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Sierra Wetlands – and Your Garden

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I love the rhythm of tall grasses, bending in the meadow.

Gardeners could take a lot of tips from the way nature has arranged this meadow.  There’s not a clunky note in there, unless you count the power lines.

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I can’t identify this flower, which I spent so much time photographing. So I’m going to quickly move to emphasizing what a beautiful job this natural planting does, of providing interest close up

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at a short distance

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and in the broad sweep.

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Pink and pink-purple colors are repeated in this late-summer landscape. Perennial sweet pea*, Lathyrus latifolius,  glows against the green and gold of the grasses. It grows in my area, too. But here in the higher altitudes, it takes on a delicate character absent where I live. It probably dies back in the snow, and doesn’t have the chance to become the tangle of lianas that wild sweet peas become in the foothills. (I once saw a puppy play tug-of-war with the lathyrus in our area: the lathyrus won.**)

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The same situation applies to this Sierra thistle, Cirsium californicum, which provides a nice feeding place for bees but doesn’t seem to be taking over the meadow, the way thistles in my own area would.

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These fetching little vetches, lower than my ankle,  are making a tiny landscape of their own, interwtined with the grasses. At least I think they’re vetches; I haven’t been able to properly identify them.  (It might be meadow hosackia, Lotus torreyi,  but the typical coloring of meadow hosackia is lighter.) In this plant, the typical pea-family flowers start yellow, then deepen into  tinges of red as they age.

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Wetland meadows are probably not the first thing you think about when you hear “high Sierras”. And there’s a reason for that: most of the Sierras are seasonally dry; the vegetation runs from chapparal to sagebrush to red fir communities – and when you get to the timberline, the vegetation runs to rock and very small plants.

Most of the Sierra wetlands I’ve seen have been little pockets, tucked in among the dry clay and granite landscapes that are our usual summer fair. I’ve seen little fens on the side of a long, dusty road;  tiny oases by the side of a lake; and this more unusual wetland meadow, where, as you can see, dry sagebrushy land is not far off.

There’s an important lesson in this for gardeners as well as naturalists: take advantage of your microclimates and – I just made this up – microtopography. Gardeners can get ideas from landscapes like these. If you have a wet spot in your garden, what about making your own little pocket meadow, using wild plants from your own area?

*  Perennial sweet peas (or at least L. latifolia) aren’t actually sweet; they don’t have fragrance.

**Granted, it was a very small puppy. But still.

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{ 7 comments… add one }

  • catmint August 1, 2010, 4:22 am

    Hi Pomona, yes I agree we can learn heaps from natural landscape. I love your photos, so beautful. When you talk about microclimates, I remember being in a desert in central Australia in the dry season. There was no visible water. But the guide showed us some plants growing in the sandy soil and when we dug under them we found water – just in one little spot.

  • Pomona Belvedere August 2, 2010, 2:58 pm

    What an amazing example of micro-microclimate! I think it’s amazing to learn a landscape like this, lucky you.

  • Cyd August 5, 2010, 8:03 am

    It’s funny when you mentioned the thistle and how it would be widespread where your home is. I noticed that while camping this summer. I will see one or two dandelions or some other garden variety weed and wonder why they don’t take over (glad they don’t) This last weekend I found a wild patch of monkshood growing next to a creek, it was so lovely to see in the wild.

  • lostlandscape (James) August 5, 2010, 6:08 pm

    I wish I could help you with the identity of that great pink spikey plant, but what a great presence it is in the middle of the grasses. Gorgeous! Yes, that’s a terrific effect we could use in our gardens.

    The little lotus(?) is great too. I wonder if it’s like my local lotus that opens yellow and turns orange-red when it’s been pollinated to signal the yellow-homing bees to not waste their time. Ah, summer in the Sierra. I’ve been away too many years…

  • ryan August 7, 2010, 6:22 pm

    Sierra meadows are great. I think i’s really interesting how the plants like to be wet for a certain part of the year. Microtopography should be a word. Could the plant be a sidalcea?

  • Pomona Belvedere August 12, 2010, 2:27 pm

    Cyd, I envy you that sight of wild monkshood; I love monkshood.

    James, I bet you’re right about the color change. I hadn’t considered that, silly me. Makes sense.

    Ryan, I think sidalcea is an excellent guess. I guess that means I’m going to have to search some more for its identity, using this promising new lead.

  • Town Mouse October 7, 2010, 6:35 pm

    Oh, I so agree. And I love those beautiful photos. Do you have the John Muir Laws book about Sierra plants and wildlife? Highly recommended. Mine is packed, we’re living in storage these days or I’d look it up.

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