I Think We'll Stick with Windmills
Updated: Apr 2, 2021
It’s a delight to hike the shrub step hills during these early days of spring. There is still snow on the tops of the higher ridges encircling our valley, giving beautiful distant views. But the views we look at most these days are the ones at our feet—the ones we instinctively sidestep to avoid trampling upon and destroying. Every spring has a predictable succession of wildflowers; this year is no different, except that the profusion is greater than usual.
The early ones—yellow bells, sagebrush violet, grass widow, sagebrush buttercup, gold stars—are all dancing together, friendly neighbors enjoying the cool weather before rushing off into dormancy until next spring. The arrival of each type is met with exultation; reports of first sightings are delivered to other family members as though the discoverer had run into an old acquaintance and had exciting news to share.
I’ve often marveled at how knowing the names of native flora and fauna transforms them into visiting friends as they cycle through the year. Rather than say, “what a pretty little flower," or “there's a colorful bird,” we call them by name, just as we would any visitor. By knowing them on a first-name basis, we become more connected to our habitat and more in touch with the progression of the seasons.
We’ve enjoyed learning the common names of wildflowers as well as Latin names. The Latin names are often harder to remember, although I regularly get Frittilaria pudica (the Latin name for yellow bells) stuck in my head, like a percussive earworm. Having good identification guides has been essential. It’s also been helpful to talk to old-timers who’ve lived here for longer than us and who know where to find patches of native flowers.
One spry neighbor in her eighties took us on a hike into a secluded draw to see camas (Camassia quamash) in bloom. We’ve only seen it in that one spot, but we’re hoping to find more. Sometimes it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.
Another dear neighbor, who grew up in this valley and whose family was among the first settlers, was always watching for spring blooms. Marian called grass widows (Sisyrinchium inflatum) “windmills,” the name she had learned as a child. I prefer her name for them, because it describes them well: slender stems topped with delicate purple blooms that nod merrily in the breeze.
This year the grass widows started blooming early and have continued their brilliant display longer than usual. They poke up between rocks and sagebrush; they grow out of hard-packed earth. They remind me of sweet Marian, gone now for over 10 years. She was both delicate and tough, a petite queen from the greatest generation. She knew a better name for Sisyrinchium inflatum. I think we’ll stick with windmills.