I have been too familiar with a widow and been rebuffed. I have fallen for the allure of blue eyes without recognizing proper boundaries.
I have been looking forward to the bloom of blue-eyed grass, one of the most lovely and elegant plants to flower in the early spring. The flowers offer radiating lavender blue tepals, each tipped by fine points that curl slightly, and these give blue-eyed grass its name. The tepals are pale, but the paleness highlights the orange of the anthers that rise on out-curved filaments. The plant has a fine, trim line, like a woman in a form-fitted evening dress; its pair of grass-like bracts stands slim around the flowers. Blue-eyed grass is the common name given to plants of the genus Sisyrinchium. The local blue-eyed grass of our grassy, open shrub steppe will key to Sisyrinchium inflatum in the admittedly out-of-date Flora of the Pacific Northwest. That name and the local plant are tied familiarly in my experience of spring. As a name, blue-eyed grass evokes the fresh beauty and seduction of spring. It has all the poetry that one wants in a name, and I was surprised to find that the name Sisyrinchium pulls together the Greek sys for pig and rynchos for snout. The genus name recalls the fondness that pigs have for rooting-out these plants as food. I would want to be less familiar with plants known commonly as ‘pig-snout grass’ than with a blue-eyed grass. When was the literal ‘pig-snout grass’ dropped and blue-eyed grass adopted?
I saw the first blue-eyed grass of the season over the weekend . . . but, I didn’t. What I thought was familiar wasn’t. What I have is a tangible absence—the disappearance of a blue-eyed grass despite the freshness of its flowers just outside of town. I had relied on the link of name and flower, but the lure that comes in knowing a name and extending expectations from it can cause embarrassment when the link falls short. The link between the lavender blue flowers on the Palouse and blue-eyed grass has broken, and I feel foolish.
Not only has blue-eyed grass been slipped-on to cover pig-snout grass, what I thought was blue-eyed grass is not. I checked today whether Sisyrinchium inflatum remained a viable name in the taxonomy of Sisyrinchium, and it wasn’t there. When Douglass Henderson reconsidered the taxonomy of Pacific Northwest sisyrinchiums in 1976 (Brittonia 28: 149-176), he made no mention of S. inflatum. Later, Anita Cholewa and Henderson published a little nomenclatural note that encompassed the idea of S. inflatum in S. douglasii, saying effectively that what we had thought was distinctively S. inflatum was really no different than what had even longer been treated as S. douglasii. As a concept, S. douglasii had temporal precedence.
Cholewa and Henderson recently slipped S. douglasii (with its enclosed S. inflatum) out of Sisyrinchium and into Olsynium. Olsynium was a name that dated from the 1800s; indeed, when these plants I have known as S. inflatum were first described by the German plant hunter Wilhelm Suksdorf he gave them the name Olsynium inflatum. Harold St. John, one of my predecessors in the herbarium at Washington State University, decided the boundary between Olsynium and Sisyrinchium was false and merged them under the latter name in 1931. St. John’s concept of Sisyrinchium was accepted in the Flora of the Pacific Northwest, but then the taxonomic ideas become fuzzy. Cholewa and Henderson’s treatment of Olsynium and Sisyrinchium as distinct genera in the recently published Flora of North America has a certain power, but I wonder about the evolutionary origin of the characters they see as the boundaries between these genera. I wonder whether we shall soon find that the characters of Olsynium have simply evolved as part of the lineage radiation of Sisyrinchium.
Cholewa and Henderson treat North American Olsynium as a single species, O. douglasii, which is restricted largely the Pacific Northwest. They recognize two varieties in this species—variety douglasii is in the Cascade Mountains and communities of the Pacific slope, whereas variety inflatum is distributed east of the Cascade mountains. The local plants I know as blue-eyed grass have become Olsynium douglasii var. inflatum. But Olsynium does not bear the common name blue-eyed grass, this genus is known as ‘grass widow.’ There will now be the wistfulness of grass widows when I face the spring-fresh, blue flowers with bright orange anthers that I have known as blue-eyed grass.
The lengthening days of winter are bud time. I’ve been watching the subtle expansion of furry buds of magnolias, and earlier this week yellow, globose buds of a large forsythia caught my attention. Both will soon break to reveal strappy-petaled flowers.
