Wild Clematis, an Unexpected Treasure
Have you ever re-visited a place that held a particular magic for you as a child, and discovered that the magic was still there? I like to think that my husband experienced that, during our family road-trip earlier this summer. On our way to Yellowstone National Park, we stopped at a little resort that my husband remembered from his own childhood road trips, called Chico Hot Springs. As we approached our quaint little hotel destination, he mentioned that we were very near the location of the gold mine claims that were once in his family, owned by the corporation known as the Golden Nonesuch. I'd read stories about the Golden Nonesuch in the handwritten family history, and knew it was an important part of the family lore. Besides, what boy, at any age, can resist the lure of a gold mine?
Chico Hot Springs is located in Paradise Valley, Montana, and if ever a place earned its name, Paradise Valley did! Lush fields, divided by the surging Yellowstone River and meandering streams that just begged my boys to take up fly fishing, were set against the backdrop of the dramatic Absaroka Mountains. If you are a movie buff, you may have already set eyes upon the stunning landscape of this valley in A River Runs Through It, or The Horse Whisperer, both directed by Robert Redford, who also starred in the latter of the two. Of particular interest to my husband was the modest triple-crest of Emigrant Peak, which rose behind Chico Hot Springs like a benevolent, white-haired chaperone. This was the site of Emigrant Gulch, and the family's former claim to mining territory.
I was a little cautious in my enthusiasm for staying at Chico Hot Springs, primarily because the old portion of the hotel, where we were staying, has retained much of its original layout. For all intents and purposes, this meant that the rooms were designed soley for sleeping, and that you shared communal bathrooms and shower rooms with everyone else on the floor. (Just a note, there ARE newer portions of the lodge, with private bathrooms in each room, but it books up far in advance, and those rooms were long gone when we booked our reservation, 3 months before we left.) My first task upon checking in was to scope out the number of toilets and showers relative to the number of rooms. I was much relieved to find my concerns baseless; we had no problems with waiting lines for the bathrooms or showers. I was even more relieved to find the hotel surrounded by gloriously blooming ornamental and fruit trees, and an extensive kitchen garden and greenhouse in back that provided fresh seasonal produce for the attached restaurant. I can't begin to describe how clean and fragrant the air was. Just lingering outside seemed to restore something deep inside me. I wish I'd had more time to loiter on the wide porches or in the chairs scattered across the lawn, with nearby views of gardens in bloom, and long vistas of trees and mountains.
The historical draw for the resort is the naturally heated mineral hot springs, which they have channeled into a pair of pools. One was so hot that I couldn't get in past my ankles. I marveled at the people who were able to submerge most of their bodies in this steaming pool. They generally emerged looking somewhat like boiled lobsters. The other pool, which was much larger and ranged from 2 feet to 8 feet deep, was pure heaven.
Let me preface this by saying that I am not a swimmer. I don't enjoy swimming, either in pools or lakes, and I generally sit along the side, paddling my feet in the water while my husband and boys vigorously splash and dive all over the pool. I can usually be tempted into the water by the pleas of my kids, but otherwise would be just as happy to roast in the sun with a good book, and offer them warm towels when they exited, shivering. Not so at Chico! The main pool was the temperature of a lovely, warm bath, and I immediately relaxed into it as if I were a born swimmer. I can't begin to explain the appeal of languidly paddling around in a steaming outdoor pool while cold drizzle rains down all around you at 10:30 at night. Even better, start the day with a swim on a crisp, cool morning in bright sunlight, with Emigrant Peak rising cool blue and white in the background. I began to feel that if only I could permanently reside right there, in Paradise Valley's Chico Hot Springs, I could become a real swimmer, someone who did laps and had that lovely, lithe swimmer's body.
Our stay at Chico Hot Springs lasted only two nights. As we reluctantly packed our things back into our Suburban, each inwardly wondering if even Yellowstone would truly be worth leaving all this behind, my husband quietly suggested that we drive up the gravel "road" beyond the hotel, toward the almost deserted town of Old Chico. We passed the buildings that dotted Old Chico with some amusement: one was decorated with a wealth of antlers. Another old shed was completely covered in old license plates. I smiled to see an older woman bent over an obviously well-loved and well-tended garden, and felt an immediate kinship and desire to stop and see what she had planted.Though it is called a ghost town, there is life there yet!
