Warm weather and rain have finally melted much of the snow at the valley level in this area and at long last I was able to visit a place, which for some reason hosts the first Spring bloom of buttercups in this whole region. A week ago there was a foot of snow on the ground up there, but today hundreds of buttercups were in full bloom on the tiny top of “Buttercup Ridge”.
Every year about this time the first wildflowers in this part of western Montana begin to bloom, months ahead of the rest. They are Sagebrush Buttercups (Ranunculus glaberrimus) and on a thin ridge that juts out from some cliffs a dozen miles upriver the first of blossom opened today. There was just one today, but in a few sunny days there will be many more. For whatever reason their success strategy tells them to open so early, it works.
The tiny cup lichen are also still doing well and displaying their bright red fruit.
After about a half mile of hiking toward a trail that I intended to visit today I tired of all of the snow and ice and turned back. I hike for the pure pleasure of it and saw no point in hiking where it wasn’t fun. And there are other places to go, one of which is Buttercup Ridge, where the very first wildflowers bloom every year about this time. It’s a small area, about 50 feet by 100 feet atop a very steep, narrow, rocky, cliffy ridge, and why buttercups bloom there nearly two months before they bloom anywhere else is a complete mystery to me. They do though, after all, bloom in western Montana and somewhere in their DNA they know that and they also know that before spring comes they may see temperatures of -20ºF and two feet of snow, but they bloom anyway. I love their attitude!
Sagebrush Buttercups ~ Ranunculus glaberrimus: (the water drops on some of them came from last night’s frost).
Tucked neatly in between snow flurries these days there have been periods of sunshine, and Nature is proceeding with the inevitable journey toward Summer. The Buttercups which have been in bloom for a month on Buttercup Ridge have now spread to sunlit places along the valley floor
Sagebrush Buttercup Ranunculus glaberrimus
and among them are the tiny white flowers of Whitlow Grass.
Whitlow Grass, Draba verna
Near where these were blooming there was a section of an old abandoned barb-wire fence and it appeared to be a danger to the deer who crossed that hillside on their way to the river to drink. As I knelt down to cut the pieces of old rusted wire, this very early bloom of Woodland Star became visible, perhaps as a small reward for my effort.
This afternoon I hiked up to Buttercup Ridge to check on the buttercups. The two plants that had flower buds a week ago still looked just the same, but when I wandered a hundred feet or so further up the ridge, this one was in full bloom. Interestingly, the first blooms there in 2011 were also on February 5th.
Fifteen miles or so up the road to the east of here there is a thin slice of Lolo National Forest land that borders the highway. It’s a steep, rocky, cliffy, brush-choked little column that leads up into the high country along the boundary of the Flathead Indian Reservation.
One January several years ago, for some reason that I can no longer remember, I made a foray up into the area and after about half a mile made a turn to the west up through a channel in the cliffs and arrived at a steep, narrow little ridge that overlooked the valley from about 300 feet above. From the signs left by the animals I could tell that it was a frequent haunt of Big Horn sheep. There was also a surprise; a single buttercup plant already showing a flower bud right in the middle of winter. I chose to call the place “Buttercup Ridge”.
Each January since then I have visited that little ridge and found buttercups with flower buds. (Depending on the weather, they will burst into bloom by around the middle of February.) Just before noon today I visited Buttercup Ridge again and with only a little searching found two plants with nicely formed buds.
The following photos will show each bud, followed by a larger scale photo of where it fits into the foliage on the ridge, hidden in the brown grass of last summer or in the shelter of an Antelope Bitterbush, then a much larger scale photo which includes the more distant background. I have no explanation of why they bloom in this tiny area a full two months before they bloom anywhere else around here.
Since these photos were taken the buttercups have been covered by about two inches of soft wet snow and there is more expected tonight and tomorrow. They will be OK: they are used to it!