September of 2019 was mostly warm, dry and clear — and now just a blip in time and history.
The natural world around Walla Walla County was stressed due to a prolonged dry spell throughout September.
In wandering around Walla Walla County, we made several interesting observations.
How, despite the very-dry last two weeks of the month, several species of wild flowers started blooming at a rate and with the number of blooms I have not seen in a long time.
Parts of the county had received three-fourths to an inch of rain towards the start of second week of August.
Well into September, the natural world had sucked up that rain water and each wild plant had put all that water to great use.
The one species that greatly benefitted from this unseasonable dousing were the wild sunflowers. These vigorous plants typically start blooming in late July and are in full and magnificent bloom during the driest, hottest portion of the summer —from August through the last week of September.
These sunflowers are an amazing plant because of their ability to produce large numbers of vibrant yellow blooms, along with a plant that can grow up to 5-and-a-half feet high.
These wonderful blooms are known as multi-floral blooms, because they are comprised of dozens of small individual blooms in the center of what most folks would call the flower head. Each tiny yellow/orange floweret in the center produces pollen to be picked up by pollinators in their process of feeding on the nectar that each flower produces.
Bumble bees and European honey bees also collect pollen to take back to their hives to feed their grubs, as well.
Anyway, back to the sunflowers that grow in this county.
During an average summer, these expanding desert plants start to develop buds and leaves as they draw on the energy and water stored in their roots.
Some summers, there simply is no rain fall for up to three months, and along with constant wind and direct sun, most soil moisture has been depleted from the light depositional silts and sands that cover three-fourths of this county.
These annual droughts are all part of the southern Palouse hills, Sky Rockets and Eureka Flats north to the Snake River. These soils are known as HEL soils, or highly erosive lands that are subject to wind and water erosion, and that is where these bright flowering sunflowers grow best — along with native bunchgrasses, Great Basin wild ryes and many forbs.
One question for you to look up: what do these desert blooming wild sunflowers and sagebrush have in common?
Sunflowers are very important in the survival of many pollinators like bees, wasps, beetles, moths, ants and several species of native finches.
Birds like the American goldfinch, the newly arrived lesser goldfinch, house finches and other native birds all depend on the black oil sunflower seeds to build fat and get vital nutrients to survive the approaching winter.
The fact that these big sunflower plants only grow and bloom during the most extreme hot weather this region gets clobbered with is a testament to a persistent species of plant that abides despite the inhospitable conditions of the hot summer season.
Out in those areas that live with ten inches or less of annual precipitation lives a native beetle that is entirely dependent on the bright yellow blooms of the rabbitbrush.
This 1.25-inch shiny, black-backed beetle — which also has a brilliant orange thorax and head — clambers all over the flowerheads of the blooming rabbitbrush in its ceaseless search for nectar and pollen.
This long, husky insect is driven by two missions as it climbs about through the thousands of bright yellow flowers of the rabbitbrush. These are to feed on the pollen and nectar, and find a mate.
This is a species of blister beetle. The larger females and the smaller males spend their autumn days feeding on rabbitbrush pollen and nectar, as well as mating.
The females are robust and capable in their drive to lay and conceal their eggs, which is done underground.
Some species of blister beetles feed on many different flower blooms, and sometimes those of alfalfa plants. This is where these native beetle species create problems for folks that feed alfalfa hay to their horses.
Should one or two blister beetles get bailed into a bail and then fed to a horse, this animal will become very sick and some horses have died from the toxins these beetles carry.
They are called blister beetles because of fluids that they exude from the joints of their legs and end of their abdomen. This fluid is packed with powerful chemical compounds that will cause a caustic burn to human skin should you mess with these eye-catching insects.
So, it is best to look at, and not touch, these very interesting and unique native insects.
They have one very unexpected behavior as larvae living underground in loose sandy soils.
The young blister beetles burrow through the light soils sniffing out grasshopper egg masses and eating them. They locate these eggs underground by following chemical trails given off by the grasshopper and their eggs.
Well, that is it for this month. Be sure to get outside and enjoy the natural beauty on foot or by bicycle.
Remember, life is good!