We just moved back to our high mountain home yesterday, after spending six months living in town because of the big Colorado floods back in September.
First things we did: Get a fire going in the wood stove, and feed the birds.
Next order of business?
Look for pasque flowers!
Pasque flowers are the harbinger of spring here in the high Rockies.
They’re the very first wildflower to bloom. Way more reliable than robins, which often hang around all winter.
And competition to find the first one is as stiff among us mountain people as finding the first morel in Indiana, where I used to live.
My first year here in the Rockies, I simply didn’t get it.
Snow was still deep on the ground in most places, nights were still sinking down into the teens, and keeping the wood stove fed was still the main priority of the day.
Yet every time we visited with neighbors, the first question was always, “Seen any pasques yet?”
What were these pasque flowers that seemed to be the main topic of conversation, I wondered?
Oh sure, I’d looked at a picture, to see what all the excitement was about.
Fine. They were pretty things, like pale lilac crocuses. Okay, I’d keep my eyes open.
Then the first hints of spring started to show up.
Rusty-backed gray-headed juncos, the ones who nest here, began to replace the slate-colored guys we have all winter.
Steller’s jays started pairing up instead of hanging out in a big noisy gang.
And the sun was definitely getting stronger.
The “Seen any pasque flowers?” conversations became as frequent as the “Seen any morels yet?” in Indiana.
And before long, it was “Ward found the first pasqueflowers yesterday!” Or Tom. Or George and his wife Muggs. After that first sighting, no one else’s discoveries mattered.
So this was competition, then?
Count me in!
I started looking for the elusive plants as soon as the snow started to melt on the south-facing slopes. Even though I had no clue what I was looking for.
The field guide showed only a picture of the blossom, which was no help at all. It looked like a chubby crocus, though pasque flowers belong to the Anemone, or Buttercup, family (Ranunculaceae). What was the form of the plant? What did the leaves look like when they were first coming up?
Still, I patrolled, peering closely (ohh, my back…) at anything that might possibly be a pasque flower.
Finally, I managed to find what I figured maybe were the buds of this very first wildflower of spring.
The nubbins were tucked deep within a clump of dead leaves and stems, on the south side of a big rock near the foot of the driveway.
They were fuzzy, just like I’d been told.
They didn’t look like any of the other wildflowers that were beginning to grow (wildflowers that, back then, still fell into the category of “don’t know what they are, but I know they aren’t pasque flowers”).
When I carefully unfolded one of the curled-up dead leaves in the clump from which the new growth was sprouting, it had the right five-fingered shape.
Or close enough, anyway.
A week or so later, we were coming home from running errands down in town.
(Yes, we live like the settlers of a hundred years ago, taking the buckboard wagon into town to stock up on flour, sugar, and a bolt of calico. Um, I mean, the ancient Subaru, and it’s more like peanut butter, cheese, lettuce, and a bag of bird seed.)
The cold weather had chosen that day to give up its grip.
It’d been so warm in town, I’d finally shed my down vest. And the mountains had enjoyed the same taste of spring weather.
“I’ll just walk up,” I said innocently, when we reached the bottom of the driveway in late afternoon.
No need to explain. Husband Matt knew what I was looking for. And that I was determined to beat him to the punch and find the first pasque flowers.
Clucking to the team of horses, er, putting the trusty old car in gear, he lumbered away up the hill.
As soon as he was out of sight, I was bending low to see what I could see among the winter-dead grass.
Nope. No flowers. Just the same clump of fuzzy, still curled-tight buds.
Fine. Be that way. Who cares about pasque flowers, anyhow?
Funny, but isn’t that the way it always works?
As soon as you give up looking for something, all of a sudden, there it is.
The next day, I was outside as usual, this time soaking up the signs of spring from the birds instead of looking for stubborn harbinger wildflowers.
Courting Steller’s jays were singing quiet love songs to each other instead of squawking.
Sweet-voiced pine grosbeaks were warbling from the very tips of the spruces.
Little Cassin’s finches and pine siskins were indefatigably singing away (“Will you pipe down?! Sounds like a jungle around here”), even though they hadn’t paired off yet.
I had a grand time puttering around my new gardens for hours, looking at every plant for signs of life.
Then I made a short detour to check on the rock garden in the giant granite boulder near the house.
That one is Nature’s garden, not mine.
And it’s beautiful.
Okay, so maybe most folks wouldn’t have thought so that day, since the plants were still mostly-dormant clumps with last year’s dead sticks.
For me, though it was the promise of what was to come that gave it beauty.
Sure enough, the first leaves of the blue penstemons, orange wallflowers, and pink wild geraniums tucked into the clefts of the big rock were growing strong, thanks to the extra warmth soaked up by the big rock.
“Doin’ good, guys,” I complimented them, gently touching a new leaf here and there.
I was stepping carefully that day, because I’d finally shed my usual hiking boots for a pair of old, beat-up Crocs.
And I knew from experience—can we say “broken ankle”?—how easy it was to slip, starting an unstoppable slide down the steep slope.
Still, I hurried back to the house to tell Matt about everything I’d seen and heard, and especially about how well “my” rock garden was doing.
I wasn’t even thinking about pasque flowers any more.
Which, of course, is when I saw them.
A big patch.
Maybe twenty of the lovely, insanely furry, delicate lilac flowers.
Just opened, and blooming all around my gaudy salmon Crocs-clad feet.
Finally, I got it.
No wonder everyone competes to find the first pasques of spring.
They’re beautiful blossoms, these “wild crocuses,” as many folks call them.
And like crocuses, they bloom before the leaves lengthen. So those big romantic flowers were standing tall.
Even better, they’re covered with soft-as-a-feather fuzz that makes them as appealing as a batch of baby ducks.
And best of all—they’re an absolute, without-any-doubt sign of spring.
Even though it’s likely to snow a few more times right on their heads, that white stuff won’t last long.
Yep. It was love at first sight.
And ever since that first spring here in the Rockies, finding the first pasque flowers has become my favorite spring obsession, er, ritual.
I’m so glad we’re back home in time to catch them in the act.
Not to mention, beat all our neighbors to the punch.
Our Rocky Mountain pasque flower, here at our home, is a subspecies (Pulsatilla patens ssp. multifida) of the native pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens, also called Anemone pulsatilla) that covers a large part of North America—as well as thriving as a native in Europe, Russia, China, and other places.
You may know it as “prairie crocus,” if you live in the Midwest, or as “May Day flower” or “Easter flower” or “wind flower.” It’s the state flower of South Dakota.
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