Thursday, October 31, 2013

Ghosts in the Rocks

See them?  (click on photo for a better view)
The forecast for the day was hot -- 100º F -- but we didn’t bother with an early start.  After all, we were on vacation.  Then we were side-tracked by books and displays at the Visitor Center and fish-and-chips at the stand next-door (very tasty).  By the time we began hiking, it was noon.

From the trailhead below Dry Falls we headed up the west slope of Umatilla Rock, which separates two channels once filled with water hundreds of feet deep that roared along at speeds hard to imagine -- 30, 60, maybe even 80 miles per hour!  Now the channels are dry, rocky and sparsely vegetated.  We were in the scablands of eastern Washington -- land that still hasn’t healed after catastrophic Ice Age Mega-floods scraped off soil and sediment down to bare rock.
It was hard to imagine this being a cold snowy place just 15,000 years ago.
We climbed to a notch and headed down the other side of the ridge into the coulee (above).  There were no trees and no shade ... just rock, rock and more rock, all basalt.  Cliffs of layered basalt stood above slopes of fractured column pieces.  On the coulee floor were massive chunks of basalt entablature that had tumbled when columns were plucked out by floods.  Fortunately, some were large enough to provide a little shade to sit in, which we did.

That’s when I saw them ... ghostly figures standing quite still among the huge dark fallen rocks!
But then maybe it was just the heat ...
Sure enough, a closer look revealed that these were not ghosts at all but rather wild buckwheat plants (Eriogonum sp.).  Wild buckwheats are distinctive and obvious to a western North American field botanist, even when semi-delirious.  The flowers are tiny, with parts in threes, broadly bell-shaped, and arranged in little clusters in cup-like structures called involucres.  But mainly they have the wild-buckwheat vibe -- a set of visual cues that are hard to articulate but easy to recognize once you get to know the group.
These particular buckwheats are covered with fine white hairs -- hence their ghostly appearance.
Above, branched inflorescence with clusters of flowers subtended by involucres.  Below, closeup of tiny flowers (3-6 mm long) in a cup-like involucre.  Photos by Gerald D. Carr; available for non-commercial use at Flora of Eastern Washington and adjacent Idaho.
While I knew this was a wild buckwheat, I didn’t recognize the species.  There are many -- 250 species and 450+ taxa in all (including subspecies and varieties; see Eriogonum in FNA).  They are especially common in arid regions of the western USA, in a wide variety of habitats.  Some are rare and restricted in distribution; quite a few are tough to tell apart and perhaps of questionable taxonomic validity.  All these things suggest that wild buckwheats are a dynamic evolving group, or as we like to say, “actively speciating.”

I decided to name this one “ghost buckwheat” and that’s what we called it whenever we saw it, which was often.  Ghost buckwheat somehow thrives on harsh sites in the scablands, perhaps because it’s clever about where it tries to grow.  Often the sites were more hospitable than they first appeared.  Most provided more runoff or moisture in some way.  Plants were sometimes quite common on talus slopes below cliffs, where runoff might accumulate (below, click on photo for better view).
We saw them on the walls of potholes -- more runoff there too.
Ghost buckwheat on back wall of pothole near Deep Lake.
The healthy plant below is on a gently-sloping field of talus.  Maybe water accumulates among the rocks.
Even where it looked like ghost buckwheat was growing on bare rock, the actual microsites proved to be a bit less harsh, for example a crevice or soil pocket of some kind.
It was always a pleasure to see the ghost buckwheat.  It was in full bloom on those hot dry late summer days when most other plants were done with flowering.  The pale-colored elegantly-arranged stems, leaves and flowers were beautiful against the coarse dark basalt.  So you can imagine my surprise when I tracked it down in some of my botany books and read that 1) it is Eriogonum niveum, the snow buckwheat (I understand, but I think “snow” is not nearly as fitting as “ghost”); and 2) at least one expert considers it to be a “rather unattractive species.”  Here I have to disagree!  It’s lovely in its elegance and pale color, and admirable for its ability to thrive in hot dry rugged environments.  It's certainly a memorable species.  I hope to see it again (I won't be scared next time).
Distribution of Eriogonum niveum, from USDA Plants Database.  “The species is found mainly on the grassy plains east of the Cascade Range in southern British Columbia, west-central Idaho, northeastern Oregon, and eastern Washington” on “sandy to gravelly flats, slopes, bluffs, and rocky, often volcanic outcrops” (FNA).
My music of choice for communing with ghost buckwheat in the scablands would be Chopin’s Etude Op. 10  No. 2 -- also lovely, elegant and mildly terrifying.  This old recording is a bit scratchy, but I like Cortot’s haunting interpretation very much.

P.S. ... Happy Halloween!

This post is part of a series about the Ice Age Mega-floods of the Pacific Northwest.


  1. I really enjoy your blog. I'm quite envious of the your landscape, it's very different to the gentle hills around here. Yours is a landscape that you can really go on an adventure in.

    1. It's interesting how differently people react to these landscapes. Lucy finds them terrifying! I agree with you ... they're exciting to explore.

      As always, thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts.