Here’s one of my favorite true alpine plants from the North Cascades. It’s called Moss Campion, Silene acaulis, and you’ll only find it at high elevations in the mountains. Here it’s growing among the rocks on the shoulder of Mount Larrabee with one of the summits of The Pleides in the background.
Moss Campion grows as a ground-hugging little bun, often appearing as a soft mound among the rocks. Its roots seek out cracks in the rocks, penetrating deep to find pockets of lingering moisture and nutrients. It blooms soon after the snow melts and once the flowers fade all you’ll see is a pale green lump. But when it’s in full bloom it can be spectacular.
Sometimes I’ve seen it high on a cliff, the bright pink flowers calling attention to it and presumably attracting the bees that pollinate the blossoms. In those instances it is so far out of reach as to be impossible to photograph. Even if I were to rappel down to it how would I set up my tripod while dangling in space?
I found this clump, as well as several others that had finished blooming, on a day hike of the High Pass trail Saturday. The weather had cooled off a bit and the bugs weren’t too bad. Starting at Twin Lakes the trail rises a little, then descends a couple hundred feet through moist flower-filled meadows before contouring around the hill and ascending a series of switchbacks to Low Pass. Then it continues climbing to High Pass and a well-worn boot track gains another 500 or so feet to the shoulder of Mount Larrabee. I only met a couple of other people on the trail, and they were on their way back to the lakes from bear hunting. They said it was the first day of bear season but they didn’t see any bears.
Up close you can see the delicate pink five-petaled blossoms and the nearly succulent sharp-pointed leaves. Most of our other plants in the genus Silene are much larger and have an inflated calyx. Silene acaulis has adapted to the harsh alpine environment by hugging the ground so it can conserve the little moisture available during the growing season and resist the near-constant ridgetop winds.
I made the wide view with my 24-105mm lens at about 32mm and a polarizer to control glare and darken the north sky near noon. I don’t particularly like shooting at high noon, but as a practical matter it takes a while to hike to a high point like this, even with a 7 am departure from town. There were folks camped on the ridge, but that wasn’t my plan for this hike. The detail was photographed with a 100mm macro lens with a collapsible diffuser softening the light.
There were many other flowers blooming along the trail on Saturday and I made a lot of photographs. I carried my Canon 5D as a compromise between image quality and weight but most of my friends would still consider my day pack pretty heavy.