The Olympic ecosystem is a very unigue environment where plants co-exist between ocean and ice. The rainshadow effect is the dominating feature of the Olympic Peninsula. Starting at barely above sea-level, the mountains rise to nearly 8,000 vertical feet (Mt Olympus) and absorb the rainfall from the Pacific. While the western slopes tend to be luscious and wet (120 inches of rainfall annually) the eastern slopes recieve only 10-20 inches of precipitation. This creates a varying ecosystem for wildflowers.
Among this varying level of precipitation is the balance of elevation. With more oxygen and warmer weather, the Olympic lowlands harbor a much more diverse array of wildflowers then the alpine, snow clad summits 6,000 plus feet above. I will now talk in some detail about these different zones and the Wildflowers commonly found there. This is by no means a perfect Biology study, but rather based upon my own experiences and observations over years of venturing into the Olympic ecosystem.
Zone 1-River Valleys (800-3,000 Ft)
Zone 1 has the greatest diversity of overall plant life, but not necessarily the greatest ammount of Wildflower species. Cloaked in heavy forests of Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar and Alder, the Olympic river valley's are often a dark place. However, the wildflowers found here, though rare, enjoy this moist darkness. Many flowers in this zone flourish along stream beds and river banks where more sunlight reaches through the overhead canopy. Other flowers, such as Indian Pipegrass, are only found in the darkest of forests. Bunchberry blooms can often be found growing amongst Sal Al and Huckleberry. Several varieties of Trillium exist here in the filtered sunshine. Wild Rose, Buttercups and Calypso Orchid also abound amongst thick forest and river banks.
This Zone is also unique because it has among the first flowers to bloom, usually in April. Since very little snow falls here, the chance for survival is greater much earlier.
Zone 2-High Forest & Low Meadows (3,000-4,500 Ft)
This Zone of transition takes place between the high forest and the edge of the tree line. Here, Pacific Silver Fir and Western Hemlock generally dominate the forest canopy. At the higher end of this zone Sub-Alpine Fir begins to appear, marking the edge of the tree line. Many Olympic Lakes are found in this zone, making for a lower meadow ecosystem that is different than those found at higher elevations.
In the Olympics, snow can linger at these elevations until June. Late May through early July are peak bloom times for several Wildflower species found here. Violets, Lilies, Harebell (common in rainshadow areas), Lupine and Orchid's can all be found in this ecosystem. Ofcourse, each of these flowers can also be found at higher elevations, but depending on the time of year, they bloom here first before their fellow species do at higher elevations during the peak of summer. Marsh Marigold's bloom right as the snow is melting, and Avalanche Lilies and Glacier Lilies are often seen growing right up through the snow. Snow melt runoff provides a perfect moist environment for the flower to thrive, but a torrent of such water can easily destroy the fragile life of even the heartiest of wildflowers.
Zone 3-High Meadows & Tree line (4,500-5,500 Ft)
|White Bog Orchid||Elephants Head||Avalanche Lily||Leapard Lily||Lupine||Saxifrage|
The blooming season here is much shorter then at lower elevations. However, from late June through September there is almost constant sunlight, and the snow rapidly melts off, though snowfields and glaciers are always present. The landscape that these wildflowers inhabit is very remarkable indeed. Extremely steep slopes, avalanche slopes, rushing streams, boulder fields and snowfields; all provide the environment for flourishing wildflower species.
Zone 4-Alpine (5,500-6,500 Ft)
These flowers are amongst the heartiest found in nature, surviving harsh winds, chances of yearly snowfall, frigid nights, scorching days and a rocky foothold on life, at best. Olympic rock is extremely frail and is usually composed of shale, sandstone and talus materials. Blooming usually occurs in August and September and is short lived. It's in this environment, high among the peaks, and sometimes on their very summits, that these Olympic Wildflowers make their homes. Although sometimes found at lower elevations, the American Bistort is adaptable to high, rocky terrain. The Larkspur, rarely seen in the Olympics, can inhabit elevations of 6,200 feet plus in the central part of the range. Phlox, one of the most amazing alpine flowers, can inhabit loose rock slopes with it's strong root system. Up here the butterflies occasionally grace it's beauty. Another common flower to grace these heights is Mountain Heather, which like Phlox, has a remarkable root system and grows up through the scree and loose rock on steep slopes.
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