Keeping track of time with wild plants

Western skunk cabbage, cottonwood help signal spring

Posted: Sunday, August 14, 2005

Lots of folks keep track of the passage of days by crossing out days on a paper calendar. Sometimes I do too. But my favorite calendar is provided by the flowering and fruiting of wild plants.

Juneau residents often say that summer really begins when the fireweed starts to bloom (and of course we look for the earliest ones) and fall begins when the fireweed goes to seed (and then we try not to use the earliest one!).

As the spring days begin to get nice and long, I look for two floral signs that spring may be getting serious. One is the familiar western skunk cabbage, fondly called "Alaska daffodils" by some. Its delicate fragrance is very pleasant and not skunky at all. Every brilliant yellow hood encloses a multiflowered stalk; each small flower functions first as a female (potentially making a seed) and later as a male (providing pollen). At times, the flowering stalks are crawling with small brown beetles, which carry pollen from one stalk to another. Late in summer, the stalks collapse, take up water, and each seed becomes enclosed in a jelly-like coat. A cluster of jelly-coated seeds on the forest floor looks a lot like a bunch of out-of-season frog eggs.

Skunk cabbage favors wet places, but my other floral sign of spring grows on rocky outcrops. Some of Juneau's hikers make special trips up Perseverance or West Glacier trails, seeking the first purple mountain saxifrage. A tiny, low-growing plant, it is pollinated by bumblebees - the queen bees, which have overwintered and are out early, starting to gather food to produce their own broods of young. Shooting stars and wild iris in the uplift meadows make a show in later spring.

Spring also brings the clean scent and lovely glistening of pale young leaves of the cottonwood trees. Cottonwoods later offer one of the most spectacular signs of early summer. I remember sitting on a ridge, looking out over the Silverbow Basin, and noticing for the first time that some of the tall trees wore shining "helmets" of silver. What a puzzlement! Inspection by binoculars revealed reality: the silvery veil of thousands of open seed pods on the cottonwoods, fluffy seeds shimmering in the sunlight.

Midsummer, for me and lots of others, is marked by the ripening of salmonberries and blueberries. Berry season is enjoyed by berry-pickers of many kinds - bears, birds, and numerous smaller creatures, in addition to humans.

Fall gives us the high-bush "cranberries" (for birds, bears, and delicious ketchup!). Our local version of the fall colors more famous in the Midwest and Northeast is provided chiefly in the alpine zone. Here the alpine blueberries, avens, and dwarf dogwood give us various shades of red and purple, and deer cabbage and sedges make yellows and oranges. At lower elevations, shades of yellow come from the willows and bronzes from the cottonwoods, with a bit of red from fireweed.

In between all these conspicuous seasonal markers are many others, and every trail-walker may have his or her own array of favorites. Perhaps the most important thing is for us just to have such markers!

• Mary F. Willson is a retired ecology professor and a Trail Mix board member.

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