By Stewart M. Green
With the advent of April, spring hardly seems to have settled in for the season. Wind whips off the mountains with the warming days and occasional showers bring needed moisture, but as any long-time Coloradoan knows, winter’s fury can strike at any time, bringing heaps of wet snow. But every day the air warms and the sun shines a little bit longer than the day before, bringing hope that spring finally is just around the corner.
Every year, I check for the first real sign that spring has sprung. I look for the native harbinger of spring in foothill environments like the Garden of the Gods near my home in Colorado Springs where I might find, hidden beneath the bare tangle of scrub oak branches the first delicate pasque flower with a clump of lavender-blue, golden-centered flowers pushed up through matted grass and last October’s leaves, their buds still tightly closed.
The pasque flower, the first bloomer among Rocky Mountain wildflowers, brings unexpected color to the spare springtime. This cousin to the elegant columbine, the Colorado state flower, becomes the first splash of summer across the foothills and fortunately, due to its acridity and the fine hairs covering the plant, makes a poor forage food for animals. Sheep have been known to die after overindulging on pasque flowers. Without its toxicity, the flower would undoubtedly have succumbed long ago to the hardy appetites of range animals when little other fresh herbage appears.
The pasque flower is known to botanists by its Latin name Anemone patens, meaning “wind spreading.” Anemone comes from the Greek word anemos for wind since flowers in this family were thought to open at the command of spring zephers. The word pasque derives from Paques, the French word for Easter which is usually occurs about the time that the flower begins its brief bloom.
The flower begins blooming in early April and with each passing week it spreads its pale grasp into higher elevations, indicating the progression of spring. Spring advances north at the rate of about 15 miles a day and climbs into the mountains almost 100 feet daily. While it is an early bloomer at the Garden, it isn’t until late April and even May that its blossoms open in the higher elevations like Elevenmile Canyon, Florissant Fossil Beds, and Rocky Mountain National Park.
Any plant that begins growing well before reasonable temperatures happen has to have unique characteristics to survive the chill of early spring. The pasque flower is superbly adapted to store precious heat, notably a thick growth of hairs covering the stem. Another heat trap is the flower itself. Many early spring flowers are bowl and saucer shaped and act like tiny solar collectors, reflecting heat and light into the flower where heat is effectively stored.
Dr. Robert Knutson of Luther College found in his pasque flower research in the 1980s that many insects visit the flowers for warmth rather that food. Measuring blossom heat with thermometers, he found that the inside of the flower was up to 18 degrees warmer than the outside air temperature on sunny days. Knutson said, “If you are small enough…Palm Beach is as close as your nearest pasque flower.”