Our first flowers are finally revealing themselves as the snow melts along road verges, fields, sage flats, and open forests on the valley floor.
Many early wildflowers are “spring ephemerals”: they flower before there is competition for light by larger plants and then disappear, leaves and all, within a few weeks. They have adapted to this niche of opportunity. Often just a few inches high, they are best observed on one’s belly – belly botany.
A few sturdy woody plants are also blooming. At this time of year they count on wind for pollination, as insects are few. We often overlook their flowers because they don’t have showy petals: wind cannot see.
Spring ephemerals emerge from underground storage units: tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes. Stored starch fuels new shoots to stretch above ground into the light where they can then form leaves for photosynthesis, making new food. They will quickly flower and then store fresh starch reserves underground for the next year. The leaves disappear from the surface—leaving only fruits to release seeds.
The growth pattern of our wild spring ephemerals is similar to our cultivated bulb plants, such as snowdrops, crocus, and daffodils whose foliage will fade by the end of spring. If you let them die back naturally in your garden instead of “tidying them up”, the leaves will make enough food to form new bulbs for a show next year.
The flowers of Turkey Peas – Orogenia linearifolia – are tiny: 10-12 or more blossoms will fit on your thumbnail. The plants are barely an inch or two high and hard to detect among old twigs, leaves, and stones. The name Turkey Pea likely comes from their tiny bulbs.
Turkey peas are miniature members of the Parsley Family or umbellifers. The two parted stigma is maroon and surrounded by 5 white petals and maroon anthers. We observed flies and less frequently honey bees pollinating them.
Utah and Sage Buttercups are spreading their bright yellow petals–they gleam! Both species look very much the same; however,
Utah Buttercup – R. jovis has 3-parted leaves and fleshy, tuberous roots. So far I have seen these frequently under cottownwoods and in rough fields.
Sage buttercup – R. glaberrimus – tends to have undivided leaves at least the first ones at the base. Stem leaves may lobed. The roots are cylindrical, not pudgy. As the name implies, it is more often found in sagebrush habitats.
Honey bees are a pollinator to this Utah Buttercup. Note Turkey peas in lower right. (Photo by Mary Lohuis 4.20.18.)
Bending down low you can catch a whiff of their sweet fragrance 1-2’ off the ground. The sun warms the soil and wafts the scent to low-cruising pollinators—flies, bees, honeybees. They pick up the scent, then the color. The slight change in color in the inner part of petals is a change in the UV reflectance of “bee yellow”: the inner part is a contrasting bull’s-eye to the pollinator.
Spring Beauty – Claytonia lanceolata – is beginning to appear. Two opposite leaves expand and 1 to several flowers will slowly stand up in between. White to pinkish peals are striped pink, drawing in pollinators to open saucers of flowers serving nectar.
Yellowbells – Fritillaria pudica – have been sighted! The 6 yellow tepals (3 sepals and 3 petals) dangle down forming a bell. Pollinators key into the changing of color at the base of the flower: green then reddish—indicating different stages of fertility.
By all appearances Steer’s-heads – Dicentra uniflora – are the quintessential western spring flower with their distinctly bovine design. The flowers serve to attract bees that can navigate the complex flowers to reach the nectar reward at the base. Bluish leaves are divided several times into rounded lobes and are toxic. Dicentra seeds are dispersed by ants.
The Bleeding Heart (Fumatory) Family includes our ornamental bleeding hearts – Dicentra spectabilis – and our local species Golden Corydalis – Corydalis aurea – which can be seen along Game Creek in late April.
Woody plants – With the lengthening of the days, buds begin to exude a hormone, auxin, which then spreads down woody stems stimulating cell division of the cambium—the stem tissue that encircles the stem just below the bark. New vessels (xylem) enable water and nutrients from the roots to reach newly expanding shoots and flowers.
Typically, early spring shrubs and trees are wind pollinated. There is plenty of wind and relatively few insects about. Plants colonize open areas where there is little interference by leaves or trunks for pollen to blow from male to female flowers of the same species.
Most flowers are either male or female and come out at slightly different times or are on separate plants altogether to assure cross-fertilization—a mixing of genotypes.
Alders – Alnus incana – are dangling their 2-3” long male catkins over the wetlands along Moose-Wilson Road and elsewhere. If you can get up close without getting your feet wet, you can look for the deep-maroon 1/4″ female catkins nearby on the same branch. They have scarlet stigmas which capture the pollen. You can also find last year’s tough 1” woody female “cones”. Male catkins wither away after they have released their pollen.
Aspens – Populus tremuloides – Fuzzy, silvery catkins are emerging on some trees but not others, depending on the clone. Male and female flowers are on separate trees and separate clones. Below female catkins extend their maroon stigmas to catch the wind-dispersed pollen.
Closely related to aspens, Cottonwood – Populus spp. – buds are bursting. Cottonwoods also have male and female plants. One can smell the distinctive odor of the balsam “oil”. The oil is popularly used as a salve and for aromatherapy. In the photo below, male catkins are just emerging–note red anthers, also the sticky, fragrant sap on the bud scales.
Pussy Willows – Salix spp. – Since childhood, many of us have loved pussy willows for their silky soft catkins. There are dozens of different types of pussy willows in Jackson Hole, with catkins ranging in size from ½-3” and the leaves of different sizes, shapes and textures. ID to species is very difficult, but the genus Salix is easy to determine. Buds have one covering or scale. Watch as this cap is pushed off as the catkins expand.
While I used to think willows were wind pollinated, in fact many willows are insect pollinated. The tiny scales hidden in the silvery hairs of the upright catkins have nectar glands at their base. UV light and perhaps the shiny catkin hairs attract bees and flies to this reward. Vistors then carry pollen to a separate female plant. Look for anthers in the males catkins (shown below) and stigmas in the females to know which gender the shrub is.
Yellow willow stems are obvious in spring. Carotenoids produce yellow and orange hues (the same pigment that colors our carrots!). These pigments help trap certain wavelengths to aid photosysntheis while at the same time protecting cells from harmful rays. Willows are taking advantage of the bright unshadowed light for a jump start to growth in spring.
April is a wonderfully subtle time of year when a few blooms count for much pleasure. I hope you can venture outside and enjoy it!
Frances Clark, Wilson, WY
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