On a recent hike through the Dragonfly trails, upon climbing about a gradual bend, I was met with a sight of fanciful beauty: “Oh, look at the flowers! How beautiful!” I spoke aloud. My partner, silent, as if confused. It’s early-February and being in the southwest, there has been nearly no snow this year, and there are certainly no flowers either… At least not with vibrant inflorescence or colorful flower petals.
During the winter months as well as other periods of environmental conditions, plants exhibit an awesome ability. By reducing metabolic responses to conserve the energy normally needed for growth and development plants enter a period called dormancy.
This cycle of an organism’s life is a powerful adaptive quality; to withstand and survive the many seasonal environmental stressors organisms may be faced with during their lifetime. During dormancy, physical and metabolic activities are temporarily stopped. Remarkably, plants have an innate ability to enter dormancy before adverse environmental conditions even present themselves. This adaptive ability is usually cued by gradual decreases in temperature as winter approaches. So in a way, many native species can predict the onset of adverse conditions such as seasonal periods of decreased temperatures, i.e. winter. In plant biology this is an occurrence called predictive dormancy.
It is an amazing to walk among these sleeping plants, which so many assume as dead. I find this period in nature just as beautiful to look at as Spring blooms and Fall flowers. Without these periods of dormancy we would not be able to enjoy the aesthetic joys of Spring, Summer and Fall. Plants also need these periods of dormancy to produce viable seeds that germinate seemingly like magic into seedlings, stalks and flowers before our eyes.
As we become more aware of our changing environment and climate, we also experience more and more sudden changes in temperatures. The onset of these sudden changes in conditions are often unpredictable and yet plants extraordinarily, have evolved to be able to withstand by entering a state of dormancy after such changes occur, this is called consequential dormancy. This biological clock that so many plant species have is such a remarkable and respectable feat of nature. Plants have many types of adversities to contend with; freezing temperatures, unexpected cold fronts, dry spells and even excessive rainfall. They are impressive organisms. And we walk among them every day.
Fall and winter produce some of my absolute favorite color pallets in nature. Walking among the deep evergreened Alligator and One-seeded junipers, the dried soft blueish and deep purple berries catch my eye as natural gems. And along the watershed, the pattern-ful Cottonwood trees still impress upon me their magnificence even without green leaf-filled branches as I have seen repeatedly, on my hikes, sightings of a Red-tailed Hawk perched up on the highest branches. He peers down at me as I peer up to him. The bareness of the Willow also catch my eye as their stalks add salmon and reddish hues to the nature-painted landscape. I am not sure what kind of willows these are… perhaps Bebb’s or Strapleaf. Willows are notorious for hybridizing with one another making identification difficult for the untrained eye.
As I walk along my favorite part of the Dragonfly trails, my heart dances to see the various shapes of dormant flower heads, forbes and sedges. Most of them golden in color, some sienna-orange and brown. Their whimsy speaks to me of the true aliveness of the landscape. Wandering through a sandy arroyo I come across Raccoon tracks and smile. All the while, Juncos fly into view and just as quickly they skip away, out of view and into the junipers. As I walk, I skip too, at least in my heart as I take in the season’s sleeping beauty.