Sunday, April 29, 2018

Visiting Northern Colorado--Early Spring Wildflowers

Devil's Backbone, Loveland, Colorado
Plants seen along the Devil's Backbone Trail, Loveland, Colorado
This year, spring in northern Colorado has been punctuated with cold snaps and snow storms, which have delayed the appearance of spring wildflowers.

Well, that is one way to say it. Another is that the cool temperatures extended the visibility of the early flowers.

Usually when I first make it along the Rocky Mountain foothills trails, sand lily, Leucocrinum montanum, also called the star lily (in the yucca and agave part of the big asparagus family Asparagaceae, no longer classified in the lily family) has just finished flowering and flowers are wilting.

But they were wide open--in full flower--and easy to spot this April 25th.

Leucocrinum montanum, sand lily
sand lily or star lily, Leucocrinum montanum
flowers about 2" in diameter, leaves about 5" long
And some had yet to open

Leucocrinum montanum, sand lily

I think of early spring as the flowering time of mustards (cabbage family, Brassicaceae), and it is, but I saw only one (the tiny weed Alyssum simplex, see photo link) perhaps because the common ones are European weeds which do not do well along unwatered rocky Colorado trails.

What I did see were two early spring native plants in the carrot family, the Umbelliferae or Apiaceae, the umbels. They were small. If bigger brighter flowers had been out, they would have gotten no attention.

But, look, this is salt and pepper, Lomatium orientale 

saltandpepper, Lomatium orientale

salt and pepper, Lomatium orientale

The name salt and pepper is supposed to reflect the black stigmas in the white flowers, so a salt and pepper look on the flower (see close up photo link). You also see it called Northern Idaho biscuitroot, for example on the U.S.D.A. Plants website. That suggests it is edible, and yes, the Lakota and Navajo reported eating the roots, though the Navajo treated the roots by rubbing in hot ash to remove the unpleasant taste and other tribes used the root to treat intestinal pains and diarrhea. Perhaps not my first choice as a food plant.

musineon, Musineon diverticulata
musineon, Musineon diverticulata
This yellow umbel is musineon, Musineon diverticulata. An easier to remember common name is wild parsley. It is a Rocky Mountain native and at least a few tribes ate it. The Front Range has a another native yellow umbel that blooms in the spring, whiskbroom parsley Harbouria trachypleuria, but it is taller and has broader flowers than musineon. My picture doesn't have anything for scale: the whole musineon plant was about 6" across, and this was a big one.

All three of these little umbels, Lomatium, Musineon and Harbouria, are called by some sources "wild parsley." All three are edible in the sense of being non-poisonous. However, two of the most poisonous plants in North America are also umbels, poison hemlock and water hemlock. Those can kill you. (A gallery of umbel photos link) So likely someone called these plants parsleys as a description to help identify them, not as an invitation to taste. There are several good characters that differentiate the wild parsleys from their poisonous relatives, but if you are inclined to nibble, try them first in the company of an expert.

Dandelions, Taraxacum officinale, the common lawn weed, were flowering around the parking lot and at the trail head. I decided I didn't need another dandelion photograph.

But somewhere out the trail, I looked a second time at the dandelion, and it was a false dandelion, Agroseris glauca (dandelion family, Asteraceae), also called pale agroseris and mountain dandelion, a Colorado native. It looks like a common dandelion until you look closely and check the leaves. The leaves don't have same kind of teeth as a common dandelion leaf.
false dandelion, mountain dandelion Agroseris glauca
false dandelion, mountain dandelion, Agroseris glauca
And farther on, another dandelion look-alike, the wavy-leafed dandelion, Nothocalais cuspidata. Again, the leaves show you it is not a common dandelion. It is a small native in the same family, the dandelion and sunflower family, Asteraceae. The leaves are wavy not toothed.

wavy-leafed dandelion, Nothocalais cuspidata
wavy-leafed dandelion, Nothocalais cuspidata, flower just opening
I was really jazzed--I always like a surprise. Surprise! the dandelions you took for granted were not one but two small native wildflowers.

The bigger showier flowers will be out soon. In the photo below is the one white locoweedOxytropis sericea (pea family, Fabaceae) that I saw with open flowers. Locoweeds, and a number of related plants, are toxic to people and livestock. For cattle and horses, the poisoning begins with lethargy, develops to staggering and eratic (loco) behavior, and can lead to death. The toxin acts on the nervous system and getting the animal onto a better diet will often reverse the damage. Part of the problem, apparently, is that the locoweeds taste ok, so animals will happily eat too much.
white locoweed, Oxytropis sericea
white locoweed, Oxytropis sericea
This plant is easily 3x the size of any of the others in this post.
So, 3x the size of a healthy (but not huge) common dandelion plant.
Looking at the plants I saw, I wonder now: why are they so small?

My guess would be that since the growing seaon is just starting, so this is as big as they've had time to grow since the temperatures became mild. Not that these particular plants will ever be bigger, but the group of plants that flower first put out small flowers from small plants. They don't have the reserves for bigger flowers and if they waited, other plants would overtop them and no pollinators would see their flowers. And also, perhaps, if a late blizzard freezes these flowers, the plant will have some resources left to send up another modest flower stalk.

Also obvious in my photos is that the flowers I saw were yellow and white. Why?

One explanation would be that the early spring pollinators, bees and flies, are attracted to those colors. And probably they make a good contrast against a mostly brown environment (see photo below). But also, those are colors that reflect back heat from sunlight. A yellow or white flower will be just a bit warmer than the air, as has been shown in high mountain plants, and is important to insects at the beginning of spring.

Devil's Backbone Open Space
Doesn't look very interesting, but all the plants above were found there.
The spring moves fast. Three other species had many plants in flower along this same route yesterday. The ones in this blog post are increasingly going to seed and getting hard to spot. If you miss them, go out early next year. 

Comments and corrections welcome.

Moerman, Daniel E. 1998. Native American Ethobotany. Timber Press, Portland Oregon. Online
Seebeck, Cattail Bob. 1998. Best-Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado. Westcliffe Publishers, Englewood, Colorado.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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