Centennial Sand Dunes

I know! It's about time! Where have I been? What have I been doing? Well -
- - contrary to my 'typical' plans, the end of the season has kept me hopping.
I always hope for a slow down to catch my breath and catch up. Alas, not this
year. However, I have a TON to share, so I hope to get these posts back on
track and keep them coming at you!

This week I am focusing on something any Centennial Valley visitor can see but few will bother to take the time. Sad! Of course, I cannot say much as I did not go hunting for these treasures until my seventh summer.

Treasures they are. These plants are small and unobstrusive and take a bit of effort to find. But, if you enjoy plants or unusual things or just a treasure hunt, you really should look them up on your next visit (particularly if you visit in late June through late July). Perhaps, however, the main reason you should take time to find these plants is they really are very rare as you will see.

The Centennial Sand Dunes are not obvious sand dunes. I do not know about you, but when I think of 'sand dunes', I think of sand. Lots of sand. Hills of sand. Sand blowing in the wind. Sand hills moving and shifting and never stable. The Centennial Sand Dunes do not really resemble this picture. In fact, except for a sandy road - a sign - and, for the close observer, a few patches of exposed sand, the Centennial Sandhills not only look little like sand dunes - the really look quite unremarkable. That is until you take a closer look.

To reach the sand dunes, one must travel the road less traveled - the north road. Several miles from where it "T's" into Elk Lake Road, the Northside Road is quite sandy. However, the hills which start just a mile or so west of Elk Lake Road, look like every other hill in the area - sage covered and, well, normal. Yet, about 9 miles west of the junction with Elk Lake Road, a little road - much like the other little roads in the area - heads off to the north.

One of the things which made this road 'the road to choose' is it travels along the edge of last year's burn. The burned land was acquired by The Nature Conservancy as part of their purchase of the 7L Ranch from the Staudenmeyer family. Because of their desire to improve growing conditions for some unique and rare species found only in the Centennial Sandhills, they chose to retain several hundred acres of the sandhills. Because studies have shown these plants do best in areas which experience regular disruptions (such as a burn every 20 to 30 years), the TNC burned their section of the sandhills (which, by the way, is only a small portion of the total dunes).

As I turned onto this side road - I noticed a distinct difference between the left and the right side of the road.

The left side of the road shows the sandhills post-burn. As you can see, the ground cover appears to be mostly sparse grass and lush lupine. While the lupine is not certainly not a 'threatened' species, it certainly is a beautiful one. Perhaps that is why the comparison to the other side appeared so stark.

The right side of the burn looks just like any other hillside in the Centennial Valley. Now, don't get me wrong, sagebrush is beautiful. In fact, I love the high desert - and sagebrush is a major part of a high desert landscape. But. . .when compared to the post-burn side, this pre-burn side looks inundated with sage. And, perhaps that best explains the fire's purpose - to clear out the heavy overgrowth and expose the ground (thus the sand) to the wind and weather - two necessary forces in the creation of 'blow outs' - areas of exposed sand so crucial to these rare and endangered species.

As I said, the sandhills are really quite unremarkable. However, considering these photos were taken in late July - they were incredibly green and had a beauty all there own. Yet, at this point, they just do not look like 'sand dunes' to me. Furthermore, I see nothing rare or unique about the plant life. However, the treasures were waiting, just up the road and around a few bends.

The flora and fauna which call these sandy hills home is quite diverese. In this photo, alone, one can observe at least 6 or 7 different species of plants - and, if you look close, you can see one of the rare species thriving among the more common plants.

The plants seen in the two photos above as well as the photo and the beginning of this post are called "Painted Milk Vetch". The tiny, delicate seed pods on the milk vetch look like a hand-painted work of art. Each one is unique. Each one is brilliantly colored masterpiece.

Each one is no bigger than the end of my eight-year-olds index finger. Yet, this little plant is considered a species of special concern. Why? Because it only occurs in the Centennial Valley Sand Dunes!

