Tuesday, June 01, 2010

When is Spring?

The calendar tells us Spring "begins" on March 21, the spring equinox, but of course, the world works on its own schedule. Lately, we've all noticed, that schedule seems a little wacky.

In Colorado, as in much of the West, Spring is relative: it all depends on where you are, especially on how much vertical distance you've managed to put between you and sea level. In the course of the last few weeks, here at the Foothills Fancies homestead, we've jumped from winter into late spring in a hurry. Most of the early spring wildflowers are gone, and, judging from what's blooming, we're well on the way to summer. Sigh.

So when I went West to Talented Sister's on May 22nd, I got to visit an earlier version of Spring, places where the ground is just emerging from snow cover. She lives in the midst of Aspen and Gambel Oak woodlands on a high mesa in southwestern Colorado, very different from here. The up-and-down of the trip also gave me an opportunity to sample the varieties of season available now.

All this is too much prelude to an actual topic. Quaking Aspen (Populus tremuloides) and Gambel's Oak (Quercus gambelii) are both species that "reproduce" mostly vegetatively, forming huge clones of interconnected stems that look like individual trees. So how can you tell where one individual leaves off and another one starts? Because different clones respond differently to seasonal cues, Spring is often a great clue. It's a time of year when you can catch aspen, especially, displaying their individuality. (The oak wasn't displaying anything just yet.) How many, then, do you see in the photo below?

These photos were all taken in two quick stops along Hwy 62 as it crosses the Dallas Divide between Ridgway and Placerville. I'm thinking we're seeing at least three, maybe even five, individual aspen among the many trees present above. That is, of course, a wild guess totally unsupported by DNA evidence. Me, I was just there for the scenery.*

* Much of the scenery is, by the way, brought to us by Ralph Lauren, whose ranch, the Double RL, occupies 16,000 acres (that's 25 sq miles, people) and a good deal of linear footage along this route. It's nice when vast wealth benefits the rest of us. Thanks, Ralph! If you pass this way, you'll recognize Ralph's property by the tasteful 4-rail fence on the south side of the highway (see photo 2).

Such aspen clones are in the running for a world record, if not still holding. The Watcher, saving me a lot of time and trouble, tells us all about cloning and Pando, a giant aspen in Utah that's thought, so far, to be the world's largest organism, in his several posts on the topic. Wikipedia agrees, and so does Wayne's Word, though that site offers a few other contenders in the "most massive" category.

I especially appreciated these Sunday morning views in contrast to the previous evening, when I drove from Montrose to Sister's in a haze of yellowish gray smoke from the Beaver Fire near Norwood, caused by powerlines downed by the phenomenal winds that plagued my 580-mile trip that weekend. Another 3200 acres reclaimed for aspen, perhaps.

Fire is closely associated with aspen, whose cloning habit enables it to be resilient in the face of loss of its aboveground parts. Oak, too, abides below through fires. Scenes like this, with the light spring green and pale grey of aspen set off by darker grey of oak and conifers, depend on fire for the aesthetic pattern we find so appealing.

Of course, getting to see the San Juan Mountains in the background doesn't hurt either! Enjoy the view...


Watcher said...

So are your oaks late as well? They seem at least 2 weeks behind normal here in the Wasatch, though, oddly, the aspens seem pretty much on schedule.

I envy Talented Sister- ah, to live in SW Colorado!

Ted C. MacRae said...

What a pleasure it is to see such stunning views of mountain landscape accompanied by rich explanations of the natural history. Nice!

Reagan said...

Great shots you've got here. Those are awesome views of mountain landscape, and would probably perfect when printed on post cards. By the way, thanks for the share. Keep it up and more power.


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