Saturday, February 23, 2008

Pocket Paradise

Most folks know that much of Colorado is dry-dry-dry… bound to get more so in coming decades, as global warming has its way with us. In fact, early explorers a couple centuries ago suggested it was unlikely any of these western lands (once dubbed the Great American Desert) were appropriate for settlement by Europeans, who are, after all, not well adapted to aridity. (Settlement happened anyway, alas, but that’s another story.)

That’s why it’s so exciting to trip across an exception, as I did last summer. Exploring a small ravine or glen in the foothills (we call them gulches here), I found myself transported into a long-forgotten environment. We’d barely left the car when I realized this spot was unusual. First, there was water running in the bottom of the gulch. Except for major streams, that itself is rare in July at the lower elevations where I live. This spot was somewhat higher, in the upper montane zone at 8,500 ft (almost 2,600 m).

As we scrambled up the gulch, over boulders and downed trees, there was more to be discovered: mosses dripped from available surfaces and leafy liverworts hugged the edges of the tiny stream; trees, big ones, leaned toward each other across the gap. A slug crept across a patch of Marchantia, liverworts studded with gemmae cups or tiny umbrellas representing fecundity. Orchids appeared around every bend.

This was, in short, the forest primeval—or as primeval as we are likely to find on the east slope of the Front Range directly west of Denver. Tucked away in a narrow cut, it had escaped attention for many decades, except for trash tossed in by mountain residents from time to time. People, like nature, seem to “abhor a vacuum.” It had, perhaps, not been changed as severely as the surrounding uplands, which are more vulnerable to logging and fire.

Our attention was captivated by the low plants and shrubs of the ground layer and understory; we scarcely noticed or examined the trees, mostly Douglas-fir or spruce, that created the overstory character and lent a “deep woods” shade to the area. Carpets of ferns were strewn at our feet. We have ferns in Colorado, of course, but few that display the full glory of their eastern kin. I knew I’d never seen these before, and that too was exciting.

That sets the stage. Why here? What secrets does this place hide? The cast of characters will be introduced tomorrow, for the most part. Lest you consider such delay unfair, here are two that, in some sense, most belong here.

The plant is Jamesia americana, waxflower, discovered by Edwin James during the Long Expedition of 1820 and named for him by Gray & Torrey 20 years later. A member of the Hydrangea Family, and a most welcome local endemic in our forests, it has flourished here for 25 million years or more, earning the title "living fossil." Enjoying its flowers is our own Admiral, the Weidemeyer's Admiral (Basilarchia weidemeyerii). This striking butterfly is found in the Rocky Mountains, but neither to the east nor the west.

The fascination of this hidden "fern gulch," its subtlety shown here from a distance, brought us back several more times through the summer. It's the first place I'll go this year, once the snows are off and there are botanical discoveries to be made.

This and the following post are submissions for the plant carnival Berry-Go-Round; edition #2 to be hosted soon at Further Thoughts.


Anonymous said...

Looks like an interesting palce to visit. The wintergreen is different than the one we have in our woods. I it sometimes called checkerberry, and is low to the ground with shiny, but leathery leaves.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like a magical place. How exciting to discover it so close to home.

SLW said...

Thanks for stopping in-- it is indeed a magical place.

Sandy: checkerberry is called creeping wintergreen, but is in the Heath Family (Ericaceae). Look up Gaultheria procumbens in the references here for more info. (The one we have here is G. humifusa.)

Dave Coulter said...

What an amazing site!

I read of a similar isolated area in Montana that had coastal species tucked away.

(Found you via Berry go Round)