Earth Day-What are the Flowers Doing to Celebrate?

by Rebecca Shankland
April 20, 2000

To celebrate Earth Day, we might all take a look at the early-blooming flowers in the mesas and canyons and see what they are doing to celebrate.

For several weeks visitors and residents alike driving up the Main Hill Road were welcomed to Los Alamos by the blossoming fruit trees just below the industrial park and near the top of the Camp Hamilton Trail. These two trees by the roadside appear to be strays from someone's garden-does anyone know their history? Now in mid-April they've moved on from flowers to fruit.

The hummingbirds are back. My first encounter was on April 8--a broad-tailed male who seemed to be hurrying around like someone who hadn't mailed in those tax forms yet. Now he's been joined (or annoyed) by the black-chinned hummingbird.

But what's available for the hummingbirds to eat? The White Rock cafeteria is opening up: Perky Sue, wax currant, rockcress, astragalus, James's hiddenflower, and golden pea should all be flourishing for Earth Day.

Perky Sue is aptly named-peering out before the native grass has turned green, it's diminutive enough to brave the wild winds of spring but bold enough to be easily seen on grassy or rocky mesa-tops. The daisy-like lemon yellow flowers, almost an inch across, pop up on 3- to 5-inch stems from a fuzzy, silvery gray nest of slender leaves. Scientifically, they are known as Hymenoxys argentea, yet the name Perky Sue has more charm. But who was Sue?

If you hear a swarm of bees hovering around a five-foot shrub, check to see if they're scouting for nectar in a pale cream tubular flower. If so, you've found the earliest blooming shrub, wax currant. If the bees don't mind, look closely at a flower to admire the tiny pink stripes and green dots sprinkled along the tube. Wax currant belongs to the family called saxifrage, a Latin compound meaning "rock-breaker." True to form, it's found perching on rocky edges and slopes. The botanical name Ribes cereum looks uninteresting, but Ribes is the ancient Arabic word for sorrel, another sour plant. Ribes also shows up in the B vitamin called riboflavin and gave its name to a popular children's drink called Ribena in England. Cereum is plain Latin for "wax-colored."

Two purple flowers are out-Fendler's rockcress and astragalus. Rockcress (Arabis fendleri) is easily overlooked-small pale purple flowers on a foot-high, nondescript plant with elongated triangular clasping leaves. But look at the little flowers up close and you'll find the tell-tale four petals of a crucifer ("bearing a cross"), the mustard family that gives us cabbage and broccoli. This family has odd seed-pods called siliques, like miniature string beans that droop down along the stem below the flowers blooming at the top.

Astragalus is the name of a multitude of plants in New Mexico popularly called locoweeds because they can cause livestock to stagger crazily or even die. Our early variety, called Astragalus missouriensis, sports bright purple pea flowers, the upper petals (called the banner) revealing a delicate pale lavender throat if you kneel down to investigate this low-growing plant. The pale gray foliage hugs the ground, each leaf having about seven opposite leaflets arranged like a twin rows of peas along the stem. The name has nothing to do with asparagus, but the fruits do look like pea pods, since they're legumes.

James's hiddenflower (Cryptantha jamesii) is a treasure, often growing out of impossible cracks in dry, rocky tuff formations like Tsankawi or Seven-Bump Mesa in lower Pueblo Canyon. Emerging from a clump of narrow, fuzzy, gray leaves almost as pale as the bleached tuff are quarter-inch crisp, white, five-petalled flowers resembling forget-me-nots, which are in the same family. Cryptantha is simply Greek for "hidden," (as in cryptic) and "flower" (as in chrysanthemum, golden flower). The James is for Edwin James, a collector on Major Stephen Long's 1820 Rocky Mountain expedition. James and two others were the first explorers to reach the top of Pike's Peak, which was first called James Peak in his honor.

On a sunny, sandy bank of Pueblo Canyon well below the sewage plant, a profuse mass of brilliant yellow pea flowers has appeared--big golden pea, or Thermopsis pinetorum. The plants are scattered a few inches apart because they spread by underground roots. Six inches high in the colony I found, they usually grow much taller. The leaves are distinctive, having three leaflets on each short stalk.

A fellow hiker asked if the golden pea was a lupine. Indeed, it looks like one, and a bit of research in Foxx and Hoard's "Flowers of the Southwest Forests and Woodlands" showed that early botanists thought so too. They named it thermopsis because it looked like (opsis) lupine (thermo in Greek). But why the name lupine? It's based on the Latin lupus (wolf) because it wolfs up the fertility of the soil.

These early-blooming plants give us much reason to celebrate on Earth Day. And take note that their splendor required no human intervention from a water sprinkler or a pesticide-they are truly gifts of the earth.