Tuesday, June 06, 2006


The ecotone between mountain and prairie that is called “the east slope of the Rockies” is awash with color this time of year, IF there is rain and this year there was, though we’re slipping back into drought now.

The auctioneer Buckley told me a story the other day. The female buffalo said, “I’m about to calve and I want a good place, so I’ll go to the south-facing slopes of the Sweetgrass Hills where my babies can be born into sunshine.” And all the female buffaloes went there. When the calves were born, in each place that the umbilical cord touched the ground, up sprang kippiaapi, a pale lavendar flower that has fur and is one of the first flowers of spring. Today we call them Wild Crocus.

The Christians call them “pasqueflowers” because they come about Easter. Evidently they didn’t notice that sheep that overfeed on the flower can be killed! On the other hand, the Passover or Paschal Lamb historically was killed and eaten ceremonially -- a sacrificial lamb.

Some say “prairie anemone,” “windflower,” “blue tulip” or “American Pulsatilla.” It’s the state flower of South Dakota, but it’s probably through blooming there by the time tourists get on the road, so they are more likely to see it where it blooms later at higher altitudes. Technically, they are a type of ranunculacae (“little frog”) which is the buttercup family.

That’s a poetic indigenous flower. But domestically right at the moment the lilacs and caraghana have just finished blooming in town. Lilacs are one of the most beloved and fragrant plants of homesteaders and able to persist long after the houses have fallen back into the ground. Caraghana, or Siberian pea, is a tough, gorse-like plant that is nearly indestructible even on the prairie. It has a yellow flower which develops into a pod. In the hot part of the summer, the ripened and dried pod will split open -- explode is more like it, hurling tiny peas at innocent cats and pedestrians. Pfft. Pfft. Blip, blip. I used to have a hedge of them just outside the screendoor where their tiny bombardments pattered all afternoon.

Right now along the roads there are feral flowers, agricultural escapees of three bright kinds, which are striking when they are planted in fields, but beautiful even when they escape from the seed trucks when the crops are hauled in to the elevator. One is mustard, which is yellow.

Another is flax, a most elegant towards-lilac blue, the blue of Della Robbia’s madonnas. Della Robbia blue is a derivative of cobalt and is not a paint, but a glaze for terra cotta sculptures which were traditionally white on blue backgrounds. In Europe there were only two sources for cobalt, a commodity much prized and associated with royalty, like purple. Della Robbia was not just one artist, but a family of artists who managed to keep the formula for their blue glaze secret until they were betrayed by a maid.

Flax, of course, is the plant that saved Ireland because it would grow in drained fields and yield linen which was an excellent cash crop and provided many weavers with a living. "Irish linen" is much valued.

The third color comes from sainfoin, a leguminous fodder plant like alfalfa, whose name comes from the French for health "sain" (sanitation, sanitarium, sane) and “foin” which is hay. Some call it “saintfoin” which implies a sacred connection. In any case, it is pink -- bright pink, maybe even Schaperelli pink! Schaperelli was a haute clothing designer in Paris (mais oui!) known for that color, especially in combination with black. They say it is becoming popular again. The year that Grant Gallup planted a field of sainfoin on the road going into East Glacier, people almost drove into the ditch, so distracted were they by trying to figure out what in the world it was! The color of watermelon flesh!

I’m just waiting for some agricultural artist to create a quilt of yellow, blue and pink! Maybe stripes.

Now just beginning to bloom down in the coulees where it’s warm and sheltered is the lupine. Related to the Texas bluebonnet, lupine is ironically named for the wolf but actually puts nitrogen into the soil. Also called pursh, it can be a resident of poor soil, but will help with recovery. It’s a little more purplish than flax and not along the roads, but in great sheets out across the prairie, looking almost like lakes.

In my yard the Harison Gold yellow rose, probably the “yellow rose of Texas,” is blooming. It’s another of those indestructible and much-valued domestic plants that will go feral if they get a chance.

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