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Local Knowledge: Lucky us

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Here we are at the end of June and I must say that I feel lucky. I have heard a lot of people commenting on how cold and wet this month has been, but that is more the norm than the exception for this month. Having killing frosts and snow up until the summer solstice reminds me of my dad’s advice, “Don’t plant your garden until the second week of June.” Of course, I didn’t heed his advice and have been covering my garden and moving my potted plants into the garage every night for the last two weeks.

So why do I feel lucky? Just look to the north in Canada and their already historic wildfire season. This wet spring has been great for all the plants in our region, which in turn helps stave off wildfires and feed our wildlife. Plus all this water will keep our rivers in shape for the rest of the fishing and recreational season.

In this article I would like to continue informing you about our regional flora. We are heading into July which is the peak of wildflower season and one can find a plethora of blooms on any hike you take. There are a lot of large, obvious flowers, but these two are quite interesting: Monument Plants and Arrowleaf Balsamroot.

The monument plant, Frasera speciosa, stands above the rest of the plants on a hillside or meadow. It was first thought to be a biennial plant, meaning growing just leaves the first year, then producing flowers and seeds the second, then dying. Then it was reclassified in the mid-1970s as a monocarpic plant which means it grows over many years, sometimes up to 80 years, blooms once, then dies. The average age for a flowering monument plant is 30 years old. So when you see them out and about respect the fact that they may be older than you!

A monocarpic monument flower that could be upwards of 80 years old when it produces flowers the first and only time in its lifespan. PHOTO BY PAUL SWENSON

Arrowleaf balsamroot gets its name from some obvious traits. Its leaves are arrow shaped, and the resin in the root smells like a balsam pine. I will take this one at face value since I have never smelled a balsam pine. Another interesting fact about the root system is that its taproot can be up to 10 feet deep and surrounded by bark. You never really think about bark growing underground. Just beneath the surface the roots can be as big around as your arm thus will survive wildfires.

This plant is an important food for deer, bighorn sheep and elk, and has been used as a food source by humans. It is a member of the sunflower family and its seeds were an import source of fats and protein for indigenous peoples. They were eaten raw, ground into flour, used for cooking oil, or mixed with other foods. For balsamroots to produce seeds, they must be at least 3-5 years old, and will produce seeds up to 30 years of age.

A natural bouquet of arrowleaf balsamroot along Taylor Fork. PHOTO BY PAUL SWENSON

Now for some more luck. It is the time of the year for small flowers that carry a big impact; Forget-me-nots, Phlox, and Prairie Smoke. These are, in order, my wife’s and mom’s favorite, the best smelling, and my dad’s favorite. My father always called prairie smoke a “Phyllis Diller” flower for how the seeds look after they bloom. If you’re not a “boomer” you might have to look up who she is to get it.

Forget-me-not, Phlox, and Prairie Smoke in seed. PHOTO BY PAUL SWENSON

When you are out hiking, the forget-me-nots are usually a blue flower, sometimes growing 2 feet tall, but the flower itself is only a centimeter across. It does come in several color variations with pink being the second most prevalent. There are over 500 species around the world, and it is the state flower of Alaska. In other areas of the world, it represents those who fell in WWI in Newfoundland, an international symbol for missing children, and as a symbol to raise awareness about memory loss by the Alzheimer’s Society. It also has special significance for my family since it is also considered a birth flower for the month of September. Two of my three children were born during this month.

When you find phlox, which grows in large bunches close to the ground, bend down to smell them. They are sweet and perfumy, my favorite and sometimes can catch their fragrance on the breeze. But if you bend down to smell them be careful and watch for bees!

Lastly, if you did look up Phyllis Diller, I hope you appreciate my dad’s humor when you find prairie smoke going to seed.

Hope to see you out there getting close to nature. I hope you all feel lucky that you get to spend time in this amazing place with nature on full display.

Paul Swenson has been living in and around the Big Sky area since 1966. He is a retired science teacher, fishing guide, Yellowstone guide and naturalist. Also an artist and photographer, Swenson focuses on the intricacies found in nature. 

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