I absolutely love this time of year, and by “this time of year”, I mean Right Exactly Now. Right this week, next week and maybe the week after is absolutely the most beautiful the Salt Lake valley and foothills ever get.
Down in the valley, many trees are still blooming, and those that have finished are covered with those light green, super-soft leaves you only get in Spring. If you have (or have access to) any kind of garden, it’s like Botany Wild Kingdom right now, with all sorts of blooms and bees out and about. (pic left = our side-yard)
Special Note to Visitors: If you happen to be visiting Salt Lake City this week, I feel obligated to inform you that it pretty much Never Looks This Good. This, right here, is as green as it gets.
And when you look up at the foothills, they’re lush, lush green, so much so that you forget for a few weeks that we live in a semi-desert. And best of all, when you go up into them this time of year, pretty much every day, something’s different.
My first ride up Dry Creek this Spring was April 19. Wednesday, May 6, I rode it (yet) again. The changes over just 2.5 weeks have been amazing.
First, the stream I blogged about is reduced to a mere trickle in the upper reaches of the canyon. Bright, big Arrowleaf Balsamroots, while not quite peaking, have already come to dominate the hillsides above (pic left) and both down in the canyon and in the side-draws above, the Bigtooth Maples are pretty much done flowering, and probably ½ - ¾ leafed out. Even more exciting, virtually all of the Gambel Oak up to 6,000 feet now sport immature leaves (pic right); the change over the next 10 days will be the most dramatic of all.
Tangent: The cultivated Maples (most often Silver Maples, I believe) down in the valley neighborhoods and office parks are interesting botany snapshots right now as well. You may well have noticed the dusting of fallen Maple flowers lining the curbsides around the city. Below is a great shot of fertilized female flowers developing early samaras*. You can see the remaining petals of the flowers still surrounding the base of the developing samaras.
*Samara = the helicopter-ish seed pods of Maples and some other trees, including Elms.
But one of the fastest and most complete changes has been down on the floor of the canyon itself, down in the shade of the Oaks and Maples. In just 2.5 weeks there has been a complete change-over in the dominant wildflower.
But first, a quick logistical tangent-
Tangent: For over a year now, I have been screwing around trying to dig a camera out of my bike-jersey pocket. If I had a dollar for every shot I’d missed of a bird or Elk or Coyote or Porcupine or Beaver or Kit Fox (yes, I saw 3 Kit Foxes up in Pinebrook last July, totally got away before I had the camera even out of the pocket) I swear I’d have enough money by now to buy dinner at Le Caille and a haircut at Bikini Cuts.
Last Friday’s Mexican-Flag-In-Real-Life-Missed-Shot was the last straw. This week I went out and bought a case that clips to the shoulder-strap of my Camelbak. I am determined to quicken my camera-draw. Though I’ve only done 1 ride with the new set-up so far, already it’s helped me out in one of my common frustrating situations: catching a bird-song quickly, before the bird flies off. (Turn up the volume.)
That’s a Spotted Towhee, which were common at our feeder from mid-February till mid-April; now they’ve moved up to the foothills; I shot this video at around 5,400 feet.
Nested Tangent: I also bought this neoprene-y cover for the camera , in case the quick-draw experiment results in a fumble/drop or two. (It will- I eventually drop everything.) I now have pretty much identical neoprene-y covers for my camera, my blackberry, and my iPod. I swear, it’s like they make a condom for everything these days…
So back to the flowers. On April 18, the “floor” of Dry Creek was covered with Glacier Lilies. Over the past 2.5 weeks the bloom has moved steadily upward, while peaking and ailing off down in the canyon. By May 6, they were all but absent in Dry Creek.
On May 2, there was a new flower popping up on the canyon floor, and by May 6 it was all over the place, as common as the Glacier Lilies were just 18 days earlier. The flower is Ballhead Waterleaf, Hydrophyllum capitatum, and I blogged about it last year up at ~7,000 – 7,500 ft in Pinebrook/Jeremy Ranch (where it will be blooming- also all over the place- in about 3-5 weeks.) You can check out that post if you want to know more about it, but the 2 most interesting things about it are that its greens are way edible, and it’s pollinated by Osmia bees.
