Weather and Wildflowers

Sunday, May 24th, 2015

California is withering in a historic drought, parts of the southern Plains are experiencing catastrophic flooding, and here in southern Colorado, we’re unusually soggy from four weeks of successive snow and rain storms.

The peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range tonight, looking more like March than late May....

It’s been so relentlessly wet that we’e received what would normally be half a year of precipitation just in May. The little creek that runs past my house rose two-and-a-half feet one night last week; its voice changing from a chuckle to a thrashing roar.

Here in the normally relentlessly sunny and dry high desert, we always long for moisture. But too much at once is at least as nerve-wracking and damaging as too little, as those flooded out of their homes in Oklahoma and Texas can attest.

Today, spring returned. The sun stayed out for hours instead of minutes, the temperature rose from 34 degrees at dawn to 65 in the late afternoon, and the air felt promising instead of raw and damp. The peaks emerged from the clouds, soft white with new snow.

So after I spent much of the afternoon hauling sodden trash and debris-dams out of the creek and pulling more cheatgrass and other invasive weeds from its banks, I treated myself to a walk around my yard to see the wildflowers springing up in the native mountain prairie I’m restoring on my formerly industrial site. Join me for a look!

The street-side prairie is a sea of bobbing Lewis flax flowers (Linum lewisii). Their sky-blue blossoms only open for one day, and close as soon as the day heats up—heat has not a problem here lately.

At the base of the boulders that hold the bike/wheelchair path that cuts across the slope above that prairie, a very happy blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata) sprouts flower heads just about ready to burst into bloom.

In the rock garden, the Uintah penstemon (Penstemon uintahensis), is only about five inches tall, but this alpine native makes up for its diminutive size by producing an abundance of flowers in eye-popping shade of blue-violet. The little plants bloomed right through our last two snowstorms.

On the creek bank on the south side of the house, showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) sprouts have pushed their fleshy stems and leaves up through the soil, with tight-fisted buds at the top of each stalk.

Atop that bank, an evening primrose (I think a whitestem, but I’m not entirely sure) opens flowers each evening, scenting the air with a faint trace of lemon-flower sweetness to entice evening-flying sphinx moths as pollinators. (I hope the moths survived the storms.)

The wildflower I’m most excited about isn’t even in bloom yet. All that’s visible now is a scattering of tiny reddish plants, most no taller than two or three inches, in the patch of prairie on the north side of the house. When I saw them, I grinned and did a little tap dance right there--carefully avoiding smashing any plants....

These are whole leaf Indian paintbrush (Castilleja integra), one of the most difficult to grow—and spectacular—of our native wildflowers. The seeds only sprout where their roots can find one of their partners, either blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), the characteristic bunch grass of our mountain prairies, or one of the species of native sagebrush (the genus Artemisia).

When Indian paintbrush appear, their presence says the natural community is restoring itself, beginning the process of returning the soil and the land to health. In the midst of so much bad news—destructive drought and flooding, oil spills, shootings, wars, earthquakes—here are tiny signs of hope.