March 21st. It's the first day of spring - and we're on the way to another glorious Yukon summer of fun in the sun. We hope. Spring comes quickly in the Yukon. One day, you think the endless winter will never end. Next day, on a sidehill where the ravens soar, out pops a soft purple flower which seems to say, 'Don't worry, be happy. I'm back'. Actually, it may not be until mid-May that the crocuses pop up.
The prairie crocus is a heliotrope. A what? Well, in Beatles language, Paul McCartney would say it's a flower that follows the sun. It turns through the day and the petals act like a satellite dish to gather every bit of heat from the spring sun. Smart little flowers, these prairie crocuses.
Smart in many ways, actually. For example, hairs on the leaves cut down on water loss by protecting the flower from the wind. The flower opens in sunshine and closes in the evening and in cloudy weather. You can watch for it. But not for long. The flowering periods lasts about two weeks. The long, feathery seeds ripen in May to July, depending on latitude and altitude.
Then the above-ground parts of the plant dry up and disappear.
Like other plants, crocuses have medicinal properties. A poultice - or plaster - made from the plant was used to treat rheumatism or other muscular pains by early settlers. It was also used to stop nosebleeds and draw out infections in cuts and boils. But don't eat it. The crocus is poisonous.
Like some other plants, the prairie crocus flowers in abundance after a forest fire. Fire removes the dead plant litter, returns minerals to the soil surface, and increases light. Lots of flowers, like the fireweed, can be found in burn areas.
Besides, Manitoba long ago took possession of the crocus. It was chosen as the province's official flower in a school contest back in 1906.
The height of the bloom for the crocus is the second week of July. After that, the appearance of new flowers tapers off and the plants put their energy into seed production. Occasionally, if a cool spell is followed by warm weather late in the summer, a few of the early plants will flower again.
Sometimes prairie crocuses in the Yukon can be seen flowering again as late as mid-August. But that's a long way off.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin