Saturday, July 27, 2013

Platanthera of the High Sierras

I recently had the pleasure of spending a week backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas, hiking up and over Pine Creek Pass (elev. about 11,100 ft), down into Piute Canyon, following the John Muir Trail through Evolution Valley, up and over Muir Pass (elev. about 12,000), through LeConte Canyon, and exiting the wilderness via Bishop Pass (elev. about 12,000).

At the very beginning of the hike, alongside the trailhead's creek, I was pleasantly surprised to have spotted a Platanthera, probably Platathera leucostachys. I was planning to look for native orchids amongst the wildflowers throughout the week, but didn't think I'd come across one right at the start.

The south side of Pine Creek Pass had wildflowers in full bloom. We saw beds of lupines, paintbrush (Castilleja sp.), shooting stars (Dodecatheon sp.), columbines, sunflowers and small butterflies. As we hiked down the Piute Canyon trail, we stopped for a break during which I enjoyed a brief soak in the creek. I braced myself against a boulder to keep from being swept away in the cold water, and sunbathed afterwards to warm up and dry off. When we resumed the hike, I was feeling so refreshed and re-invigorated, being further uplifted upon passing many clusters of Platanthera (elev. about 9,200).

These coralroot orchids were serendipitously found in the shady pine duff opposite the trail where we camped for the night in Piute Canyon (elev. about 9,200).

Below are two examples of the mycotrophic ("fungus feeding"; plant Pterospora andromeda that were found, just emerging (elev. about 8,400). I find them to be so unusual from the multitude of other wildflowers in bloom simultaneously that they capture my attention for distinction.

We, nearly predictably, encountered Platanthera as we hiked by or over the creeks and seeps through and out of Evolution Valley (elev. about 10,000, again at 10,700), down Muir Pass into LeConte Canyon (elev. about 10,800, again at 9,200), and climbing out of LeConte Canyon to Bishop Pass (elev. about 9,600, 9,700, and 9,800). Below is a pic of Evolution Lake, looking southwards, with Mt. Spencer just left of center, and Mt. Huxley behind and right of Mt. Spencer.

Below is a set of pics along the Dusy Branch trail to Bishop Pass. The Dusy Branch trail was beautiful, and my favorite section of the backpacking trip.

The switchbacks encourages one to stop often to catch breath, which then allows one to scan the canyon walls, waterfalls, rock cuts, mountain tops, stone features, trees, flowers, etc… This particular stand of wildflowers (elev. about 10,300) shows the plant community, including alliums, columbines, Ranger's buttons (Sphenosciadium sp.) and lillies, in which we frequently found the Platantheras, and is close to a moving water source, in this case a hanging waterfall. 

Looking beyond the stand of wildflowers and across the nearby hanging waterfalls.

Here's a view above the stand of wildflowers, looking southwards down the Dusy Branch trail and into LeConte Canyon.

This last Platanthera pic is of a cluster found (elev. about 11,100) coming down from Bishop pass, and on our last day of the backpacking trip.

Seeing all the Platantheras made me think of how enjoyable it must be for Kobsukh in Thailand, Mohan in Sikkim, or Randall and other Australian Cymbidium enthusiasts, as they come across their respective native Cymbidium species when hiking in the parks. Perhaps one day I'll be able to get to these countries to enjoy a similar backpacking trip and see these and other native orchids in situ.