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NATURE HAPPENINGS - March 2007


Early Season Wildflowers

by Damian Fagan

The procession of desert wildflowers begins in late winter, depending upon temperatures, and picks up speed through the month of March. The first flower buds signal the promise of spring, although winter storms may still cover the landscape with a thin blanket of snow. The old adage “Wait 5 minutes for the weather to change” rings true during this time of year.
Some of the earliest wildflowers to bloom are members of the Carrot Family, the Apiaceae. Relatives in the Lomatium and Cymopterus genera poke their floral heads barely above the ground surface, taking advantage of surface heat and early season insects.

Parry’s lomatium (Lomatium parryi) and Canyonlands biscuitroot (Lomatium latilobum) may start their springtime season in March, but gain momentum for their peak bloom later in the spring.

The Parry’s lomatium sends up a reddish floral stem that unleashes an umbrellalike profusion of yellowish flowers. The flowers are minute and tightly clustered together so that insect pollinators (flies) can move easily over and across the dome of flowers. These stems will arise before the highly dissected, dark green leaves appear. These perennials arise from a thick taproot and herald the changing season.

The common name honors Charles Christopher Parry (1823-1890) an American who was the first official botanist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Parry made several botanical surveys in the West and is credited with “discovering” numerous plants new to science.

In addition to Parry’s lomatium, the Canyonlands biscuitroot may also start to bloom in March, although its peak is later in the season. Both plants share the genus Lomatium which means “fringed” and refers to the irregular edges of the large seeds.
This biscuitroot also sends up an umbrella of tiny yellowish flowers; however, the plants are more clump-forming than the Parry’s lomatium. The leaves are divided into several pairs of dull green, broad lobes – latilobum means “broad lobes.” One interesting aspect of the Canyonlands biscuitroot is that it grows primarily in association with the Entrada Sandstone. Because of this habitat requirement, this biscuitroot grows only in a few areas on the Colorado Plateau near Grand Junction, Colorado and in Moab. The greatest percentage of the plant’s distribution is found in Arches National Park, making this endemic plant a treasure to avoid disturbing.

In the park, this biscuitroot occurs in the Fiery Furnace and is a prominent subject on guided walks through the area. When the plants bloom, the air has an eau de skunk perfume – what better smell for attracting flies as pollinators? Visitors are surprised to learn that this plant, not the mammal, is responsible for this aroma.

But the plant’s smell did not deter Native Americans from harvesting the thick roots for food. The roots were eaten raw, cooked or pulverized into a flour (hence the common name).
Another relative of the lomatiums is the sweetroot spring-parsley (Cymopterus newberryi) that also blooms in the spring. This plant’s cluster of flowers is set against the highly dissected, parsley looking leaves. The seeds of this Cymopterus have a very wavy and corklike edge, which is what the genus name means. Newberryi is for John Strong Newberry (1822-1892) a geologist and Columbia University professor. Like the biscuitroot, the parsniplike roots of the plant are edible.

There are other Carrot Family members that bloom in the Canyon Country, but these three seem to get the season going. Once they do, there is a steady progression of wildflowers that appear in spring. All of these flowers are a welcomed addition and enhance the already magnificent beauty of the landscape.



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