In Bloom: Going ballistic
August 10, 2006
If you’re feeling some end-of-summer melancholia these days, you’re not alone. The wildflowers are beginning to look tired and are largely going to seed. And while it’s easy to mourn the loss of color that accompanies this transition, it’s also a time to celebrate the flowers’ success – the seeds mean that pollination has occurred, and with effective dispersal and the right growing conditions, those seeds will become the wildflowers of summers to come. What goes into making dispersal effective is as diverse and fascinating as the flowers themselves. A great late-season hike to see flowers both in bloom and in seed is North Lost Trail near Marble. Among the first flowers you’ll see in the aspens are white geraniums, which have some of the most ingenious seeds around. A geranium seed has a twisted tail (or “awn”) which, when it gets wet, slowly untwists, propelling the seed forward. When it dries out, the tail twists up again, but barbs on the seed keep it from sliding back. The seed continues to “crawl” along in this manner until it becomes stuck in a small hole or crack, where it drills itself into the soil. This helps the seed escape hungry animals and gives the seedling’s roots a head start.Farther up the trail in the conifers you’ll find ripe raspberries and gooseberries. Fruits, which are basically mature plant ovaries, are eaten and dropped off in the excrement of animals. This method of disbursing the seeds far from the parent plant not only decreases competition among the seedlings, it gets them started with a healthy dose of fertilizer.A wonderful opportunity to see dispersal in action exists in a flat meadow below an avalanche chute two miles into the hike, shortly after you emerge from the last forest. The regal Case’s fitweed, standing 6 feet tall with dense spikes of white and pink flowers and the subject of an earlier “In Bloom” column, is both in bloom and in seed here. Find some fat seedpods and touch them gently. They will explode like popcorn out of a pan. The ballistic mechanism at work here involves the ovary walls, which dry and build up tension as the seeds ripen until, like stretched springs, the slightest touch of a bee, or the wind, or just time itself, sends the small seeds inside flying several feet from the parent plant. If only it were so easy to launch our own offspring.Getting there: From Highway 133 take the Marble exit through town to Beaver Lake; drive two miles past the lake to the parking area on your right (where the road splits to Crystal, stay left toward Lead King Basin). Four-wheel drive and good clearance recommended.