We passed upward, however, and soon left most of the buildings behind. It was a lovely and picturesque drive up a one-lane mountain road, with wild flowers clinging to every bank, birds flocking to watch our progress almost as avidly as we watched them, and trees leaning precariously over an mountain stream unusually swollen with record rainfalls and melting snowcover. It was here, in Emigrant Gulch, on the road that would eventually lead somewhere into the vicinity of his family's old mining claim, that something caught my eye.
In the midst of all the grandeur, on the scale of ranges of mountains and endless forests of pine, I found treasure of a more diminutive scale. I first caught a flash of blue in a bramble of shrubs, but didn't think much of it, beyond introducing my boys to the classic Monty Python line, "We want a shrubbery!" As we progressed up the rutted, rocky road (though I question whether it truly deserves designation as a road--a track, perhaps?), more glimpses of blue, and a nodding bell-shape caught my eye.
I can't help it. I'm a gardener, and an unknown flower draws me just as the promise of gold must have once drawn hoards of miners to Emigrant's Gulch. I began watching closely for the flower, and in a moment of awe, realized that it wasn't actually a product of the bushes and shrubs on which I first noticed it. No, it was climbing and trailing through the shrubs, and up shaggy, gnarled tree trunks, and even across piles of tumbled rocks, stilled and silent after some long-ago landslide. I asked my husband to stop the vehicle, and snapped a few quick pictures of the little beauty I was almost certain was a variety of clematis.It had the familiar clinging vines, the leaves, serrated, in sets of three. I had never heard of a wild clematis, however. Logically, I know that all the cultivated hybrids so popular in garden centers must have originated somewhere, but the thought of a native clematis had never occurred to me!
I experienced a clematis addiction a few years ago, adding 8 to my yard, so I was familiar with the vining habits and leaf patterns of this lovely plant. I'd lurked happily on the Clematis Forum here on Dave's Garden, impressed with the ways in which the experienced gardeners encouraged their clematis to twine through roses and hydrangeas, up trees and across fences. I had mourned the passing of one of the clematis I most wanted to live, little blue bell-shaped Rooguchi, which had failed to thrive when I tried to send it twining through my scarlet rose. And here, in the most unexpected of places, I found little blue, nodding, vaguely bell-shaped blooms climbing timidly up any plant or structure that would offer its support. The apparent fragility of the little plant was touching.
It was with great reluctance that we finally found a wide spot to turn our SUV around, and headed back down toward civilization, and the road to Yellowstone. As much as I loved our later trek through the National Park, and all the stunning, in-your-face gorgeous vistas we saw there, I have to say that one of the highlights of my trip was finding those elusive little blue flowers. It seemed like a very private moment of beauty, far from the crowds and lines of cars we experienced in Yellowstone. I think I left a little piece of my heart in Emigrant Gulch.
Upon returning home, and reacquainting myself with my computer (ah, I suffered separation pangs!), I looked up the diminutive bloom. I found it is indeed a wild variety of clematis, Clematis occidentalis var. grosseserrata, and carries the common name Western Blue Virginsbower. It falls under the Ranunculaceae family, commonly known as the "Buttercup Family." While it looks like it has four petals, they are actually sepals. They sometimes looked bell-like, and other times had a slight spiral twist to each sepal. The leaves looked quite similar to the "tame" clematis that occupy every vertical support I can find in my home garden. This was no bully, like the Virgin's Bower of the South, or the Sweet Autumn clematis that has overwhelmed and broken down more than one arbor. No, this little beauty was delicate and subtle, and I fell immediately in love.
I am still a novice at identifying wildflowers, and it is a particular joy to me to be able to identify a wild variety of a well-loved plant. For this very reason, the recollection of those little blue blooms are tucked away in my memories of our trip "out west" like a treasure map. If I ever have the opportunity to revisit Chico Hot Springs, you can bet I'll make the trek up that mountain road to renew my acquaintance and take more pictures of Western Blue Virginsbower!
The last picture was taken by my father-in-law, John Carson, who gave me permission to include it in my article. All other pictures are my own. Please do not reproduce them without permission! You can click on any image within the article to see it full-sized in my gardening journal.
For more information, check these out:
For interesting general information on the plant, including varied uses by Native Americans, see: http://montana.plant-life.org/species/clematis_occid.htm
The US Geological Survey lists this clematis as endangered: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/wildlife/rareone/grasslnd.htm