Harbingers of Autumn Laura Potash, botanist Since 1990 Laura has not only been our botanist, she is also an avid backcountry hiker, mountain climber and a volunteer for Snohomish County Search and Rescue, experiencing the Cascades in every season.
Certain indicators announce to me that summer is indeed over and fall has arrived in its full glory. On the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, those indicators vary depending on the ecosystem I’m hiking that day. If I’m in the foothills of the mountains, below about 2,000’ elevation in what we call the western hemlock zone, it is standing under a canopy of big leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum), whose leaves turn a gentle yellow-golden color. You know fall is here when the light shines through these gigantic leaves from above, and the carpet of deciduous leaves at your feet makes the air smell earthy and wonderful. If you look around on the ground you can probably find a leaf as big as your chest, which is pretty amazing if you think about it. You can find these beauties on hikes off of the Mountain Loop Highway and Middlefork Snoqualmie River.
But my favorite place for fall color on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie is our subalpine parkland. Up around 4,000’ elevation and above, you’ll find the dark green, spire-shaped subalpine fir trees (Abies lasiocarpa) contrasting sharply against mats of low-bush huckleberry, also known a blue-leaf huckleberry (Vacinnium deliciosum). This species of huckleberry forms extensive mats interspersed with red heather. In the fall the leaves turn a rich red-plum color and are so gorgeous when backlit -- they remind me of stained glass. Hike up in Heather Meadows, Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Henry M. Jackson Wilderness to enjoy these stunning displays.
In the more moisture-rich grassy meadows of the subalpine parklands, there are a few late-blooming wildflowers left. Most notable is the bog gentian (Gentiana calycosa) with its deep purple flowers that only open in sunlight. In portions of drier meadows you can still see the delightful seed-heads of western anemone (Anemone occidentalis). More creative common names describe this species better, such as “mouse-on-a-stick.” Hike through boulder fields at this time of year and you might be lucky enough to come upon a “pika haystack.” I saw one last weekend – a pile of snipped and wilting stalks of lupine and alpine ladyfern, that a pika (an adorable relative of the rabbit) had laid next to its den to dry for winter-time munchies.