Late winter in the birch grove on the Creston Mountain Trail.

Late winter in the birch grove on the Creston Mountain Trail.

Out There: Spring in the Mount Creston birch grove

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There are several places along the Creston Mountain Trail that I repeatedly stop at or wander around in to take a closer look. Of course, I usually stop, like most people do, at the viewpoints where one can look down from a rock bluff on the forest and the Kootenay River flats below. Another stopping place for me is at one of the several little brooks and seeps to be found along the trail. These water and nourish a few different plants than what are to be found in drier areas on the mountain slope. Then, other spots that get my closer scrutiny are rocky outcrops and low cliffs scattered throughout the forest. The dappled shade at these spots and the eastern exposure of this mountain slope preserve enough moisture for sustaining little-observed mosses and miniature ferns.

One area along the trail that I find captivating is a birch grove. Ascending a steep part of the trail brings one to a bench forested with sombre-barked birch trees. Amongst these grey-barked trees there is only a scattering of evergreen trees, quite atypical of most of the mountain slope. In summer, these grey-barked trees have much less contrast against a background of green foliage than do white birch, whereas in winter the grey-barked birch stand out against a snow covered landscape. Otherwise, the role of these grey-barked trees and white birch are similar in providing partial and/or dappled shade for plants and shrubs that do best in or can tolerate this kind of environment.

Spring comes to the forest floor in the birch grove with a burst of growth something like in the eastern hardwood forests, except the latter, as I remember, produce a greater array of showy spring flowers like white trillium, wake robin, jack in the pulpit, mayapple, hepatica, violets, eastern spring beauty and more. Strong sunrays, unfiltered by leafless and/or unexpanded tree foliage, bathe the forest floor, warming and imparting energy to the unfolding ground foliage and blooms. The birch grove puts on its own showing of spring flowers before the leaves are out or totally expanded — fairy bells, yellow wood and early blue violets, western clematis and the often unnoticed, minutely red-flowered falsebox.

Birch trees have a mildly sweet sap. It is not unpleasant to the taste. I have heard of some local people drinking it for the nutrients it is said to provide. Insects enjoy it, too. Winter storm-broken twigs and damaged branches exude the sweet sap. Various kinds of once-hibernating butterflies imbibe the sugary liquid. It is a main source of nourishment and moisture for insects coming out their winter sleep too soon to find nectar-yielding flowers.

Locally, there aren’t many tree groves that are made up of mostly one deciduous tree species. There are many cedar groves where the forest floor is almost devoid of visible plants, excepting mushrooms, fungi and Indian pipe. Viewable from the trail is another grove of a different type of tree with a bark similar to the grey-barked birch. The only time it may be noticed is when it is in flower. Looking down at just the right time, in late spring, from one of the lookout points along the trail, one may see a white patch in the forest canopy. It is made up of the blooms of the seldom-noticed black cherry. The only other grove of singular-species trees I have found is a group of English oak trees. This oak species was introduced but how they got in this remote location can only be guessed. Perhaps one of the floods occurring in past years carried in an acorn that eventually produced this oak grove.

Now for the latest news on spring’s progress. Yellow sagebrush buttercups have, in several locations, already initiated March’s march of spring flowers. Why not check out the habitat where you might find them?

Ed McMackin is a biologist by profession but a naturalist and hiker by nature. He can be reached at 250-866-5747.