Time deepens our understanding and appreciation of the world around us. Just as we can envision a rich pageant of humans at Mount Rainier, from the earliest Native Americans to the first Europeans and finally to the present day visitor, so too can plants open up a window on the past. Although few fossils occur within the park, evidence from nearby areas gives us a tale of change and continuity.
The hot springs of Longmire and Ohanapecosh offer not only a glimpse of the "good old days" but a look at one of the earliest types of life on this planet, dating back to over three billion years ago. Unlike nearly all other creatures, including ourselves, blue-green algae lack a nucleus in their cells. Only much later did a bacteria probably enter an algal cell to eventually form a mutually beneficial relationship. In return for food, bacteria became the nucleus that now stores genetic information and directs many of the cell's activities. The more competitive green algae have now banished the blue-greens to marginal habitats such as hot springs where hot water, low oxygen and high ultraviolet radiation more nearly resemble early conditions for life on earth.
Horsetails represent some of the earliest land plants that inhabited the earth three hundred million years ago. At that time some individuals towered over a hundred feet high! These primeval trees eventually gave way to the conifers that bore needles and seeds.
The first flowering plants resembled modern day willows and lived along stream margins in a semi-arid area. They soon diversified into nearby water, some descendents being known as spatterdock.
Such primitive plants as anemones and buttercups occur world-wide because they originated before continental breakup separated land masses about eighty million years ago. By the Eocene, fifty million years ago, a mild subtropical climate favored such trees as sassafrass and pawpaw. A rise in temperature fluctuations fifteen million years ago resulted in a forest of maple, cherry and other broadleafed trees, stretching across much of America and eastern Asia.
Rising mountains and increasing drought cut this connection. The resulting isolation led to the evolution of different "twin" species, different plants that probably arose from the same ancestor. Consequently, one type of beargrass and goatsbeard grow here and different ones can be found in the Appalacians far to the east.
Only after such a separation did a second wave of plants migrate from eastern Asia, such as the ancestor of our skunk cabbage.
Five million years ago, cool ocean currents and perhaps a decrease in the tilt of the earth gave rise to a dominance of conifers. Unlike the broadleafed trees, the needle bearers survived the cool, dry summers because year long needles caught enough sunlight and conserved water.
Ice age cooling and the rise of Mount Rainier a million or so years ago, allowed a third wave from Asia to settle here. These tundra plants could survive the harsh conditions above timberline. Isolation of Mount Rainier from other volcanoes resulted over time in new species found only on the mountain's slopes, like the Mount Rainier lousewort.
The next time you stop by a park flower, think about the ancient past, a past that lies before us, a past that deepens appreciation and enjoyment of our heritage.
John E. Roth
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