Buds of my lilac have also swollen and begun to green. A branch of the lilac has hung this winter over the end of my driveway. It needs to be trimmed, which I didn’t do this morning, but I did collect about three inches of a branch tip for a closer look at its buds.
The branch, like a fist-sized Y from a toddler’s plastic alphabet, has flaring tips formed by a pair of buds. One bud is slightly larger than the other, and the largest is less than half an inch long. Neither bud of the Y is a terminal bud—each has just below it an oval scar that formed when a leaf fell from that position last fall. Each bud of the Y must have formed last year at the base of a leaf, in the angle where the leaf joins the stem that is called the axil.
My hand lens reveals a rough, dark point in the angle of the Y—the remains of the terminal bud. Rhoda Garrison and Ralph Wetmore wrote about the fate of the lilac terminal bud in 1961 (American Journal of Botany 48: 789-795). It’s a fate given the cold name “programmed cell death.”
Each bud now on the lilac has all the leaves and stems and flowers that will make an appearance this season. The new growth for the season is held inside an overlapping set of bud scales; these shaded to red over the winter but now have tips that are greening. The uppermost bud scales, like a pair of lips, have separated and a small tongue of fresh green leaf sticks out.
I take the buds apart, prying outward the bud scales with a fingernail and pulling them off. The bud scales are paired, and successive pairs are rotated 90° to each other. The outermost are squat triangles. Next pair, isosceles triangles. Next, broadly ovate. A long oval pair. Finally, a still longer oval pair. Held between that last pair of bud scales is a branch, now no more that 1/4 inch in length, that will soon extend several inches. I remove the successive pairs of young leaves on the branch; each pair sits on a small ledge, one above the other. Each young leaf has the shape of an arrowhead, but one that is very thin and delicate. When magnified, the surfaces of these primordial leaves look like bubble wrap—the rounded surfaces are the spherical heads of glandular hairs. On these young, largely unexpanded leaves the hairs are tightly packed—they will be much more widely spaced after the leaf blades expand. The innermost of the leaves are no more than 1/16 inch long and so thin they are translucent. The innermost pair of leaves surrounds a small glossy dome—the apical meristem, an area of dividing cells that spins-off leaves to the side and then replenishes itself. This meristem made the bud I’ve just dissected: the bud scales and each of the nine pairs of tiny foliage leaves; but its production is finished.
When the lilac’s buds “break”—this will surely be no more than a few warm days away—the outflood of stem and leaf will be simply enlargement of leaves and intervening stem held in miniature over winter. According to Garrison and Wetmore, for two or three weeks after the leaves and stems of each growing branch have expanded to full size, the terminal bud that holds the apical meristem will remain green and viable before beginning to yellow, then turning to brown, and dying. It’s the programmed cell death. Following that programmed death of the branch’s tip, new buds will form in the axils of the uppermost leaves—they will form next winter’s Y-tipped branch.
The programmed death of terminal buds helps create the architecture of lilacs. If I hold my Y-tipped branch in one hand with the lilac shrub in the background, I can see the shape of the shrub echoed in the angle of the paired buds on the branch tip. The lilac’s architecture is a developmental mix of the programmed loss of the apical meristem, the length obtained generally by each branch during the growing season, and especially the paired buds, angled at nearly 60° at each branch tip, that produce diverging sister branches.
Development is not destiny, and we can see in every lilac its own errancy. Garrison and Wetmore experimented with lilac development to discover whether it could escape the death of the terminal bud. Adding hormones that altered the physiology of the branch easily changed the terminal bud’s life. A set of genes and the timing of their function, responding to environmental cues, such as temperature and night length, will control natural hormonal dosages. Today, experimenters might be more likely to tinker with genes to test how the terminal bud was programmed to die. Genes could be experimentally silenced to test which set caused the death of the apical meristem. Changing the set of genes, the timing of their activity, or, perhaps in some cases, just the environment could lead development to take a different path. The ultimate architecture of the lilac depends on the path followed. Historically, the natural, ongoing changes in genes that result from mutation have created the architectural differences we see between shrubby lilacs and their relatives in the olive family, such as the ash genus Fraxinus and the olive genus Olea, both of which form trees.
