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Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden
REGIONAL PARKS BOTANIC GARDEN
MARCH 2016 NEWSLETTER
Native Plant Sale

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The garden is located at the intersection of Wildcat Canyon Road and South Park Drive in Tilden Regional Park near Berkeley, CA

 

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WINNEMUCCA LAKE: THE WILDFLOWER PARADISE OF THE CENTRAL SIERRA

by Glenn Keator

Wildflowers, Winnemucca Lake trail

 

At the top of Carson Pass on Hwy 88, the trailhead to Winnemucca Lake is a mostly gentle two-and-a-half mile hike in the high country, with easy access to subalpine forest, rock gardens, hanging meadows, and alpine fellfields. While the peak bloom varies according to the particular year, mid-July is usually an excellent time to visit.

 

Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned naturalist, there’s always something beautiful to see. The trail starts in a forest of robust trees including red fir (Abies magnifica), western white pine (Pinus monticola), lodgepole pine (P. contorta ssp. murrayana), and mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana). Further on, Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis) prefers rocky ridgelines, and whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) is the last tree to “give up” near timberline. Each tree has its own special bark pattern: craggy red-brown in red fir; checkered honey color for western white pine; gray and cornflake-like for lodgepole pine; furrowed for mountain hemlock; fibrous and cinnamon colored for the juniper; and gray-white for whitebark pine. There are cones to look at in season even when the leaves on the branches are beyond reach.

Mountain meadow wildflowers, ©Glenn Keator

 

Whitebark pine is unique in growing in “colonies” of several trunks and assuming many forms according to snowpack and wind; the more tortured specimens form a sprawling krummholz where tree growth proves impossible.

Stand of whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) with Sicklekeel Lupine (Lupinus albicaulis) in foreground. ©Glenn Keator

 

After a mile, the trail splits and the left-hand fork takes you to small, nearly round Frog Lake, home of many cushion plants hunkered down amongst the granite boulders and inconspicuous unless they’re in bloom. Among these alpine beauties we have mat phlox (Phlox diffusa) with fragrant white, pink, or purple flowers smothering the needlelike leaves; sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) with umbels of bright sulfur-yellow flowers; mountain pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima), a fragrant shrublet with pincushion heads of white to pale purple flowers attractive to butterflies; pink plumes (Geum trifidum) with clusters of nodding pale pink and cream colored flowers followed by feathery plumed seed heads; rock-fringe (Epilobium obcordatum) with sprawling circles of stems loaded with rose-purple saucer-shaped flowers; and much more.

Returning to the right-hand fork of the main trail, the route undulates along open woodlands of whitebark and lodgepole pines punctuated by rocky hillocks. There, beauties like scarlet gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) are found, and relatives with narrowly trumpet-shaped scarlet-to-pink flowers attract hummingbirds. More monardellas are seen along with the Sierra mariposa tulip (Calochortus leichtlinii), with oversized tulip-shaped white flowers marked inside with yellow and black. Mountain paintbrush (Castilleja applegatei), with short spikes of orange flowers, is  sometimes in company with the tiny alpine paintbrush (C. nana) with pale yellow flowers, the two sometimes hybridizing. And there are nice displays of the lax-stemmed blue mountain flax (Linum lewisiiI), which despite its fragile flowers, produces some of the best sky blue colors.

 

Soon the trail crosses a series of sloping meadows, bordered by dry-growing sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and mountain mule’s ears (Wyethia mollis), which dramatically segue into kaleidoscopes of color with many floral stars changing over the season. Among my favorites are the tall tower larkspur (Delphinium glaucum) with soaring spikes of blue-purple flowers; bog lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), one of the few wet-growing lupines with rich blue-purple sweetpea-like flowers; and the stout corn-lily (Veratrum californicum) with huge pleated leaves and dense panicles of white starlike flowers.

Mule's Ears (Wyethia mollis) and Bog Lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus), ©Glenn Keator

They provide a backdrop to shorter wildflowers like meadow paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) with spikes of intensely red-orange to hot pink flowers; the charming mountain bluebells (Mertensia ciliata), whose lines of pale blue flowers hang along branches; red columbine (Aquilegia formosa) with nodding scarlet and yellow flowers; and mountain iris (Iris missouriensis) whose clumps sprout sturdy stalks with palest blue-purple “flags.”

Where streamlets trickle across the trail grow the thirstiest wildflowers, like the white bog orchid (Platanthera leucostachys) with miniature spurred orchidlike flowers; the curious elephant snouts (Pedicularis groenlandica) with spikes of pink-purple flowers whose upper lips curl out like the trunk of an elephant; and various cinquefoils or potentillas (Potentilla spp.), mostly with creamy to bright yellow roselike flowers. Where meadows fringe the last of the melting snows, the harbinger of bloom is the so-called marsh marigold (Caltha howellii), whose large creamy flowers resemble oversized buttercups. Later these same meadows will be home to the alpine gentian (Gentiana newberryi) and the Sierra gentian (Gentianopsis holopetala), both late bloomers, the flowers mostly opening after the main mass of bloom has eclipsed.

