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Field Notes

Covering the natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest

May 24, 2013 at 1:13 PM

A tough and fragile beauty: desert wildflowers now in bloom

If you haven’t made a trip to Washington’s east side yet for your spring desert wildflower treat, it is not too late.

Pearly everlasting graces the desert landscape in the LT Murray.  Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Pearly everlasting graces the desert landscape in the LT Murray.
Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Covering more than 100,000 acres, a trip to the state L.T. Murray wildlife area last week outside of Yakima rewarded with beauty both grand and beautiful. There are hundreds of primo desert hikes in Washington and this is surely one of them.

Sweeping views from the Yakima Skyline trail in the LT Murray. Desert hikes offer both grand and delicate beauty.  Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Sweeping views from the Yakima Skyline trail in the LT Murray. Desert hikes offer both grand and delicate beauty.
Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Oregon sunshine lights up the desert floor. Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Oregon sunshine lights up the desert floor.
Photo by Douglas MacDonald

The toughness of the native plants that survive the blasting winds and frying heat of these canyon lands is a miracle of adaptation. A suite of strategies, working together, is what makes the elegant ecology of these plant communities sing in the wind and flower in searing sun.

It starts with a microbiotic crust that seals the soil from weeds and creates a rough surface that slows the wind to a boundary of stillness, just over the soil. That same roughness helps catch and what moisture does come to these arid lands.

The plants themselves deploy an ingenious battery of survival tactics. Stomata open only in morning and evening hours, to conserve moisture during the baking heat of the day. Stems bristle with wind baffling hairs; leaves are numerous and small, without the soft luxuriant surfaces of say, a maple tree. Here, tiny and tough is the modus operandi.

The fragrance of sagebrush is the signature of the West.  Photo by Douglas MacDonald

The fragrance of sagebrush is the signature of the West.
Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Desert flowers have a subtle, not shouting, beauty.  Photo by Douglas MacDonald

Desert flowers have a subtle, not shouting, beauty.
Photo by Douglas MacDonald

At this time of year, the fleeting beauty of flowers and soft new growth on the sage colors the canyon walls like no other time. Woven with the sound of wind and the song of meadowlark, spring bloom in the desert is one of the primo pleasures of the natural year.

On my visit last week, the balsamroot was starting to crisp, but much was still in luxuriant bloom.

The Washington Trails Association web site has great desert hike choices and go/do advice. And there is always the trail guide, 100 Best Desert Hikes. Go, do, soon.

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