The winter before last I found in Brused Books in Pullman a copy (for $5.00) of W. Kersley Holmes’s Tramping Scottish Hills (1946, Eneas Mackay, Stirling). I’ve been reading in bed a tramp a night for a little over a month and have now finished.
As narratives, Holmes’s hill tramps are prosaic—stories that today might be unpublishable outside of vanity presses (or blogs), but hill by hill I’ve appreciated their pleasures. They conjure readily the joy and Scottish voice in desires such as this: “How anybody, seeing them say from Aviemore station, amethyst in the evening light can resist their allurement, I cannot understand.”
Foul weather—fog, mist, all varieties of rain, and snow—might dampen the allurement of tramping in Scottish hills but seems only to add enhancing wistfulness to the romantic appeal of the landscape. Writing about Ben Cruchan, Holmes resists stating the lure and begs of us: “What contributes to the undoubted satisfaction, exhilaration, of standing, alone and rain-soaked and wind-whipped, on a mass of rocks islanded amongst grey, wet cloud-wreaths, three thousand feet and more above sea-level?” The answer is partly on Ben Vair, where “[c]loud was still low on the hills when I disembarked at Ballachulish, but it steadily rose before me as I mounted, and a fine day kept on improving to the climax of one of those heavenly Highland evenings which obliterate many wet memories.”
There’s a good bit of botanizing on Holmes’s tramps. On Ben Lomond we find the “lower part is usually wet, but if you are anything of a botanist you will find some compensation for that in the presence, in their season, of various little hill-plants which love a marshy habitat; typical are the insectivorous sundew and the butter-wort, the latter conspicuous by its dark purple-blue flower gracefully hung on the tall stem which rises from the centre of a star of leaves lying flat on the ground.” An another way that botany is a value adding experience is told for Ben Lui: “To see a patch of purple saxifrage glowing through the mist, within a few feet of the edge of a snowdrift and close by a curtain of eight-foot icicles, as I have done, is in its way as memorable as to see whole snow-clad mountain-mass flush rosy at dawn.”
There is botanical advice: “For the collector of specimens, may I suggest that an excellent container is a sponge-bag hung from a jacket-button. It keeps the plants or mosses moist, and the bearer undamped from their proximity.”
Where there is flair in Holmes, it is in the quick character sketches, and the best of these are of botanists: “Sitting among the heather and ferns, the bog myrtle and the mosses and the shattered rocks, was an individual in a black suit and bowler hat, who looked as if he must have been transported straight from a Glasgow smoke-room. His presence was explained by the vasculum he carried; he was one of a botanizing party, sensible enough to sit down to rest and cool while the others toiled ahead.”
"Perhaps my best Cairngorm day was a blazing August one with a local man who seemed to have made the mountain remoteness his second home. Here and there he had made caches of oatmeal, so that in an emergency he would never be many miles from something which would sustain life.” Such a survivalist is easily recognized today, and in describing him we would be tempted to explain his fringe interests; Holmes has left much unstated, and it is his understatement that offers great appeal in his stories.
And finally among the Ochils Holmes gives the reason why many of us tramp as we do in the hills: “An elderly lady once told me her friends, perplexed by her liking for an occasional country ramble without company, asked if she didn’t want someone to talk to: ‘I like to listen to myself sometimes,’ was her answer.”
The sun and season call to mind Dylan Thomas’s “force that through the green fuse drives the flower” despite the chill of the past week and the frozen surface of the ground. I looked this weekend among boulders, where the faces of the rocks would reflect heat, for newly emerged green fuses on the south slope of Kamiak Butte.
Most showy was the impudent stonecrop that sharply contrasted with the light colored boulders not because of new growth but because its branch tips hold tight clusters of last year’s succulent, red leaves. Each thick leaf comes to a point at its apex—hence, the name Sedum lanceolatum or lance-leafed stonecrop—but they remind me kidney beans, for their similar proportions, gentle curves, and deep red colors. The leaves have been on the branches of these sedums over the winter and, given their size and number, they must require considerable resource investment. I wonder if they are kept through the winter to fuel new growth in the spring and whether last year’s leaves will fall soon after this year’s leaves are formed.
