Life Among the California Clarkias


Asleep by 9:30 last night, wide awake before 2 a.m., thinking about the Clarkias of Tulare County, where I lived for the twelve years between 1960 and 1972 because of my father’s work. The nearby foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the Tulare County Clarkias’ native habitats, were also my parents’ favorite weekend haunts and we spent much time there. That’s Clarkia cylindrica pictured above, one of the three Clarkias which are native to the Yokohl Valley or the upper Yokohl Creek. The others are Clarkia speciosa ssp. polyantha and Clarkia unguiculata. I suspect there are more, because they seem to be wily little creatures adept at survival and that means not being show-offs lest you get yourself dug up and carted off to someone’s city garden–there are people who do this–where you’ll be far from your friends and suitable conditions for life. Altogether there are eighteen species of Clarkias in Tulare County, and three of them are rare: Clarkia exilis (Kern River Clarkia), Clarkia xantiana ssp. parviflora (Kern Canyon Clarkia) and Clarkia springvillensis, the little guy we talked about yesterday. The first two of these are found in some other parts of California, however, so they’re only endangered in Tulare County. But the Springville Clarkia is quite threatened. It exists only near Springville. It could easily be vanquished with only a few photos on Flickr or other cyberspaces to show that it had ever existed. Meanwhile, here’s Clarkia ssp. polyantha:  Image

There are more than forty species of Clarkia, most of them in North America, though one of them, Clarkia tenella, is native to South America. I don’t know how this happened. Thirty-one species of Clarkia grow in California. A reader of yesterday’s post asked: ‘How did they get their name?’ They were named after the explorer Captain William Clark (1770-1838), who accompanied Meriwether Lewis on what became known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1803 to 1806 across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase.  Many other things were named after Clark: the cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarki); Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana); counties in Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana and Washington; Clark’s River in western Kentucky; Clark Fork in Montana and Idaho; Clark’s Fork, Yellowstone River, in Montana and Wyoming; the Polaris nuclear submarine USS Lewis and Clark; Clark Bridge between Missouri and Illinois; a college in Vancouver, Washington and a lawschool in Portland, Oregon. The list seems endless. But it is the wildflowers which have captured my heart. Here’s Clarkia unguiculata, one of those Yokohl Valley locals:Image

Edward Gibbon, author of ‘The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire’ and a truly spectacular autobiography, spent five very happy years as a young man in Lausanne, Switzerland and often dreamed of returning there in his declining years, which he did in fact blissfully do. For my part, I have often over the years dreamed quite idly of returning to dwell among the foothills of Tulare County, scene of so many happy times with my young parents and brother and sister in an age forever gone. I file this vision along with the many other idle dreams I occasionally entertain–perhaps just the mental equivalent of going to the movies. Life among the Clarkias would be possible and no doubt delightful, but for the Clarkias themselves and their animal and vegetable and mineral fellows, it’s a most serious business. Because they are anything but idle, and not merely photogenic. In so many ways, they could be great models for us all. 



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