Monthly Archives: May 2016

Living on the ledge: ingenious bitterroot

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey CrawfordThis is a story about a difficult and fascinating terrain, a beautiful, adaptable flower, and a maddening claim. Bitterroot is far from rare in the western states of the U.S. and Canada. It’s Montana’s state flower, has bequeathed its name to the Bitterroot River and Valley there, as well as to the Bitterroot Mountains and the Bitterroot National Forest, which separate Montana and Idaho,   It grows from northern British Columbia to southern California, and west to Colorado. It was a major food source for Native Americans for thousands of years.

Serpentine rock outcrop on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey CrawfordBut in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, where I’m spending my spring, it only grows in two places, and very sparsely. One of those spots is on a small ledge of serpentine on Mount Burdell, in Novato. If I hadn’t been on a walk with Marin County naturalists both times I saw it, I would never have found it. There are tons of small rock outcroppings on walks in Marin, and sometimes they don’t even aspire to the term ‘outcrop.’ They just look like bare, rocky soil.

But this isn’t any rocky soil. Serpentine is named for its dominant mineral, serpentinite. There’s more of it in this neck of the woods, going north into British Columbia, because it forms at the edge of old continents, where the inexorable plates moving along the planet’s surface meet. One dives under the other, scraping massive piles of rubble onto the edge of the upper plate, and taking equally massive amounts deep into the earth. After eons of heat and pressure, that rock finds its way to the surface again, the crystal structure it once had completely altered.

Serpentine rock on Mount Burdell, Novato, CaliforniaAmong these metamorphic rocks is serpentine, noted for its blue and green coloring, though it can have lots of colors, even orange. Serpentine is poisonous for most plants since it contains a much higher ratio of magnesium to calcium than is usual for the the earth’s crust, or is at all comfortable for plants. It has high levels of heavy metals toxic to plants, like manganese, chromium and nickel. It even has asbestos in it, which makes it ironic that it’s the state rock of California, a state with a ‘this causes cancer’ sign everywhere you go.

Whatever plans to grow on the thin, pebbly soil that erodes from serpentine has to have adaptations that allow it to deal with this toxicity, and to be able to live without the potassium and phosphorus that are crucial to most plants. Some have developed ways to selectively absorb the calcium they need, and others — called metal hyper-accumulators — have evolved to be able to store the toxic metals in their leaves and the ground around them. This not only solves the problem of the excess metals, but protects the plants from browsing animals and various forms of bacteria.

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

This bitterroot still has its fleshy, cylindrical leaves, though they often disappear before blooming, and return after the heat of summer.

There are plants that have adapted so well they can only live in such soils. Bitterroot is not one of these serpentine endemics, though its habitat is always rocky and dry. It solves its water needs with a large root for such a small plant, thick like a forked carrot, and very nutritious. Like many members of the Portulacaceae family, it has fleshy, almost succulent leaves and stems, which also help with water storage. These leaves go dormant in the summer, sometimes even before the flowers bloom, which also helps the plant cope with dryness from sun and hot rocks. The whole plant stays low to the ground, so is less affected by drying winds.

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

This year the flowers were paler than the blooms of 2014.

Given all these strictures — metal toxicity, water deprivation, low fertility — bitterroot’s flowers are startlingly large and lovely, opening out like waterlilies strewn on rock. They bloom briefly, and often intermittently, preferring sunny days to cloudy, and sometimes afternoons to mornings. Having seen them blooming gloriously on one visit to Mount Burdell in 2014, I was looking forward to seeing them again. But this April they seemed to be struggling. Their leaves had gone dormant by mid-month, the tips of the buds were dry, and the few flowers I found blooming were paler in comparison. All, perhaps, the result of early, unusually hot weather. And proving, once again, that loving the ephemeral beauty of wildflowers requires a certain existential fortitude.

Marin dwarf flax (Hesperolin capitata) growing on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Growing next to bitterroot on Mount Burdell, the rare and delicate Marin dwarf flax also thrives on serpentine.

At least I’m not depending on them for food, which the Native Americans did for millennia. And that brings us to the third part of the story: the maddening claim. Bitterroot’s Latin name is lewisia rediviva, named by German botanist Frederick Pursh for Meriweather Lewis, who brought back samples (still at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia) from his great exploration. Rediviva refers to its ability, after years in Lewis’ luggage, to revive when planted, although it never bloomed.  Naming plants for the Europeans who came across them in their travels has been standard practice ever since Linnaeus’ introduction of botanical nomenclature in the 18th century. Given that it was a European system, that was perhaps inevitable.

