Tail end of the field season

I was looking forward to my last day of fieldwork this season. No heavy gear to carry, no plants to collect. I had a simple job: climb a mountain and download the summer’s data from my weather station before the snows buried it for the winter. The first snow came by early September but melted away quickly. In the middle of the month I decided it was time to go up and have a look at the site.

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By this time of year, most of the meadows have died back, with leaves and flowers long gone. Only dried-out stems and some loose debris remain, lending the lower parts of the mountain a beautiful gray-brown color.

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The situation is only slightly different at higher elevations. My research site is on the gray shale ridgeline beneath the outcrop in the foreground. Normally I hike directly to it, but on a beautiful autumn day like this one, I took an hour-long detour scrambling up another ridge to see how things looked from a different perspective. The site feels isolated from this side, but almost blends into the autumn colors of the mountain.

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Up at the site itself, all was well. The weather station was in good condition, and ready for winter – all sensors working, and snow pole installed to keep wayward skiers from crashing on the support structure in the early and late season when the snowpack is low.

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With all the data downloaded, I decided to have a look around. The area is far more colorful than I expected. The sulfur buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum (Polygonaceae)) was largely done growing for the season, its dark green leaves turning shades of yellow and red. Like the aspens I wrote about last time, even nearby individuals seem to transition to their fall coloration on very different dates. I wonder what signals each is responding to.

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And surprisingly, the growing season was not quite over, with summer colors still evident. Here you see a mat of senescing buckwheat, in which a sunflower (Heterotheca villosa (Asteraceae)) is still happily photosynthesizing and flowering – in the exact same location. Why does one continue to grow and flower when the other is getting ready for winter?

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Summer is also still in place for the Rocky Mountain gentian (Gentiana affinis (Gentianaceae)). This species seems to like wetter meadows than dry ridgelines, and is also still growing and flowering well into the beginning of autumn. The purple flowers are hard to see from far away, but offer flashes of color up close.

These photos were all taken almost four weeks ago. By now, there have been several more snow storms, and the flowers and leaves are probably gone. The plants are ready for winter, and so am I. The rest of the mysteries will have to wait until next year to be unearthed and discovered.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. monomiao says:

    I walked across a grassland last weekend and saw a blue violet. Don’t know what the early-spring plant sensed in the air or below the ground so it flowers at this fall season. Wish your weather station will be well through the winter. 🙂

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