It is wonderful to see spring greening the hills once more. I drove south to Colorado Springs and Pueblo with friends last week and was once more impressed by the changing landscape south of Colorado Springs.
North of Colorado Springs, the rolling hills of the prairie are green, and trees were beginning to leaf out. South of the Springs, you quickly enter desert country. In a few places, we saw cacti that looked like they might soon produce new growth and flowers, but in most places, the land was so overgrazed that the entire landscape appeared to be sand colored. There were no grasses or wildflowers between the cactus plants. It was a tan world. Even the cacti looked parched and dry. Only the creek and river valleys showed any green coloring as the willows there were leafed out. There was a great paucity of birds as well as most had not arrived yet.
The best bird of the day was a house wren, whose burbling song accompanied our lunch. The house wrens that nest in our yards have not returned yet, but we know he will be back soon. How very fortunate we are to live in the foothills where there is just a bit more water to support the greening of spring.
One of the early spring wildflowers that we did see in a yard is the blue mustard. This is such a common plant on the plains that it has become a weed. It is also known as crane’s bill or stork’s bill because of its long pointed seed pods that resemble the long pointed bill of the herons and storks. The small five-petaled flower is very delicate, losing its petals very easily, but there are always more about to open. I have never understood why it is also known as blue mustard as it is not blue but a soft purplish pink, and it is not a mustard but in the geranium family.
In a warm place like Red Rocks Park, it often blooms as early as February and continues to bloom well into spring. This is a plant that was brought to this country to supply fodder. It was not very successful as a fodder for many animals apparently don’t like it, so it goes to seed and spreads. You can see huge patches of it on the plains where it has now become a noxious weed.
A second early spring flower is the spring beauty. It is usually found in open ponderosa pine forests where it grows in the open areas between the trees where it gets more sunshine. They need this early spring sun and are much more common in the eastern woodlands. Where conditions are right for them, they often grow in large patches. They are dainty little white flowers with pink stripes that grow from a bulb that is a prized food source for many animals from bears to chipmunks.
The third most common early spring flower is the mountain candytuft. All three of these flowers bloom before or along with the pasque flower. The mountain candytuft has a cluster of small white flowers much like the horticultural candytuft. However, the plant is a small herbaceous plant usually with only one flowering stem while the horticultural plant is more like a wiry little bush only a few inches high.
Easter daisies and mountain ball cactus are blooming or past blooming in many places, and others will be blooming during the next few weeks. If you have reason to go to Denver, I suggest you allow a little extra time and drive down Bear Creek Canyon. While Interstate 70 may be quicker, there is little to see along it except traffic. Bear Creek Canyon is full of blooms, so take your binoculars and stop at the many pull-offs along the way to look around.
The white flowering shrub in bloom now is either American plum or service berry, both of which grow along the stream. Yellow double bladder-pod is in bloom on the rocky cliffs and blue flax and blue mist penstemon will be adding their color to the mix soon.
If you have enough time, stop at Lair o’ the Bear Park to see what birds have arrived and what flowers are in bloom. It has a wide variety of both plains and mountain flowers, good trails and restrooms. Bear Creek is a beautiful canyon. I think it is prettier than the more famous Big Thompson Canyon, and there are plants blooming all summer until the fall color takes over with aspen gold and sumac red.