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)
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
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
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
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