The Krumholtz Zone

by Dave Hanks

Those of you that hike in the mountains will come in contact with this zone as you gain elevation. It is just below the alpine zone, where trees begin to appear. These first appearing trees are stunted and twisted because of the winds that frequent high elevations. It is a zone characterized by many wildflowers. Plant species here must be very adaptable, because of the vast extremes in climatic conditions.

Temperatures drop 3 degrees for every thousand foot increase in altitude. It can be comfortably warm in the valley – thus one goes into the high mountains without a coat, only to find that now they are uncomfortable. Because plants have to survive these extremes in temperature, they have adapted. Some adaptations are: anti-freeze in their tissues, growing low to the ground to escape the effects of the wind that bends, twists, and flags (limbs on one side only) the larger woody species. They, also, have large roots to anchor the plant and absorb nutrients, tiny leaves that expose less of the plant to the elements, and fast seed production after the plant flowers.

Plants in this zone are perennial – not having to undergo the risks of repopulating year after year. When cold, people may huddle together to keep warm, krumholtz trees do the same – growing in clumps or ribbons. Herbaceous plants will do likewise. The first tree to grow undergoes hardship, but if it survives it shelters new trees to grow on its leeward side. Animals that utilize this region migrate up in summer and down in winter – or they hibernate. Krumholtz areas are similar to habitat found in the Tundra that is close to the northern tree-line.

Late July and August are the best times to visit and witness the glorious display of wildflowers. The high Colorado Rockies and Lake Cleveland are areas that have late summer wildflower displays that are dazzling. One alpine/krumholtz flower – the blue columbine is a special beauty, and as such is honored as the Colorado State Flower.

Colorado Columbine – A Krumholtz beauty

Colorado Columbine – A Krumholtz beauty

Our Yard: Cottontail Habitat

We have a bunch of Cottontails,their tails are silky white – I see them every morning, before the sun is bright

They especially like our bushes,and the cover that they give – They sneak back and forth from them, what a way to live!

They are so very cute, so cuddly and so plump – And when they hop away I see, The white bobbing of each rump

The mornings promise excitement, from the wild things on our place – And I’m so ever grateful, that they seem to find the space

To romp around so freely, it makes me feel so good – But with a yard like ours, I guess I knew it would!

There are 16 species of cottontails, and these rabbits only live for 12 to 15 months. Only one in a hundred will survive to see its third fall. Their short life span, and the heavy predation upon them, requires these critters to be heavy reproducers. They may raise as many as 6 litters a year. Breeding starts in March and lasts through early autumn. Their nests are not dug, but are slight depressions scratched out under dense vegetation. The doe lines it with dry grass and her fur. She gives birth up to eight blind, furless young in each litter. The bunnies grow rapidly and are totally independent at five weeks. On the average, only 15 percent of the young will survive their first year.

Cottontails have very keen eyesight and hearing. They will usually freeze when they sense danger, but will flush if approached too closely. Movement is usually accomplished by short hops, but they can run at speeds up to 18 miles per hour over short distances – their endurance is limited. They will often zig-zag to confuse a pursuing predator.

Cottontails eat grass, ferns, herbs, and your garden plants. They can become a threat to young growing vegetables – like our young corn shoots – which require us to surround them with some type of protection. This reminds me of the Peter Cottontail stories and the “scritch-scratching” of Mr. MacGreagor’s hoe.

A Mountain Cottontail in our yard

A Mountain Cottontail in our yard

Purple Gallinule: Colorful, Warm Climate, Wader

There is a trail in the Florida Everglades called the Anhinga Trail. It is a special area because you can get very close and personal to many birds. You can also get quite close and personal with Alligators (a big “Granddaddy” was bellowing like a mad bull) and Cottonmouths. It’s a great place to obtain photographs. As you look down into the watery shrubbery, you have an excellent chance of seeing a Purple Gallinule going about the business of pecking through the watery vegetation, just as if you weren’t there.

