Spring is born in the south and moves northward, they say, at an average speed of 13 miles a day. It never gets here soon enough. After months of cold and snow, our hearts yearn for the fresh breezes and blossoms of spring.
So it was that on a cool, rainy, muddy Saturday morning a week or so ago, some 25 people gathered on Great Salt Lake's Stansbury Island in hopes of catching sight of the season's first wildflowers. The outing was sponsored by Red Butte Garden, the Utah Native Plant Society and the Wasatch Rock Garden Society.Spring comes to Stansbury Island three or four weeks ahead of the rest of the valley. Because of the lake to the north and the desert to the south, it is warmer here, and flowers bloom earlier than in the foothills of Salt Lake City.
Already Bill and Cathy King, of the Wasatch Rock Garden Society, who went a couple of days early to scout things out, have counted 13 species of wildflowers in bloom: tiny, exquisite, precious bits of color on an otherwise stark landscape.
That's the thing about the desert, says Cathy. "You think there's nothing there until you stop and take a closer look." Most of the flowers on Stansbury are small, even tiny. They have to be to survive in these harsh conditions. "Most wildflowers have to do their thing quickly. They have so little time to bloom and grow seeds," she says.
By summer these slopes on Stansbury will be parched and dry and the weather will be burning hot. Some of the members of the aster family will bloom later on, but for the most part, if you want to see color the best time is the spring.
Stansbury Island is actually only an island when the Great Salt Lake level rises to 4,200 feet or higher. For the rest of the time - such as now - it is a peninsula jutting out from the southwest shore. As islands go, it is the second largest in the lake and is named for Capt. Howard Stansbury of the Corps of Topographic Engineers of the U.S. Army, who headed an expedition to survey the lake in 1849-50. As an island, it is about 11.5 miles long and 4.5 miles wide, with a shoreline of about 24 miles. As a peninsula, it is connected to the shore and is accessible by dirt road that takes off just past Grantsville.
The island is a typical desert mountain, with the highest point, Stansbury Peak, some 6,645 above sea level, and with sparse vegetation. The northern end is privately owned and is used as a winter grazing area for sheep and cattle. The southern end is managed by the BLM and is open to hikers and mountain bikers.
The plants that grow here are different from those that grow in the Uintas, says Bill King, who has counted 128 different species on Stansbury - from the tiny, white-flowered Ranunculus testiculatus (bur buttercup) to the Utah juniper trees. Rabbit brush is plentiful and just beginning to show new growth, but sage is scarce due to the salty content of the soil. "The closer you get to the lake, the less that grows," says Bill. "Only the chenopods can grow in salt; the rest can't absorb it into their systems."
The Kings are more into alpine flowers than desert flowers, says Cathy. But the high mountain varieties won't be blooming for quite some time, so they like to go where they can find flowers now. "Actually, this is late even for Stansbury," she says. "We've been out here in February some years and these same things are blooming. But that's the thing about nature - you never know what to expect."
So, even if there is mud and rain - even if Stansbury only gets 6 inches of rain a year and it is just their luck to be there when some of it is coming down - the group is excited about the wildflowers. "Plant people are crazy, anyway," says Dick Hildreth, coordinator of education programs for Red Butte Gardens. "But just look at the Fritillerias. I'm amazed at how many there are. I've never seen so many in one place like this."
Fritilleria pudica, commonly known as yellowbell, is a delicate little flower that grows amid the rocks and crevices of the upward slopes.
Plant people tend to use the scientific names, because common names can vary so much from place to place. And so the conversation is dotted with Latin. The group spots a cluster of Crypthantha humilis (cat's eye) and one of Lomatium grayi (springparsley) known for its pungent parsley smell. Over there is Astragalus utahensis (Utah milkvetch or locoweed). And here's one little Castilleja angustifolia (Narrowleaf paintbrush). Most numerous is probably the tiny pink Erodium cicutarium, a member of the geranium family with blossoms that look like a storksbill, so that's its common name.
Cathy King has a particular fondness for the tiny flowers. "I love everything that blooms, but the tinier it is, the more exquisite it seems." Sometimes, she says, you get a tiny plant with a big bloom quite out of proportion to its size. "Those are great in rock gardens."
Many wildflowers can be grown at home, but not all will prosper. "You think that if they grow here, they'll grow anywhere. But sometimes the moisture or the drainage isn't quite right."
And that makes it even more interesting to find the flowers in their natural habitats. It makes you appreciate even more what the plants have to go through to survive. "It's astounding, some of the places they grow," she says. "Some of the alpine flowers, for example, will form buds and then wait until conditions are right before they pop into bloom. And then it's such a short life."
Eventually, the rain stops on Stansbury and sun peeks through the clouds. The trill of a meadowlark can be heard in the distance. Several members of the group begin to look for rocks that could decorate their rock gardens at home; one of them has a permit that allows rocks to be taken off the island.
"I've been here under better conditions," says Sue Hildreth, "but there's always a lot to see." Even if, at first glance, it looks like as stark and uninteresting a landscape as you would find anywhere. Even if you wonder how plants of any kind can survive.
Seeing the delicate blooms in this unusual setting helps you understand how it all fits together, helps you appreciate the tenacity of nature and the joy of growing things. And it makes you feel good on such a cool and muddy day to know that in the tiny flowers of Stansbury Island is all the promise of spring. Here is the beginning of one more cycle in a stretch of cycles that go back to the edge of time; one more fulfillment of the ancient words of Solomon: "For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. . . ."