Spring Hikes, Wildflowers and That Horn/Antler Stuff

I’ve been waiting. After a winter like this one (It IS gone, right?), it seemed inevitable.

“So,” young I-Wanna-Take-My-Girlfriend-On-A-Hike Homey asked, “where would be a nice hike without snakes and bugs and with things that are fun to see and good scenery? And maybe there might be deer or elk horns there?”

“Well, it is not that simple,” I cautioned him. “Spring is underway down along the Columbia and out into the Basin. Hike up that anticlinal limb of basalt layers north of Gingko State Park headquarters – up over the west side of the river. Hanford Reach National Monument has great early spring trekking, with dry trails and no snow, even in the dunes above White Bluffs. Snakes and bugs are not out much yet, so that will work out, but you need to take some information with you, so that you can point out the flowers and unique plants you’ll be wandering through; so you can have an intelligent conversation with her out there all alone in the shrub-steppe. You may find some deer or elk ANTLERS, but we’ll get to that in a moment.”

I sat young Homey down and explained that, to make the most of his time afield with his distaff companion, he needed to understand the country and its plants. After all, here we are nearing flowering time in our semi-arid shrub-steppe Paradise, and our wet winter and spring could create a blooming explosion all around us. After they’ve grown and stored up food and water from winter, after blooming and making seeds for future generations, they’ll still have to survive another hot and dry Northwest summer.

The unique plants of our shrub-steppe have adaptations to make sure their life force continues.

Look closely at sage, with its small, gray leaves and shaggy, furrowed bark. Notice other plants with shaggy, loose-hanging bark, providing dead air spaces for insulation. See how some little shrubs and perennials have tiny white or silvery “hairs” which reflect sunlight, and also hold a dead air space for insulation. How many “bulbs” will he see flowering? Check out the wild onions, garlic, and wild iris. Then consider all the flowering “root” plants; camas, bitterroot, balsamroot and lomatium, in several varieties, storing enough calories in their fleshy roots to carry themselves through years of drought. Ours are so plentiful they have sustained Native civilizations for millennia. Take a book, maybe the Audubon Field Guide to the Pacific Northwest.

It may be a bit early, but start looking for lupines and arrow leaf balsamroot, wild onion, yarrow, sagebrush buttercup, fern-leaved desert parsley, narrow-leaved desert parsley, camas, big-head clover and several of the low phloxes, penstemons, salvia sage, sagebrush violet phlox and the beautiful desert yellow daisy.

Now, then… Horns? (Well, he did ask.) Horns grow every year and are never shed. They are made of keratin, much like hooves and fingernails. Sheep grow horns. Antlers are bone, grown by the Cervidae – the deer family. They grow, mature and shed on an annual cycle apparently related to length of daylight and testosterone levels.

Antlers grow as blood‑engorged tissue, protected by velvet – a hairy skin. They may grow three or four inches daily (if we grew bone like that, a broken leg would heal completely in days). In late summer, the velvet is rubbed off for the mating season.

When testosterone levels hit a minimum, the antlers are dropped, or cast. Here in our country, cast off will continue over the next few weeks. Those bulls or bucks which did most of the breeding – and therefore used up the most testosterone – will drop their antlers first. Cells at the antler bases will granulate and antlers will drop away at the pedicel. It is probably pretty painless, but likely a bit disorienting.

In Washington, any naturally cast antler you find is yours to keep. Joe Watt and Robinson Canyon feeding areas will be closed until May First, but much other public ground is open to walking and looking.

“Now, go,” I said to young Homey. “Stumble across an antler and kneel among the flowers of our shrub-steppe countryside. Photograph them, and sit with the amazing plants that produced them. Examine the leaves and the bark, and the site. Think about the adaptations that made the flowers possible. Let yourself be amazed. Together, perhaps, you and your fair maiden might rediscover the joy of your first flower.”

Ah, spring.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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