Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fritillaria atropurpurea
Fritillaria pudica

Those Crazy Fritillarias of Spring

The first clue that spring is coming for many rural Americans in  the West is the bloom of  yellowbells (Fritillaria pudica).  During my years living in Central Oregon, the cheery little yellow flowers were like a rite of passage for warmer weather and brighter days ahead.  You couldn't miss them as they rose up from an otherwise largely brown landscape in late February and March.  Just like clockwork they were.   However, since moving to South Dakota I've had to travel west a state or two to commune with my little yellow pals.

However,  a cousin of yellowbells known as spotted fritillary (Fritillaria atropurpurea) does grow in South Dakota.  These two species of Fritillaria are the widest ranging within the genus, but I find it fascinating where each species have decided to put down roots.  

Yellowbells do grow as far east as North Dakota, but for some reason haven't made the short leap across the border into South Dakota.   A study of the USDA Plants Database range map for yellowbells revealed that even though they grow in California, Nevada, and New Mexico for some reason they refuse to take up residence in Arizona.  Yellowbells can even be found in western Canada (British Columbia and Alberta).

Central Oregon yellowbells

Spotted fritillary also have their own nonsensical quirks about where they grow.  They not only grow in North Dakota, but also South Dakota and Nebraska.  
Black Hills  Spotted Fritillary

There are so many similar habitats in Oregon and Washington that one would expect to find spotted fritillary in both states, but for some reason they don't like Washington.

Columbia Gorge Fritillary

While yellowbells maintain their consistency to be bright yellow, the spotting and coloration blend of spotted fritillary is wildly variable, as can be seen above in the photos of the South Dakota and Oregon cousins.

Pinewoods fritillary (Fritillaria pinetorum) are very similar in appearance to spotted fritillary, yet they only grow in California and Nevada.  One reliable way to tell pinewoods from spotted fritillary is that the flowers on pinewoods don't nod. Thus if one were to see what they thought was a spotted fritillary without nodding flowers when they are in California or Nevada, they should realize that it's really pinewoods fritillary.   Likewise, California is the only state that hosts the chocolate lily (Fritillaria bicolor) which has much larger flowers that are deep chocolate brown. 

While humans seem to spend a lot of time wondering how we got here and then arguing with others about whose tribe was here first, it's highly likely that the Fritillarias haven't given any energy to the subject at all.  Perhaps we should take a lesson from the Fritillarias and put our energy into doing what comes naturally by celebrating a time of renewed growth and enjoying life wherever we've put down roots.  Diversity truly is more of a pleasure than a pain!

Monday, May 13, 2013

Howell's Triteleia: A Backgrounder in the Columbia River Gorge Flower Scene?

My mother passed away recently, so I was in Oregon a few weeks ago.  I was able to witness a spectacular bloom of spring wildflowers on the Columbia Plateau and within the Gorge itself.

As my niece, Amanda and I  were picking wildflowers for arrangements that would be displayed at Mom's memorial service most of our focus was on the two big flashy mega-flora that were blooming at the time,  lupine and  arrowleaf balsamroot. However, I also found and picked some dainty Howell's triteleia (brodiaea) that were much more discreet and less gaudy in their reproductive show. Of course, not being a plant geek, it took awhile for Amanda to notice them then ask, "What are those cute white flowers?" The brodiaea demurely blended into the finished arrangement nicely and took a truly subordinate roll to the other two showboats. This was a fitting tribute to my mother because she also tended to be a backgrounder.
Triteleia grandiflora var. howelli is also known as Howell's Lily, fool's onion,  brodiaea, wild hyacinth, and bi-color triteleia.

Howell's triteleia is native to California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia growing in oak woodlands or relatively undisturbed grasslands.  It's fairly common in Oregon and Washington, yet listed as endangered in California and British Columbia and thought to be extirpated in at least part of those ranges because of development. There really doesn't seem to be much known about the biology of this species.

Howell's triteleia prefers fairly deep, drier, somewhat sandy soils.  They are in the lily family and a cousin to  wild onion (Allium sp.). They're similar in appearance to the onions, which is why they are sometimes called fool's onion. Like wild onions, they grow from a scaly bulb that the Native Americans and early western pioneers dug, cooked, and ate extensively in the past.  The bulbs are said to have a nut-like flavor.

Amanda and I had been collecting our wildflowers on the rim of Wapanitia Canyon which is a tributary to the
Deschutes River.  The surrounding area was settled by my ancestors 134 years ago with other pioneers following. In spite of the shallow soils and ongoing agricultural activities, there was still Howell's triteleia to be found, which was a good thing. However, they were pretty small compared to what I would find a few days later.

Once the memorial service was over and everyone had gone home, I treated myself to a botanical stroll in the Tom McCall Preserve that is located on The Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway between The Dalles and Hood River.

The 271 acre preserve sits on the Rowena Plateau overlooking the Columbia River.

The area offered spectacular views of the river and very good plant viewing for this spring-starved botanist.  I was thrilled to find much healthier populations of Howell's triteleia than I'd seen the week before. Even though the flowers were much larger than those I'd seen down south, they were still playing the background roll to the riots of color exploding from the arrowleaf balsamroot and lupine.  The extroverts and introverts of the plant world!

It seems showboats and backgrounders are the general nature of things, from plants to humans.  Some individuals have the deep down need to jump up and down screaming, "Look at me!  Ain't I purty?"  While others have the need to sit back, listen, and sometimes yawn at all of the commotion.

Let us remember that neither type of individual is more important than the other if we want to maintain a healthy balance!