Bright red-heather bells (Phyllodoce breweri), ©Glenn Keator

Finally climbing over a short moraine, the trail dips to the edge of Winnemucca Lake, a glacial gem backed by near-vertical cliffs and fed by seasonal waterfalls and snowmelt. Along the margins, we get the first glimpse of truly alpine wildflowers like the handsome red-heather, Phyllodoce breweri, forming woody cushions with needlelike leaves and clusters of intensely red-purple saucer-shaped flowers, opening just as the snowbanks disappear. Accompanying it, often among whitebark pines, is a sprawling form of service berry (Amelanchier sp.), which at middle elevations is a tall shrub, the apple-blossomlike flowers opening early as well. Fringing rocks nearby we see the first of the diminutive alpine bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum) whose prostrate cushions hide the tiny pale pink bells and edible fruits.

The trail now comes to a log bridge across the outlet stream of the lake, and you can make a descent to Woods Lake by turning right just before the bridge. Here the sloping meadows are mostly drier but no less colorful, sporting huge colonies of the mule’s ear—a large mat-forming perennial with woolly earlike leaves and broad yellow daisies, often accompanied by a look-alike called mountain balsamroot (Balsamorhiza deltoidea), whose greener leaves are arrowhead shaped and whose yellow flowers open a bit earlier than mule’s ears. To add color variety, we see more scarlet gilia, the meadow paintbrush, the red columbine, the blue mountain flax, and several others, all weaving together to carpet the entire slope above the trail for perhaps a half mile or more.

Whitebark pine (Pinus albicaulis) overlooking Winnemucca Lake, ©Glenn Keator

A good choice, however, is to first cross that log bridge and either continue on to Round Top Lake, or cross-country up steep slopes to your left, covered with coarse rock scree irrigated by snow melt and providing spectacular views in addition to more alpine gems. Joining the marsh marigold and red-heather here is white-heather (Cassiope mertensiana), a shrublet with shinglelike leaves and hanging white bells trimmed with pink sepals, and bog laurel (Kalmia polyfolia microphylla), a sprawling woody plant with intense rose-purple saucer-shaped flowers, these three heather relatives growing together.

Draping over boulders and joining this trio is the amazing snow willow, Salix nivalis, reaching only inches high but with the usual upright catkins of either male or female flowers, and accompanied by the bright yellow saucers of Potentilla flabelliformis. Climbing higher still with pauses to catch your breath, you soon surpass most of the trees into a realm of true alpines, three of which truly stand out for their beauty and intrepidness against the harsh environment. Perhaps most astonishing is the Sierra primrose, a creeping woody ground cover with clusters of brilliant rose-pink flowers with a yellow center, unusual for being the only primrose with woody stems. Interspersed between rocks is the alpine buttercup, Ranunculus eschscholzii, whose oversize golden yellow flowers stand out above its lower growing companions. Seated among rock crevices is our third stand out, Rhodiola integrifolia or rosecrown, a plant renowned for its herbal properties and unusual for its tuberous roots and fleshy leaves. Crowning the stems are tight clusters of deep red starlike flowers.

The Carson Pass-Winnemucca Lake area is also the gateway to the Mokelumne Wilderness Area and many additional hikes, all with awesome views and gorgeous flowers. If you go this summer, try to do the hike during the week as the weekend sees hordes of people. And return often to see the change of seasons and bloom cycles.

 

Save the Date! April 16
Native Plant Sale
Stock up on native plants and support the Regional Parks Botanic Garden on Saturday, April 16 when the Garden holds its spring plant sale. Details and a list of plants for sale will be published in our April e-newsletter. Members of the Friends of the Regional Parks Botanic Garden get early-bird entrance to the sale for first picks—to join the Friends in advance, click here.

 
Upcoming Classes
Click here for full descriptions of the classes as well as the class registration form.
March 6 Year of the Lichen Space Available
March 19 Listening to the Birds Waitlist
March 26, April 9
& 30
Wildflower Hotspots Space Available
May 14 Wildflower Hotspots Waitlist
March 28- April 2 Desert Wildflowers of Anza Borrego State Park Class is Full
April 3 Plant Portraits and Garden Images – Photo Workshop Space Available
April 17 Bee-friendly Habitat Gardening in California Space Available
April 23, May 7 & 21 & June 4 Conifers of California Space Available
Note: We are sorry to announce that the class Designing a Native Garden on March 31, April 7 & 14 and the symposium to be held May 14 & 15 have been cancelled.