One of the greatest hardships for me during the pandemic has been the loss of our annual camping trips, both with and without children and grandchildren. The worst trial was, of course, living entirely without family gatherings, since we have no family members living in our city. Apart from that, though, I sometimes felt that my soul would shrivel into something mean and meaningless if I did not soon manage to return to our favourite hiking trails in the Rockies.
To help me find patience to wait just a little longer, I have been scrolling through my photos of wild flowers. While I love the mountain vistas and dream of standing at high altitudes again, it has often been the wild flowers up in the alpine slopes, deep in the pine forests, and along rocky shores of rivers that send rejoicing through my veins. It remains a mystery to me that the Creator should have been so recklessly generous with the sheer numbers and varieties of beauty that live mostly beyond human gaze.
May I share some of that beauty with you all?
Wild flowers offer two kinds of pleasure – on masse and one by one. We have, in our various mountain hikes, stumbled on acres of wild flowers, and also discovered small clusters bravely growing on a rocky slope or camouflaged in deep forest grasses. Taking good photos of entire hillsides covered with flowers or valleys likewise filled with color is a challenge, I’ve found. Nothing I’ve taken has ever duplicated my first astonishment. The above photo of a nameless valley somewhere above Taylor Lake, the destination of a trail off the highway just north of Banff, offers me equal portions of happy memory and regret – perhaps I should have tried another angle.
We discovered the meadow by accident. Our plan was to hike up to Taylor Lake, perhaps cool our feet in the water, have some lunch, and then return the way we came. It was a last hike before we departed for home, and we were already tired even before we laced up our hiking boots that morning. It’s not a particularly onerous hike; it should have been a delightful, gentle closing scene on a soul-restoring holiday. However, arrival at the lake felt like entering a combat zone, with our tiny opponents vicious and thorough. There wasn’t enough insect repellent in both our packs to make lunch here possible.
So we kept walking, past the lake and on up a slope, not knowing where the path would take us, presumably up to some ridge for which we no longer had sufficient energy. Then the trail abruptly opened out onto this meadow with more flowers in one place than we had ever seen before except for one, much longer meadow on the trail to Helen Lake, also off the Banff-Jasper Highway. Mosquitoes were forgotten! Even lunch became secondary to exploring the gifts of this place.
But to get a good photo of the whole? A real challenge for this amateur photographer. But I keep trying.
Nobody sees a flower, really. It is so small it takes time. We haven’t time and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.Georgia O’Keefe
In my own garden in Saskatoon, there are also blue forget-me-nots. They closely resemble their alpine cousins, which means that they seem insignificant, not particularly important among the larger, showier perennials with their dominant reds and yellows. Blue flowers often seem more delicate, almost hesitant to claim space whether in gardens or in the wild.
Alpine slopes are a demanding environment. With minimal soil covering the rock and the harsh cold winds that blow most of the time, flowers grow by anchoring themselves low to the ground, offering little surface to the wind and spreading their fine roots in a net wider than themselves.
I would like to learn that from the forget-me-nots and all their other alpine friends.
Blue-eyed mountain grass is another shy flower that I admired for years in my mountain flower book before ever finding it in the wild. One has to be paying attention to spot these 1 cm. beauties in the midst of the grass and shrubbery on sub-alpine slopes. The plant itself, its leaves mere thin-bladed grass, attracts no attention. Had it not been that on the trail up to Mt. Allan in Kananaskis Country, Alberta, there happened to be a considerable cluster of them, all in bloom, I might never have learned how to spot them.
I attempted to grow a prairie version of them in my garden, with no success. Upon thinking it over, I concluded that it is not necessary to own and control what one loves. Let those gorgeous blue-purple eyes with their startling yellow centres remain in the wild where they can reward those who pay attention.
One last flower from the blue section of any flower guide – blue harebells. These, too, are not overly dramatic, do not overwhelm through sheer color and size. However, they are not shy. Indeed, it seems as if they are everywhere, having developed versions of themselves that are content in almost any habitat. The mountain harebells are smaller, shorter, and the arctic version (appearing on the higher alpine slopes) are a mere 10 cm tall or less. The distinctive bell-shaped flower is consistent in all varieties.
Their adaptability is enviable; they change only as much as circumstances require without sacrificing anything of their essence. Seeing them is a little like meeting family: maybe one didn’t expect to see them here, or there, but instant recognition brings a smile.
Just as one should not judge a book by its cover or a human being by the color of their skin, so one should not judge a flower by its name. Whoever thought of naming these gorgeous purple flowers, with tiny gold studs on their stamens, scorpion weed? It seems to have come from resemblance between the coiled leaves and the curled tail of a scorpion. Having never seen a real scorpion, I cannot comment.
Their other, less common name – silky phacelia – has the poetic music the flower absolutely requires. Scorpion weed, indeed! This is a “weed” I’d be happy to welcome in my garden, except that my prairie garden offers neither the altitude nor the open dry rocky slopes that these dramatic beauties require.
I must have taken thousands of pictures of paintbrush already. They grow everywhere, it seems, from ditches along the highways to high alpine slopes. I have photographed them against water, against rocks and old tree stumps, with dandelions, bright yellow arnica, white labrador tea, even rein orchids. They’re such friendly flowers and so at home in whatever setting that they practically beg for yet another photo, like the overly chummy uncle at a party, happy to put his arm around anyone and pose for a picture.
Paintbrush flowers come in so many shades of red and orange and pink and yellow that I keep taking more photos. As if I needed another reason to love them, I learned that paintbrush flowers, with their loosely clustered and sturdy petals and abundant sweet nectar, probably evolved together with hummingbirds (Plants of the Rocky Mountains). Now that’s just perfect.
Nothing in my farming background taught me to love thistles. They were a weed, a noxious weed to be eradicated by whatever method was available, and damn the torpedos. Not until I’d been away from the farm for many years did I discover that thistles often have a beautiful scent, and they are exquisite on the avalanche slopes, as wonderfully made as any wild flower.
It is the special gift of a wild flower to demonstrate clearly that there is a place for every one of them, in its chosen place. Each has unique beauty, special ways of attracting bees and other insects, the right kind of root to establish itself where it belongs – in community with a host of friends. That I needed to be reminded of these days.
The earth laughs in flowers.Ralph Waldo Emerson