Natural Wonders

Backpacking in the wilderness yields a score of new sights and marvels, some of which make you stop and wonder — how they came to exist, or how they persist.

View from Summit Pass, Hoover Wilderness

Landscapes like this view from 11,000+ foot Summit Pass, in the Hoover Wilderness in the eastern Sierras are a natural wonder to me.

Life exists and persists in the harshest of conditions at these high altitudes, making me appreciate what I see even more.

Wild flowers in the Hoover wilderness, eastern Sierras

Wild flowers were especially vibrant this year after the mammoth snowfall in the mountains last winter.  This year they will leave a lot of seed behind, which may take years to germinate depending on conditions in the next years.


Fireweed is a colorful pioneer in disturbed areas until other bushes and trees eventually outcompete them for light and water.

Lichen on red fir

life growing on life — fruticose lichen on red fir

Lichen on red fir

The lichen combination of Cyanobacteria and Fungi is also lush this year, after a banner year of snowfall.


You wonder how life can spring up in the middle of rocky dirt. But Pinedrops plants are parasitic and derive their energy and carbon from the mycorrhizae fungi that surround the roots of other plants.

Our hikes took us through lush meadows, over or through rushing creeks, dark pine forests, and occasionally along broad swaths of sheer granite, a place where it is easy to lose the trail.  The trees here seem to be growing right out of the rock.

Glacial polish on granite

Small rock cairns mark the trail on exposed granite surfaces. In some areas the granite has been polished smooth by glacial movement of sand and rocks.

Between the raindrops

Brief glimpses of sun between rain clouds overhead made the spring flowers sparkle as I was walking around Los Gators Creek park in San Jose, CA the other day.  Here’s another taste of spring for those still mired in the gray blahs of winter.

Almond blossoms along Los Gatos Creek

Almond trees have been so wet for so long here the branches are growing a thick layer of lichen on them.  The muddy creek in the background has flooded the sycamores that usually line the banks.


Redbud flowers are just now emerging after several weeks of cold, wet weather.

Flowering crabapple

Only a few flowering crabapple trees have burst into bloom

Los Gatos Creek flood

It’s the verdant green of the new grass that really signals spring. The soil is squishy from heavy rain, the excess now runs off to fill the creeks to overflowing.

a different sort of turkey tail

While looking for spring wildflowers the other day (none to be found) I was instead drawn to one of the most common sights in the hardwood forest — the brightly striped disks of color on rotting logs and stumps produced by the turkeytail fungus. Both the common and scientific names of this mushroom suit it well:  the color pattern does kind of resemble the striations of a turkey’s tail, and the species name, Trametes versicolor, (thin body with variable coloration) describes its physical appearance.

turkey tail fungus-

Dense clumps of fruiting bodies lined the bark and sapwood of some cottonwood logs.  I was struck by the variation in the color in this collection of mushrooms.  

Turkeytail is a common bracket (shelf-forming) fungus found through the world, but differs from other bracket fungi by having a smooth underside dotted with pores, through which the spores are broadcast.  Like other fungi, it is a primary decomposer of wood, especially the lignin fibers that give wood its rigidity and strength.

turkey tail fungus-

The zonation of color looks like growth rings, with its alternating light and dark bands.  The base color seems to be gray-blue, but bands of buff, rusty orange-brown, and darker brown-black alternate with the base color. 

The bands also alternate in rough vs smooth texture, with the rough areas coated with fringes that stick up vertically from the surface of the fruiting body.  What purpose could this serve, I wonder?  Are the fringes for capturing moisture?

Some patches of turkeytail bore light green bands.

Some patches of turkeytail bore light green bands, especially those bands with rough surface texture.

turkey tail fungus-

Ah, the green color is due to algae that have colonized the fringes in that zone.

There could be a mutual benefit to the co-existence of algae and fungi here, like their symbiosis in lichen, where the fungus benefits from the sugars manufactured by algal photosynthesis, and the algae benefit from the moisture and minerals harvested by the fungus.

turkey tail fungus-

Turkeytail is also variable in the distribution of fruiting bodies, sometimes forming long lines of mushrooms along the length of a rotting log or sometimes circular rosettes around a central point on the log.

It almost looks like a forest flower — well, it will have to do as a stand-in for spring wildflowers until the weather warms up here.