By Liz Summer, I Start Wondering Columnist
The Texas spring comes in not as a lion and out as a lamb, but rather is a series of crashing waves. Mountain ranges of storm clouds roll in with howling, biting cold fronts and then ebb, leaving trails of gentle warmth and brilliant sun. Usually these extremes from below freezing temperatures to the upper 70s happen all in the same week (and often all in the same day). The flora of Texas navigates a delicate dance responding to these mixed signals. Bloom too soon in response to beckoning spring days of welcoming warmth and the reward will be quick termination by a heartless killing frost. Bloom too late by taking the cautious approach of responding only to lengthening spring daylight and the reward will be a delayed start that leads to getting lost and shaded under a towering leafy canopy.
The Start of the Cycle of Spring
By late December, open fields and pastures are brown and naturally cropped short as plant growth ceases but relentless herbivory continues. Plants that would have been scorned in more bountiful periods become acceptable food for myriad of animals, small and large. The tall forage is nibbled down and this opens the surface of the earth to direct sunlight, which presents an opportunity. In a few weeks, the area will be elevated skyward as robust flowers and grasses vie to be tallest to grab up all the light.
This dance between extreme temperatures and the opening of the sky all the way to the ground manifests a unique opportunity. In the warm temporal troughs between each of the cold fronts and physically positioned at the very junction of earth and sky, an ephemeral space opens. This fleeting window favors the tiny plants who germinate, grow and flower in miniature, completing their cycles before being shaded by their taller and thicker cousins.
Look Down to See the Leprechaun World
It is easy to tread across this leprechaun world unbeknownst to the magic beneath our very feet. From a distance, the field looks brown and barren and short. Looking down from humans’ lofty five-foot to six-foot crowns, our own eyes are situated far from the ground.
Kneeling down, what is here is revealed. At the base is a carpeted infinity of dicot seedlings, the first germinations from last year’s sowing. As anyone who has soaked beans for cooking, cracked nuts or eaten roasted peanuts knows, seeds split into two halves. When a dicot plant germinates, these two halves become the “seed leaves” (cotyledons) containing a start-up tank of starches to be used before the tiny plant’s own photosynthetic machinery are up and running fully. These seed leaves are the birthing gift from the seedling’s mother. The cotyledons of many plants are quite non-descript compared with the true leaves and, thus, give little indication of what the adult plant will be.
Towering at only 1 or 2 inches, legions have already sprouted, matured, and flowered close to the surface of the earth between the breaks in the weather. Among these is a duo of yellow sorrels and yellow clover, whose appearance heralds upcoming Saint Patrick’s Day. With distinctive trinity of heart-shaped leaves, sorrels and clovers are quite recognizable and they are often mistaken for each other.
The similarity is quite superficial, however, as the two are not closely related at all. Sorrels, aka Oxalis, grow on single stems with regular whirled flowers. Clover’s trillium leaves appear on branching runners and the irregular flowers grow in a ball-like cluster. In comparison with my ring (which is only ¾-inch in diameter and serves as a handy size scale), the miniature-ness of these can be more easily appreciated. Sorrels can be eaten and are a tart and tasty treat while clovers add nitrogen to starved soils.
During the heat of summer in a few months’ time, the more delicate sorrels will be relegated to shady understory while hardy clovers will form mounding mats seemingly impervious to the blasting rays. But for now, as trailblazers of spring, these two are mates, growing side-by-side in miniature form. Both are part of a hidden world in plain view that is as magical as any Leprechaun’s tale.