Here in the south-central Rocky Mountains, we’re officially in “severe” drought. In the first six months of this year, we’ve racked up a whopping 2.5 inches of precipitation, less than half of normal. An inch and a half of that came in a ten-day period in May after highs in the 80s and howling winds replaced the wet snow we used to get in March and April.
When your average annual precipitation, rain and snowmelt combined, only totals about ten inches, every inch counts. In this high-desert climate, we’re used to dry, but the last few years have been scary.
Despite the drought, my restored native bunchgrass yard, what my late husband Richard called our “unlawn,” is flourishing. That’s partly because I’ve given it a bit of supplemental water: twice in April, I hauled hoses and soaked the grassland portion by portion, simulating wet snow. Also, the rains in May came at just the right time to give these water-wise natives what they needed to gamble on flowering and pollination to produce seeds and ensure their genes would live on to seed the next generation.
True to this record season of drought and heat, the flowers are about two weeks ahead of normal, a term that may not be particularly meaningful in this brave new era of global climate change.
(“Normal” in the sense of “typical” or “usual,” words whose meanings are based on how things used to be. How things used to be is the past, and in terms of climate, we’re in a present which may not bear much relationship to the climate of the immediate past. We’ll only know what the new normal is as we look back from some time in the future. Which of course, is true about most areas of our lives, but that’s a whole other different essay.)
It’s also the beginning of penstemon season. The relatively wide-tubed pink, blue and blue-purple species bloom first, beginning with sidebells penstemon (photo at the beginning of the post), and then Palmer’s penstemon or pink wild snapdragon with its impossibly fat, lilac-pink floral tubes, followed by Rocky Mountain penstemon with vivid blue-purple flowers. These penstemons are pollinated by many different species of native bees, and their floral design is especially accessible to chunky, furry bumblebees.
They time their flowering to when these native bees need pollen and nectar for provisioning their “nests,” individual chambers in the soil or dead plant stems where a female bee lays a single egg, and then rolls in a ball of pollen much bigger than that tiny egg to serve as a food store for the developing larvae. Once she’s done with that task, she seals the chamber and then goes on to lay the next egg, and the next.
Of course, other hungry diners like this hovering white-lined sphinx or hawk moth have no compunction about raiding the nectar from penstemons, even though they don’t return the favor with pollination. Unlike the bees, which crawl right into the flower, dusting the plant’s female parts with pollen carried from another flower of the same species and thus cross-pollinating the flower, and then emerging coated with more pollen, sphinx moths drink with an incredibly long proboscis, a straw as thin as a wire, thereby avoiding messy pollen and the process of fertilization altogether.
Once the hummingbirds begin to nest, the red and scarlet penstemons begin to bloom, their color and narrow floral tube signaling “food here!” to the hovering avian dynamos. But for now, the hummingbirds (and I) have to be content with the neon-bright (and also nectar-laden) flowers of wholeleaf indian paintbrush.
Richard and I imagined restoring a healthy community of native bunchgrasses and wildflowers to re-green what was once blighted industrial ground long before I learned of Catherine Zimmerman’s Meadow Project. Of course, ours is no “meadow” in the lush sense: it’s a tough high-desert grassland where plant cover rarely reaches 50 percent of the ground, and nothing grows taller than about two feet. But what our “unlawn” follows the same philosophy as Zimmerman’s project: replacing sterile and resource intensive lawns with thriving and lively native grasslands.
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