The sedums that were sheltered by boulders from wind still had last year’s fruit stalks. Sedums exposed along the trail and in the open grassland lacked fruit stalks, and it must take little wind or weight of snow to break the brittle axis that stands about four inches above the leaf rosette. These infructescences branched in a panicle terminated by open fruits, each grayed by the weathering of winter, that gaped in the form of five-pointed stars; I have liked to think of their array as the constellation of stonecrop, and on these days botanizing converges with astronomy.
There were new green fuses in the rocks. The first I saw was an upwelling of both green and yellow in soil-rich cracks between boulders. I teased the new growth from the old to see dense globes of tightly inrolled flower buds and a few leaves that had begun to expand and splay outward. This was a biscuit root (Lomatium)—a group in which species can be notoriously difficult to tell apart even when in full flower. These just now poking through the remnants of last year’s leaves and stems are simply too young to identify.
Also on the rocks, I noticed that black patches of moss had bright spots. I lifted my glasses to give my myopia a chance and saw that the bright spots were capsules. Most were bright green and lifted on short stalks above the tightly clumped leafy stems of the moss. When I looked at the capsules with my hand lens I could see that some were still capped by a rusty brown calyptra, this sheath was part of the leafy body of the moss that had covered the capsule while it was developing. The capsules wore calyptra like jaunty, hooded cloaks, although the tatters of their tails made them look a little bohemian.
Capsules are part of the moss called the sporophyte and are specialized regions for the formation of spores—single, spherical cells that disperse from the capsule and have the ability to form new individuals. The leafy part of the moss is the gametophyte, and these form sexual structures, the gametangia, that are tucked in this moss at the tips of branches where the gametes, sperm and eggs, are made. Fertilization initiates the sporophyte part of the life cycle. The fresh sporophytes on these rocks made me wonder whether gametes had been made and sperm and eggs fused during the warm, rainy weeks we had during late January. Next year I want to have a look at this moss with a microscope when warm days begin in midwinter to see if I can find gametangia or embryonic sporophytes.
From the form of its compact clumps and their blackness as well as the long, transparent points that project from the leaves that I can see with my hand lens, this moss may be a Grimmia.
As I walked down the ridge, I found more plants that had emerged over the past week. There was another Lomatium: this one with a pair crescentic, burgundy bracts extending from the soil—for just an inch above its surface—and bearing a small spray of sage green leaves. The identity of this lomatium was as much a guess as that of the earlier one, but from the small elliptical lobes of its dissected leaves I think it may be L. macrocarpum (large-fruited biscuit root).
Two-inch tall paintbrushes (Castilleja) had leaves tipped in purple. I ran my thumb and forefinger along the apex of a plant—the imbricate nest of freshly expanded leaves had the texture of velour—and with a delicate pinch I could feel the swells of its developing flowers. In their compact forms, these paintbrushes hold already all of spring’s leaves and flowers. These new paintbrush shoots and those of other early emerging plants probably formed last fall and were held underground through the winter. This so-called preformation is common among perennials that have underground, overwintering shoots in addition to the branches that we see aboveground during the growing season.
Patchouli is Gondwanan; that is, the mint genus Pogostemon, from which patchouli oil is derived, is native to Africa and Indomalaya, regions massed-together until nearly 130 million years ago as a supercontinent known as Gondwana. I’m surprised Pogostemon includes food plants, but the starchy tubers of P. mutamba are eaten in Africa and P. parviflorus is an important honey plant in Asia. The patchouli oil that is used in insecticides and leech repellant as well as in fragrances is from P. cablin. I’m not fond of the fragrance; it strikes my sinuses like a drill bit, and it came in the mail today.
There were three packages in the mail at work. Two were boxes of herbarium specimens that sat on the counter, and the third, octavo-sized and brown paper-wrapped, was in my mailbox. The small package was a book I had ordered from New Zealand. I began to smell something odd as I walked back to the herbarium, where I dropped-off the boxes of specimens. In my office, I held the book package on end to slit an opening with my pocketknife—the smell, distinctly of patchouli, was intense. I began to hope that an employee of the bookseller had worn patchouli while she packaged my book for the mail. The smell intensified as I opened the package—I pulled-out the book, threw the paper in the trash, and flipped the pages of the book before my nose; they stank of mustiness. The patchouli remained in my office so I emptied the trash and thoroughly washed my hands. I again picked-up the book and could smell then the patchouli saturated cover.
