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The Fryingpan Fifty

By on June 22, 2020 in Outdoor Fun with 0 Comments
Generalists just call this Indian paintbrush. Botanists would have a more specific name because at different elevations and in different soil types, there are different species of paintbrush.

How many wildflowers can be seen on a stroll at Mount Rainier? Let’s count among a rainbow of colors

by Andy Dappen

It’s known as one of Mt. Rainier’s most spectacular hikes. Some love it for the in-your-face views of The Mountain, others for the diversity of terrain visited as you gradually climb from lush old-growth into barren lands above timberline. 

The description of wildflowers, however, catches my attention. 

Yellow mountain monkeyflower, the minority monkeyflower seen during Andy’s hike.

The hike along Fryingpan Creek to the old stone structure at Summerland and beyond to the high pass at Panhandle Gap is described as a walk through a carpet of wildflowers or a stroll through a rainbow of colors. 

For people like me who often walk as far or as fast as possible, this hike might be a lesson in slowing down to smell the flowers. 

the flower of companionship

Rather than racing through the area, my wife and I decide we will amble up to Panhandle Gap identifying wildflowers. In fact, finding 50 different wildflowers has such a nice ring to it that this becomes our quest. 

On a day in mid-August last year when the wildflowers are exploding in the high-country, we go in search of the Fryingpan 50. 

The initial two miles through old-growth forests of Douglas firs, cedars and hemlocks are dark. Relatively little light hits the forest floor and the understory is sparse. 

Cliff paintbrush: A short form of Indian paintbrush found at higher elevation and in rocky soil.

Among the dead logs and duff are the green leaves of Western trillium, queen’s cup, Canadian dogwood, vanilla leaf and pathfinder. All of these plants have bloomed earlier in the summer so we cannot claim them as flowers. 

But identifying flora without flowers takes even more knowledge of the plant, so I give us a half-point for each of these finds.

Elephantheads, a type of snapdragon. Look at this flower closely and you’ll think you’re being charged by a herd of pink elephants.

In the dark forest, we do see twinflower and false Solomon seal blooming. We also use our guide, Wildflowers of Mount Rainier, to identify three bloomers that are new to us — a diminutive saxifrage named foamflower, an orchid with a rattle-like head named rattlesnake plantain, and a heath family member that is oddly lopsided named one-sided wintergreen.

Along the way, my wife and I pass several streams where abundant light and water create good growing conditions. We slow down to examine the crop here. 

Mountain sorrel, often found above timberline and among rubbles of rock, the spike of this plant is covered with tiny, scaly flowers.

We claim two extremely similar flowers belonging to the composite family that have unique leaves and very different properties — the cow’s parsnip is edible while the water hemlock is poisonous. 

We see other old friends that are common throughout the Cascades: thimbleberry and salmonberry from the rose family, pearly everlasting and edible thistle from the composite (daisy) family, and Devil’s Club from the evil family. 

At the 5,400-foot level, the trail crosses Fryingpan Creek on a log bridge and wanders onto more open slopes. 

Suddenly the ground is painted with all manners of colorful spots. Moments ago we thought finding 50 flowers might prove impossible; now we’re thinking this will be simple. 

Is this bracted lousewort (pedicularis bracteosa) or coiled-beak lousewort (pedicularis contorta)? After careful study Andy was confident (like, 60 percent sure) it’s the latter.

We stroll up the trail letting our eyes take in the colorful splotches of Cascade asters and subalpine lupines (purple), broadleaf arnicas (yellow), fireweed (magenta), cliff paintbrush (orange), Sitka valerian and bistort (white), tall bluebells, and crimson Columbines.

We soon realize that while these fields are profuse in the number of flowers produced, the same suspects are blooming over and over. The diversity of species is actually small. 

I wander off-trail looking for hidden specimens. Soon two hikers pass nearby on the trail. 

The competitive side of me kicks in — I don’t like any hikers, much less ancient ones like those two, passing me. 

This cluster of Cascade asters was found in the clearings of the subalpine zone. Also seen was its cousin, the Alpine aster, above the timberline.

I take a deep breath. The quest today is to focus on the details of the landscape rather than its broad strokes. I go back to my search and the due diligence pays off — I find a cluster of sickletop louseworts and some lonely harebells hiding in plain sight.

I return to the trail and we keep walking. While concentrating on upping our flower account we hardly notice how steadily the trail climbs. 

We pass some shrubbery — a mixture of mountain ash, currants, white rhododendrons, and rosy spirea; then we are high enough to encounter pink mountain heathers, Western anemones, false hellebores, magenta paintbrushes and bog mountain gentians. 

About 4.5 miles into our walk and just above the stone structure built by the CCC at Summerland, the trail enters an open bowl where multiple streams cascade downward. 

Lining each of these streams are millions upon millions of magenta flowers — Lewis monkeyflower. 

Interestingly, the odd yellow mountain monkeyflower blooms as well but it is certainly the minority monkeyflower here. 

Along other streams in the Cascades we’ve seen the opposite — places where yellow mountain monkeyflowers flourish and only the odd magenta monkeyflower grows. What mechanism causes one or the other of these varieties to dominate? 

The other bloom heavily punctuating the realm of the monkeyflowers is coiled-beak lousewort. I discover these spikes of cream-colored snapdragons provide a shapely and colorful foreground for photographing Mount Rainier in the background.

The trail continues climbing above this flowerful bowl and pierces timberline. 

Before we know it we’re zig-zagging through acres of stones laid down by lava flows of old. Looking uphill we see colonies of plants peppering the boulder fields but we’re worried these barren lands will leave us wanting. Our list is still at least a dozen species shy of our goal.

We climb on and stumble into a cluster of white mountain heather, sporting a distinctly different flower and leaf than the pink mountain heather seen earlier. We’re also seeing cat parts around us — Alpine pussytoes and pussypaws but unfortunately no cat’s ears. 

As we walk on we note that while the amount of vegetation in these rocky, sandy, wind-blasted soils may be sparse, the diversity of flowers found here is greater than down below. 

We happen upon Alpine golden daisies, small-flowered penstemons, elephantheads, Alpine asters, Elmera, smooth-stem willow herb, Davidson’s penstemons, Alpine lupines, sprawling cinquefoil, Cusick’s Veronica, partridge foot, goldenrod, yarrow, short-beaked agoseris and spreading phlox.

By the time we reach Panhandle Gap we are a few flowers over the top. We cross the pass and take a seat on the southern slopes to lunch. 

At the 6,800-foot elevation of Mount Rainier these south-facing slopes are lusher and more hospitable than the northern slopes we just ascended. I start scanning the slopes around us for new flowers, but my eyes are drawn to the dots of blueberries. 

 I pick a few. “These are symbolic,” I say offering them to my wife.

 “How so?” she asks.

“The fruit of knowing flowers is sweet.”

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