As the snow melts from south and west facing slopes and along road edges, it’s time to scout for some very early spring wildflowers. Early bloomers grow low to the warming ground and utilize stored food in thickened roots to grow fast. Small flies, bee-flies, and bumble bees are typical early spring pollinators, flying only a few inches above the ground looking for nectar and pollen.
Sagebrush Buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus var. ellipticus) is a harbinger of spring with its saucer-shaped flowers of 5 yellow petals, multiple anthers, and a protruding cluster of pistils. Leaves on the stem divide into 2-3 lobes, but basal leaves are usually elliptical and whole. Below ground is a bunch of thickened roots.
Sagebrush Buttercups are tasty to Sage- and Sharp-tailed Grouse , rodents, as well as mule deer in early spring. They are found on sunny sage flats such as Antelope Flats.
The look-alike Utah Buttercup (Ranunculus jovis) blooms a week or so later and grows in slightly shadier locations. The lower leaves are deeply lobed and the roots are a bit thicker than Sagebrush Buttercup.
Turkey Peas (Orogenia linearifolia) are a challenge to find. The
cluster of flowers is often less than a penny in size and the leaves are 2-3 times dissected and typically only an inch or two long.
Looking very closely with a hand-lens, you can see 5 white petals surrounding a deep-purple pair of stigmas in the center. The clusters of flowers are borne in an umbel (as in umbrella), one indicator that it is a member of the Parsley Family.
Look for very tiny flies and bees pollinating them. Below ground are the “peas,” thickened, roundish roots about ½ inch in diameter.
Yellowbells (Fritillaria pudica) hasn’t been reported yet, but search for 2-3 lily-like leaves only 3-4” long, and a nodding, single yellow bell. The flower has 6 yellow tepals (3 sepals and 3 petals that look alike). Note the 6 stamens inside. The linear leaves and flowers with parts in multiples of 3s are keys to it being in the Lily Family. This plant has tiny bulbs which are eaten by rodents.
Flowering Trees and Shrubs: It is easy to overlook wind-pollinated species as their tiny flowers are inconspicuous—they don’t advertise to pollinating insects. Often, wind-pollinated species have separate male and female flowers. Often these very tiny flowers are arranged in long clusters called catkins. Sometimes the male and female catkins are on separate plants to help assure cross-pollination. Wind pollinated species typically bloom before their leaves come out, so the leaves don’t get in the way of pollen dispersal.
Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) is in bloom in Jackson and other warm spots in the southern end of the valley. Grayish “fuzzy” caterpillar dangles are male catkins stretching out into the wind. Female flowers are more closely held on the branches of separate plants, and often bloom slightly later. The separation in time and space ensures cross pollination, assuring a healthy mix of genes.
Around ponds and along streams, 6-8 foot tall Mountain Alders (Alnus incana var. occidentalis) are flourishing.
The rusty haze seen from a distance is from the catkins: male flower clusters dangling and swaying in the breeze. On the same twig are tiny female flowers held in tight, egg-shaped “cones.” Pollen from the elongated male catkins is blown to the female stigmas (take a close look) that catch pollen. Once pollinated, females will form seeds inside what look like miniature brown pine cones. Last years’ open brown “cones” may still be found on plants.
Individual willow species (Salix spp. ) are notoriously difficult to identify, but we all know the “pussies”,
the silvery catkins that stand out along the branches before the leaves unfold. Male and female catkins are borne on separate plants. See if you can determine which are male and which are female (Hint: male have pollen, females are swollen ovaries that become fruits with seeds inside). Willow catkins usually have wind pollinated flowers, but some are insect pollinated. Take a close look as they emerge and see if you can see which is which and why. (Think of attractants and rewards for pollinators!)
Enjoy the emergence of spring!
April 15, 2014 – Frances Clark