As I drove down the gravel hill towards Glenbow Ranch Provincial Park west of Calgary, a clump of yellow flowers caught my eye. ‘Were those lady’s slippers?!’ I asked myself incredulously.
‘No’, I dismissed my first impression, ‘I’ve never seen them way out here on the prairies. But hey, they should be blooming in Bow Valley Provincial Park, and I should go look for them there! Maybe I can do that after dinner tonight…’ (Bow Valley Park is roughly 60 km west of Glenbow Ranch Park, on the verge of the mountains).
As I was getting excited about this prospect, I saw more yellow flowers, decidedly not dandelions, nor buffalo beans, another native species that is currently in bloom. I slowed down and craned my neck. Yes, they WERE lady’s slippers (Cypripedium parviflorum)! What?! Who knew lady’s slippers grew here?! In the ditch?! As I approached the park sign, I spotted more and more of the exotic-looking flowers, more than I’ve ever seen in one place, splurges of glory against the grey June day.
Why, oh why, did I only bring my smartphone and little red pocket camera, an Olympus Tough TG-2?!
After dashing a short ways back up the road to admire the lady’s slippers, I headed for the trailhead. I had only taken a handful of steps down the path when I started seeing other wildflowers: those blue ones I thought were weeds last summer (blue beardtongue, whose foliage looks similar to that of Dalmatian toadflax), wild onions (but too many flowers in the cluster to be the rare Geyer’s onions we counted so much last year), wild blue flax, some sort of yellow aster, old man’s whiskers, Sandberg’s wild parsley, buffalo bean, and several varieties of the pea family (vetches? hedysarums? locoweeds?), both cream-coloured and purples.
And the smell? Well, that would be wolf willow in bloom, known more by the spicy, pervasive scent of its blossoms than by the tiny yellow flowers huddled under the silvery leaves.
And then, near the wooden pedestrian-only gate to the Tiger Lily Loop, a wild rose bud. A few steps further, and some of the roses were already blooming. Wolf willow and wild roses in bloom: this means one thing to this prairie girl: summer is here!
I criss-crossed the gravel trail down through the aspens, my eyes barely lifting from the ground, taking photos of every new species I saw, including the weeds.
Sprinkles of white violets I affectionately call snow violets salted the floor of the aspen grove. In studying my wildflower books to identify them correctly, I realized I saw two different species, western Canada violets and kidney-leaved violets. In all, I photographed 36 different species of wildflowers, plus four non-native species.
I realized I have only visited this park in the brown seasons and it felt like a whole new world for me. The stately but seemingly drunkenly swerving cottonwoods near the bottom of the hill sheltered a grassy near-monoculture, presumably a domestic species. Across the creeklet, the trail up through Badger Bowl which I’ve always enjoyed because it is less traveled passed through another previously disturbed area and I was disappointed to realize I found only a few new species to add to my list.
Biodiversity is something that is easy to recognize in the grasslands and aspen parklands of Alberta, as I learned last summer while working in the field in southwestern Alberta. A healthy, native landscape has a huge diversity of vegetation growing in it. Weeds will quickly take advantage of any soil disturbance, even an entirely natural disturbance such as the diggings of a northern pocket gopher. I suspect that part of the reason previously disturbed areas look so different is that we typically haven’t taken care to return the landscape to its original state, or as best we can.
A laminated interpretive sheet twist-tied to a shrub along the trail stated,
Station #F15: What is industry expected to do once they have disturbed a grassland? Sometimes the disturbance of a grassland is unavoidable. In these cases industry (ie. Oil and gas, construction, development) is expected to use best practices and disturb as little as possible. When finished they are required to bring back the landscape to as close to the original state as possible. Reclamation is very difficult, as a healthy grassland ecosystem is believed to have taken thousands of years to develop once the grassland has been disturbed. For example, oil exploration often damages the extensive roots of Fescue grass, so the reclamation of this system becomes a challenge.
I hold on to hope that we will continue to learn how to re-vegetate disturbances so that keen-eyed, flower-loving (, tree- and grass-hugging) photographers don’t notice the difference.