This multi-colored bird of purples, greens, reds, and yellows; is called a “Swamp Hen”. It is the size of a chicken and has a yellow (with red at the base) chicken-like beak. It is an omnivore that will eat frogs and fish, in addition to tender, aquatic plant shoots and seeds.

Gallinules live in warm, fresh water marshes where lily pads and pickle weed grow. They swim on the water surface like a duck, but can also walk on lily pads and other floating vegetation. Their huge yellow feet, allows then to do this. Their long toes can be spread to evenly distribute their weight over the plant’s surface. They also build their nests on floating tussocks. When in flight, you can see a pair of dangling legs, unlike other birds that tuck them close to their bodies.

This secretive bird is found in our southeastern states – especially the coastlines. Not many species are so varied and brightly colored, so when you do get “lucky” and see one, those bright colors will make an impression upon you.

Purple Gallinule Stealthily foraging in the marsh vegetation

Stealthily foraging in the marsh vegetation

Bitterroot and an Indian Legend

Not many flowers have a full mountain range and a big beautiful valley named for them. But, this is a special flower. It is the Bitterroot. It is also Montana’s state flower. There is an Indian legend about how it came to be. Once upon a time an Indian mother was crying because her children were starving. The sun, feeling sorry for her, shone on her tears and changed them into beautiful purplish/pink flowers. This flower had great utility, as well as beauty. Its big, starchy root could be eaten, and the mother’s children no longer needed to go hungry. The Lemhi Shoshone tribe also believed that the small, red core, in the upper taproot, had special powers – notably to be able to stop bear attacks.

As the name suggests, the Bitterroot’s root is bitter. But, the bitterness disappears when cooked. The starch can be dried and preserved for months. Indians mixed it with either berries or meat or both – thus enhancing all the ingredients in the mix and making a nourishing food that could be stored for long periods. They also mixed it with the inner bark of Ponderosa Pine. Large scars still remain on some of these trees. Bitterroot was a staple food for many western Indian tribes. It was also used for trade with other Indians.

This plant grows in low, mountainous, sagebrush regions. It is a perennial that grows close to the ground to escape the harmful effects of wind. It has a composite inflorescence. (This means many individual, petal-like flowers around a flattened, broad receptacle.) The effect makes it look like a single flower. The leaves, which rodents love, tend to wilt and die before the plant blooms. Therefore, it appears as a leafless flower.

Meriwether Lewis was not a botanist, but he was to collect specimens of any new plants that he found. His first experience with this plant was when they first crossed the continental divide. They frightened some Shoshone Indians, who ran away leaving some baskets of dried Bitterroots. Lewis found the whole plant in Montana on the return trip. The plant was named for him.

We have observed this plant on the high mountain trail of the National Bison Range and at Craters of the Moon. It is one of Carolyn’s favorite flowers.

bitterroot flower

Lewisia rediviva

A Spring Mountain Greeting

GLACIAL LILY, also sometimes called Dogtooth Violet, is the flower pictured. It is one off the very first blooms to show itself after the covering of snow melts from its mountain home. Whenever we’ve chanced to be on the Idaho-Montana continental divide, or in the Colorado Rockies, just after the snows of winter have permitted it, this flower, in full bloom, has always been there to greet us. It’s such a delightful and graceful flower that it’s difficult to pass it by without photographing it.

This inviting species consists of a beautiful yellow, nodding inflorescence connected to a 6 to 15”, slender stem. There are 3 petals and 3 sepals that curl back and upward and six stamens hanging down. The anthers are large and prominent. They range in color from yellow to red to white or purple. Other variations of this bud may be reddish. Two or three large, long, broad, lanceolate, basal, lily leaves extend from the plant’s base.

The plant sprouts from a long, starchy corm. Indians often used the bulb as a food source. The bulb is also a favorite of Grizzlies, who dig for it with their well-equipped claws. High in calories, the energy derived is important for the bear’s summer body weight increase.

As we often frequent high and wild areas, we come upon this plant frequently. It is usually found in dense patches of many individuals – an enticement to a bear. As it is usually cool after snow-melt, coming upon this flower will warm your heart with its charming design and bright color.

Glacial Lily

Glacial Lily