Diaries of a Seasonal Science Educator: Cue “Wildflowers” by Dolly Parton

I was on reddit.com the other day when I saw a picture of a volcano looming above a wildflower meadow with over one thousand “likes”. Comments included “OMG I need to frolic there” and “No way that’s real”. Though I know better than to argue with strangers on the internet, I knew the photo was real because I knew the exact spot at Mount St. Helens where it was taken.

From Mid-July to Early-August, Mount St. Helens is bursting with wildflowers. While a picture is worth a thousand words, pictures of our wildflowers at Mount St. Helens don’t tell us which flowers are native and which flowers are introduced, and there isn’t really a way to know just from looking at them. Native plants are adapted to the climate and soil, so they play a key role in sustaining a healthy environment. Introduced plants may not necessarily be invasive or harmful, but likely do not support the ecosystem in the same way (Sotelo, 2022). While they’re often found right next to each other, lupines were the first native plant to reemerge after the eruption, while foxglove was likely introduced by escaping cultivated gardens.

In the aftermath of the 1980 eruption, erosion and soil quality were a major concern for some. Seeking an immediate solution, the problem of erosion was left to the U.S. Soil Conservation Service. With tens of thousands of dollars allocated to their efforts,  “in July 1980 the Conservation Service announced…it would use helicopters to seed the area with 13 species of grass…of which only one (pine lupine) was native to the Pacific Northwest” (Carson, 2015, p.115). Somewhat unsurprisingly, in most places, the seeds blew off of the hills they were supposed to support and ended up at valley floors. The grasses that did seed, “short-circuited the natural recovery process by hardening the top layer of the debris, keeping native plants out” (p.115). So, in addition to intentionally introducing non-native plants, the grass seeds actively deterred natural recovery processes in these areas. 

Wind played a major role in helping with the early succession of native plants by blowing in seeds from surviving patches near the disturbed area. The first observed species to return was the lupine. “Each lupine plant created a microhabitat that was hospitable to several other plant species. Like other legumes, lupine chemically improves the soil for other vegetative species by ‘fixing’ atmospheric nitrogen” (Mazza, 2010, p.6). Once lupines were established, other native plants followed shortly after.

We also have animals to thank for the reintroduction of native wildflowers. Gophers survived the blast thanks to their underground boroughs. So, “where new volcanic debris wasn’t too deep, gophers tunneled through it, mixing the old soil with the new deposits, creating an ideal growth medium for new seedlings”(Mazza, 2010, p.7). In addition to gophers priming the soil, “elk moved back into the area… Elk droppings deposited in the blast area contained seeds…from adjacent areas that influenced the development of new vegetation patches” ( 2010). Because of the elk, seeds from paintbrush and other native plants were redistributed in the blast-zone. 

The wildflowers at Mount St Helens come from a wide variety of sources: wind, scat, cars, and hiking boots. Like in every other aspect of the ecology here, the wildflowers have been shaped by the intersection of humans and nature. However they got here after the eruption and whether they are introduced or native, we can literally see how each wildflower makes Mount St Helens the beautiful place it is. 

By Eric Benedon

Mazza, Rhonda. 2010. Mount St. Helens 30 years later: a landscape reconfigured. Science Update 19. Portland, OR: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 11 p.

Carson, Rob. Mount St. Helens: The Eruption and Recovery of a Volcano. 35th Anniversary ed., Sasquatch Books with the News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington, 2015. 

Sotelo, Gabriella. “What Is the Difference between Native, Non-Native, and Invasive Plants?” Audubon.org, National Audubon Society, 25 Feb. 2022, https://www.audubon.org/news/what-difference-between-native-non-native-and-invasive-plants#:~:text=Research%20shows%20that%20native%20plants,of%20insects%20than%20non%2Dnatives.