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!

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