The alpine zone is a beautiful but unforgiving place. Plants that thrive there have many adaptations to withstand the extreme environment.
A dusting of fresh snow on area peaks recently was a reminder that summer in the high alpine country never has more than a tenuous hold there. It flashes like a firework sparkler then its verdant beauty is hidden for nine more months.
While we might think of alpine country as an incredibly beautiful and serene place, it is harsh and punishing for plants that must live there. The growing season is incredibly short and cool, winters bitterly cold and long and the drying effects of wind are often constant. In addition, soils are generally poor and pollinating insects scarce compared to the low country. Plants must have a wide range of strategies to counter these conditions.
The first filter an alpine plant must pass through is freeze tolerance. This excludes about 75 percent of the world’s vascular plants, creating an exclusive club for alpine dwellers. Alpine plants adopt many different strategies to accomplish this end. Some plants produce an “anti-freeze” that allows them to super-cool without freezing. Others withdraw moisture from the delicate cells into the surrounding areas where freezing won’t cause damage.
Still others resist freezing through physical adaptations. Most alpine plants grow low to the ground with a very compact form. This allows them to take advantage of any heat stored in the ground and keeps them buried under an insulating blanket of snow in the winter. Many alpine plants are also densely covered in tiny hairs that help to protect the plant from temperature extremes.
These same adaptations do double duty, helping to protect the plants from the drying effects of often incessant winds. Another adaptation to fight desiccation is thick fleshy leaves, often with waxy coats.
The struggle against a variable but always short and cold growing season essentially edges out most annual plants. Successful plants are perennials that can store energy and develop extensive root systems that give them a head start once summer’s floodgate opens.
The volume and variety of pollinators decreases with elevation and most pollination in alpine country is accomplished by bumblebees and flies. Flowering alpine plants attract and reward pollinators by producing dense blooms of highly attractive blossoms.
There are early bloomers too. These actually form their flowers the season before and may bloom before the snow has even left. This strategy suffers at times because pollinators are few in the early season but benefits from more time for seeds to ripen and from increased genetic intermixing. After all, with only a few plants blooming, any available pollinator will likely visit all of them.
Depending on sexual reproduction by seed can be a haphazard process in alpine country though and some alpine plants rely on cloning instead. This can produce plants with incredibly long lifespans, especially for such difficult conditions. One species of alpine carex is estimated to live 2,000 years.
Alpine plants have to be tough, adaptable, resourceful and resilient just to survive. With all the chilly buffetings from the winds of life, I could take a lesson from them.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), The Best of Nature is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Idaho Falls Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center (425 Capital)
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho