The Yosemite/Chapter 8
Yosemite was all one glorious flower garden before plows and scythes and trampling, biting horses came to make its wide open spaces look like farmers’ pasture fields. Nevertheless, countless flowers still bloom every year in glorious profusion on the grand talus slopes, wall benches and tablets, and in all the fine, cool side-cañons up to the rim of the Valley, and beyond, higher and higher, to the summits of the peaks. Even on the open floor and in easily-reached side-nooks many common flowering plants have survived and still make a brave show in the spring and early summer. Among these we may mention tall œ;notheras, Pentstemon lutea, and P. Douglasii with fine blue and red flowers; Spraguea, scarlet zauschneria, with its curious radiant rosettes characteristic of the sandy flats; mimulus, eunanus, blue and white violets, geranium, columbine, erythraea, larkspur, collomia, draperia, gilias, heleniums, bahia, goldenrods, daisies, honeysuckle; heuchera, bolandra, saxifrages, gentians; in cool cañon nooks and on Clouds’ Rest and the base of Starr King Dome you may find Primula suffrutescens, the only wild primrose discovered in California, and the only known shrubby species in the genus. And there are several fine orchids, habenaria, and cypripedium, the latter very rare, once common in the Valley near the foot of Glacier Point, and in a bog on the rim of the Valley near a place called Gentry’s Station, now abandoned. It is a very beautiful species, the large oval lip white, delicately veined with purple; the other petals and the sepals purple, strap-shaped, and elegantly curled and twisted.
Of the lily family, fritillaria, smilacina, chlorogalum and several fine species of brodiæa, Ithuriel’s spear, and others less prized are common, and the favorite calochortus, or Mariposa lily, a unique genus of many species, something like the tulips of Europe but far finer. Most of them grow on the warm foothills below the Valley, but two charming species, C. cœ;ruleus and C. nudus, dwell in springy places on the Wawona road a few miles beyond the brink of the walls.
The snow plant (Sarcodes sanguinea) is more admired by tourists than any other in California. It is red, fleshy and watery and looks like a gigantic asparagus shoot. Soon after the snow is off the round it rises through the dead needles and humus in the pine and fir woods like a bright glowing pillar of fire. In a week or so it grows to a height of eight or twelve inches with a diameter of an inch and a half or two inches; then its long fringed bracts curl aside, allowing the twenty- or thirty-five-lobed, bell-shaped flowers to open and look straight out from the axis. It is said to grow up through the snow; on the contrary, it always waits until the ground is warm, though with other early flowers it is occasionally buried or half-buried for a day or two by spring storms. The entire plant — flowers, bracts, stem, scales, and roots — is fiery red. Its color could appeal to one’s blood. Nevertheless, it is a singularly cold and unsympathetic plant. Everybody admires it as a wonderful curiosity, but nobody loves it as lilies, violets, roses, daisies are loved. Without fragrance, it stands beneath the pines and firs lonely and silent, as if unacquainted with any other plant in the world; never moving in the wildest storms; rigid as if lifeless, though covered with beautiful rosy flowers.
Far the most delightful and fragrant of the Valley flowers is the Washington lily, white, moderate in size, with from three- to ten-flowered racemes. I found one specimen in the lower end of the Valley at the foot of the Wawona grade that was eight feet high, the raceme two feet long, with fifty-two flowers, fifteen of them open; the others had faded or were still in the bud. This famous lily is distributed over the sunny portions of the sugar-pine woods, never in large meadow-garden companies like the large and the small tiger lilies (pardalinum and parvum), but widely scattered, standing up to the waist in dense ceanothus and manzanita chaparral, waving its lovely flowers above the blooming wilderness of brush, and giving their fragrance to the breeze. It is now becoming scarce in the most accessible parts of its range on account of the high price paid for its bulbs by gardeners through whom it has been distributed far and wide over the flower-loving world. For, on account of its pure color and delicate, delightful fragrance, all lily lovers at once adopted it as a favorite.
The principal shrubs are manzanita and ceanothus, several species of each, azalea, Rubus nutkanus, brier rose, choke-cherry philadelphus, calycanthus, garrya, rhamnus, etc.
The manzanita never fails to attract particular attention. The species common in the Valley is usually about six or seven feet high, round-headed with innumerable branches, red or chocolate-color bark, pale green leaves set on edge, and a rich profusion of small, pink, narrow-throated, urn-shaped flowers, like those of arbutus. The knotty, crooked, angular branches are about as rigid as bones, and the red bark is so thin and smooth on both trunk and branches, they look as if they had been peeled and polished and painted. In the spring large areas on the mountain up to a height of eight or nine thousand feet are brightened with the rosy flowers, and in autumn with their red fruit. The pleasantly acid berries, about the size of peas, look like little apples, and a hungry mountaineer is glad to eat them, though half their bulk is made up of hard seeds. Indians, bears, coyotes, foxes, birds and other mountain people live on them for weeks and months. The different species of ceanothus usually associated with manzanita are flowery fragrant and altogether delightful shrubs, growing in glorious abundance, not only in the Valley, but high up in the forest on sunny or half-shaded ground. In the sugar-pine woods the most beautiful species is C. integerrimus, often called Californian lilac, or deer brush. It is five or six feet high with slender branches, glossy foliage, and abundance of blue flowers in close, showy panicles. Two species, C. prostrates and C. procumbens, spread smooth, blue-flowered mats and rugs beneath the pines, and offer fine beds to tired mountaineers. The commonest species, C. cordulatus, is most common in the silver-fir woods. It is white-flowered and thorny, and makes dense thickets of tangled chaparral, difficult to wade through or to walk over. But it is pressed flat every winter by ten or fifteen feet of snow. The western azalea makes glorious beds of bloom along the river bank and meadows. In the Valley it is from two to five feet high, has fine green leaves, mostly hidden beneath its rich profusion of large, fragrant white and yellow flowers, which are in their prime in June, July and August, according to the elevation, ranging from 3000 to 6000 feet. Near the azalea-bordered streams the small wild rose, resembling R. blanda, makes large thickets deliciously fragrant, especially on a dewy morning and after showers. Not far from these azalea and rose gardens, Rubus nutkanus covers the ground with broad, soft, velvety leaves, and pure-white flowers as large as those of its neighbor and relative, the rose, and much finer in texture, followed at the end of summer by soft red berries good for everybody. This is the commonest and the most beautiful of the whole blessed, flowery, fruity Rubus genus.