California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) on Mount Burdell, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

California is covered with poppies in the spring, and though fewer on serpentine, those there seem to thrive.

What I find maddening now, however, is to read the claim that Lewis ‘discovered’ bitterroot. Here are some of the people who discovered bitterroot long before Lewis and Clark arrived in Montana: the Washoe (California and Nevada), Owens Valley Paiute (California), Northern Paiute (California, Idaho, Nevada and Oregon), Western Shoshone (Idaho, Nevada, California, and Utah), Gosiute (Nevada and Utah), Northern Shoshone (Idaho, Wyoming, Utah), Eastern Shoshone (Wyoming), Southern Paiute (Utah), Northern Ute (Utah), and Salish (Idaho). Also, the Upper Nlaka’pamux, southern Shuswap, Okanagan-Colville, and southern Kootenay of British Columbia. North of bitterroot’s blooming range, the  Nlaka’pamux, Lillooet, northern Shuswap and northern Kootenay peoples traded for the roots, which were so valuable a bag of them could buy a horse.

Round headed gilia (Gilia capitata) Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

Another neighbor on the outcrop: round headed gilia (Gilia capitata)

The wholesale dismissal of people living here for 10,000 years before Europeans arrived has had a thousand infinitely more dangerous and debilitating manifestations than the claim that Lewis discovered bitterroot. But it still seems worth pointing out that this is another dismissal. These cultures had a long and intimate relationship with the beauty and durability of bitterroot, living on its energy through the winter and timing their spring foraging migrations by its bloom. It was the second most commonly collected root for food, after camassia, the source of crucial nutrition for untold generations. And yet it’s credited to and named after a man who only mentioned it in his journals to note that he found the bitterness of the boiled roots ‘naucious to my pallate.’

Cream cups (Platystemon capitata) growing on Mount Burdell, Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

There were a few tiny cream cups (Platystemon capitata) prospering on the serpentine

It seems a little harsh to sandwich the gentle, fleeting beauty of bitterroot between the toxic realities of serpentine and the tricky prejudices of language. But there are complex and deeply interwoven histories among humans and plants, cultures and habitat, politics and policy. My Irish forebears came here because Ireland was devastated by the Great Hunger of 1845-1852.  The famine was caused as much by disastrous political conditions as by the fungus-like Phytophthora infestans, which laid waste the potatoes that almost half of the population — due to those political realities — relied on as their sole source of food. There are thousands of such stories in human history, and more to come as climate change and population pressure alter the conditions and places in which plants can grow. These stresses will cause both strife and inventive adaptations, as plants, the earth, and humans continue their completely inseparable evolution.

Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva) on Mount Burdell in Novato, California by Betsey Crawford

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Native plants: the genius of their place

Native plants tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) against a background of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

Tidy tips (Layia platyglossa) against a background of California poppies (Eschscholzia californica)

When we use the expression ‘genius loci’ today, we don’t usually mean something religious, but rather the spirit — or, in more secular terms, the essence — of a place. The classical Romans, from whom we inherited the term, were speaking of literal spirits, guardians not just of a specific place, but everything that went with it. Roman life was filled with genii of all kinds, protecting families, buildings, towns, their senate, their legions, their emperor. Even a god could have a guardian sprit.

In the eighteenth century, poet and gardener Alexander Pope brought the idea into modern landscape and architectural design with his admonition to the Earl of Burlington to ‘Consult the genius of the place in all…” He wrote in the midst of a resurgence of classical Roman architecture, launched by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio a century before. At the time, highly formal gardens planted in strict designs were the norm for those who could afford them, and Pope urged his admirers to forsake such strict conventions.

Native plants shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) on Tubbs Hill in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho by Betsey Crawford

Shooting stars (Dodecatheon pulchellum) on Tubbs Hill in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho

He wasn’t recommending wild gardens, by any means. Near the grand house they remained quite formal. Farther out they became ‘wilderness,’ which meant that the plantings and ornaments were carefully contrived to look natural, not that the landowner was to leave things to chancy nature. This was the Age of Enlightenment, after all. Fixed dogmas of all kinds were to be replaced by reason, balance, rationality, and science.

Pope’s counsel launched a philosophy that informs designers and architects to this day. In the twentieth century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and landscape designers like Jens Jensen led the way toward working with the details native to a particular place: its plants, terrain, stone, wood, water, light, air, vistas. This was the spirit I tried to follow in my years as a landscape designer, though it’s a challenge in built-up, suburbanized areas, where so much of the native landscape has been demolished.

