Nature Notes

Vol. X September, 1932 No. 9

Plant Cliff Dwellers

Mountain cliffs are interesting for several reasons. To the hardy mountaineer, they offer a challenge to test his prowess in overcoming difficulties which they present. To all of us, their jagged, precipitous slopes with their resemblance to castles, towers, and strange figures make them interesting and beautiful. To the geologist, they are evidence of great erosive forces; and to the botanist thy are especially interesting as the habitat of a group of very remarkable plants.

Cliff-dwelling plants are mostly xerophytic, of desert loving. They are Nature's rockery plants, habituated to live in places of difficult growth, where moisture is scarce, and soil hard to obtain in sufficient quantities to support growth. Cliff plants are also exposed to the extremes of heat and cold. Nevertheless, they have a few things in their favor in that the cliffs offer good exposure to sunshine and freedom from drifting snows. Then, too, they have less competition, and are less liable to be crowded out by their neighbors.

Plant Cliff Dwellers

Here on Mount Rainier, these plants are among the first to bloom in the Hudsonian Zone, for while the ridges and meadows are still covered with snow, the cliffs are then exposed to warm sunshine. Many varieties blossom and are gone before the others emerge from their snow cover for in addition to the warm sunshine, moisture is furnished by melting snows from above, many tiny rivulets tricking down over the steep faces of the perpendicular ramparts along the various nooks and crannies found there. And so one finds that Nature has chosen some of the most beautiful flowers as cliff dwellers, and in return their bright colors add much to the brilliance of the rocks where they grow. Then, also, there are several non-flowering varieties of plants - the lichens, mosses, and ferns. But here in this article we call attention to only a few of these interesting and beautiful plants.

On of the most showy of the cliff dwellings plants is the "Pride of the Mountains" - the Penstamon rupicola, a low, vine-like plant clinging close to the rocks and sending up numerous flower stems into a mass a bloom to form a flaming red patch upon the steep face of some dark, gloomy cliff. They have a tantalizing way of growing on ledges and cliff sides just out of reach. Its close relative, Penstamon menzesii, is quit plentiful throughout the Tatoosh Range along the southern boundary of the park, but, unfortunately, rather scarce on Mount Rainier. This species is lavender in color, and is sometimes found growing with the flaming rupicola. The cliff variety of Indian Paintbrush, Castilleja rupicola, is scarlet-red in color and short stemmed, but is only occasionally found clinging to the most impossible places in cracks and crannies of the cliff sides. Yet, even though it is not found in abundance, it adds dainty bits of color to the cliffs.

A dainty little bellflower, the Bluebell, Campanula rotundifolia, is often found clinging precariously to tiny crevices in steep slopes. It has a graceful, slender stem which stands out from the cliff, and beautiful flowers of light blue. Truly, this is one of the most dainty of the cliff dwellers. Then there is the Saxifrage family - the "rock breakers" - which offer the largest number of species of cliff dwelling plants on Mount Rainier. Although not brightly colored, their many-branched stems, large number of blossoms, and attractive basal leaves make them quite showy. Saxifrage bronchialis, or the Alpine Saxifrage, is widely distributed on dry cliffs at high elevations. Its leaves are small, and it often grows in dense mats where the slope is not too steep. Saxifrage cespitosa, and Saxifrage mertensiana grow on moist cliffs in places where there is a continual supply of water coming from above. Saxifrage nelsoniana, and Mitella breweri also seek the water courses and a wet cliff habitat.

Heuchera glabra and Heuchera micrantha are much like the above, with showy basal leaves, many-branched stems, and numerous small flowers, some of which have short-clawed petals. This group is most numerous on low, broken cliffs. Tolmie's Saxifrage, Saxifraga tolmei, is often associated with cliffs. It is one of the pioneers among plants, and one of the earliest arrivals in the talus that forms at the base of the rocky buttresses. It is short stemmed, and grows in thin mats. (Continued in next issue)

Charles Landes,

Penstamon rupicola
"Pride of the Mountains" - Penstamon rupicola - is a flaming red.
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