Early Bloomers under Big Sky

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Big Sky in Lincoln County

Thursday I drove across Washington from Bellingham to Spokane to speak on wildflowers at The Inland Empire Gardeners Club meeting. I could have stuck to the freeway and made it across in about six hours, but I chose a more leisurely route and spent about 9 hours. The photo above was made just east of Davenport along US 2. I’m not sure why this thin grove of Douglas-firs was growing in the middle of the wheat field but they caught my eye as I headed down the highway. Conveniently there was a small road running along the field so I could get off the highway easily. The sky was dramatic with big billowing clouds so I shot with my widest 16-35mm lens to include as much sky as possible. It’s still very early in the spring on the east side of the mountains so the winter wheat is just starting to green up and begin growing.

Hood's Phlox and Big SagebrushOne of my favorite eastern Washington roads for early-blooming wildflowers is the Old Vantage Highway. It runs parallel to I-90 between Ellensburg and Vantage. There’s very little traffic and at the higher elevations the lithosol soil supports a diverse plant community.

This is Hood’s Phlox, Phlox hoodii, on a steep south-facing road cut with Big Sagebrush in the background against the sky. Just above this clump, on the flatter surface, I found a few Yellow Bells (Fritillaria pudica) and some Biscuitroots in bloom. Thyme-leaved Desert Buckwheat had tight flower buds, and I saw one of our native cacti as well. Hood’s Phlox comes both in white, like this clump, and in various shades of blue. I only saw the white form on Thursday.

A larger phlox, Showy Phlox, was also beginning to bloom along the road at lower elevations on the Vantage side of the hill. It forms dense clumps a foot or so tall with large white to pale pink flowers. Often you’ll find it at the base of a sagebrush, but it also grows scattered among the grasses.

Sagebrush VioletsSagebrush Violets were in abundant full bloom along the same road. They grow out in full sun, scattered among the grasses and Big Sagebrush on thin and rocky soils. Most of the violets were in nice clumps like this one, but there were also scattered single plants.

For this plant portrait I softened the bright noon-day sun with a collapsible diffuser placed as close to the flowers as I could get it. The diffuser also helped to slow down the wind that almost always blows across the hills in this area. The diffuser softens the highlights and fills in the shadows, effectively reducing the contrast so the colors record closer to their true brilliance. The lens was a 24-105 zoomed all the way in to soften the background.

Another early blooming flower that’s almost the same color that I saw along Washington 28 between Odessa and Davenport is the showy Daggerpod. From the driver’s seat I thought I was seeing more violets, but when I stopped to investigate I discovered the difference.

Hooker's Balsamroot

The showiest of the east side spring flowers are the balsamroots. They were just beginning to show a little color in the warmest locations. This is Hooker’s Balsamroot, Balsamorhiza hookeri at the base of Big Sagebrush. This species is smaller than Arrowleaf Balsamroot, and has divided leaves.

A little later in the season, perhaps mid- to late April, the hills throughout central Washington will glow with large patches of balsamroot, which is in the sunflower family. You’ll also find them thick in the Columbia Gorge.

If you’re traveling across Washington this month, I encourage you to detour off the freeway on the Old Vantage Highway and stop to enjoy the flowers. The season is short, but there will be much to enjoy along the road.

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