Of Wildflowers and Fairy Shrimp

Scarlet Fritillary, Lincoln, Oregon

We think spring might really be here now in the Greensprings. We have evidence: wildflowers!

We’ve been taking regular little forays up the trail behind our cabin into the woods and up to the lava-rock-strewn meadow to see what is blooming. Every few days, the show changes.

Among the earliest flowers we noticed were the purple grass widows, and some of the tiniest flowers I have ever seen–so tiny, in fact, that the small diamond on my wedding ring dwarfs the white, pinhead-sized blooms.

Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii), Wide angle macro, Lincoln, Oregon

Grass widows, Lincoln, Oregon

Grass widows (Olsynium douglasii), Wide angle macro, Lincoln, Oregon

Detail of Grass Widow

Tiny wildflower (Draba verna) with ring for scale, Lincoln, Oregon

Tiny wildflower (Draba verna) with ring for scale

Early colors were purple, yellow and white, the colors of garden crocuses (though I didn’t find those except at our neighbor’s yard). These are the colors that bees can see, and indeed, a few tiny buzzing ones could be seen helicoptering from flower to flower.

The next week or so, I noticed the pink blossoms of manzanita in bloom, their sweet fragrance reminding me a little of the cultivated lilacs I have at home in Virginia.

Scarlet Fritillary

Scarlet Fritillary

As of this week, the flowers have gotten more varied and colorful. Light purple and dark  plum flowers contrast with the golden cups of Oregon buttercups with their little orange-brown spots, and on the forest path that leads to the meadow, the most stunning red-and-amber-flecked fritillaries, resembling stained glass as the sunlight filters through their curling petals.

When we first found the fritillaries, I was beside myself with joy, thinking that we’d seen the rare Gentner’s fritillaries, unique to the Monument. I examined them closely with my hand lens, made careful drawings and painted them in watercolor (though the final product did not turn out as I’d hoped), while Steven photographed them carefully and compared them to the images in field guides and online.

Alas, our beloved fritillaries turned out not to be the Gentner’s but only the (equally lovely) Scarlet Fritillaries (Fritillaria recurva). Equally lovely, I say, because I can’t actually see the difference between the two species. The difference lies, apparently, in the length of the style before it splits.

My daughter had to remind me what the “style” of the flower is. (“Didn’t you take fourth grade science, Mom?” “Yes, but that was long ago, and I’ve forgotten.”)

In case fourth grade was long ago for you, too, here is a refresher from the American Museum of Natural History.

I admit to a brief interlude of feeling outraged that the differing style length is enough for biologists to designate these flowers as completely different species. Seriously.

But that is what biologists do: examine living things so closely that they learn to know and recognize the most minute details with a kind of intimacy that is rare except among mothers and babies, or perhaps, among lovers.

A couple of weeks ago, Steven and I visited Parsnips Lakes, where he had previously seen the Oregon Spotted Frog. I hoped to glimpse one, too, but had to make do with the  proliferation of chorus frogs, caddisfly larvae, water bugs, and fairy shrimp. Fairy shrimp!

Fairy Shrimp, Parsnip Lakes, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

Oregon Fairy Shrimp, Parsnip Lakes

What is a fairy shrimp, you might well ask? They are, I tell you, most delightful, something like little pink ballerinas dancing through the pond water, a few inches beneath the surface, their bodies translucent like gossamer. They swim upside down and somewhat in circular patterns, their locomotion reminding me a little of the seahorses I observed at an aquarium, or perhaps synchronized swimmers. I fell instantly in love with these little fairies.

Fairy shrimps, like fritillaries, are divided into several different species according to extremely subtle differences–the shape of the antennal appendage on their faces, for example, or by whether their eggs inside their egg sacs are crenellated. We’re talking about true love, here, folks!

The fairy shrimps we found that day turned out to be the Oregon Fairy Shrimp (Eubranchipus oregonus), a fairly common species, but it took us several days of rummaging through books of macroinvertebrates, and of sending photographs to biologists who then forwarded them to a fairy shrimp experts in Kansas before we could be certain of their ID.

You may think I’ve wondered far off topic here, from wildflowers to fairy shrimp, but I can’t look at spring wildflowers without imagining the flower fairies that delighted me when I was a child.

During the hour I spent drawing the Scarlet Fritillary, I observed a fairy-winged little bee who flitted from one trumpet-shaped cup to another, sipping sweet nectar with what appeared to me to be very great cheer. Now bees, as I mentioned earlier, see only purple and yellow, so what is it doing in the Scarlet Fritillary? Well, the scarlet fritillary is flecked with yellow, too, so that its overall appearance from a distance is almost flame-orange. I wonder if the bee can see the yellow coloration and not the red? Thus, the flower has all the advantages of being red (gorgeous, and attractive to hummingbirds) while not losing out on the advantages of yellow.

Whether my theory holds water, I don’t know. But at any rate, Scarlet Fritillaries are my new favorite flower, beautiful enough to rival the tulip flowers that crazed seventeenth century Holland. In one of Steven’s photographs, they even resemble some of the still life paintings of that period.

Wildflower, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument

Anna Maria paints a Scarlet Fritillary

View the Wildflowers of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument gallery on Flickr


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