Sunday, March 9, 2008

Sunday stroll: looking for signs of spring

I'm not from around here. The plants and animals still are unfamiliar, even after seven years. And I don't have a good sense of "normal" for weather. Spring comes both early and late: it's so warm on sunny March days, but when a storm blows through, we can get a foot of snow.

I've got a preschool-aged child, though, and I want him to grow up aware of the world around him. Last spring we started exploring outside, watching lizards do push-ups and admiring horned lizards and trying to sneak up on jack rabbits. Lately, though, our outdoor activities have consisted of shoveling snow, and shoveling more snow, and shoveling slush. We tried following animal tracks after the first storm, but we haven't done much lately.

I was inspired to go out and start looking at the plants by a post from John Fleck, who wrote about observations of early-blooming flowers in the Swiss Alps in 2007. It turns out that there's a network of US citizens making the same kinds of observations: Project Budburst.

Aha!, I thought. What a great way to introduce the kid to science and nature!

Well, maybe. The problem is... well, I mentioned the problem at the beginning of this post. I don't know my local plants*. I've got a field guide to local plants (Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands), but there are so many little ecological niches out here. Elevation matters. So does aspect. So does the type of rock and soil. So does the history of past climates. Put it all together, and you've got a lot of species that are peculiar to certain places. My field guide's pictures are hand-sketched, not color photographs, and they're organized by ecosystem, but my area is on the border between the pinyon-juniper and Ponderosa forests. Oh, and there are three distinct types of leaves on the various shrubs, but there seem to be several different species with similar leaves.

So my son and I went out looking for plants beginning to leaf out. I'm not sure which species we were looking at, but maybe someone reading can help me identify them.

There are only two plants starting to leaf out right now. The first one has fuzzy alder-like leaves about half the size of my thumbnail:

This particular shrub is low to the ground, but I think this is one that we cut back last year. (Anything near the house and underneath a pinyon gets cut back, in hopes that we can reduce the fire danger.) It may be Cercocarpus montanus (alderleaf mountain-mahogany), but I'm not sure. I've found some pictures on the web that have sharper teeth.

The other plant that's beginning to leaf out looks like this:

The leaves are fuzzy, thick, and greyish-green, though many of the new leaves are reddish. This is mostly a low plant, and it's really tough - it's the only thing that survived my attempt to transplant shrubs to the cleared ground where our cistern was put in last year. I think this one will have tiny yellow flowers sometime this spring. Right now, it's leafing out in places where the snow has melted all the way to its roots, but it's still brown wherever the snow is still deep. Maybe this is Purshia tridentata, antelopebrush?

There aren't any examples of the third type of leaf, a long, skinny leaf. I think it may be false mock-orange, Fendlera rupicola. But there are at least two different plants with white flowers (one has four petals and one has five) that I noticed last spring. I'm not sure what the second one is.

And then there are different plants that grow on the north-facing slopes. One, at least, has alder-like leaves, but softer, thinner, darker green than the leaves of the similar-looking plants on the sunnier side of the hill.

I don't think that one's going to be leafing out very soon, though. It's buried under this:

Not-quite-five-year-old kangaroo for scale.

* This isn't entirely true. I know pinyon, juniper, Gambel oak, prickly pear, and yucca (though I don't know which variety of yucca it is). I just don't know most of the flowering shrubs. Until last year, I thought there were only two or three types, but when I started looking at the flowers, I realized there were more. So now I'm going to start paying attention.


Silver Fox said...

At the risk of duplicating a post I thought I already made (don't know, must have hit the wrong button):

There's a lot of Purshia tridentata growing on the east slopes of the Sierra Nevada, and I always thought it kept its leaves, but apparently it is a deciduous bush. It has wonderful yellow blooms in the (real) spring, and grows where its fairly high and wet. I found a couple good sites with pictures, here's one for each: Cercocarpus montanus and Purshia tridentata. Looks like it was a fun walk, and still a little early for spring where you are!

Kim said...

Purshia tridentata looks right. Around here, it mostly keeps its leaves, but they kind of shrivel up eventually, and new leaves appear as soon as the snow melts.

Cercocarpus montanus doesn't look right, though. My plant has pretty fuzzy leaves - though they may get less fuzzy as they get more mature. I'll have to keep an eye on it.