This past weekend, the American Penstemon Society held their annual meeting in Boise, Idaho. I was fortunate enough to attend their meeting and join them on one of their field trips. We visited Mores Mountain in the Boise National Forest, which is a short drive north of Boise. The hike was so much fun! There were tons of great plants to see, and the views from the top were incredible. My favorite sights were all the magical rock gardens that were scattered along the trail which were loaded with a diverse number of small plants eking out an existence on lichen splattered outcrops. If you ever find yourself in the Boise area, this is a spot that I am certain you don’t want to miss.
Rock Garden on Mores Mountain, Boise National Forest
Camping recently with family and friends affored me the opportunity to explore some early summer wildflowers near Grimes Creek in the Boise National Forest. Despite the noise and dust presented by regular ATV and dirt bike traffic, I had a very enjoyable weekend in the woods. What follows are some of the wildflowers I saw while exploring the area.
Earlier this year I planted some Shanghai Green Pac Choy (Brassica rapa var. chinensis) seeds in a container outside. I harvested and ate them as they became ready, and they were delicious. However, I was a little slow at harvesting one of them and it began to bolt. I decided to go ahead and let it bloom so that I could admire its flowers and possibly collect its seeds. Unfortunately, seed collecting may be out of the question because, even though the flowers on this species are perfect (having both male and female parts), the plants may be self-sterile, meaning I would need a second plant for cross-pollination in order to get viable seed. We’ll see.
Pac Choy is in the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae), which is a relatively easy family to identify. The flowers have four petals and six stamens, and the four petals form a cross, which explains the old family name, Cruciferae. The inflorescence is a raceme, and the fruits are capsules called siliques or silicles. The walls of the capsules dry and break away to reveal the seeds of the fruit housed in a translucent sheet. There are several species in the mustard family that are common vegetable crops, including radish (Raphnus), turnip (Brassica spp.), horseradish (Armoracia), and cabbage, cauliflower, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and kale, which are all cultivars of the same species, Brassica oleracea. There are also several annual and biennial weeds in the mustard family, as well as a very common ornamental flower, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima).
In 1931, the Idaho state legislature officially designated Philadelphus lewisii as the state flower of Idaho, several decades after it was originally selected by a committee of Boise women. Affectionately referred to as “syringa” by Idahoans, P. lewisii occurs from British Columbia down into northern California and across into Idaho and Montana. Its native habitats are the bases of rocky slopes, rocky crevices, and stream banks. It was among many plants collected during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) by Meriwether Lewis. Lewis collected two specimens while in north Idaho and eastern Montana – the first near the Clearwater River and the second near the Bitterroot River. The species was later described by Frederick Pursh and named after Meriwether Lewis. Another widely accepted common name for this species is Lewis’ mock orange.
P. lewisii is a deciduous shrub that reaches 6 to 10 feet tall. It has opposite leaves and white, four-petaled flowers that appear in clusters of 3 to 11 on lateral branches. Young branches have reddish-brown bark that eventually peels off to reveal gray bark as the branches age. Many flowers in the genus Philadelphus emit a scent similar to the blossoms of citrus plants and have a general appearance akin to orange blossoms, giving them their common name “mock orange.” The attractive flowers and their sweet aroma are reasons why many people look forward to these shrubs blooming each year. Additionally, Idahoans can be certain that when their beloved state flower is in bloom, summer is imminent.
The leaves and bark of P. lewsii contain saponins and can be used to make soap when they are crushed and mixed with water. This quality also makes the plant fire-resistant. The branches and hollow stems of P. lewisii were used by Native Americans to make a variety of useful items including snowshoes, bows, arrows, and pipes. The common name “syringa” was derived from the greek word “syrinx” meaning “tube.” This helps explain why lilacs, an unrelated group of plants that also has hollow stems, was given the latin name Syringa.
Philadelphus is a genus in the Hydrangea family (Hydrangeaceae) that consists of at least 60 species found throughout North America into Central America and in various parts of Eurasia. All are shrubs – some growing to 20 feet tall while others only reach 3 feet at maturity. Most have deciduous leaves, but a few are evergreens. Many cultivars of Philadelphus have been developed by the horticulture industry and are commercially available. Cultivars are often selected for their compact growth habit, abundant and sometimes double flowers, and their strong, sweet aroma.