The book—E. J. H. Cox’s Plant Hunting in China—is in poor shape. It’s a paperback edition, thoroughly worn, with a slanted, much-cracked spine. I imagine a young woman purchasing the book to read while traveling, and, jammed in a backpack, the spine gets twisted and the cover and page margins are banged and blunted. She has long, thick brown hair, pulled loosely back, and wears long, flowing brown skirts, big hoop earrings, many delightful bangles, and patchouli. As she reads, patchouli oil rubs from her hands and wrists onto the book, impregnating the cover. After her travels, she drops the book in a box, piled on other volumes that she didn’t really like and puts the box in her moist basement. A few months ago, many years after those travels, many years after the box went into the basement, she found the books and took them to a local used bookseller in New Zealand. The beat, musty, patchouli-scented copy of Plant Hunting in China is now mine.
When I order from secondhand booksellers, I nearly always ask whether the book has any odors. The institutionalized shorthand used by booksellers to convey the physical quality of used books doesn’t encompass smells. I neglected to ask about odors when I ordered Plant Hunting in China via the internet from New Zealand.
There was also a book in my mailbox at home. This was Frank Smythe’s Valley of Flowers, a mountaineering and botanizing narrative set in the Himalaya. I had called Whodunit, a bookseller in Philadelphia, to order it. The older gentleman on the telephone pulled the book from his shelves while I waited. He confirmed the quality of the volume—very good, badly sunned, once green or blue hard cover, no dust jacket. “The fold-out map is taped-in and the page it’s taped to has a small tear,” he said. “Does it smell?” I asked. He was taken aback. “Sometimes there’s mustiness,” I explained. I could hear his sniff. “No smell,” he said. Indeed, Frank Smythe’s Valley of Flowers in my hands has no smell, or maybe just the pleasing smell of old pages held by a well sunned spine.
Winter nights draw maps. I was drawn recently to the Delorme Nevada Atlas and Gazeteer for an evening’s imaginary travel. On a map of the area to the south of Battle Mountain there was a star labelled "Great Basin Desert." The notion of the starred spot as the genius loci of the Great Basin Desert took me. At available light I tossed my pack in the truck and took off.
Winnemucca was my entry to metropolitan Nevada. I stopped at Jerry’s Restaurant for a late lunch. Chicken salad with iceberg lettuce. There were two women in the next booth. One was doing most of the talking, telling her companion of her health woes and everyone else’s relationship problems, all of which she seemed intent on framing in terms of the world’s religions. "The Koran says a gift is a gift with restraint," she told her companion about a relationship problem. To help strengthen her own health, she said that she got up in the morning to do her "Buddhist thing, you know, meditating." I retreated to my truck, where the radio offered only four Christian stations so I slid a book of Elizabeth George’s into the CD player for the greater mystery of English murders as I drove east on the Nevada interstate.
At Battle Mountain, I turned south. I had reckoned the star on the map to be at 40° 17´ north and 117° 4´ west. There were orange warning pylons on the highway. I arrived at the starred spot just before sunset, just after it had been graded. The surface of the "Great Basin Desert" had been scraped away—loosened, gravelly soil remained. A parade of sleeping road graders stood across the road from my star.
I accepted confidently the truth of this starred spot as the "Great Basin Desert." The challenge was to keep metaphors at bay. The landscape was still and cold. Traffic was infrequent. There was good light on the Shoshone Range across the way. To the west, the sun was fleeing to the shadowed Fish Creek Mountains.
Iowa is declining. Its population exodus is exceeded only by that North Dakota—a comparison that bears a hidden exclamation point. Various initiatives to attract former Iowans to resettle in the state have been considered in recent years. The state legislature is now focusing on the young who remain and asking whether a tax break for anyone under 30 will help to staunch the outflow.
