Shadows on the Snow, Olive Street

by Rebecca Shankland
January 2001

What's a flower-lover to do when the snows sift down? Either sit by the fire and sulk, or look for a different kind of beauty--silhouettes starkly outlined against the snow.

The perennials may have left a skeleton behind as a shadow on the snow. With no colors left as guides, we're forced to look at the stems, the shapes of branches and seeds, the few remaining leaves, even the cup that once held petals.

To identify these winter survivors, search your mind's eye for remembrance of things past. I tried the experiment along Olive Street, the unused road leading from the top of Orange Street to the abandoned sewage treatment plant in Pueblo Canyon. It's a jewel of a walk, curving down past orange cliffs with strange crannies and sculptured rock formations, a sweet escape from the busy world of traffic 1/4 mile away.

First, try to find the easy identifications, the plants with leaves clinging tenaciously to the branches. Gambel's oak rises from 2 to 6 feet above the snow (in some places it becomes a full-fledged tree), still covered with bronze leaves in the usual wavy oak shape. Does anyone know why oaks are so reluctant to shed? Their leaves are broad, like other deciduous leaves, but they don't seem to be perturbed by a frosting of snow. A good check for oaks is the presence of acorns or acorn cups, but I didn't find any-probably four-footed animals had already been by.

Gambel's oak (Quercus gambelii) is our most common oak, growing in thickets along roadsides and mesa tops. It's a companion to ponderosas as well as pinons and junipers, so it's happy over much of the Southwest. It was named for William Gambel, a young man who traveled with trappers on the Santa Fe Trail, than worked as a naturalist in Philadelphia before returning to join an expedition that crossed the Sierra Nevada in winter. Amazingly, he survived the crossing, only to die soon after of typhoid fever, only 28 years old. His most famous eponym is Gambel's quail, the bird with a black face mask outlined in white, a red crown, and an elegant black top-knot.

One of the most persistent and recognizable winter flower stalks is Hooker's evening primrose. The pale yellow flowers climb up a cluster of 2- or 3-foot high stalks, but after they bloom and set fruit they leave behind attractive pods that are as pretty as a flower: imagine the squash-blossoms on a Navajo necklace, color the silver blossoms light brown, invert and arrange them along the flower stalk with the tubes splitting open at the top. From a distance they look like a winter bloom, but the ghostly color of stem and pod reveals the truth.

Hooker's evening primrose blooms only in the late afternoon, opens wide for night-pollinating insects, and droops on its stem the next day. Hooker was a Scottish botanist who sent many naturalists off to collect specimens that he wrote up in "Flora Boreali-Americana." The odd scientific name Oenothera hookeri is based on the Greek for "wine" (remember that a wine-lover is an "oenophile"), supposedly because the roots smell like wine. But you'll have to wait till the summer to test this hypothesis.

One of the loveliest winter sights is graceful, willowy muhly grass, the colloquial name for Muhlenbergia montana. Along Olive Street its straw-colored 3-foot tall wands wave above the snow like a delicate dried arrangement. The stems have many short branches that cling to the main stem and are dotted with minute seeds, giving the plant a lacy effect. This grass is found all over the ponderosa zone and was named for Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg. He was a Lutheran pastor in Pennsylvania who had to lie low during the Revolution. He made good use of his time, collecting and classifying plants, and eventually completing a work on grasses of North America.

The Olive Street walk is full of plants that raise questions. I recognized mullein, goldeneye, and a couple of unkempt apple trees near the sewage treatment plant, but I had far more mysteries unsolved than solved. One winter stranger near the top of Olive Street is a striking dull red color, about a foot tall, with slim, wiry branches. At the end of each branching twig sits a tiny capsule like a miniature rose hip, with delicate filaments waving at the top. Some of the little rose-hip cups have seeds or fruits still attached. These are orangey-red and dangle like tear-drop earrings in a cluster of at least three. Each of the fruits is winged like a three-bladed propeller with transparent paper-thin membranes on the outside and a darker, fatter substance in the middle-the seed? Unless someone recognizes this description or a photo, the mystery will only be solved by waiting till the snows vanish and the foliage and flowers reappear. But in the meantime, let's enjoy the stark disguises worn by these plants in their somber winter garb.