How does a plant know when it’s time to break the surface, to move from its protected subterranean world and reach skyward?
If it gets the timing wrong, it could freeze, or encounter snow too deep to break through. Timing is especially important for early risers like the prairie crocus, currently gracing the south-facing slopes around Whitehorse.
I recall from elementary school science experiments what the plants did when a light source was near. They reached for it because they sensed the light.
Crocuses, too, know when to come up by sensing light below the earth. This leads them to reach for it, and in turn, to photosynthesize. They can’t wait too long because the season may be short.
Between now and the fall, the crocuses must grow leaves to photosynthesize and begin making energy. Then they need to flower, at least enough to attract the attention of a pollinator. If pollinated, then they must set seed for their progeny.
It is necessary to do all this while gathering enough energy for next season. This energy is stored in a bulb lying about eight cm below the soil, and possibly below the snow still covering the ground.
Think of the bulb as an energy storage container. If you haven’t walked on the trails lately, go out today. Those storage containers have been busy – providing energy to the first stalks and leaves.
You should notice crocus leaves before the flower. Scan the landscape for the most sheltered, the most sun-drenched and warmest spot. It is here you are most likely to see the first magnificent colour – mauve, lilac, purple – of spring.
Whatever colour, it is certainly the hue of warmer afternoons, longer days, and more outside time.
Upon finding a crocus, try this: return to it over several days and at different times of the day. You may notice its flower will have moved, continually facing the sun like a satellite dish.
In fact, it likely even changed the span of its petals to gather more of the sun’s rays. By doing this it can increase the temperature at the centre of the flower by as much as ten degrees Celsius over the surrounding air – a place a cold and windblown pollinating insect might desire.
However, if it’s cloudy, or it’s evening, the flower may be nearly closed.
While observing a flower, contemplate this: now that it has pushed itself above ground, possibly through the snow, has set leaves and flowered, what will it take to survive the season? What must it do to adapt to the cold, the moisture, or lack thereof.
Then, there is frost, wind and poor soil. That’s a lot to handle.
The crocus copes by growing hairs on the entire surface of the plant, including the flower. This helps keep its moisture so the wind doesn’t wick it away.
Life is about adapting, and if experience tells us anything, it’s that in mid-April and early May, we still need to be ready for anything.
Did You Know?
Saffron, one of the world’s most expensive spices, derives from crocus flower in the Middle east. Each flower has three vivid crimson stigmas used for reproduction. It has been used for seasonings and colour textiles for over 4,000 years.