Former Iowan Verlyn Klinkenborg in an Editorial Observer piece in the NY Times (“Keeping Iowa’s Young Folks at Home After They’ve Seen Minnesota,” 9 Feb. 2005) argues that the tax break will be insufficient to solve the problem and “undo decades of social erosion.” Klinkenborg, a connoisseur of the rural, is unwilling to blame the Walmarting of America, as many others have done, for destroying small towns in Iowa. Instead, he attributes the social erosion and declining population to industrial farming.
Agrochemicals necessary to cultivate genetically engineered crops percolate through Iowa’s hills to the watertable. Klinkenborg suggests that Iowa would be a great place to live if “only the air and water weren’t polluted and you could be sure you wouldn’t find yourself living next to 10,000 sows in a hog prison.” Industrial agriculture presents a daunting challenge to a state that may want to re-populate its rural areas, but industrial agriculture may be no more to blame for the decline of Iowa than the proliferation of discount stores; both may be responses to changes that fragmented the cultures of farming communities.
Klinkenborg writes: “I used to joke that Iowa’s two leading crops were rural poverty and crystal meth. But it’s not a joke.” The meth came largely after I left Iowa. In the neighborhood where I grew-up—which was filled by children of various ages and by adults who worked largely in town—the first meth lab moved-in during the 1980s. It’s difficult not to see the meth lab as part of the decay that was occurring already when I was a child in the 1960s. The houses in the neighborhood occupied by the elderly were run-down, and when those people died the houses stood derelict, decaying for many years before they were torn-down. Klinkenborg moved with his family from Iowa to California in 1966. That was the beginning of the rapid decline of my own small hometown in Iowa. Our downtown was then full of stores—two grocery and hardware stores, furniture store, multiple barbershops and various others that were essential to life in the community—but when I loaded my Chevrolet Impala with books and clothes to depart for California in 1980 the town consisted largely of empty, decaying buildings.
Implicit in Klinkenborg’s notion of social erosion is that Iowa once had a stable, viable culture/economy, and I wonder if that’s true. Population of the state by settlers of European ancestry began in the middle 1800s—my own ancestors were among them—and, despite the wear of the depression, the state’s greatest economic and cultural health may have been reached soon after World War II, but the decline started soon afterward. Instead of representing Iowa’s culture and economy as a plateau that has undergone erosion, it might be better to visualize it as a parabola: its early phase of rise characterized by settlement and exploitation of readily available natural resources; its peak realized when local economies had diversified sufficiently to broaden employment and salary opportunities beyond those attainable on farms, where limits on natural resource availability had already been reached; and a decline phase brought-on by much higher costs of exploiting limited local resources combined with greater economic opportunity outside of the state. This parabola hypothesis calls attention to relationships between ecological resources and economic forces that have long been recognized to shape population demography.
Klinkenborg sees paradoxical alternatives for Iowa. The state can effectively replicate the east and west coasts, encouraging development that will devour land, or “it can try to reimagine the nature of farming.” The latter, he anticipates, would be fought by the farmers themselves, who are now deeply entrenched in the economics and institutions of industrial farming.
While Klinkenborg’s alternatives implicitly intertwine the ecological and economic, I wonder if the crisis of the Iowan diaspora has reached a threshold sufficient to induce the state to consider more forthrightly ecological forces that influence quality of life options. Abating pollution from agroindustry needs to be high on the ecological agenda, but I suggest that human ecology, especially relationships between the population and the landscape need to be considered. While human ecology has various dimensions, let me call attention to one: public land. One of the least appealing aspects of Iowa, as well as most of the rest of the Midwest, is the paucity of public land. If Iowa were to increase its percentage of public land to be more like that of California, or even Minnesota, it would have more of the appeal that these states hold in eyes of [former] Iowans. Public space for recreation could help in the re-creation of Iowa. The restoration of expanses of land to more natural conditions could help also in buffering the effects of agriculture. Re-establishing gallery forests along rivers and woodlands in the ravines that border hills of the erosional loess landscape could help to filter the agricultural run-off.
