Recently back from our family vacation, this year we decided to visit a national park that is nearly 3,500 square miles. Mostly in Wyoming, Yellowstone National Park also runs through parts of Montana and Idaho. Dramatic canyons, alpine rivers, mudpots, fumaroles, geysers, more wildlife than you could ever hope for, and oh yeah… plants too!
The first few days of our vacation found us in Jackson, Wyoming, specifically Jackson Hole. Originally named for Davey Jackson, a mountain man who trapped in the 1800’s, Jackson “Hole” describes the high mountain valley. At the base of this valley, shimmering in all their glory was a stand of American/Quaking aspen, Populus tremuloides. Aptly named Quaking aspen, the slightest breeze has the leaves of these deciduous trees shimmering or quaking in the landscape. Nearly round, dark green leaves turn a striking golden-yellow in the fall and their strong white bark stilts, rising thru the landscape, help cement its candidacy in any landscape. Native from Canada to Mexico, occasionally I am asked to source aspen, in lieu of white birch, Betula papyrifera, a short lived species whose bark is equally as impressive. Interestingly, I learned that Native Americans found that Aspens can provide a natural sunscreen. The chalkiness of the bark’s white coating can act as an SPF 5, which can serve as a sunblock. While the SPF is low, “you can scrape off the powder and save it for later” (survivallife.com). Quaking aspen grow 20-50 feet tall and have a narrow to slightly rounded crown. At the base of the mountain, next to the Jackson Hole sign, a small grove of aspen stands strong, welcoming visitors.
During an outdoor safari excursion, through part of Grand Teton National Park, we learned about the “determined efforts” of John D. Rockefeller. Mr. Rockefeller purchased and donated a great deal of land here that is under protection today. Our tour guide Clint, pointed out several Pronghorn, commonly known as “American goat-antelope.” However, they are not a member of the goat or antelope family. Pronghorn feed on Sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata Nutt., and that in itself I found remarkable. “Sagebrush is an emblem of the mountain West” www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers. To me, this Artemisia looks like tumbleweeds littering the mountainous terrain, in a most beautiful way, as far as the eye can see. Pronghorn digest their food twice and feed primarily on grasses, forbs, cactus and Sagebrush. Rarely eaten by wildlife, this Artemisia has a spicy almost bitter smell, with grey stems and twigs. Capable of growing from 1-5 feet, we were able to appreciate its yellowish flowers borne in small heads in late August.
The last of this fabulous trio of plants discussed in this article is Lodgepole pine, Pinus contorta. The most common species of pine found in Yellowstone… it is everywhere! Having two needles in a cluster, Lodgepole pine are so densely packed together, you see vast landscapes of their gorgeous stilts throughout Yellowstone. Lower parts of these trees are often devoid of branches as sunlight simply wasn’t there to support its structure. “The Lodgepole Pine seedlings grow quickly in mineral soil of a fire-cleaned area or in any kind of disturbed site, particularly road side cuts” Plants of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. “Early botanical explorers first encountered the species along the West Coast where it is often contorted into a twisted tree by the wind and thus named it Pinus contorta var. contorta” (www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/forests.htm). Finally, Lodgepole’s common name is for its widespread use in Native American tipi building and some of the cones of Lodgepole don’t open except in the presence of fire. Thus, the explanation why it is so plentiful after the massive forest fire of 1988, accounting for nearly 80% of the canopy today. There are two unique cultivars we have sold, with regularity, over the years. Pinus contorta ‘Chief Joseph’ has deep, rich, golden-yellow winter color creating a beacon in anyone’s garden in colder months. Medium green needles during spring, summer and fall, this is a slow growing Lodgepole that comfortably reaches 6-8 feet high and 4-5 feet wide. Pinus contorta ‘Taylor’s Sunburst’ has brilliant, golden-yellow, new growth that erupts in the spring. This explosion of color lasts weeks and then digresses to a light yellow-green and finally ends as a dark green in warmer months. And we can’t forget the tiny red cones, in the spring, that help make this tree so awesome.
“There is nothing so American as our national parks… The fundamental idea behind the parks… is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us” Franklin D. Roosevelt.