Native plants hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California by Betsey Crawford

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) in Solstice Canyon, Malibu, California

Now that I’m free to wander and find native plants and flowers wherever I go, I often remember the spirit of a place by the plants that I saw there. The quiet of the north Idaho woods. Windswept California meadows full of tidy tips and California poppies. The wild-scented sage chaparral of the Santa Monica Mountains. I can follow a desert trail of cactus from southern California through Arizona, on to New Mexico, and north to Utah. The thought of creosote instantly brings up the pungent smell of the Anza Borrego Desert after rain.

Native plants tell me a complex story about the place they’re in: what the soil is like, how much sun and water falls on them, whether they are adapted to unique conditions, how hardy they are, how close to the ocean or forest, what their companion plants are likely to be, who and what pollinates them. They bring back the scents, the bird song, the sighing of wind, the feel of the air, the rock and soil under my feet. They hold the long history, and, I sincerely hope, the future of the places where I find them.

Desert wildflowers and native plants bloom for the first time in years in Borrego Springs, California

Desert wildflowers bloom prolifically for the first time in years on land rescued from wild mustard in Borrego Springs, California

They are far from indomitable, being all too easily displaced by aggressive invaders, plants that find it easy to grow under many different conditions, that are quick to take advantage of any niche they find, that are prolific seed producers. Everywhere I go there are groups dedicated to eradicating non-natives. Last year in Borrego Springs, California, acres of desert flowers bloomed for the first time in many years because volunteers had spent countless months pulling out invasive mustard. They were given a final boost when a drought went into its third year. The mustard couldn’t handle it, and its seeds were destroyed. But the native seeds, used to going dormant to deal with dryness, were waiting, and sprang up the second they had a chance.

Native plants apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) in Snow Canyon, Saint George, Utah by Betsey Crawford

Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) in Snow Canyon, Saint George, Utah

The loss of native plant habitat is a human-induced phenomenon. Clearing ground for roads and buildings opens soil for invaders. Cargo from ships, trains and trucks crosses the country. Seeds can travel as far and fast as we can, attached to our tires, our shoes, our suitcases, our pets. Gardening brings exotic plants to areas that can’t resist them. Agriculture brings a host of seeds to an area, as does growing fodder for livestock, so that hay, for example, has replaced the native grasses on the California hills.

Native plants yellow monkey flower (Mimulus gutattus) in Beluga Slough, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Yellow monkey flower (Mimulus gutattus) in the luminous, long, northern twilight. Beluga Slough, Homer, Alaska

The efforts to wrest habitat back from the brink are heroic, and crucial. But, because it works backward from destruction, it’s often a losing battle. The soil is full of the invading seeds at that point. Clearing the California hills of hay is not going to happen. The best answer is to preserve habitat to begin with, but since this involves collaboration among government agencies and boards, builders, homeowners and developers, it’s a process beset by all the things politics, money and human relations are usually beset by. People love wildflowers and trees and the native landscape; they will go far out of their way to enjoy such things. But it’s a different story when those same plants are perceived as being in the way.

Native plants creosote (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert, California by Betsey Crawford

Creosote (Larrea tridentata) in the Anza Borrego Desert, California

This is why I’m sorry we’ve lost the original meaning of genius loci. If we thought of our native plants as spirits, as guardians of their place, we might be much less willing to destroy them. And they are guardians and protectors of their neighborhood, part of the network of beings and entities — trees, soil, rocks, flowers, grasses, animals, insects, fungi, lichen — that both create and hold that habitat together. Some of it will inevitably be supplanted by houses, offices, stores, roads. I’ve loved my homes. I happily use the roads that take me on so many magical adventures. Our cities and towns and shopping centers aren’t going anywhere, and more are coming.

But how differently we would design them if we thought the earth they stand on was alive and sacred. If we could recognize that the natural landscape is important in ways that we can’t fathom. Imagine thinking that it’s as important as we are. Perhaps even more so, since the earth can survive without us, but we can’t survive without its bounty. What if we took Pope’s admonition literally, and consulted with the spirit of the place in all our endeavors? If the question ‘How can I protect this?’ preceded ‘How can I use this?’ Then each of us, too, would become genius loci, a guardian spirit of place.

Native plants strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado by Betsey Crawford

Strawberry hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus stramineus) Cross Canyon, Colorado

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.