Time away from the usual routine has given me a chance to reflect upon this beautiful world we call home. Again this year, I was able to visit another one of the Hawaiian Islands. There’s nothing like an extended vacation on a remote island in the middle of the Pacific to spawn a myriad of thoughts about island biogeography and the isolation that leads to the speciation of plants and animals.
Even in a location that by its definition is an isolated island, many additional smaller zones of isolation exist within the confines of the gentle slopes of the tallest mountain on earth (the Big Island of Hawaii is over 33,000 feet tall from its seafloor roots to its snowy peak and covers a land mass roughly the size of the state of Connecticut).
Islands within an island are leading to an ever increasing risk of extinction for many of Hawaii’s indigenous plants and birds.
After visiting several heritage forest sites where volunteers have diligently worked to preserve remnants of forest free of invasive species (strawberry guava and feral pigs are but a few of the drivers of extinction on the Big Island), it made me consider our own biogeography and the islands that we continue to build for ourselves within the continental portion of the United States.
Even here, plants, birds and animals exist within isolation of each other; separated by river valleys, aspect, prevailing wind and housing developments. Islands, indeed, exist all around us. One only needs to “see” while looking and you will begin to notice these patches of isolation which may either be a biological gem or a gradual death sentence, depending on the space demands of the species trapped within them.
One of the prime local examples of naturally driven island biogeography exists within the folds of the Teanaway Valley and some of the hikes that spur off in various directions along Blewett Pass. If you have never hiked in this area just after snow melt, I would suggest that this year you try and squeeze in a trip or two.
Due to the unique composition of the Teanaway Valley’s soil (a high amount of serpentine), there are a number of flowering plants that exist nowhere else and are endemic to these few special locations. For a novice botanist working on their “life list” of must-see plants, the north fork of the Teanaway River and the Tronsen Ridge area of Blewett Pass are easy places to tick off some rare and unusual finds. Plant lists for both regions can be found by visiting the Washington Native Plant Society webpage.
Plants that thrive in serpentine soils have learned to adapt to a soil with a lower-than-usual calcium-to-magnesium ratio and a higher-than-usual amount of heavy metals (nickel, iron, cobalt and chromium). These heavy metals lend themselves to an unmatched vibrancy in blossom color, especially amongst the species of monkshood, claytonia, monkey flowers and clematis that thrive in the hanging valleys tucked alongside most of the alpine trails that crisscross the area.
Finding a secret little pocket of blooms tucked inconspicuously alongside the recent melt-out of a shaded bank of July snow makes you begin to wonder what other treasures are hidden just over the next rise. It makes you realize just how large the world really is and how much of it you will never see (but can still appreciate). It makes you think about all of the other small wonders that are yet to be discovered —hiding on their own small islands of soil and snow.
During this season of celebration, remember to appreciate the small treasures and as always, happy gardening.
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in the At Home section. Eron Drew is one of four columnists featured.