Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Wake up, sleepyheads ... it’s Spring!

On a sunny morning a few days ago, I walked through the prairie hoping to spot the first wildflowers of spring.  At 8 am it was 40º F and calm; it felt so nice and warm.  But look ... these guys were still asleep!  Who is this, still curled up so tight?
That afternoon the temperature reached 71º F and I returned for another look.  I found Easter daisies, wide awake and smiling in the sunshine.  Anthropomorphizing? yeah I suppose, but who wouldn’t smile in such lovely spring weather?
Easter daisies are members of the genus Townsendia.  This particular one is T. exscapa ... sounds like a disappearing townsendia, but “exscapa” refers to the absence of a stem.  The common name according to the US Dept. of Agriculture is “stemless Townsend daisy” but I much prefer Easter daisy.  These often are our first spring wildflowers, and blooming so early they are favorites among wildflower lovers -- we are always happy to see them.

“If the Easter daisy grew in Ireland, it would be the leprechaun’s favorite flower” wrote Dave Ode in Dakota Flora.  No doubt.  There's definitely something magical about them.  They are not always easy to spot and one has to look carefully for their hiding places.  Though small, they seem especially beautiful against the gray-and-brown spring grassland.
The heads of Easter daisies are 2-2.5 cm across.  Heads? what heads? ... keep reading :)

Claude Barr was a South Dakota rancher and self-trained botanist who put in many years (until he was 95) growing local wildflowers, which he called "Jewels of the Plains".  In 1983, his life’s work was published in a book of the same name (see Additional Information below).  Barr noted the alpine-like growth form of Easter daisies:  compact, hugging the ground, protecting buds that were set the previous autumn.  Like alpine cushion plants, Easter daisies are ready to grow and bloom as soon as the first warm days arrive.  As I found out, they close up at night and won’t rise and shine until there is plenty of warmth the next day.  The past few days have been cloudy and cold, so the Easter daisies are all curled up again, waiting for Spring to return.
Easter daisies on this south-facing slope are ahead of their brethren
in the grassland, which were still closed when this photo was taken. 

Townsendia exscapa is native to the Rocky
Mountains and Great Plains of North America.
Map courtesy Flora of North America.
Easter daisies are members of the Asteraceae, one of the largest plant families in the world with 22,700+ species, including sunflowers, artichokes, marigolds, safflowers, lettuce and chamomile.  The old name for the family was Compositae, referring to the composite flower heads.  What may look like a single Townsendia flower actually is a tight cluster of many small flowers (florets) of two types -- white ray flowers and yellow disc flowers.  Each of the tiny flowers has reproductive organs, i.e. stamens and pistils, as well as modified petals -- strap-shaped for the ray flowers, tube-shaped for the disc flowers.  Each flower produces pollen and eventually a seed ... oftentimes.  In Townsendia, ray florets are strictly female; disc florets are bisexual and fertile.
Can you see the six yellow disc flowers that are open?
Schematic cross section of a flower head showing single ray flower on
left side, and multiple disc flowers.  Modified from here (no source given).
I picked a couple of Easter daisies, brought them home and put them in a bottle cap with water.  I thought I might dissect them for closeup photos, but they were too cute to tear apart!  They continue to close every evening and open every morning, smiling in the morning light.

Additional Information

Ode, D.J.  2006.  Dakota Flora: A Seasonal Sampler.  Pierre, SD:  South Dakota State Historical Society Press.  266 pp and 103 great color photos.  Winner of Best Books 2006 Book Award for Nature Writing.

Barr, Claude A.  1983.  Jewels of the Plains.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Barr’s book is out-of-print, but available used.  Check with the Great Plains Native Plant Society for new copies:  “the few remaining are available only as a special premium with purchase of a Life Membership.”  The work of Claude Barr is being continued by the GPNPS at the Great Plains Garden near Hermosa, SD, “a complete botanic garden devoted to the Great Plains of North America and its native plants”.

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