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THE OUTDOORS DIGEST | FIELD GUIDE

Sky pilot

July 27, 2004|David Lukas

[POLEMONIUM EXIMIUM]

At the very summit of California, so high on the slopes of Mt. Whitney that the celestial sphere resounds with deep blue tones, there grows a tiny jewel that seems to reflect the sky itself. Found only on the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada, this precious blue flower relishes extreme elevations. To survive intense sunlight, drying winds and freezing nights, the 6-inch-high sky pilot grows in rocky crevices, its stems insulated with a cloak of dense, finely dissected leaves. As soon as snow banks melt, the sky pilot matures so quickly that its radiant blossoms are at their peak for only one day, giving this ephemeral plant almost mythical status among mountaineers who venture into its lofty realm.

NATURAL HISTORY

It can be very hard to attract pollinators at extreme altitudes, so sky pilot blossoms are brilliantly colored and very pungent. The noxious smell, likened to urine, is necessary because dry air limits odor transmission. Bumblebees, wearing their own jackets of hair, are often seen visiting the flowers.

KEY CHARACTERISTICS

Primarily grows on 12,000- to 14,000-foot peaks south of Yosemite National Park; produces a distinctive spherical cluster of deep blue flowers.

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