Thursday, July 5, 2012

Darlingtonia fens (real American Beauty)

I am off for another field adventure, to teach, give a talk, show my art, and all in the amazing Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon. These are not the majestic Sierra, nor the emerald Cascades, but rather a mosaic of many rivers and old eroded landscapes, where the influence of glaciers has been minimal, and because of this and other factors, the plant diversity is great. Darlingtonia, Darmera, Vancouveria, Calochortus, Trillium, violets, butterworts, calypso, coralroot, and lady slipper orchids!
Here on Lopez, the day before the 4th of July, the sun is just working its way through the clouds, clouds that dropped a heavy load of moisture on hopefully not-too-unhappy campers early this morning. The moist air, the cool of it all, reminds me of my first trip to the Siskiyous. I was working for The Nature Conservancy out of Portland, with my Bachelor’s degree still freshly pocketed, and had heard about how interesting the Siskiyous were. One weekend Bonnie Brunkow, my dog, and I piled into Jack Poff’s VW bug for the five hour drive south. Bonnie, who later served many years as the Director of the Leach Botanical Garden; Jack, who was the gardener for the Berry Botanical Garden; and Tuka, who proved to be “best dog ever”. I remember the trip as being gray and rainy, like today, but though our clothes where damp, our spirits danced to the music of serpentine landscapes and to us, exotic habitats with their  fascinating plants.

Darlingtonia, for example. The cobra lily or “California” pitcher plant, Darlingtonia californica,  occurs in some extensive fens (bog-like wetlands that occur on slopes, less acidic than bogs, with a different suite of accompanying mosses) in the vicinity of Eight Dollar Mountain, where I teach through the Siskiyou Field Institute. The cobra-like leaves entice in the neighborhood midges and spiders (from my poetic point of view) with cathedral deception: the hooded tops of the leaves have clear “windows” that must, from the fly’s perspective, look like stained glass. What to do but to fly towards these beauteous panes? …only to bump into the hood’s ceiling, and be lured downward into the tube, but alas! …downward-pointing hairs making escape impossible, and decent into the pool of insect-dissolving enzymes inevitable.

To the insect the fen may be a dangerous place, with carnivorous pitcher plants, as well as butterworts (Pinguicula macroceras), their leaves that act like fly paper, or Drosera rotundifolia, with leaves that catch small flies and other insects with round “dew drop” glands on its leaves (thus the name sun dew?), not to mention the presence of other non-photosynthetic carnivores (such as the yellow-legged frog?...).

But to the botanist the fen is a wonderland. Imagine being in a land whose serpentine soils are desert-like, due to their non-garden-like qualities: baked dry and hard in the summer, and sticky wet in the spring, where the harsh iron-magnesium-nickel environment discourages most plants from growing or at least thriving, such that bare ground is not unusual. And in the midst of this gray-green desert is the oasis of the fen, heralded by the sweet fragrance of western azalea (Rhododendron occidentalis) and the beauty of a showy native orchid, Cypripedium californicum.