Flower Frenzy

Flowers rewrite soil, water, and sunshine into petal'd poetry.
     Terri Guillemets

Every spring here in western Montana south-facing hillsides light up with the blossoms of thousands of arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), generally called “balsam”. These sunflower-like plants are widespread in the North American west, ranging from Canada to New Mexico. While they aren't the earliest blooms to appear each spring, they are among the showiest harbingers of the warm sunny days to come.

We have a few growing on our property. As our Ponderosa pines continue to die from beetle infestation and other influences, including age and draught, and I have them cut and removed, the increasing sun exposure is helping balsam spread. The more open hills in our area are covered with them. But our favorite place to see and photograph them is the National Bison Range (NBR) in Montana's Mission Valley, about 35 miles (56 km) south of home. The rolling hills of the range glow yellow with these flowers. Photo opportunities are endless, but there's a very short window in which to find the flowers at their peak.

Whether due to climate change, the abundant political hot air of an election year, or the general perversity of the universe, all the usual processes of spring seem to happen earlier each year. This year, 2016, continued the trend here; melting of valley snow, return of migrating birds, greening of the countryside, and the appearance of wildflowers, all weeks earlier than “normal”. The first balsam flowers, just a few tentative yellow specks here and there in the hills, appeared in early April, as if testing to see if conditions where suitable before calling in the masses. Then that call came, and seemingly overnight those hills were covered in yellow. At the same time, we had a long stretch of warm days with little wind.

Seeking Perfection

A massive field of arrowleaf balsamroot

A massive field of arrowleaf balsamroot.

Wind plays a significant role in a photographer's life. It moves things; moving things require fast shutter speeds to freeze for a sharp image. Wind blows dust around; dust is the enemy of photo equipment in general, and dust on a camera's imaging sensor results in spotted photos that can be difficult to fix. And wind damages things; if you're going to make close-up photos of flowering plants, the specimens must be nearly perfect. Who wants a large print of bent and broken flower petals, leaves, or stems? While balsam are durable, hardy plants, the flower petals are fragile. Wind, rain, and bugs damage the petals quickly, often within a few days of reaching their best form and color. It's necessary to find a nice stand of balsam and get the photography done very soon after the blossoms form.

That's easier said than done at the NBR, especially now that these flowers, along with lupine, shooting stars, mouse ear chickweed, and many others, are blooming earlier than ever. The main loop road that wanders through the NBR and up over its highest views, is closed in winter and doesn't reopen until the second or third week of May. By then, the flowers are well beyond their prime, looking ragged and beat. It's rare to find a patch of good-looking balsam after the loop road opens in spring.

Fortunately, four-season access to the NBR is possible: there's a section of the road, the two-way, seven-mile-long Prairie Drive, that's open year-round. This leads from the NBR entrance, along Mission Creek, ending at a small parking/turn-around area below Antelope Ridge (map). From that vantage point, and at several more along the way, massive displays of spectacular balsam can be seen.

Ticked Off

Near the end of April's third week we visited the NBR, drove the Prairie Drive, and found the most beautiful, perfect balsam fields we've ever seen. Bison, deer, elk, and pronghorn also populated the hills along the way, and on this lovely weekday afternoon we had some human company on the road. The dozen other cars we saw surprised us, but it seems the word got out about this year's early, expansive bloom.

Perfect balsam on a perfect afternoon

Perfect balsam on a perfect afternoon.

We parked at the road's end, I got out my gear, and set up to make images I'd previsualized years ago but never realized. Mid-afternoon rarely provides good light, perhaps especially when the subject is a very bright color, as are the balsam petals. But on this partly cloudly day I took advantage of the passing clouds as their leading and trailing edges moderated the otherwise harsh light. Most of my compositions required getting low in the grass to photograph through a mass of flowers. For a few I extended the tripod legs and shot from a higher position.

Walking back to the car I realized I'd collected a number of ticks. The Rocky Mountain Wood Tick (Dermacentor andersoni) is common here, but I've never seen such large numbers of the nasty little blood-suckers so early in the year. It's pretty unpleasant to find yourself covered with these creepy little disease carriers, and it's a nuisance to check yourself thoroughly and to eliminate them from your person and clothing. At home we've encounted ticks now and then, thanks to a growing deer herd, foxes, coyotes, and the occasional black bear. This year, even here at home, ticks seem more abundant. Ugh!

Storm Damage

We returned to the NBR a few days later, a little earlier in the day, for another attempt to get the photo I'd imagined. There'd been a thunderstorm and very strong wind the day before. The photography experience was similar to the earlier visit, but with harsher light and a stronger breeze. More importantly, the flowers had suffered in the storm. Most had torn or missing petals, and some had bent or even flattened stems.

Wide-angle view of storm-damaged balsam

A wide-angle view of balsam and the NBR. The foreground flowers clearly show damage from the previous day's storm.

Clearly the opportunity had passed for this year, but I think I got a couple of keepers. The photo I really want to get can only be made from the higher elevations in the NBR, which means it can only be made after the loop road opens. And that means I'll need spring weather that seems increasingly unlikely. I hope it happens someday, but in the meantime, I've got a few balsam photos I can call keepers.

April 2016