July 25, 2015

The Arnica – a Favourite and Magical Flower

The wildflowers in the Rockies are superb this summer.  We had a lot of warm weather in June and early July, to get things started, and since then, there's been cooler, damper conditions, keeping the flowers in great shape.

We recently hiked into the alpine meadows near Temple Lake, and came across a profusion of one of our favourite flowers, the arnica.  They score big points with us three counts: first, they're beautiful; second, they have an unbeatable fragrance (but not in the flower!); and third, they come with a great interpretive story.

For beauty, no description is needed, just a closeup, like this.

For fragrance, anybody who has used a topical arnica cream (to treat bruises and inflammation) might recognize the smell of arnica leaves.  This is especially true with Arnica mollis, which we usually call “fuzzy-leafed arnica.”  When you rub the leaves, a wonderful, savoury fragrance fills your nose.  As is often the case when trying to capture in words what something smells like, the best we can come up with is “indescribable,” but it makes Nadine very happy.

How we see the arnica: in the visible specturm
How an insect sees the arnica: in the ultraviolet spectrum
The interpretive story is linked to how the arnica attract pollinators.  The flower colour that we see is very different than the colour seen by insects.  As is the case with many members of the Aster family (dandelions, daisies, and fleabanes), the centre of an arnica gives off light in the ultraviolet spectrum.  The paired photos show how we see the flower, and how a bee sees the flower.  That bullseye means that arnica get visited by more than enough pollinators to successfully set seed.

Happy flower viewing, everyone!