A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary
This entry: 30 December 2012 by John Richards
Rocky Mountain Alpines 2. Issue 231.
Medicine Bow mountains and Snowy Range, southern W
On our second trip to the USA, back in 1996, we drove north from Denver, into Wyoming, and drove through to Yellowstone and the Beartooth mountains in southern Montana. Once again it was rather late in the season, mostly early August, but there was plenty still to see.
Our first main stop was in a small hamlet called Independence at the southern end of the Medicine Bow mountains. This catered for all our needs: a small store, gas station and a comfortable motel, and proved to be a good jumping off for these high mountains. A good highway runs north right through the range. Towards the north is the Snowy range, and a particularly attractive beauty spot called Mirror Lake (not the only one so-called in the Rockies!).
One plant I clearly remember from the vicinity of the lake is one of the smallest and most alpine of all the Ericaceae, Kalmia microphylla. This seems to be rather scarce in cultivation and may prove tricky.
Another plant seen on the walk down to the lake was Allium brevistylum, an attractive species which has appeared on our show benches in recent years.
I see that Potentilla fruticosa, that amazingly pan-boreal disjunct appears in the last photo. A very rare British native, it grows in Upper Teesdale by the river not 30 miles from my home. It is one of very few species I can claim to have seen growing wild in three continents. Here is another plant growing in the American Medicine Bow which I have also seen in the European Alps, and in China. As yet I have not seen it in its British home, this time in Wales. It was named after the first Welsh botanist, Edward Lhydd, Lloydia serotina.By the way, if you want to pronounce an authentic Welsh 'Ll', put your tongue against your front teeth and let air pass between your teeth and cheeks. Llovelly!
At times, the flora of the rocky meadows below the peaks was very spectacular, aided by an absence of ranching in this National Park. In wetter areas, recently free of snow even in August, grew sheets of the 'Glacier Lily', Erythronium grandiflorum. It is amazing that I have also seen this species flowering in April at lowish altitudes in the Columbia River Gorges, Oregon.
On drier, rocky ground, the floral display matched anything I have seen in any range of mountains.
I think the yellow daisy in the foreground might have been a Wyethia. I never tracked it down. Whatever, it was very attractive.
As always in the Rockies, there was a range of the parasitic Castillejas. Here, they were not scarlet, but mostly yellows and pinks. C. rhomboidea was possibly the most attractive.
Anorther related parasitic genus is Pedicularis, the louseworts. Here is the rather unusual P. racemosa.
Only one Lewisia occurs this far east, and we also saw it further south, in the Mosquitos, Colorado. Lewisia pygmaea is tiny, as the name suggests, and does not always have this amount of charm. I guess it is rarely worth growing.
The next range we visited were the Bighorns, a most spectacular limestone range in central Wyoming. We were definitely too late for flowers here as the dry limestone was baked, but no flowers can mean lots of seed! We first visited Medicine Wheel, where our disappointment in the archaeology was more than compensated for by finding loads of Aquilegia jonesii by the footpath. It really is a pig to grow by the way!
On to Hunt Mountain, a most spectacular site, where was readily found masses of the wonderful Kelseya uniflora, growing with its relative Petrophytum caespitosum. We gathered masses of Kelseya seed which failed to germinate for anyone and was presumably sterile. Primula parryi was still flowering here, growing incongruously in the shade of huge limestone boulders.
Back to Colorado
We had a wonderful trip in 1996, but my camera packed up half-way through, so I did not get the photographic record of the second half that it deserved. However, looking through my pictures of the 1991 trip, I thought another site, at the southern end of the Mosquitos deserved mention. This is Weston Pass, which is reknowned for being the only site in the area (I think) for Pinus aristata, Bristlecone Pine, that ancient high alpine species which grows for thousands of years. We were amazed to discover that the stands of this gnarled tree grew well above the tree line, isolated above the high tundra. Most of its sites are in drier areas, further west. Its other ancient relative, P. longaeva, is Californian, from the White Mountains. This photo shows well why it is called 'Bristlecone'.
In fact, Weston Pass did seem rather drier than the range to the north, and at lower altitudes boasted several spectacular species such as the poppy-relative Argemone hispida and Oenothera caespitosa.
Higher up, plants were more typically alpine. Phacelia sericea was good here, although we also saw it further north at Horseshoe and elsewhere.
The main cushion phlox in this range is P. condensata.
Finally, from here, a familar-looking flax, Linum lewisii. Like American Armerias, Linum lewisii differs from its European progenitors in being self-fertile and monomorphic (most European flaxes have pin and thrum flowers like primulas). It is hypothesised that only self-fertile variants could have colonised the New World. Unlike the Plymouth Fathers, they didn't have a boat!
The Grand Canyon
We can hardly mention the American West without finishing with the amazing Grand Canyon, which we visited at North Rim. Here, a squirrel amused tourists by leaping from branch to branch on a ponderosa pine which leant vertically over the canyon. If it had slipped, it would have taken an awful long time to hit the bottom!
Railing against infirmity
Our garage is near the front gate and from here a path of some 20 m leads uphill to the house (and then another 10 m level to the front door). Like most of the garden, the uphill path is on a north slope, and in cold weather it can become dangerously icy. On many occasions last month we staggered down the lawn, avoiding the path for fear of bone-breaking accidents. More to the point, perhaps, one of our sons-in-law is becoming very disabled and finds the walk up the path difficult. Consequently, we had resolved to have a railing erected beside the path, and about ten days before Christmas, a local builder came to install it. The design is 'tailor-made', and I am quite pleased with it, although it was not cheap. The cost of the materials and labour was about equal, £300 each. However, we regard it as a hedge against future misfortune, and as we become increasingly infirn I am sure we will welcome its support. We have already wondered whether it might also make a suitable support for some modest climbers, tropaeolums perhaps?