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Updated: 13th June 2018 06:01

Q&A

'Fire flowers' cause Waterton to erupt into frenzy of colour

Fire flowers are in full bloom following the autumn wild fires that changed the landscape of Waterton National Park.

'Watching nature recover and get itself back together is really fascinating and exciting'

Lethbridge horticulturalist Lyndon Penner is speaking at the 2018 Waterton Wildflower Festival about the ways fire impacts wildflowers, for better and worse. (Lyndon Penner)

Flowers are blooming everywhere in Waterton, bringing the national park to spectacular floral life — even if some have their timing mixed up this year. The Calgary Eyeopener spoke to Lethbridge horticulturalist Lyndon Penner, who is speaking later this week at the Waterton Wildflower Festival.

Q: Are there wild flowers this year?

A: There are so many wild flowers! In fact we've been a bit concerned that some of them might actually be finished by the time the festival gets rolling. 

Q: What effect has the wildfire had on this?

A: Fire's interesting, because it's often a source of renewal — and places that were previously forested now are not. And so places where once shade-loving perennials grew, now are open to sunlight and so that is going to change what might happen to grow there. We've had all sorts of things showing up in places we weren't expecting them.

Some summer wildflowers blossomed early in Waterton due to the unseasonably hot May, creating a bonanza for wildflower photographers, says Lethbridge horticulturalist Lyndon Penner. (Lyndon Penner)

The lupines are starting to bloom, the fireweed is blooming, the blanket flowers are starting to do their thing — it's  exciting. It's a big party.

Q: Is this the most exciting time of the year for you?

A: It's better than Christmas for me.

Q: With the late spring and early arrival of summer, have some wild flowers already bloomed and gone, ahead of the wild flower festival?

A: Normally after a fire, you have this nice layer of ash that delivers all of these nutrients to plants. We get moisture in the spring following a fire. Things are just trucking right along — but right after the fires last year, it got very, very windy, and most of that ash ended up in Cardston and Lethbridge.

Things are definitely going to be blooming for the festival, but nobody is in a position to predict what will happen when, so a lot of our spring blooming stuff is going to be finished by the festival, but a lot of our summer blooming stuff will actually be blooming much earlier than usual.

Some of the flowers blossoming in Waterton National Park, following wildfires that spread across the park in 2017, have changed the vegetation, resulting in a shift in the timing for various flowers to blossom. (Lyndon Penner)

The question is what is going to be in bloom? Sometimes, following the fire, we get things blooming with synchronicity that don't usually flower together — which is always very interesting. It's going to be an exciting year for photographers in particular.

Camassia wildflowers blooming in Waterton Park, in May 2018. (Lyndon Penner)

Q: Doesn't it take years after a fire for flowers to benefit?
 

A: You are correct in that. There are some plants that, in four or five years, there are going to be some plants that look amazing because of this fire —but there are also a lot of plants whose job it is to colonize.

One of the things fire does is wipe out competition, and so there's a lot of plants that bide their time, waiting for an opportunity to do something — and so the fire has wiped away a lot of the competitors. For instance, wild strawberries think this fire is the best thing that could ever have happened, because wild strawberries, bent on world domination, want to fill the entire world with strawberries.

Lethbridge horticulturist Lyndon Penner tells us whether it's worth making the trip to the Waterton Wildflower Festival after last summer's scorching fires. 7:50

Q: Can people even get to the flowers this year?

A: There are a lot of trails closed in the park this year — and I actually feel bad for Parks Canada because Parks Canada does not want to close any of the trails, but they don't have an option.

They've had to do that — because we have to make sure everybody's safe. What it basically means is our guides will have to be really creative about where are we going to take people, and what are we going to see, and where are they going to see it? There are some places we will not be able to go this year — and we'll just have to deal with that.

Which actually we think is OK. 

Watching nature recover and get itself back together is really fascinating and really exciting. So we're encouraging people to come have a look at the park. Yes it is different. The park is not going to look the same again in our lifetime — that's the way it is — and that's not necessarily a bad thing.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

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