It was actually a welcome foil against the intrusive blocks of clearcuts that are
too abundant in this area. Even though I had traveled this road many times before,
each turn revealed a new and unfamiliar vista. The open hills were covered as far
as my limited vision would allow with bear grass flowers that at times seemed to
float above the misty, moist ground. It had a very unreal, diffuse quality about
it. It was all I could do not to drive my Trooper off the side of the road. The
air was cool and moist and felt good on my skin. (A ghost of a cloud sits on the
road before me. Confidently I plunge ahead. It touches my cheek with a cool caress
as I enter, and lets me pass.) Patches of ragged clouds were coming and going, along
with great banks of almost imperceptibly moving mist. I would look away for a minute
and the scene would change, mysteriously. It was a sight and a feeling that will
stay with me for a long time. It is the reason that I have never, for an instant,
been sorry to have made the move to the Pacific NW from my native Chicago 16 years
ago, and will never take for granted the gift of living here.
The point of this article, sentimental digressions aside, is the amazing amount of
plant variation around us. I spent a good deal of time looking at the details of
Bear Grass on my foray that misty day. Just as no two humans are alike, so it is
with plants. (with exceptions, horticulturally speaking - perhaps the subject of
a different article.) But the nature and purpose of wild seedling grown plants is
genetic diversity, and this is what makes up most of the natural world around us.
There was Bear Grass with stems of green, of light brown, of deep reddish brown,
to almost black. The shape of the flower head varied considerably, some narrow and
upright, some wide and opulent. The head of Bear Grass is made up of hundred of individual
flowers, and on most of them, the pedicels (stems of the individual flowers) were
short and upright, giving the entire inflorescence a club-like effect. However,
on some, the pedicels were much longer, giving the flower head a very lax appearance,
like a pendulous starburst. Once I became aware of this quality, I saw quite a bit
of it throughout the day. Most of the plants had creamy white ovaries, matching
the color of the petals, but occasionally there were plants with lavender colored
ovaries, a small but attractive detail. At the base of each individual flower is
a small narrow bract. Creamy green was the norm, but occasionally, these bracts
were almost black. This was a lovely effect, especially in the still budded portion
of the flowers, with these bracts interspersed among the tight white buds.
There is variation to be observed everywhere, and at every season. Close inspection
of Iris tenax, for example, reveals a large array of shapes, sizes, intensity of
color, and spotting of the individual petals. Both Disporum smithii and D. hookeri
var. oregana can be quite diverse. I have observed them with dark brown stems, with
wavy leaves, with extra wide leaves, and very narrow leaves, and even found a variegated
form with a clean white edge. Leaf shape can vary considerably in Vine Maples, as
does the fall color, from yellow, to orange, to bright red. The ubiquitous Douglas
Fir varies in growth habit. The branches may be upright, laying out flat, or somewhat
pendulous. The form of the tree may be sparse and narrow, or quite wide and full.
The density and color of the needles can differ from tree to tree, giving an overall
effect of deep rich green, dull green, or occasionally a glaucous tone.
Plants develop a particular form or flower as an adaptation to the environment, to
attract a pollinator, or to survive the elements. One very basic law of nature
is that the strong survive. It is those with a genetic structure that allows them
to adapt to a changing environment that will live on during times of stress or change.
Much of this adaptation has to do with things we don’t see, such as hardiness or
disease resisance, and that quality may make the difference between survival or death
of a species. As a nurseryperson, I tend to look at plants with an eye for their
ornamental qualities. Many of the plant varieties that we grow in our gardens are
the result of wild selected forms with some perceived superior quality of flower,
form, hardiness or disease resistance. However, in my other guise of amateur botanist,
I am fascinated by the logic and the intricacies of the plant world.
Both environment and genetics contribute to plant form, as they do to human development.
A few years ago, in the Siskiyou Mountains, we were looking for unusual forms of
Asarum hartwegii. This beautiful species of Wild Ginger normally has various silver
markings on the leaves, usually along the veins. Most populations we find are in
shady areas along spring flowing creeks which dry by summer. Occasionally we come
across an exceptionally marked form. This day, growing in full sun directly in the
loose rock on the side of the road, we found a patch with pure silver leaves.
Heavy silvering of leaves is often an adaptation to living in sunlight. Perhaps this
one with a tendency to having silver leaves was better able to survive in this sunny
situation, where its seedling siblings were not able get a roothold - environment
and genetics at play. (I did manage to bring a small piece of this home and it has
remained silver in it’s new environmant, with just a small bit of green in the center
of the leaf. Seedlings from this plant are also mostly silver, showing that this
is a genetic trait being passed on.)
Much of what may seem like genetic variation is actually an adaptation to the particular
environment. An example of this are the many dwarf and prostrate trees and shrubs
at high altitudes that are merely physical responses to the harsh winds or snow pack.
When planted at our elevations they quickly revert to the normal form. But there
are so many examples of true genetic variation -Eriophyllum lanatum (Oregon Sunshine)
shows much deviation in dissections of the leaves and compactness of plant. Penstemon
cardwelli varies in density of foliage and abundance of flower. We once came across
a Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) with totally pendulous branches, lying flat
against the trunk. The tree was about 30’ tall, and about 3’ across. (This is a very
desirable form from a nurseryman’s viewpoint.) Albino flowers and variegated leaf
forms of plants are also occasionally found, and always a treat to come across.
On casual hikes this summer I have seen white flowered Sidalcea oregana, white Polemonium
pulcherrimum, a gold striped Veratrum viride, a gold leaf form of ‘Sitka Alder’ and
an Oregon Boxwood (Pachystima myrsinites) with gold and green variegated leaves.
Variation is everywhere. Observation of these small differences is a fascinating
study, and can add another dimension to a walk in the woods or on a mountain trail,
or even an afternoon drive.
It was an overcast day in June and I was on my way to the Gifford Pinchot National
Forest. As I left, the clouds hung low, hiding the hills to the northeast that were
my destination. I trustingly took to heart the weather forecast of ‘clearing by noon’.
Barely an hour later I was traveling at about 2500’ and climbing, in and out of clouds
which were never as thick as they seemed from below, but certainly not about to clear.
1995 was the year of the Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax). Some combination of environmental
and internal mechanisms had set them to blooming with wild abandon. Almost every
clump of silvery foliage sported masses of 3’ stems of creamy white flower heads.
It was an amazing sight. The clouds never did dissipate, but the scene coming and
going in the shifting mist was beautiful.