Here’s the model: As farms and land peripheral to communities go up for sale the state could purchase the more marginal strips—say the ravines and their borders. These marginal lands could be restored to prairie and woodland as appropriate. Corridors of public land could be sites for walking and bicycle trails that extend from the center of one community to the next. Beautiful plazas with benches and shade trees could be constructed at the trail nexus in each community. Playgrounds could be placed adjacent to plazas. Communities could encourage displays of local arts around the plazas.
Klinkenborg suggests that Iowa’s proposed tax cut for everyone under 30 will result in as much as $200 million in lost revenue each year. Clearly, some in the state legislature are willing to make a considerable sacrifice to slow the diaspora. Perhaps, however, Iowa would be better off investing similar sums to improve the human ecology of the landscape. Investments in human ecology offer a means to resolve a dilemma that Klinkenborg describes as “not enough life in the small towns of Iowa to keep a young person, and . . . no opportunity on the land.”
Among the brown clumps of bunch grasses on the ridge of Kamiak Butte, I was surprised last weekend to see the yellow shine of buttercup petals. The several flowering individuals scattered along the ridge were Ranunculus glaberrimus—the smooth buttercup. Each was squat; its flower standing just above the leaves. They looked very fresh and must have first emerged this week.
These early flowers of the smooth buttercup call to mind a recent study by Daniel Primack and others (2004, American Journal of Botany 91: 1260-1264) who asked whether flowering times are changing as global warming causes temperatures to rise. Using records for flowering times of living plants in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston and herbarium specimens (flattened and dried museum collections) of the same plants, Primack and his coworkers were able to show that data from the herbarium specimen labels could be used to detect a response in flowering time to the historical changes in temperature that Boston has faced. Between 1885 and 2002, for example, Boston has experienced a 1.5° Celsius increase in mean annual temperature. The response discovered in flowering time change is more recent: They found that plants flowered eight days earlier 1980-2002 than from 1900 to 1920.
When I was back in the herbarium, I went through our specimens of R. glaberrimus. There were several folders of specimens that had been collected from various locations in the American West, where R. glaberrimus is widely distributed. Kamiak Butte, where I saw R. glaberrimus last weekend, was close to town and botanists and classes of students have been collecting there since the 1880s. There were several specimens from Kamiak Butte that had been collected over the years, and I set aside those as well as the other specimens that had been collected in Whitman County. From this pile, I selected the earliest collection from each year available to graph those collection dates by year.
From the graphed data, I can see that the open flowers last weekend were earlier than any of the collections in the herbarium, but there is no clear signal of a recent change in flowering times. At a glance, the earliest collection dates 1895 to 1925 display a range of times similar to those since 1975.
Nuthatches were far more plentiful last weekend than buttercups. The flitter of nuthatch flocks among the Douglas Firs on the forested north slope of the butte has been common through the winter. On colder days my glasses would fog whenever I tried to use binoculars. I would drop the binoculars and shift my glasses to my mouth, but the energetic birds would inevitably fly and relocating them with glasses between my teeth was largely impossible. This last weekend the temperature was warm enough my glasses didn’t fog and the nuthatches were working among more widely spaced ponderosa pines of the ridge. Even though there was a need to bring the small birds closer through the binoculars to have a verifying look, the most satisfying sense of nuthatches was aural. Their chatter captured my attention. When I stood still and slowed my breathing, I could hear the feet of a bird—like the scraping of pointed fingernails on a taut sheet of paper—as it scrambled down the trunk of a ponderosa pine and then the delicate tapping of its beak against the bark scales—or against some piece of food it had lodged in the bark. These were white-breasted nuthatches, but only a few trees further down the trail I saw just above—two arm-lengths away—a red-breasted nuthatch sitting huddled on a branch on the leeward side of a tree trunk. His stillness seemed uncharacteristic of a nuthatch. As I stood below and watched, his hunkering torso was unmoved—no sign of breaths or rapid heartbeat—but his head swept from side to side. Either I wasn’t a suspect danger or his watch neglected movement from behind and below. I tried not to surprise him as I walked ahead, turned, and lifted my binoculars to have a look at his face. He had the black eye mask of a superhero unlike his cousins the white-breasted nuthatches whose white faces made them look like cotton balls propelled by blurry wings as they zipped from trunk to branch to log to branch.