Spring has sprung

spring’s many offerings to the senses

Mid-May, and spring things are burgeoning. Deciduous trees leafed out, producing a palette of lively green hues against the somber greens of conifers. Bears and porcupines eat cottonwood flowers, and a mama bear parks her three tiny cubs up in a cottonwood while she forages not far away. Most of the mountain goats around the glacier have moved uphill, but one lingers above Nugget Falls. And a new kid was recently born near there.

Fern-leaf goldthread shows its delicate spidery flowers in forest understory. This plant can change the gender of its flowers from year to year: if it is hermaphroditic (both male and female) in one year and produces fruits, then the next year it is likely to be male only or not flower at all.

Fern-leaf goldthread blossoms. Photo by Mary Willson

A trip into Sheep Creek valley gave us early blue violets, yellow stream violets, and miner’s lettuce. In the valley and on rocky coastal headlands, the villous (woolly) potentilla opened its yellow flowers. The buds of this species are sometimes red, and we wondered why! Near the glacier, the lovely little flower with the silly common name of Sitka mist-maiden and the resounding scientific name of Romanzoffia sitkensis adorns some of the cliffs.

The sweet aroma of skunk cabbage fills the air near large stands of this plant (nothing skunky about it!). Little brown beetles throng to the inflorescences when the flowers are in male phase (with pollen) and can be seen crawling around with their bodies dusted with yellow pollen. In bad weather or maybe just when the temperatures are a bit low, gangs of beetles huddle down in the folds of the yellow ‘hood’ of the flower. The beetles seem to mate on the inflorescence and can often be seen there in pairs. Some will eventually fly to find a skunk cabbage that’s in female phase, carrying pollen and fertilizing the future seeds.

On one of the local trails, we thoroughly enjoyed a close-range look at a male ‘hooter’ or sooty grouse performing his full-blown advertisement for females. Throat pouches puffed out with each hoot, tail fanned like a strutting tom-turkey, feathers fluffed—he was an impressive sight. And he could not have cared less that we were closely observing it all.

I’ve recently seen robins carrying grassy nest lining, hermit thrushes carrying beakfuls of moss, and hawks migrating above Gold Ridge. Fox sparrows are singing. Mallards and juncos are already on eggs. Chickadees now have nestlings to feed. But late arrivals, such as Swainson’s thrushes, are not here yet.

Remember that long stretch of hot sunshine we had earlier this month? Everything was dry and dusty. Then came a small rain shower, just enough to dampen the leaves and rocks—and elicit that special, refreshing aroma that only occurs after a rain that follows a dry spell. From a hiking companion I learned that there is actually a word for this! It’s called ‘petrichor’, a word invented in the 1960s by some Australian scientists who were studying these smells. The ‘petr’ part refers to rock and the ‘ichor’ part comes from Greek mythology: the Greek gods were said to have a golden fluid (ichor) in their veins instead of blood; it was supposedly toxic to mere mortals (I wonder how that was discovered!). The scientists discovered the principal sources of the lovely aroma. Some comes from metabolic by-products of certain soil bacteria, and some comes from volatile plant oils that are produced in the dry time and absorbed by clay and rocks. Rain releases all these chemicals into the air.

I hang around rather often up near the glacier, watching porcupines, or ducks, or whatever is there to be noticed. One day a friend said: your nose is all yellow! Well, I’d been sniffing male willow catkins, to enjoy their faint, sweet smell, and got pollen all over my nose (no, I did not then visit female catkins and try to deposit pollen…).

The progress of spring offers much for all the senses. Try it!

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