It is a lovely May morning. A half-inch of sugar snow covers the rapidly greening world like frosting on a cake. The sky is blue, the sun is out and the snow is already melting.
Branches, twigs and leaves are dripping diamonds. It is a glorious sight to behold, refreshing to smell the damp earth and exhilarating to hear the spring medley of migrating birds at the feeder and the burbling music of Little Cub Creek in the valley below.
The bird song this morning is dominated by the loud clatter of the evening grosbeaks and a new voice that is competing with the drak-eyed juncos for the best high trill, chipping sparrows. They arrived last evening with four of them feeding on the ground beneath the feeders. They are a bit late this year, as I always expected them to arrive about April 15. Perhaps some of the late spring snowstorms delayed them a bit. At any rate, they are back now, and others will continue to pass through for the next few days.
Another greeting of spring that I see this morning are the spring beauties beginning to bloom on the east-facing slope. Mountain candytuft has been in bloom on the south slope for some time now, but the spring beauties are beneath a much thicker thatch of grass and therefore do not warm up as early.
Spring beauties are in the genus Claytonia, which is in the Portulaca family. They are closely related to the moss rose portulaca, which we grow in our gardens and the portulaca weed, which grows in our gardens whether we want it or not. They all have soft fleshy leaves and stems that store water, making them easily damaged. They are easily broken or crushed by trying to rake the grass off them. Unless you are able to rake the area early before they emerge, it is best to let it go for they will surely break off if twisted through a rake.
We have three relatively common spring beauties in the area. The big-rooted beauty is a plant of the alpine tundra that you will see on Mount Evans in July. The western spring beauty, Claytonia lanceolata, is found infrequently on the eastern slope and abundantly on the western slope. It has a pair of oval-lanceolate leaves on each stem, no basal leaves and the flowers are white or pale pink with red veins.
The closely related but more common locally Claytonia rosea has pink flowers, one or more basal leaves and narrow, lace-linear stem leaves. It is common all along the Front Range in open pine forests and among oak stands in the area. The Claytonia of the east, to which our plants are closely related, grows in the deciduous forest where they receive sunshine all winter and in the spring until the leaves are full grown in June.
This gives them the sunshine they need to do well. They do not grow well here in the dense spruce-fir forests but thrive beneath leaf-shedding oaks and in open scattered ponderosa pine forests where they receive more sunshine.
Both of these Claytonias have a small round corm, much like the corm of a gladiola. This is one of the favorite foods of black bears. They will dig up whole hillsides to obtain these bulbs, especially in late summer when they are trying to store enough body fat to see them through the winter. This can be hard on a patch of spring beauties but enough small bulbs and seeds are left in the newly cultivated ground that the spring beauties seem to be able to re-establish themselves in a few years.
There are fields of blue mustard out on the plains now, which are beautiful but are a noxious weed that should be at least mowed before they go to seed. The plant is an annual and is not a very good forage plant, so usually people want to keep it out of their pastures.
Red Rocks Park is at its best in May and an easy trip from here to see wildflowers. It is also a super place for migratory birds in May. It is a place where birds move north along the front edge of the mountains and new species can be seen every day. It is, therefore, worth a daily trip if you can find the time. Have a good spring and summer.