The Bamboo Garden at Northern California’s Foothill College
I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of bamboo, especially the kind that advances a foot a day and needs to be dug out with a tractor. But I was pleasantly surprised this week to have my views suddenly upended. It all started with some aqua stems I spied growing in my sister-in-law’s garden. Continue reading →
Winter can be a dreary time in the garden, especially on the East Coast. But as soon as the winter-blooming camellias start flowering, I am reminded that everything has its season. These beautiful plants wait until late fall to early spring to produce their spectacular multi-layered blooms. And one of the best places to view them is at Filoli in the foothills of California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. Continue reading →
The Orchid Tree at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens
OK, so maybe you won’t be copying the orchid tree above, but this time of year Longwood Gardens is teeming with ideas, especially when it comes to Christmas trees. Located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania (an easy two-hour drive from Washington, DC), Longwood is resplendent this December as it pays homage to France. And the eye-popping horticultural displays are nothing short of ooh-la-la. Continue reading →
One of many beautiful poinsettias at the US Botanic Garden
I’ve been to the US Botanic Garden (USBG) many times and have always enjoyed the beautiful displays that change with the seasons. But in December, I bypass the holiday dazzle of the evergreen-draped lobby, work my way through the steamy medicinal plant and orchid gardens and head straight to the restrooms. There, behind the glass atrium in a quiet passage all its own is the USBG’s best-kept secret: a one-of-a-kind poinsettia display. Continue reading →
We crossed a bridge over a burbling stream, clambered up a copper-toned hill and suddenly there it was: Yellowstone’s Grand Prismatic Spring. Standing on a wooden walkway, I inhaled the warm, earth-scented vapors that glided across the turquoise water. Otherworldly? Yes. But, surprisingly even here, in this stunning but inhospitable place, there was life and things were growing.
About the spring
First described in 1871 by the Hayden Expedition, the Grand Prismatic Spring is the third largest hot spring in the United States. Veiled in steam, it bubbles like a bathtub, offering a glimpse now and then into its churning caldron. The deep blue pool is impressive, but more surprising still are the tentacles of golden yellow, burnt orange and metallic green that fan outwards from the roiling waters, carving kaleidoscopic paths across the scorched soil.
Grand Prismatic Spring from new overlook trail
Upon seeing the spring for the first time, Ferdinand Hayden (the leader of the Expedition) wrote:
Nothing ever conceived by human art could equal the peculiar vividness and delicacy of color of these remarkable prismatic springs.
It’s enough to make your head spin.
Yellowstone’s hot springs
Of the many different kinds of hot springs at Yellowstone National Park, Old Faithful is one and Grand Prismatic Spring is another. Both result from groundwater that has been heated by molten magma and risen to the surface. In the case of Old Faithful, however, the hot water encounters blockages on its way up. This produces the famous geyser’s explosive eruption of steam.
The Grand Prismatic Spring, however, is produced by hot water that rises to the surface through cracks in the earth’s crust. This allows for a continual flow of water that rises, cools and falls back to the earth only to rise again. As a result, the vapors stay close to the earth, roiling slowly around the molten rock.
A glimpse into the turquoise depths of the spring
Grand Prismatic Spring
Pouring almost 500 gallons of scalding water per minute into nearby Firehole River, Grand Prismatic Spring is the largest and most brilliant-colored of Yellowstone’s many hot springs. The high temperature of the spring (estimated at around 160 degrees F) is responsible for the steam that hovers 24/7 above the crater.
Due to this cycle of heating, cooling and re-heating, the spring has developed rings of varying temperatures. The hottest water, which is located in the center, is too extreme for living things. However, as the water spreads outwards, it gradually cools, allowing for conditions more amenable to life to develop.
Bands of color at Grand Prismatic Spring
Happily, the viewing boardwalk provides safe passage for humans atop the smoldering landscape. And there is good cause for concern. Along the way, signs warn against the dangers of erring from the path citing stories of how people have been scalded, children killed and family pets sucked into the vortex. Indeed, even standing too close to the spring can cause intense burns.
The viewing boardwalk at Grand Prismatic Spring
So how can life exist in such harsh conditions? The answer lies in the prismatic colors. Each of these stunning hues harbors billions of colorful microorganisms that live in the spring’s runoff channels. These ‘extremophiles’ (so named for their ability to live in conditions that were once thought too hot to host life) are not only surviving, but thriving, happily assembled in thick, microbial mats.
Forests in miniature
Microbial mats may not sound all that interesting until you consider that each of these burgeoning communities is in fact a miniature ecosystem functioning much like a forest. There’s a ‘canopy’ of microbes performing photosynthesis. And, there’s an ‘understory’ of organisms playing the crucial role of decomposition and recycling of nutrients back to the canopy.
The rainbow of colors that the mats produce depends on the temperature of the water. In the summer, the mats tend to be brown, orange or red and in the winter they tend to be dark green.
Microbial mats radiating outwards from Grand Prismatic Spring
Cynobacteria, marine bacteria that obtain their energy through photosynthesis, are one common organism found growing by the Grand Prismatic Spring. In the world’s oceans, cynobacteria occupy an important position at the bottom of the food web. At Yellowstone, however, they have had to make some ecological adjustments. These are evidenced in the distinctive yellow/orange color of the spring’s outer ring.
Specifically, a certain strain of cynobacteria called synechococcus has learned to survive the heat by adjusting its ratio of chlorophyll to carotenoids. Yellowstone’s extreme temperatures, high altitude sun and lack of shade can quickly overwhelm the photosynthetic process. So synechococcus manipulate their photosynthetic pigments to reflect only certain wavelengths of visible lights. They do this by employing carotenoids as shields, which results in their summertime yellow/orange color.