While the plant does produce a small, pea-like flower, it is the seed pod which, as you can see, is so unique. Growing on a slender, hairy stem, which reach no more than about 6 1/2 inches long, these seed pods seem to nearly float in mid-air. However, because they are so small, one has to be looking for them. Furthermore, because they prefer areas where the sand has experienced disturbance - from fire, pocket gophers, and ungulate grazing - they are not visible just anywhere. Yet, if one is willing to take the time, they are there, and they are worth the effort.

Another species of special concern which is also limited to the Centennial Sandhills is the Pale Evening Primrose. While I did not find this unique plant (thus the photo is not mine), a friend brought back some lovely pictures of these beautiful flowers growing in the same area as the Painted Milk Vetch.

These plants also rely upon sand dune disturbances for optimum growing conditions. Unlike the Painted Milk Vetch, these flowers cluster and thus appear much more substantial when seen in their natural environment. However, appearances are not everything - and these plants, too, are a rare treat to see.

As beautiful and unque as they are, Pale Evening Primrose and the Painted Milk Vetch are not the only beautiful plants growing in the Centennial Valley Sandhills. In fact, it amazed me to find a plant growing in the sandhills which, while not uncommon, I had never encountered on any of my many treks in the hills and valley around Elk Lake. However, a few minutes spent in their company made me extremely glad they were not too wide-spread.

The Brittle Prickly-Pear Cactus flowers are gorgeous, but the thorns are wicked! Low growing, these spiny plants appear in clumps all over the sand dunes. Not content to merely poke you with their thorns, the cactus 'balls' seem to jump out and attach themselves to one's pants, shoes and even skin! And, as we learned during our search for Painted Milk Vetch and Pale Evening Primrose, these things are EVERYWHERE! The sand dunes are littered with them.

Yet their flowers are as beautiful as their thorns are wicked. Deep golden yellow, each boasted a green five part nodule in its very center. The flower petals were waxy and the stamine more fuzzy. This cactus is one of the most northern-growing species. It prefers areas dominated by big sagebrush, and it is very drought tolerant. At the time of our visit, it was also very busy showing forth its beauty to any who would pause long enough to enjoy it. So, pause we did!

Still, these were not the only plant species on display that day.

I found this small yellow flower growing in the shade of some larger plants. While I cannot identify it with certainty (I should have taken more time to photograph it more carefully), I believe it is either a type of Arnica or Hawks Weed. However, I am open for suggestions. Other flowers, however, were more common and easier to identify. What surprised me, however, were the color variations I noted.

As we have seen, the lupine were abundant in the burned areas. However, they were to be found in other areas as well. While always beautiful, there was nothing different or unique about the lupine I found in the sand hills that day.

Not so with this showy yellow flower. These flowers are not uncommon. I recognized them on sight. I see them on my hikes on a regular basis. What, however, was unique was their color. All the Cushion Buckwheat which I had seen previously were white with, at the most, a hint of yellow. These guys weren't into anything that subtle. Their yellow is vivid. Nothing pale about them. It makes me wonder if the soil content or the growing conditions or something else contribute to the difference in color.

Here is a plant I've seen before (although, to date, I had never formally identified it), but, again, never this color. Typically this plant bears white flowers which, at the most, hint toward a pale pink. Not in the sandhills. Here all the Dusty Maiden I found bore a strong tendency toward a true pink.

Another 'common' plant blooming an 'uncommon' color were these Meadow Asters. Not only were they not blooming in a meadow, like the others above, they are the wrong color. While my wildflower book does say they can come in shades of lavendar, the photo in the book shows them as white. Obviously the flowers growing in the sandhills are not white. They are not even shades of lavendar. These are a striking, deep purple. Quite beautiful!

One more 'common' flower - in fact, this one grows in my yard at Elk Lake - which I found to have uncommonly brilliant colors growing in the sand dunes was the Wild Blue Flax. Again, this is a plant I see regularly. However, the depth of color displayed by the blossoms I beheld in the Centennial Sandhills surpassed anything I'd seen elsewhere.

Thus I learned, once again, there is a LOT MORE to the Centennial Valley than one might expect. Even after 7 summers exploring its nooks and crannies, every once in awhile I am reminded I have really only scratched the surface. Thus I am so glad I remain the

Lady of the Lake