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NATURE HAPPENINGS - February 2008

Early Season Flowers

by Damian Fagan

Arches National Park

rim rock milkvetch

Canyonlands Biscuitroot

Parry's Lomatium

crescent milkvetch

It doesn’t take long for winter’s snow to become a faded memory. December and January storms blanketed Moab and the surrounding desert, but now the snow level has retreated to higher elevations. Though February may still see some white flakes, those bone chilling days of winter are gone.

With the warmer temperatures comes the annual start to the desert’s parade of wildflowers. Certain hardy species send up their flowering stalks early in the year and unfurl their floral banners long before other species have begun to stir. Similar to one’s garden, these early species have domestic relatives in the Carrot (Apiaceae) and Pea (Fabaceae) families.

One of the first Canyon Country plants to bloom is the Parry’s lomatium (Lomatium parryi). The greenish-yellow flowers are borne in small umbrella-like configurations. These “non-showy” flowers are easily overlooked, except by insects that have hatched during the warm spell and are attracted to the foul-smelling flowers.

Charles Christopher Parry (1823-1890) was an Englishman who immigrated to the United States in 1832, and later on earned a medical degree at Columbia. Parry also studied botany under the preeminent American botanist of that time, John Torrey, and also under George Engelmann, the founding botanist of the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Parry served on the Mexican Boundary Survey of 1849-1852 as a surgeon and botanist. Later on in life, Parry found his true love: the alpine flora of Colorado. He spent much of the next 20 years collecting plants at the base of Gray’s and Torrey’s peaks – mountains he named for Torrey and Asa Gray, another famed 19th century botanist.

A close relative to the Parry’s lomatium is the Canyonland’s biscuitroot (L. latilobum) which also blooms early in the season. This plant grows in close association with the Entrada Sandstone and often grows in dense clumps on sandy soils. Native Americans harvested the roots and either ate them raw or pulverized the roots into a flour-like consistency.

The National Park Service has monitored the biscuitroot’s population in Arches National Park’s Fiery Furnace and other locations. This Lomatium is an endemic species, meaning that the plant has a very limited global distribution that is confined to particular areas on the Colorado Plateau. In the narrow confines of the Fiery Furnace, the Park Service monitors the plant’s population to determine if trampling or erosion has a negative impact on the plants. So heed their advice by avoiding the plants while exploring the Furnace.

In addition to those Carrot Family members that bloom in February there are several Pea Family plants that also blossom in late winter. One is the rimrock milkvetch (Astragalus desperatus) which grows in small pockets of soil on sandstone outcrops; hence, the “rimrock” connotation. Marcus Jones (1852-1934) first collected this Colorado Plateau endemic near Cisco, Utah. A colorful or caustic botanist, depending upon your viewpoint, Jones was “desperate” to find an appropriate name for this newfound plant. His “desperation” turned out to be a good enough name that stuck.

Another Astragalus that blooms in February is the crescent milkvetch (A. amphioxys), named after the quarter moon-shaped seedpods. The pods are larger than those of the rimrock milkvetch and are smooth versus hairy. Asa Gray named this plant; amphioxys is derived from amphi meaning “both kinds of or double” and oyxs meaning “sharp” which describes the pointed ends of the seedpods.

So even if the snows return in February, the procession of early spring flowers is underway with a few hardy souls. Take a moment to enjoy these blooms and to give thanks to the botanists behind them. Then find a good seat to take in the rest of this blooming parade.

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