Ballhead Waterleaf and Glacier Lilies are way, way different flowers. They haven’t shared a common ancestor in probably 100 million years or more. (Waterleafs are dicots; Lilies are monocots.) And their structure is, obviously, way different. But they’ve evolved to favor very, very similar environment and conditions. They’re both mesophytic, meaning that they require a moderate amount of moisture (not too wet, not too cold- sort of a couple of hydrological Goldilocks’.) And they both favor semi-shade, such as that on the floor of an Oak/Maple woodland.
And they’re both early bloomers; though many, many flowers will be appearing in and around Dry Creek over the next month, these guys were the first 2 to show up in a big, big way. Both are pollinated by wild bees, including Osmia and Bombus (Bumblebees.) But here’s the thing: Excepting a very few stragglers, their blooms don’t overlap at all. And as I climbed Dry Creek at 6:30 in the morning, I thought about why that should be the case. And thought, and thought, and thought…
All About Thinking And Biking
As longtime readers know, I do a lot of riding alone. Contrary to what you might think, this isn’t because I’m some kind of misanthropic, Unabomber-ish psycho-loner, but rather because so much of my riding happens so darn early in the morning. (The repeated stops to lie on my belly and photograph pseudoscapes probably don’t help either.) But anyway, when you do a lot of riding alone- particularly climbing alone- you do a lot of thinking while riding.
This doesn’t mean that I’m always thinking great thoughts about the meaning of life or the universe. Lots (most?) of the time I’m thinking about much more earthly or even mundane things- what’s causing that funny creak from the headset, when was the last time I put sealant in my tires, why Twin A’s pants all have holes in the knees*, what I’ll eat when I finish the ride, or maybe I’m just thinking about my hair stylist**.
*We finally figured it out. He pokes holes in them with a pencil during class.
**I’m just kidding. I actually just go to one of those cheapie haircut places, because a) I am cheap and b) I think any man who spends more than $20 on a haircut needs to question his masculinity. The lady who most often cuts my hair is a kind, friendly woman, who has been single for many years, and sometimes wonders aloud “where all the good ones have gone…” During a recent haircut she was talking about her cats. Curious, I asked how many she had. Answer: 18. It was all I could do not to say, “I think I just figured out why you’re still single.”
For many years, when I faced thorny problems, I sometimes used to take off on the bike for a long ride to try and think the problem through. This almost never worked. I invariably came home just as confused, frustrated, and no closer to a solution than when I set out. Finally, about 5 years ago, I figured it out: you can do some really great thinking on solo bike rides, but you can’t set out with an agenda. You have to pedal out with an open mind, and let the thoughts come to you. And as they do, you can let them in, and gently work with and play with them and turn them over in your head, and if you do, then you might just very well finish the ride having realized or even figured out something new after all. But it only works if you go out with an open mind, open senses, and no expectations.
Woa- getting a little Zen-y there. On a more mundane level, thinking too hard while riding can lead to that bizarre, “how did I get here?” feeling. You know what I mean- you suddenly realize that you’re at a certain point in a ride, and you have absolutely no memory of the previous say, ½ mile. For some odd reason, this happens to me much more often mountain biking than road biking, which makes absolutely no sense, seeing as you’d think you’d have to be paying more attention on a rough trail than on a smooth road.
Sometimes, I’ll snap out of it, and think, “Woa! What just happened? “ And then I’ll come up with all kinds of crazy “theories”, like:
- I was momentarily possessed by some spirit or other being for a few minutes that just left, and just got my body back, like in that movie “Being John Malkovich.”
- My own “spirit” temporarily left my body for a few minutes, traveled across some mysterious plane/universe divide (perhaps to report back to my Secret Home Planet) and then just returned right now.
- That – and I love this one, because it is way the freakiest- that I just came into existence this very instant. But my mind/brain was formed with all of the molecular/physical/chemical structure and memories of a 45-year life, and so while I seem to have an identity and memories and a life, I was really just born/created this instant, and that the shock and fundamental discontinuity of coming into existence, despite all of my pre-fab “memories”, left me with a stunned, “Woa, what happened?” feeling.*
-That I wasn’t paying attention, and let my mind wander for a moment… this is the least exciting “theory”, but is in fact the only one I actually believe…
And then sometimes, in thinking over these “theories” as to why I “blacked out” for a bit, I’ll suddenly go, “Woa! What happened?” and the whole process starts all over again! Seriously- how messed up is that??
