Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Some like it cold — Wildflowers flourish in cool conditions

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Rain and cold weather may not be people’s idea of a great summer, but native plants wouldn’t have it any other way. Wildflowers are showing their happiness with the cold, moist season by brightening roadsides and people’s moods with brilliant, bountiful displays of color.

“Some of the wildflower displays were just spectacular. You had to get out in the woods, it was just beautiful,” said Janice Chumley, integrated past management technician with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service on Kalifornsky Beach Road.
Lupine, in particular, was an attention-grabber this year, with its purple and white stalks blooming en masse along roadsides on the central Kenai Peninsula. But what looked like a bumper crop is really just a normal one, Chumley said. People surprised by the amount of flowers probably just don’t remember what “normal” looks like.

“This year we’re just getting back to where we used to be,” Chumley said. “As humans we’re really kind of shortsighted on the cycle of things. Even though it may not be to our liking, it may be to the vegetation’s liking much better.”

For the past three to four years, the central peninsula had winters that got cold early without much snow to insulate plants, early breakups, dry springs and hot, dry summers.

“People loved it, but it was very difficult on native vegetation,” Chumley said. “Our plants are adapted to living in cooler, moister conditions. When it gets to be 75 without any rain, they’re not happy.”

The conditions resulted in wildflowers blooming early and not very profusely because many died in the winter or didn’t have enough moisture to flourish in the summer.

This winter had plenty of snow to insulate plants and breakup came on its more typical late schedule. There wasn’t much moisture early in spring, but plants made the most of what precipitation there was because temperatures remained cool. The cool trend has continued this summer, with rain showers passing through the central peninsula as often as fishermen headed to the Kenai River.

“We as people like the weather as it is today, warm and sunny,” Chumley said on Friday, when temperatures reached into the 70s. “But all the native plants here, they grow in this area because they’re adapted to cool and moist.”

Fireweed hasn’t yet rivaled the show put on by lupine earlier this summer, but it’s still early to declare a purple victory over pink.

“I think if we wait another week or two and get some warming temperatures, even though it’s still cool at night, I think it will come around,” Chumley said.

Fireweed is a sweet and sour sight — its bright blooms liven up the landscape, but it also spells the end of summer, such as it was.

“A lot of people are still waiting for summer, but it’s almost over and we may as well adapt to that,” Chumley said.

What better way than to get out and enjoy what the season does have to offer? This year, that means wildflowers, and it soon will mean wild berries, as they also thrive in this weather.

“I think they should get out and enjoy them while they can,” Chumley said. “It has been a magnificent display and it’s just been going on all summer long. Take a walk in the woods and look around. It’s just beautiful. Take the time to look at them before they are gone.”

If moist conditions continue into fall and result in another snowy winter, the central peninsula will likely be treated to another bright display next summer.

But Chumley cautions there are threats to native flowers beyond warm, dry weather. Invasive weeds, like hawkweed, oxeye daisies and butter and eggs, pose a more sinister danger, since they can take over wildflower habitat and permanently choke out natural vegetation.

“They may be pretty, but they will change places where our wildflowers do actually grow, and not for the better,” she said.

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