A considerable variety of native plants can be found on the Cowiche Canyon Conservancy’s lands and elsewhere throughout Central Washington’s shrub-steppe before they fade away into a dry, hot summer.
YAKIMA — A dazzling array of colors, leaves and blooms greets hikers following the Wildflower Trail at Snow Mountain Ranch near Cowiche northwest of Yakima.
Former Cowiche Canyon Conservancy board member and president David Hagen points out many flowers no longer in bloom, noting this spring’s output paled in comparison to a year ago, when a snowy winter and wet spring produced the best wildflower season he’s seen in his 40 years in Yakima. But a considerable variety of native plants can still be found on the Conservancy’s lands and elsewhere throughout Central Washington’s shrub-steppe before they fade away into a dry, hot summer.
“I like to take pictures of them and I always wanted to know what I took pictures of,” says Hagen, who developed a passion for wildflowers from his parents while growing up in Seattle. “So either I could figure it out or somebody would tell me.”
Today, he can identify virtually any plant along the trails, many of which he created shortly after beginning a 30-plus year tenure on the Conservancy’s board. The large Carey’s balsamroot stands out with its bright, gold blooms and Gray’s desert parsley provides a strong fragrance as the trail begins to ascend near the dry creek bed.
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Rare plants can also be found, such as the white Hoover’s tauschia, which Hagen said bloomed earlier this spring. It grows only around the Columbia Basin in specific kinds of thin soils.
The white-blossomed flower is one of dozens of plants listed as sensitive, threatened or endangered by the Washington Department of Natural Resources. Hagen said shrub-steppe habitat loss from farming, development and other factors contribute to decreasing wildflower populations.
Hikers picking out beautiful bouquets can also do irrevocable damage to these native wonders. The Conservancy’s conservation director, Betsy Bloomfield, said it’s critical to leave only footprints when viewing the wildflowers on the organization’s lands.
“Take nothing but memories and photographs,” Bloomfield said. “We need to make sure that people understand to not go off the trails and take bouquets of flowers.”
Bruce Perrault has followed that advice with an emphasis on photographs for years, both around his home near Cowiche and throughout the region in places such as Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park, Meeks Table Natural area, and near Mount Adams. He’s seen different species come and go due to fire, drought, invasive weeds and other environmental issues.
Like Hagen, Perrault’s passion for wildflowers led him to learn on his own, using books like “Sagebrush Country: A wildflower Sanctuary and Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest.” He notes that unlike domestic flowers, some native varieties might only stay in peak bloom for a day or two before the wind blows them away.
“Some of this stuff’s 100 years old,” Perrault says as he examines some buckwheat flowers. “It doesn’t get real big, it just gets real old and survives. The thing is the wildfire cannot go through this. There’s not enough there to burn, so it just stays.”
Learning every species seems like an insurmountable task, especially when Hagen notes some names change over time when genetic studies prove plants scientists thought were related actually aren’t. He recommends combining book knowledge with classes or other opportunities through the local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society.
Other popular places around Yakima to find wildflowers include Cowiche Canyon and Rocky Top, which Single Track Alliance of Yakima vice president Will Hollingbery said look really strong. Perrault says with the soil already so dry for early May, the best flowers can likely be found along the highest ridges.
Vibrant colors, unique shapes and fresh fragrances can appeal to anyone, whether or not they can tell the difference between thymeleaf buckwheat and Douglas’ buckwheat.