Wildflower Walk with Michael Ross

Lupines and Poppies above El PortalOn February 12, the California Native Plant Society sponsored a free wildflower walk led by Yosemite-area naturalist Michael Ross, and breaking out of our normal routines, Tom and I decided to see what it was all about. Simply amazing. It was a ‘wildflower walk’ which meant that it focused on flowers, but the thing is, if you follow a guy around for half a day who is a trained naturalist and who has been living in the Yosemite area for 30+ years you can’t help learning a little bit about birds, butterflies, wasps, caterpillars, fire ecology and a myriad of other things too.

We wandered up into the hills behind El Portal (just outside the park boundary on Hwy 140), and were treated to hillsides covered in carpets of poppies, lupine, popcorn flowers and more that Michael said was the best display he’d seen in 20+ years. He and Ann, another wildflower surveyor, and CNPS member, speculated that because of the amount of rain received last fall and the grasses which normally grow up to obscure the flowers were not as prominent.

Michael Ross leading our walkSome highlights (hope I get the details right – please let me know if I should make corrections):

We were treated to sightings of some rare plants, including Condon’s Wooly Sunflower, and another Condon plant that grows only in a few small patches, including one just off the side of the road.

We had a few examples of how difficult it is to tell the difference between different species of flowers. For example, there are 150 species of Popcorn Flower (a small white flower) in California alone, and in order to tell them apart you need to have information like whether or not their seeds have scratch marks. The difference between Phacelia and Saxifrage genus is whether or not the style is split. Time to start learning plant parts.

Fiesta flowers, a beautiful purple flower that prefers steep shady environments, got their common name because if you pick the flower something on the back of the flower, maybe the sepals?, act like Velcro and you can stick them to your clothing.

The rare Condon Wooly SunflowerWe stopped to take a look at a Thompson’s Sedge, a rare find in this region. Like the Sequoias, this unassuming tuft of greenery also requires fire in order to thrive, and has become less rare now that we have reversed our policy of fire suppression. Michael listed a couple of other plants that are also being rejuvenated in the area due to the new wildfire management policies.

There are small predatory wasps which lays their eggs in a particular kind of caterpillar. The larvae consume the caterpillar from the inside out, ending with the vital organs, and then pupate into their adult forms. Amazingly, these wasps also have a parasitoid microscopic wasp that ride on them, and looks like a small dot with the naked eye.

Shieldleaf is part of the mustard family and the seed pods have a pleasant peppery taste and have been called “mountain wasabi”.

You can use Staghorn lichen to dye wool.

The list goes on and on.