ELEMENTS: Idaho’s Natural Icons
Our Elements series is a close-up look at the natural world through the eyes of river guide Codye Reynolds. This time she takes us to Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness.
Read on to find out some fun facts about Idaho’s iconic ponderosas and syringas, which she found along Camas Creek on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River…
Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)
This is my favorite ponderosa pine on the Middle Fork of the Salmon. It lives on the sandy, flat beach usually reserved for the kitchen at Camas Creek Camp. While chopping vegetables for lasagna, I will oftentimes pause to gaze up at the spoke-like, thick and sturdy branches reaching broadly overhead, past the stove and dishes, and chair circle. I wonder what changes this century-old tree has seen.
In Idaho ponderosa pine is commonly known as yellow pine. (There’s even a little town named for it.) It is a hardy, drought tolerant and somewhat fire-resistant tree with taproots that can reach 30 feet down seeking moisture.
The name ponderosa means heavy in Italian. Growing easily over 100 feet and living more than 300 years, these massive pines have long needles typically in packs of three and deep furrows of cinnamon-yellow bark.
Put your nose up to a mature ponderosa and take a deep breath, it has a distinct and deliciously sweet vanilla/butterscotch aroma. Of course, the scent is all perception. Once I had a guest tell me that I was a fool calling it “vanilla.” She said that clearly the scent was Grand Marnier. I graciously conceded that she had a point. Regardless, the bark’s smell (especially after a good rain) always gives me ice cream cravings. It is delicious.
There is no more iconic Idaho tree than the plentiful, majestic, and sweet-smelling ponderosa pine.
Syringa (Philadelphus lewisii)
A flower of many names, syringa’s common name is a misnomer. Easily confused with, though not related to lilac, it is actually a cousin of hydrangea. It is also known as Lewis’ Mock Orange because of its sweet, citrusy scent. And its species Latin name is lewisii, a nod to Meriwether Lewis, who collected and cataloged natural species during his travels through the west in 1806. Whew! What’s in a name?
The syringa bush’s strong and straight branches, growing to heights of 10 feet, were used by Native Americans in Idaho for arrows and combs.
Soft white syringa flowers’ intoxicating smell wafts through river canyons as it blooms with great vigor in late spring into early summer.
As for camping riverside, there is no more lovely an Idaho morning than waking beneath Idaho’s iconic state flower, the syringa in bloom.