In search of the rare Kelseya uniflora

Flowers make me happy.  And thankfully there is such a strong native plant community in our state that it’s possible to learn about the rare jewels we have in our midst. The Kelseya uniflora is one that I’ve wanted to see for years. So after our final pottery class this week, the other two families in our group, my friend Jean, and I, made the run to York, a small town 16 miles NE of Helena to find the diminutive flower that grows along the limestone cliffs of Trout Creek Canyon outside of Vigilante Campground.

According to the Montana Field Guide, there are very few areas where this unique – as in the only one in its botanical genus (hence, the “one-flower Kelseya” name) – can be found. Besides this beautiful little canyon, the Montana Native Plant Society’s newsletter (and I have to note that the Kelseya is the MNPS’s official plant symbol) said it is located along the Front near Augusta, as well as in the Centennial and Beartooth Mountains. Now that I know they are near Augusta, I’m definitely going to stay on the lookout to find another group of them.

It was discovered in 1888 by Francis Duncan Kelsey who came to Montana from Ohio, and was one of our first resident botanists in Montana who recorded a number of species, including his namesake. From what I understand, Kelseya is actually in the rose family, and is a low-growing mats with semi-evergreen foliage that thrive clinging to the rocky cliffs in these regions. The tiny, only about 1/4 inch in diameter, flowers are a bright pink and are exceptionally beautiful. It’s not hard to see why its such a celebrity in the plant world. It’s remarkable that something so gorgeous grows in such difficult terrain. I think there’s a metaphor for life in there.

When we made our little hike, we arrived at the Trout Creek Canyon parking area around 2, and with 6 kids and 5 adults, were on the trail 15 minutes later. The path itself is super easy with barely any elevation gain along a wide, flat former road. Within the first quarter-mile we noticed the Kelseya up in the cliffs, but continued walking until we reached the stream, maybe a mile down the trail. The stream was a source of concern for me this year because of the inordinate amount of snowmelt we’re experiencing, along with the subsequent flooding. I envisioned kids being swept away and went over every scenario (including turning back) when we reached the water. It was no big deal, at all. We all brought shoes to wade through it if that proved to be safer, but no one needed them. I even had my muck boots with me to be able to stand in the water to guide the kids across, but they stayed strapped to my heavy (because I also brought flower books) pack. In reality, the kids thought it was great fun to hop from the logs or rocks. And it was a good opportunity for us adults to practice our balancing skills. While we weren’t always graceful (and I almost lost my muck boots), no one would have made it on Funniest Home Videos.

Not long past the stream, the trail draws closer to the cliff and there were flowers all over it. Many of the plants were already passed their bloom time, but I was thrilled to find a few clumps still adorned with the pink blossoms.

We took our time heading back to the vehicles covering maybe 3 miles total, but overall had an enjoyable day with perfect temperature, no wind, and no mosquitoes. Ticks were definitely present. We saw one on the ground as soon as we got there, plus John found one on the back of his neck (thankfully not embedded) on the drive home, and Sara’s crew reported a couple, as well. It’s a reminder of why we always have to be vigilant at this time of the year.

Between the spectacular scenery of the box canyon with a profusion of flowers beyond the Kelseya, we’ll definitely be back to visit Trout Creek Canyon and the nearby trails.

Clematis were almost blooming




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