Diversity at a Different Elevation
August 16, 2013
When you hear the word “Yosemite,” you may immediately think of Half Dome, El Capitan, wildflowers in Tuolumne Meadows, and blue alpine lakes. But did you know that the National Park Service also manages land that extends much lower in elevation, down to 1,800 feet (549 m)? On the western side of the park, roughly 2,000 feet in elevation below the towering El Capitan of Yosemite Valley, lies El Portal, home to park administration buildings, and a plethora of plants well suited to a dry, and hot life.
While waiting one early morning at the bus stop, amongst the parched, brown landscape, my eyes caught sight of the large, white, trumpet-shaped flowers of the sacred datura (Datura wrightii). Also commonly called moonflower, the datura unfurls its flowers in the early evening, remaining open to nighttime pollinators until they close again the following morning. Visiting insects include the sphinx moth, which uses its long tongue to reach nectar found at the base of the long flowers. The white color of the flowers reflect moonlight, making it easier for moths to find the flowers from a distance, but primarily it is their fragment smell that lures in pollinators. A variety of wasps and beetles also pollinate these flowers of the night.
From El Portal at 1,800 feet to the top of Mount Lyell at 13,114 feet, there are a vast array of plant and animal communities in Yosemite area to explore. You can find the datura plant growing along the roadsides of Merced Canyon, heading west along Highway 140. A safe spot to stop and view this plant is across the street from the El Portal Market, next to the “Groceries/Deli” sign. Remember that while the sacred datura is beautiful, it is also poisonous and can be fatal if eaten. Please enjoy without touching!
Our website has more information on the diverse plant communities of Yosemite.
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Did You Know?
Descending from Yosemite Valley, the Merced River becomes a continuous cascade in a narrow gorge littered by massive boulders. Dropping 2,000 feet in 14 miles, canyon walls rise steeply from the river and have many seasonal waterfalls cascading down to the river.