Tangent: I’m well aware that this can happen as well while driving, in which case it is way, way more serious, and merits a rest- stop and a walk about for some fresh air… Or at least stop texting, for chrissakes, before you take out a cyclist.
So anyway, as I was climbing Dry Creek Wednesday morning, a thought entered my head, and it was this: “2 weeks ago there were little yellow flowers all over the place, and no purple flowers. Now there are little purple flowers all over the place and no yellow flowers. This is probably not a coincidence.” And that’s the question I noodled on for the rest of the ride.
Why are blooms staggered? Why doesn’t just everything bloom like crazy all at once*, as soon as it’s warm enough to grow and flower? The obvious reason that occurred to me would be to avoid competition for pollinators, and as I researched the issue online afterward, this indeed seems to be the common hypothesis.
*To be sure, in some places it does work that way, such as in hot deserts. In the Sonoran for example, most blooms are packed into just a couple of weeks in Spring when ground moisture is still available and before temperatures become excessive.
Pollination works when pollen from one flower is transported to another flower (on another plant*) of the same species. If pollen is transported between 2 different species- particularly 2 species not anywhere near close enough to hybridize- then it does no good. In fact, it can do harm. Pollen delivered to the wrong flower is pollen wasted, and too much of the “wrong” pollen on a stigma can interfere with or inhibit the “right” pollen getting access to it. If Glaciers Lilies and Ballhead Waterleafs bloomed side-by-side at the same time, they’d be getting doused with each other’s pollen repeatedly. It’s clearly in each flower’s best interest to bloom when the other is not blooming, and of course this is what actually happens.
*I’m skirting dangerously close to the whole issue of self-pollination, whether within the same blossom , or between different blossoms on the same plant (a process called geitonogamy), but need to leave this whole can of worms for a future post.
Of course I’m not suggesting that the 2 flowers talk and work out an understanding. Rather, over time, Ballhead Waterleafs that bloomed when Glacier Lilies were not blooming (and vice-versa) tended over time to make more copies of themselves, reinforcing the tendency toward later (or earlier) blooming that we see today. Which wound up blooming first might be an issue of physiology, chance, or both.
But- and here’s the thing that bugs me about staggered blooms- why?? Why would evolution lead these 2 flowers to this weird temporal truce, instead of competing head-to-head? Why wouldn’t evolution favor a Ballhead Waterleaf that bloomed at the same time as Glacier Lilies? That had a super-smelling, nectar & pollen-rich flower that was way, way, way more attractive to bees and just totally kicked the ass of Glacier Lilies? Why did they wind up in a draw instead? Has each flower come up with the absolute best blossom it possibly/conceivably can, and now they’re at a stand-still?
Or maybe… that ass-kicking has already happened. That one of them- say Glacier Lily- was around first, and then the other-say Ballhead Waterleaf- showed up and kicked its ass so thoroughly that the only Glacier Lilies that could survive and reproduce were those who somehow figure out how to blossom earlier than any Ballhead Waterleaf could manage to…
I don’t know the answer to the Lily-Waterleaf staggering mystery. And so far as I know, no one does (not for those 2 specific flowers, anyway.) But what’s so cool about the timing of these 2 blooms- and the staggered blooms of wildflowers in general- is that behind the timing of each wildflower, there’s some amazingly subtle, complicated, multifaceted, drawn-out saga behind it, extending back thousands or even millions of years, involving competition, evolutionary-arms-races, shifts in timing, introductions of new predators/ competitors/ parasites, countless changes in local and global climate, and dozens of other factors about which we can only guess.
When we ride through a meadow of wildflowers (pic right = stretch of Bonneville Shoreline Trail lined with blooming Arrowleaf Balsamroots), we’re riding through the end-result- no, the very middle- of that evolutionary tale. And that’s been the coolest thing about this whole project. As I’ve started paying attention and learning and thinking about plants, and living things in general, they start sharing these little whispers, these hints of their amazing stories, and the world changes from being this big, green, vague blob, to an elegant, amazing and sophisticated book, which if you try patiently, attentively and diligently, you can start to read and understand tiny snippets of. And when you mange to read one of those snippets, and see how it’s connected to another snippet, that’s when the world gets way, way cool.
Anyway, that’s what I thought about on Wednesday morning’s ride, right after I suddenly came into existence. I’m hoping to figure out a few more mysteries this weekend, before being recalled to my Home Planet.