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NatureSpeak Articles

Perpetual spring and the plant of many names


You want to go over and tell them, but there’s just too many. They are the unsuspecting tourists you see heading up the lift on a hot summer day, clad only in T-shirts, shorts, and running shoes. They apparently don’t remember the environmental lapse rate they learned in Grade 11 geography: air temperature falls by an average of 6.4° Celsius per 1,000 metres of elevation (3.5° F per 1,000 feet). That means mountain-top temperatures on most days will be more than 10° C colder than in the valley. Add the stronger winds of higher elevations, and you get some pretty big goosebumps.

If you’re properly dressed though, there’s no better place than the alpine on a hot day. An added bonus of going up the hill is that you move backwards in time, at least in terms of flowering. By the end of July in the valley, flowers are almost past and fruit is coming on strong. But up top, the display of wildflowers is at its peak.

My favourite plants are the ones which seemingly emerge right out of the receding snow. The first green to emerge from many snow patches belongs to western anemone (a-nem-un-ee), a plant that can teach a lot about the advantages of good preparation and speedy completion.

Like many early flowers, western anemones get their head start by photosynthesizing under snow to pop up far ahead of the competition. The quickly opening flowers immediately attract a constant stream of fly and bee pollinators. Within days, the flower matures into a moptop of seeds (achenes) that resemble an albino Ringo Starr, a transition so complete that it looks like a different plant. At first glance, it’s hard to believe the tidy. white-petalled flower is related to the dishevelled plant it’s sometimes found beside. Yet they’re both western anemones in different growth stages.

The confusion is reflected by the plethora of common names. It is sometimes called pasqueflower (from the French for Easter and in recognition of a related plant which really does flower at Easter). But most of the names refer to its appearance while in seed, like tow-headed baby, moptop, and the somewhat twisted mouse-on-a-stick. Another name for anemones, windflower, reflects the role of wind in spreading its seeds.

Because common names are so variable (like the five or more for western anemone), scientists use a very exacting system of Latin names to describe species. Ironically, these same scientists have recently muddied the waters by renaming this week’s star flower. The old scientific name, Anemone occidentalis (from the root anemos, meaning wind) has been replaced by Pulsatilla occidentalis (from the same root word as pulsate, used because the plants quiver in the wind).

Regardless of what we call it, western anemones are a beautiful harbinger of spring in the alpine. Now’s the time to check them out – just make sure to take an extra layer of clothes.

Written by: Bob Brett


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