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The Sunflower Hill Chronicles, Part 1: Promise of Spring

By Birgitta Jansen

March 5, 2022

It was my first Sunflower Hill hike since last fall. The noon-time sun shone brightly in a cerulean sky, cumulus clouds already building up over mountain ridges. This was a day too beautiful to resist. The outdoors was calling. Tasks that should be tended to were left behind and forgotten.

Going up Campground Trail I quickly discovered, not unexpectedly, that there was still a considerable snowpack although much melting has already gone on. Slush, ice, crunchy sparkling snow, and conditions I have no names for were all there. It was impossible to look around while walking. These varying conditions demanded respect. Eyes needed to focus on each step without fail. Even then, there were surprises like sinking down a foot or so, as soft spots in snow were plentiful.

Snow has melted from around the base of the trunks of two Ponderosa pines, though it remains on the ground
The melting pattern around the bottom of tree trunks, in this case two Ponderosa pines. Photo credit: Birgitta Jansen

Already the ground was bare on the steeper hillsides and around the bottom of tree trunks. In various places the rich scent of moist earth permeated the air. The temperature was right around freezing but warmer where Sunflower Hill was exposed to the sun. And there’s no question that much of Sunflower Hill gets sun.

There was plenty of ungulate evidence, myriad trails through the snow made by many hooves. I encountered numerous piles of fresh elk scat.

Then I spotted two Gray-crowned rosy finches working the bare patches of the hillside along the old road. I learned the name from two birders passing by. Except for one fussy squirrel and two ravens calling out to each other as they flew over, the woods were silent. There was no wind, and the air was still. There seemed to be patience in that silence. It felt as if I was traversing a landscape-in-waiting; waiting for the promise of spring to unfold into an annual celebration of life. Viriditas: the greening of the land, the life force.

When I was nearing the crest of the hill, the Rockies came into view. Breathtaking. Rugged peaks and ridges, still covered in sparkling white snow, were lit up by the sun and shining in their fullest glory against the deep blue sky. A thick layer of cloud hung below the skyline as if to frame the sight and let it be the sole focus of awareness.

Then, as I was on the Sunflower Hill trail making my way to Duck Pond Trail, I spotted a tall shrub with little white dots along some of the upper twigs glistening in bright sunlight. “What could that be?” I wondered. I could not resist and plowed my way through the snow to see what those mysterious white dots could be. I had a hunch but thought it might be too early. But it wasn’t too early for these earliest messengers of spring: pussy willows.

Pussy willows emerge on red-barked twigs in a close-up shot
The pussy willow (Salix discolor) is native to North America. Photo credit: Birgitta Jansen

It is a thrill to see these little silver-grey fuzz balls. The fuzz provides the insulation for the willow trees’ flower buds as they survive cold temperatures during the last remnants of winter. “Flowers?” you ask. Yes, you’re looking at them.

Those silver-grey balls of fuzz are the early stage of the development of the willow tree’s flowers, called catkins. When sun warms the buds, the flowers open fully and start releasing their pollen.

The flowers don’t look like we expect flowers to look; they don’t have petals and aren’t colorful, but they do have pollen—and plenty of it, as it turns out. Pollen needs to be produced in prodigious amounts because it is distributed by wind, which is at best a hit-and-miss process.

Willows are dioecious, meaning there are male plants and female plants. The first pussy willows that we see in the spring are the male flowering buds. The female plants flower too, but develop a little later and the flowers look different.

I could only smile as I continued on my way. Now I can be assured that Sunflower Hill lies in waiting to become true to its name not too long from now…


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