Close-up of some of the microbial communities
And so it goes. As you move further from the spring, more and more lifeforms can be found. Synechococcus is now joined by chloroflexi bacger, whose combined colors read as orange. Finally, as the temperature cools, the communities of bacteria at the furthest points produce the darkest color, a molten shade of coppery-brown.
View of spring from bridge
Hard to believe these mini orange and brown ‘forests’ are existing right under our very noses. Life is pretty amazing.
Anyone who’s been to the Grand Canyon North Rim can tell you that hiking can be hard on the lungs given the altitude of just under 8,300 feet. And that’s just for starters. Beautiful Point Imperial, the highest of the North Rim overlooks, tops out at almost 9,000. My daughter recently observed (while gingerly approaching the edge) that she felt like she was slogging through a pool of molasses. That prompted me to wonder; how do high altitude plants grow under such challenging conditions? I set out to find the answer.
HOW THEY DO IT
The first thing I discovered was that high altitude plants are not like their lowland cousins. In order to survive, they have made some structural adaptations. These include irreversible, highly evolved physical responses to high-altitude environments not seen in low altitude plants. And this mix of strategies, while particular to each species, often benefits the surrounding plant and animal communities as well.
The creamy flowers of cliffrose, blooming at 8,800 feet
TAKING A BREATHER
As chests heaving, we made our way to Point Imperial, I paused to reflect on the many plants that bordered the trail. How were these species thriving? For starters, air pressure is much thinner at higher elevations. In humans, this makes it hard for veins to pump oxygen throughout the body.
It turns out that at upper elevations, reduced pressure makes it harder for plants to pump water from soil to stem, too. But unlike humans, high altitude plants have come up with a solution. Rather than struggle to draw water and nutrients through normal-sized vascular systems, they have evolved smaller sized pathways. These ‘custom’ vascular pathways allow them to channel fluids more quickly through a tighter area.
Firecracker penstemon, a desert native, growing at 8,800 feet
HIGH ALTITUDE PLANTS LIKE THEIR SPACE
Partly due to these reduced hydraulic systems, trees and plants at high elevations tend to be smaller (to conserve energy) and to grow more slowly. They also are more likely to be spaced further apart. Western juniper, for instance, prefers to make its home on dry, rocky sites where there is less competition from larger species. And in exposed areas, it often assumes a stunted form, growing low to the ground.
Indeed, Western juniper is sometimes described as looking like ‘polka-dots on the hillside’ for this very reason.
Juniper growing on the slopes of the Grand Canyon
SOME OF THE OLDEST PLANTS IN EXISTENCE
Slower growth has the added benefit of longevity. In fact, some of the oldest trees in existence grow at high altitude. This includes the bristlecone pine, which is said to be the oldest known living tree, with some specimens believed to be over 4,000 years old.
An old bristlecone pine
PUTTING DOWN ROOTS
But I’m particularly impressed by the resilience of the Utah juniper, which can survive even the harshest of conditions. It can grow a 40 foot-long tap root that extends straight down through rocks and crevices. And its lateral roots can travel as far as 100 feet away. This strategy ensures that parts of the tree survive even if the tree itself is knocked down. In extreme cases, Utah juniper can even concentrate nutrients in just a few branches, keeping the main tree alive while the rest of the body shuts down.
Crooked remains of a Utah juniper – is it just conserving energy?
There’s no mistaking this shaggy, twisted shrub that grows high on dry rocky slopes in the Western United States. A member of the rose family, cliffrose has fragrant, creamy blooms that appear from spring to fall and provide important forage food for deer, cattle and sheep, especially during the winter. Moreover, its highly absorbent bark and evergreen leaves enable the plant to retain moisture.
Finally, who can resist the allure of gray and silver foliage? These plants employ an altogether different coping strategy. Gray and silver-leaved plants have tiny white hairs covering the leaf surface. The hairs reflect solar radiation, cooling the plant tissues and trapping moisture, which slows evaporation. This is especially important given the low moisture levels of the higher elevations.
Silver-leaved Winterfat, a species of flowering plant in the amaranth family
Gray-green Big Sagebrush growing on Point Imperial
One has only to look at the sun reflecting off their brilliant leaves to see these plants’ strategy at work.
These are just a few of the many fascinating high altitude plants that populate the upper reaches of the Grand Canyon. For more information on plant and tree life, as well as great hikes to see them, click here for the National Park Service’s Official Site. We stayed at the Grand Canyon Lodge, a spectacular property run by the Park Service, located on the lip of the North Rim.
Trees growing in the rock walls of Zion National Park
I remember being in college the first time I heard about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, considered by many to be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. I pictured these mythic gardens as masterpieces of flowers and foliage that were somehow suspended hundreds of feet in the air. According to ancient texts, though, the gardens weren’t hanging in the literal sense, but only appeared to be floating. This was due to a remarkable product of human ingenuity. Continue reading →
Wildflower meadow at Cedar Breaks National Monument
Just a stone’s throw away from Utah’s Bryce Canyon, there’s a scenic byway that cuts a 50-mile route across a series of breathtaking plateaus. Known as the Patchwork Parkway, it provides access to the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. In July, this stunning wilderness area takes on an added dimension: its meadows and slopes are painted with wildflowers. Continue reading →
If you haven’t been to Denver, you may think Cheesman sounds like a strange place for a world-glass garden. But, the old-line neighborhood plays host to one of the best ones I’ve toured in decades. No matter the season, the Denver Botanic Gardens is sure to wow, and impress me it did, with its grand spaces showcasing plants from all parts of the world. Continue reading →
When we locals look to get away from it all, many of us head to a garden property known as Dumbarton Oaks. And this May, I had the pleasure of taking a private tour of the estate. It was an opportune time, not only for appreciating the spectacular flowers from behind the scenes, so to speak, but also for the magnificent spring weather . Continue reading →