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Resplendent Mountain Wildflowers Key To Sierra Nevada Ecosystems

A  mass of splayed, clover-like orange flowers on leafy stalks.
Neysa King
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Nevada Irrigation District
Sierra Nevada meadows explode in the spring and summer with beautiful wildflowers. In English Meadow, the orange-red Indian paintbrush (genus Castilleja) grows amid tall, yellow-flowered arrowleaf ragwort (Senecio triangularis).

Originally published on February 14, 2020 on The Hitchcock Project.
ENGLISH MEADOW, Calif. — Come spring, when the snow melts, this high mountain meadow near Truckee, Calif., will be covered in wildflowers. Bright orange-red flowers with clover-like heads will bob on the summer breeze amid green grasses. As the season unfurls, the meadows will spring up with yellow buttercups, purple larkspur, blue camas, white bistort and more.

Meadow wildflowers play an important role in the larger ecosystems of the Sierra Nevada.

“The flowers are a primary food source for insects, and insects are an important food source for bats and birds,” said Terri Rust with the Plumas Corp., a meadow restoration nonprofit based in Quincy, Calif.

Deep blue orchid-like flowers on a stalk against a background of tall, green grass.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Larkspur (genus Delphinium), shown here in English Meadow, is a special favorite of hummingbirds and bumblebees.

Yet roughly half of the Sierra Nevada’s nearly 280,000 acres of meadow have been degraded or are at risk of becoming degraded, according to the Sierra Meadows Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and restoring mountain meadows.

“Eventually, it impacts humans, because we don’t have enough pollinators to pollinate our food sources” due to pesticide use, habitat loss and other factors, Rust said. “Things in nature are so integrated.”

Because people have altered so many landscapes, mountain meadows offer an important refuge for many species.

“During summer months, montane meadows are considered the single most important habitat in the Sierra Nevada for birds,” according to Sierra Meadows Strategy, written by the Sierra Meadows Partnership.

The coalition of government, educational, private and nonprofit organizations has sketched out a framework for restoring 30,000 acres.

During spring and summer, the multicolored Sierra Nevada wildflowers rely on spongy meadow soils that hold the melted remains of mountain snowpack. Mountain meadows store that water, then during summer, slowly release it into nearby waterways, supplying drinking water for people and other creatures.

In a healthy meadow, the water table often stays near the surface, where roots delve. But some Sierra Nevada meadows have dried out, in part because of human activity that has changed the shapes of riverbeds and floodplains, limiting the amount of water that seeps into meadows.

A mass of yellow flowers atop leafy, green stalks.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Arrowleaf ragwort ranges from Alaska and western Canada to southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. It loves stream banks and other moist places in the mountains.

A mass of tiny yellow flowers atop leafy stalks.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Arrowleaf ragwort, also known as arrowleaf groundsel (Senecio triangularis).

Meadow Wildflowers As Indicators

Meadow restoration projects include considerations of the meadows’ floral diversity, Rust said. When a meadow can support many types of flowers, that’s one sign of its ability to withstand environmental pressures.

Much of English Meadow has been degraded; some areas are rather dry, and forest plants have invaded the meadow area. Yet other areas remain quite wet. The Nevada Irrigation District, based in Grass Valley, has been studying English Meadow for three years in preparation for restoring it. Neysa King, NID’s environmental resources administrator, has found several species of wildflowers in brilliant shades of red, yellow and blue in the meadow and nearby woods.

The meadow is also home to a rare ecosystem.

Medium-length green grass amid gray, wetter areas, with tall trees in the background.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
English Meadow is home to a rare ecosystems called fens, a type of peat bog, which hosts unique plants.

“Sometimes, as with English Meadow, you find these really rich, special pockets that are called fens, or peat bog communities, where you have really unique species… and some very, very old plants,” King said. “English Meadow has a number of these pocket fen communities.”

Fens also are home to lichens, mosses and tiny, orchid-like flowers commonly called wintergreen.

A stem with pale pink, orchid-like flowers, a gainst a background of green grass.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Bog wintergreen (Pyrola asarifolia).

Small spike with white flowers amid taller green grass.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Sierra bog orchid (Platanthera dilatata var. leucostachys), in English Meadow.

Carpet Of Flowers Are Signs Of Success

Rust’s work takes her to meadows all along the northern Sierra Nevada, including long-time restoration work in Red Clover Valley, near Beckworth, Calif. Her excitement upon seeing summer’s floral bounty never flags.

“(The meadow) is a great example of how restoration can work,” Rust said. “These are niches in our mountains that are preserving things that we’ve lost elsewhere.”

Landscape shot with tall green grass, white and yellow flowers, and mountains in the distance.
Credit Courtesy of Terri Rust
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The meadow of Red Clover Valley, near Beckworth, Calif., bursts in the late spring and into the summer with camas (the blue flowers). American bistort (Bistorta bistortoides) has large. showy white heads, while the short-beaked agoseris (Agoseris glauca) look more like dandelions. A few yellow slender buttercup (Ranunculus alismifolius) remain, though the plant is mostly past flowering. The valley is shown during late spring 2019.

Forest flowers offer surprising shapes, colors and textures. Of the snowplant and woodland pinedrop, King said, “I found these in the forested edges around the meadow, where the valley rises into the slopes of the watershed.”

Spike-like plant with small, round, pale flowerets.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Woodland pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea), in English Meadow.

Small white flowers spray from a central stem.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
White-veined wintergreen (Pyrola picta), in English Meadow.

A stalk with dark red, downward-pointing flowers.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Snowplant (Sarcodes sanguinea), in English Meadow.

Low-growing plant with holly-like leaves and pale yellow-and-orange flowers shaped like raspberries.
Credit Neysa King / Nevada Irrigation District
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Nevada Irrigation District
Mahala mat, also called pinemat. (Ceanothus prostratus), in English Meadow.

Trina Kleist is a contributor for The Hitchcock Project for Visualizing Science at the Reynolds School of Journalism.

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