Spring: Act I--The Annuals

Updated: May 13, 2019


A new miniseries: "Spring, a 3-Act Play. Act 1: The Annuals". A long title, but such a staged and turbulent season deserves a long name and several acts. This one is mainly about the cast of characters and all their quirks. Annuals are those short-lived plants that avoid dealing with life's adversities by growing, flowering and going to seed as fast as possible. That way they're finished with their business before the water dries up or the frost comes.The scrappy little bad guy in my hand is one of the first to show in the spring. Burr buttercup--its Latin name means horned-head--is from Europe. Aggressive, prolific, and armed with nasty, and supposedly poisonous burrs (don't eat them), this one is a real antagonist in our native communities.

Part 2 in "Spring in 3 Acts, Part 1 the Annuals. Another in the cast of characters here is little draba. A mighty mouse that always shows up each spring--I find a few blooming in even the driest years. A tiny flower, a few pods with a few seeds apiece adds up over time. They deposit their little treasures into the SEED bank. And it's paying off-- on a wet spring like this you can see the results of all their contributions. Draba are carpeting the ground in many places, tiny bouquets of white spotting the ground like a spring snowfall.

Part 3 in Spring, a Play in 3 Acts, Act 1 The Annuals. Is your nose itching yet? This has been a banner year for purple mustard, which is showing up as little dabs and broad swaths of lavender across the landscape. And that smell! It's the smell of spring for me, but an awful odor for those who start sneezing and streaming around this robust Asian import. Why are so many desert-adapted annuals from that part of the world outstanding successes here? Why can't our little specimens compete? Maybe it's the big areas of bare ground we create as we do our thing. They make perfect deserts for these guys to lay claim to. Maybe its the stinking glands that cover all its foliage--what prairie dog would eat that instead of a tastier native? Or maybe it's just that they are supremely adapted for life in the fast lane...germinate-grow-reproduce-die--only taking their foot off the pedal when the spring moisture disappears. Gotta admire them for what they do...excuse me---Ah-ah-AH-CHOOO!

Part 4 in Spring... a 3 act play, Act I the Annuals. They are kind of hard to see there--a green haze that covers the ground. But in the light of the setting sun, you can see some of their delicacy and variety. Here's a mix of mostly natives--western tansy mustard, what's left of the draba. and flatspine stickseed coming on strong. Then there is the invasive Jim Hill mustard sprinkled in here in there, and the ubiquitous redstem storksbill carpeting the ground.. Invasive or native, they both have to deal with the same big challenge: the soil moisture is disappearing, and fast. They must have sensors that tell them when there's more than enough water to "Grow, grow, grow!" their leaves and stems. Then when it starts to dry out just a bit, it's "Switch, switch, switch!" and they turn their attention to buds and flowers. Then when the water is almost gone, it's "Squeeze, squeeze, squeeze those seeds out!" Anthropomorphism at its best, but why not? We won't bother caring about something if we can't empathize with it!

Part 5 in Spring, a 3 Act Play. Part I, The Annuals. Well look at that--it's little cat's eye. Much more interesting than the toy stegosaurus lurking in the background for scale. This cute little character has reduced life down to its essence. Birth-reproduction-death. Far from having ambitions of global dominance, this native is talented in persisting in the background---for centuries. It spends the vast majority of its time on earth as a seed, hidden in the soil. It could be that life is interesting down there, what with the ants, fungi, and hoards of hungry microbes always probing the defenses. There's not much the seed can do in its state of suspended animation, but hope its parent packed a good lunch, stitched together a hard and cryptic seed coat, and added a dose of bug repellent for good measure. That's a lot to ask for from a parent living life as fast and inconspicuously as possible. But evidently they've perfected this lifestyle, because they're still here.!


Those spring annuals-- they are as eclectic a group of characters as the crew of any pirate ship. You have your brash and ugly ones, your meeker characters, the ones who hang out in the background, the type who are a dime-a-dozen, and the little heroes. But it's their singular purpose and strategy for accomplishing it that unites them. In fact, the pirate analogy is a good one, because just like life on the high seas, our cast of characters has to survive where resources are limited. Now they don't do it by stealing riches from other plants; instead they've cut short their life stages to fit into that brief period when warmth, sunshine and ample moisture coincide. And despite coming from diverse backgrounds and families that range from The Mustards, to The Buttercups, to The Borages, each character has figured out how to make a living this way, on this unlikely pirate ship.

Naturally each one has its specialties. There's early emergence and poisonous seeds like burr buttercup, squeaking by on next to nothing and limited but steady seed production like draba and cat's eye. Bad odors, drought tolerance, and fecundity of purple mustard, and on and on. It just makes me want to dig deeper.

So I did, and pulled up several of each species to see what they were hiding underground. They each have a root as characteristic as their top part--some fleshy and robust, others fine and thready. And the natives all have a simple taproot--slender and heading straight down, while the invaders have branching roots. That made me dig even deeper into some of the science on plant structure and growth. It seems that plants are either fast growers that grab resources like light and water, but make flimsy, weak tissue, or they are slow growers that conserve resources, and make long lasting tissue--and probably seeds. It's a quality vs quantity thing, and possibly an underlying explanation behind invasive weed vs polite native annual. Secondly, root surface is where the absorption takes place, so look to what depth the maximum root surface area is to see what layers of the soil they are tapping into. It looks like our natives don't have much interest in water that's 2" down in the soil....maybe that didn't used to be a thing here. And one more tidbit: like other flowering plants, these annuals use a hormone--giberelin--to tell the shoot tip to stop growing leaves and start growing flowers. Could it be that the invasives are a little more flexible about sending that message so they can keep flowering and making seeds as long as the moisture holds out? Obviously, Act I did just what it was supposed to do: it filled my head with questions and made sure I didn't walk out on this play!


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