There are a great many interesting ferns in the Valley and about it. Naturally enough the greater number are rock ferns — pellæa, cheilanthes, polypodium, adiantum, woodsia, cryptogramma, etc., with small tufted fronds, lining cool glens and fringing the seams of the cliffs. The most important of the larger species are woodwardia, aspidium, asplenium, and, above all, the common pteris. Woodwardia radicans is a superb, broad-shouldered fern five to eight feet high, growing in vase-shaped clumps where tile ground is nearly level and on some of the benches of the north wall of the Valley where it is watered by a broad trickling stream. It thatches the sloping rocks, frond overlapping frond like roof shingles. The broad-fronded, hardy Pteris aquilina, the commonest of ferns, covers large areas on the floor of the Valley. No other fern does so much for the color glory of autumn, with its browns and reds and yellows, even after lying dead beneath the snow all winter. It spreads a rich brown mantle over the desolate ground in the spring before the grass has sprouted, and at the first touch of sun-heat its young fronds come rearing up full of faith and hope through the midst of the last year’s ruins.
Of the five species of pellæa, P. Breweri is the hardiest as to enduring high altitudes and stormy weather and at the same time it is the most fragile of the genus. It grows in dense tufts in the clefts of storm-beaten rocks, high up on the mountain-side on the very edge of the fern line. It is a handsome little fern about four or five inches high, has pale-green pinnate fronds, and shining bronze-colored stalks about as brittle as glass. Its companions on the lower part of its range are Cryptogramma acrostichoides and Phegopteris alpestris, the latter with soft, delicate fronds, not in the least like those of Rock fern, though it grows on the rocks where the snow lies longest. Pellaea Bridgesii, with blue-green, narrow, simply-pinnate fronds, is about the same size as Breweri and ranks next to it as a mountaineer, growing in fissures, wet or dry, and around the edges of boulders that are resting on glacier pavements with no fissures whatever. About a thousand feet lower we find the smaller, more abundant P. densa on ledges and boulder-strewn, fissured pavements, watered until late in summer from oozing currents, derived from lingering snowbanks. It is, or rather was, extremely abundant between the foot of the Nevada and the head of the Vernal Fall, but visitors with great industry have dug out almost every root, so that now one has to scramble in out-of-the-way places to find it. The three species of Cheilanthes in the Valley — C. californica, C. gracillima, and myriophylla, with beautiful two-to-four-pinnate fronds, an inch to five inches long, adorn the stupendous walls however dry and sheer. The exceedingly delicate californica is so rare that I have found it only once. The others are abundant and are sometimes accompanied by the little gold fern, Gymnogramme triangularis, and rarely by the curious little Botrychium simplex, some of them less than an inch high. The finest of all the rock ferns is Adiantum pedatum, lover of waterfalls and the finest spray-dust. The homes it loves best are over-leaning, cave-like hollows, beside the larger falls, where it can wet its fingers with their dewy spray. Many of these moss-lined chambers contain thousands of these delightful ferns, clinging to mossy walls by the slightest hold, reaching out their delicate finger-fronds on dark, shining stalks, sensitive and tremulous, throbbing in unison with every movement and tone of the falling water, moving each division of the frond separately at times, as if fingering the music.
May and June are the main bloom-months of the year. Both the flowers and falls are then at their best. By the first of August the midsummer glories of the Valley are past their prime. The young birds are then out of their nests. Most of the plants have gone to seed; berries are ripe; autumn tints begin to kindle and burn over meadow and grove, and a soft mellow haze in the morning sunbeams heralds the approach of Indian summer. The shallow river is now at rest, its flood-work done. It is now but little more than a series of pools united by trickling, whispering currents that steal softly over brown pebbles and sand with scarce an audible murmur. Each pool has a character of its own and, though they are nearly currentless, the night air and tree shadows keep them cool. Their shores curve in and out in bay and promontory, giving the appearance of miniature lakes, their banks in most places embossed with brier and azalea, sedge and grass and fern; and above these in their glory of autumn colors a mingled growth of alder, willow, dogwood and balm-of-Gilead; mellow sunshine overhead, cool shadows beneath; light filtered and strained in passing through the ripe leaves like that which passes through colored windows. The surface of the water is stirred, perhaps, by whirling water-beetles, or some startled trout, seeking shelter beneath fallen logs or roots. The falls, too, are quiet; no wind stirs, and the whole Valley floor is a mosaic of greens and purples, yellows and reds. Even the rocks seem strangely soft and mellow, as if they, too, had ripened.