of the Cruciferae or mustard family are marked by having four petals and six stamens, two of them shorter than the other four. The dagger-pod (Parrya cheiranthoidea) is recognized by its long narrow gray basal leaves and its deep purple flowers. The pods of this species indicate clearly the reason for the name, dagger-pod. A small species of rockcress (Arabis holboellii var.secunda) is found scattered among the rocks. Each flower and later each elongating pod is turned to one side of the extended flower stalk.
Before its leaves have unfolded, bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) is in bloom. The flowers are typical of the species but the leaves are coarser and less finely divided than is usual for this species of lower elevations.