The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 7: “Sunflowers” on the Hill
May 26, 2022
By Birgitta Jansen
May is the month that Sunflower Hill comes to life in the most spectacular way. It is during that month that the hillsides are covered in a glorious display of yellow and green. The old roads and trails on the Hill are busier than usual with visitors. Many of them have come to marvel at the abundance that has sprung forth from this mostly arid hill. It is a field of seduction, not necessarily for us humans, but directed to little buzzing and fluttering creatures.
During the last few days in April, the situation did not look promising. There were only a few stressed-looking balsamroot plants with flowers clearly struggling. I wondered if there would even be a bloom this year. But a few days of gentle rain washed away my concerns. Almost overnight, the dry, crumpled-looking balsamroot leaves picked up and within days turned into healthy greyish-green, arrow-shaped leaves. Buds were opening and hillsides turned yellow in a celebration of life.
But while humans rejoice and ungulates nibble happily on some of the flowers and leaves, the flowers are engaged in the serious business of reproduction. Initially there didn’t seem to be many pollinators around. It was still quite cool. There might have been a few hours of sun in the morning, but afternoons were typically overcast or predominantly cloudy with occasional gentle showers. But toward the end of May, it warmed and there appeared to be more buzzing about.
The arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is actually not a sunflower, but it is a close relative. Both are members of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). “Arrowleaf” refers to the shape of the plant’s leaves. The use of the word “balsam” in the name is based on a resin, a chemical compound that is in the roots of this plant.
The arrowleaf balsamroot is native to the North American Mountain West. It is fairly common in cold, dry areas and most abundant in mountain fields up to elevations of 2,700 meters (8,850 feet). The plants are slow to establish and may take five years or longer to really settle in. But they are drought-resistant and even when burned by fires or trampled, their strong root systems support regrowth where possible. A mature plant can have a thick, large taproot that goes deep into the ground. As well as allowing the balsamroot to tap into deep moisture, the deep roots can reach nutrients that are not accessible to many other plants with shallower roots. It is said that this taproot can have a diameter the “width of a hand.” The thicker portions of the root system are covered by bark.
There are other, interesting aspects to this plant. Rod Myatt, a botanist friend and professor at San Jose State University in California, once explained to me that the sunflower family is a collection of DYCs. “DYCs?” I asked, mystified. Rod replied with a smile and twinkle in his eye, “Damn Yellow Composites.” He continued, “There are too many of them. Especially when doing field identification, they can be frustrating to correctly identify.” Rod has a point. There are approximately 23,000 composite family species worldwide, with 2,413 species found right here in North America. The orchid and the composite families are the two largest of the world’s flowering plants. Many of the composites look very similar, especially the yellow ones.
“What is a composite?” was my next question. Rod explained that when we look at a composite flower, we might think that we are lovingly gazing at just one flower. However, we are actually looking at what is called a flower head, which contains many flowers, also called florets.
There are two main floret types: disc flowers and ray flowers. Disc flowers tend to look like little bumps or tubes tightly packed into the disc-shaped centre of the flower head. Ray flowers are the flat petals that radiate out from the disc. Yes, each one of those is its own flower!
To confuse matters further, there are flower heads composed of only ray flowers, like the ubiquitous dandelion. Pussytoes are a good example of a flower consisting only of disc flowers. The celebrated balsamroot has both disc and ray flowers.
The world of flowers is fascinating and extremely complex. And I haven’t even gotten into the gametes, pistils, stamens, anthers, pappus, paleae, corolla, calyx… ok, I’ll stop now. But next time you’re out, take a closer look at any of the flowers around you. You might be surprised.
Recently, a Sunflower Hill hiker asked how she would go about growing balsamroot in her garden. Good question! Some checking around provided the following info: when transplanted, balsamroot usually don’t survive. Seeds are available, although this plant truly has a mind of its own as to where it wants to be. The seeds do not germinate easily. For those who’d like to give it a try, here’s a link to some seeds. Since the plant is native to the west, there’ll be some happy pollinators once it starts flowering! Hopefully it’ll work!
Photos by Birgitta