A roasting April and cool, wet May are yielding a hiker’s bonanza: a profusion of wildflowers and dazzling diversity of native plants just in time for the kickoff of the outdoor recreation season this holiday weekend.

Share story

TEANAWAY, Kittitas County —

A roasting April and cool, wet May are yielding a hiker’s bonanza: a profusion of wildflowers and dazzling diversity of native plants just in time for the kickoff of the outdoor recreation season this holiday weekend.

“I’ve never seen so many flowers,” said Tom Hinckley, leading his students from the University of Washington on a botanizing hike on the North Fork of the Teanaway River Thursday.

Hinckley, professor emeritus in the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences, said he has taught his Spring Comes to the Cascades class for some nine years now. And never has he seen so little snow in the high country here, and such a diversity of plants this early in the season.

Most Read Stories

Sale! Get 90% off digital access.

The combination of early warmth and sun followed by a long, slow moist chill means the emergence of plants was compressed this year, with many species that usually come forth in an adagio staging rushing out of the ground at once. Then, because temperatures cooled, the flowers are still fine, and a startling combination of plants not usually in bloom together are a symphony of color.

The trillium is still fresh, even as the sunny yellow discs of the aster family are starting to open, in bright stands of mule’s ears and arnica. The orange paint brush is already aglow, while the deep purple pools of lupine are still buzzing with bees.

The other surprise is the variety of plants already up and well-developed to enjoy.

“Usually this is still under snow,” Hinckley said, striding up the trail through hip-high bracken fern, its little green fists just starting to open.

The iron-gray skies that have been locked over Seattle of late also seemed a distant memory over here. Warm sun lit the shining white flowers of serviceberry. A western larch, adorned with a new gown of green needles, was stately against a bright blue sky. The deciduous conifer usually is not in new needles this early in the season, Hinckley remarked. But there it was, robed in soft new green.

But this is no ordinary year: “Usually there are two things here to see, and everything else is under the snow,” Hinckley said at a spot by the river.

But on this trip, so many plants were already up and maturing: Rose, Oregon grape, vanilla leaf and wild strawberries, thimbleberry, redosier dogwood and Oregon boxwood were all resplendent.

“The diversity is just overwhelming,” Hinckley said.

Along the trail, there was even a rare find: a fairy slipper orchid, with delicate purple and pink face.

Students snacked on the vitamin C-rich, crispy new tips of the Engelmann spruce, bright green at the end of the somber branches.

The forest was a feast of fragrances, from the medicinal tang of arnica crushed underfoot to the sweet pine scent of white pine needles heating in the sun, and hint of vanilla from ponderosa pine bark.

Trillium lit the trail in white, pink and maroon. Theirs is a special beauty; it takes a trillium seven years to sprout its first flower. And while theirs is only a spring season pleasure, a single trillium bulb can grace the same spot with bloom for a century.

It is that combination of the reliable, yet ever-changing delight that makes the spring wildflower season so rewarding; each year’s assemblage is a little different, as the weather stages the show.

Hinckley said he’s had years when there was so much snow in the Teanaway he couldn’t get down the road to the trail. Another year, it was so hot, two students got heat stroke. This year will be the one to remember for the bonanza of bloom and plant diversity.

“Some people love to see the azaleas at the Arboretum,” Hinckley said. The beauty of wildflowers is more subtle, but no less beguiling. “This,” Hinckley said, “is a different kind of spectacular.”