Monday, October 04, 2010


Susan Lamb Bean

Here around Flagstaff, we walk among giants. Ponderosa pines frame our landscape, commanding most of our attention for much of the year. Small wonder that some people say the ponderosa forest is a monoculture, nothing more than a whole lot of trees that all look alike.

It’s true that compared to the soaring pines, plants on the forest floor can seem insignificant. In some years it may be late summer before masses of bright yellow flowers make us notice what’s right at our feet.

Yet whether we notice them or not, myriad little beings begin to emerge in the forest in March, increasing in number and diversity as the days grow longer. At first they’re inconspicuous, just ground-hugging, solar-collecting rosettes sporting modest boutonni√®res — bursts of white petals on alpine pennycress, Kaibab draba’s dinky yellow parasols, dwarf lousewort with its ruffly leaves and ruby snouts barely covering pale stamens pointed downward like teeth.

As the weeks go by, such low-profile flowers gradually give way to larger blossoms on taller plants in a rising chorus of color. By the time of the summer solstice, a hundred different species can have appeared, from locoweeds to lupines, bluets to buckwheats. Fortified by summer rains, warm season grasses spout flowering plumes of varied and complex architecture. More and more plants bloom higher and brighter to tempt passing pollinators: masses of yellow and purple members of the Aster Family attracting hosts of butterflies. The proliferation of flowers slows in autumn and the trend reverses, with one plant after another lapsing into dormancy.

The Flagstaff area is infamous for its erratic weather. The blooming season can last only seven months or as many as nine. Good years can bring two hundred different plants into flower in a square mile of forest, each of them unique in color, shape, and scent.

These sensational displays are not for us, of course. In synchrony with the blooming of flowers, fantastical creatures appear. Hopping, creeping, flying, wriggling, each insect visits its preferred flowers within a distinct temporal territory, a territory in time. Flowers have an impressive array of time-related strategies. Their windows of opportunity can be very limited: the few hours a fly can find an open crag lily, a moth’s dusk-to-dawn quest for an evening primrose in bloom. Fleabanes unfurl slowly each morning, freeing tiny beetles well powdered with pollen while trapped overnight. Pineywoods geraniums stay open around the clock but advertise nectar “for a limited time only.”

Along with their territories in time, wildflowers of the ponderosa forest occupy habitats — territories of place. It’s obvious that they self-organize into communities of plants with similar requirements: the sun-lovers in the open, the shade-lovers on north-facing slopes or sheltered by rocks or shrubs. Beeweed and rabbitbrush flourish in sunny openings that would be lethal for the fairy bells and catchflies glowing dimly down in cool, damp draws.

But the territory of a flower can be more revealing than whether or not it needs a lot of sun. Plants also offer us a tour of the continent. Some are defiantly local, such as Arizona clematis and Flagstaff pennyroyal. Others reflect more distant places. Rarely seen, Huachuca Mountain morning glories bloom here on sunny, rocky ridges where conditions approach those in the center of their homeland to the south. Single big sagebrushes appear here and there in the realm of ponderosas, but flood the Great Basin with a pungent gray sea. Spike muhly is definitely here, but more at home in the southern Great Plains. Blue flag, Iris missouriensis, is a characteristic plant of the western United State that despite its name, does not occur in Missouri.

The big ponderosas are older than any human alive and will be here long after we’re gone. They have a permanence that keeps us all rooted in place. Forest wildflowers — poised to match up with their pollinators within their far briefer territories of time — connect us in a different way, drawing us into the intensity of life lived in the present moment. Each flower’s brief but marvelous blossoming reminds us that the forest is indeed, so much more than trees.

Susan Lamb Bean is a Flagstaff writer and naturalist (

Photographs courtesy of Tom Bean.

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