by Richard Burke
Wildflowers are wonders of the Earth. That they exist at all suggests a force beyond man has been at work.
The very definition of a wildflower – any flowering plant that grows without human aid – begs the question: how did they get there? It’s easy to credit divine intervention – God created them. Those looking for something closer to a scientific solution may come up with seeds blowing in the wind, or arriving by way of flooding rivers, or lying dormant for years or decades or centuries for the right conditions to arrive.
There has to be room for both answers. But, for those who find wildflowers irresistible, it probably doesn’t matter a lot: their sheer beauty, sometimes in an environment that logic suggests shouldn’t support life at all, is infinitely appealing.
Late summer a couple of years ago, I was among a group of people who embarked on a two-day hike up South Drywood Creek west of Pincher Creek on the Front Range of the Rockies. The trip, in 30-degree heat, took us across the face of Loaf Mountain up to Blue Lake, then the next day across the mountain to Spionkop Creek and back down to a gentler elevation. Along the way, we were stopped frequently by sights new to most of us – among them wildflowers such as arnica, bear grass, harebells and larkspur.
That part of the world nudges on Waterton Lakes National Park. In fact, at one time it may have been part of the park, until Ottawa bureaucrats removed it for difficult-to-discern reasons. In any case, Waterton wildflowers are protected as part of the park system mandate. As a result, flowers found and photographed there in the early 1900s by people like Bert Riggall, a mountain guide, outfitter, rancher and naturalist who lived near the park, are still there more than 100 years later for flower lovers to see.
Wendy Ryan from Pincher Creek found Riggall’s photographs of Waterton Wildflowers from 1910 and later in Banff’s Whyte Museum archives. She is having a number of the photos, of specimens such as the mariposa lily, columbine, calypso orchid, trillium, bear grass, wild phlox and glacial lily, printed and mounted for display in the Waterton Natural History Association’s Heritage Centre in the Waterton townsite.
It is hoped they can be on display this summer, if not by the time of the Waterton Wildflower Festival June 20-28. It’s the 11th year for the festival, showcasing some of the park’s 1,000 plant species which, says organizer Holly Fausett, includes half of all the wildflower species in Alberta. “Of those, 175 species are listed as rare in Alberta and 20 are only found in Waterton,” according to the festival brochure. And some of those are rare in Canada.
Holly could be described as one of the most fervent fans, acknowledging that wildflower watching is therapeutic, to understand their importance to the Earth. “They are even going to name a laundry detergent inspired by Waterton wildflowers,” she told gardeners at a Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society meeting in late May.
One of the appeals of wildflowers to many is that they grow without, and sometimes despite, man’s interference. It seems almost contradictory to see cans of wildflower seeds for sale in garden shops, since wildflowers sow themselves and thrive on their own, given the right conditions.
Urban gardens can, however, benefit from native perennials, shrubs and trees because they have evolved in this climate and need less care and watering than imports. The Oldman Watershed Council publishes a booklet titled 50 Best Plants for Prairie Urban Gardens in Southern Alberta, that includes wildflowers such as brown-eyed susan, purple coneflower and wild bergamot. You can find wild bergamot – bee balm – as you stroll along the Oldman River downstream of the Summerview Bridge near Brocket.
The coulees in Lethbridge also sprout many wildflowers, among the most notable violet-coloured crocuses in early spring and prickly-pear cactus, which blooms with a cellophane-like, pale-yellow flower. However, digging them up to take home is a no-no – you can find most native plants at local nurseries.
The Lethbridge and District Horticultural Society has planted and maintains a native plant garden at the Galt Museum.
Those interested in the science may note that climate change has resulted in prolonged wildflower blooming in the Rocky Mountains. According to a 39-year study of more than two million aline plants in Crested Butte, Colorado, two-thirds have changed their blooming patterns and more than half are blooming earlier. The changes are likely to affect birds, bees and animals, the study suggests.
And those with religious beliefs will appreciate that, according to the Society of the Little Flower, St. Therese saw herself as the little flower of Jesus “because she was just like the simple wild flowers in forests and fields, unnoticed by the greater population, yet growing and giving glory to God.”