Saturday, January 19, 2013

Drought and wildflowers

In January, when Arctic air grips the world in an icy fist; when chores are done in swaddled layers of clothing and still the stinging cold bites at fingertips and ears and noses; when gravid cows trade fat for survival…
A wild textile onion blooms in delicate pink and white. Click image for larger view.

In January, wildflowers are part of the future. Or perhaps, part of the past. They exist only in memory or in anticipation. Oh, the seeds and dormant plants are present, hunkered down against the winter, husbanding a tiny spark of life.

In January, wildflowers are only potential wildflowers. New roots, stems, leaves, buds, petals, staman and pistil, aroma glands, tiny seed-factory ovaries – all of these are safely locked away in molecules of DNA.

But they’re there.
Wildflowers can thrive in the most uncommon places. Click image for larger view.

Though it’s hard to remember what spring feels like when you’re chopping ice or feeding hay in sub-zero weather, the annual season of rebirth is on it’s way. Already the days are getting longer, the sun is standing higher in the southern sky each day, tickling our High Plains landscape with ever more warmth. There’s still plenty of winter left, though. As the old saying goes, “as the days lengthen, the cold will strengthen!” It takes time for even the sun to reverse a cooling trend that began late last summer.

But spring is on the way and will arrive, according to the calendar, in only 62 days. On March 20 at 5:02 a.m. to be precise.

This will be a tough spring. The drought that officially began last summer, and which really began at our place the preceding autumn (2011), has sharply depleted soil moisture. The precipitation forecast through March is up in the air. To return to “normal” soil moisture conditions, we would have to receive just over 12 inches of liquid-equivalent snow/rain by the end of March. That’s probably not going to happen.
Wild parsley and several stemless hymenoxis and several species of milkvetch grow out of tiny fissures in a siltstone berm.  Click image for larger view.

So not only the wildflowers, but the entire ecosystem will be challenged when winter passes and the spring brings warmer temperatures.
Spring is the time for rebirth. This antelope twin held remarkably still for his portrait last year. Click image for larger view.

Livestock producers will have to carefully monitor spring green-up and make herd management decisions. If an adequate green-up fails to appear, as it did in 2002, providing non-sustainable livestock forage, many producers will be faced with the choice of continuing to feed hay or to sharply reduce herd numbers.

Regardless of whether the grass greens up There will be wildflowers. If conditions remain exceptionally dry, they will be few and far between, but they will be there. It’ll be interesting to see how the shortgrass prairie ecosystem develops this spring. The EJE Ranch will be again  hosting wildlife/wildflower viewing and hikes during Nebraska Wildflower week June 1- June 8. Keep an eye out for more information as we get closer to spring.

Insects and arachnids are part of the shortgrass prairie ecosystem too. This grass spider sits in the middle of a spectacular silken web. Click image for larger view.

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