The Flowers

Chapter 8
The Flowers

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 œnotheras, 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. cœruleus 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.
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
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
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
, 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.