It has been a long wet winter, fine for trumpeter swans that thrive in our overflowing wetlands and even reasonably suitable for tiny Anna's hummingbirds that appear to have strengthened their connection to island gardeners by utilizing our winter-blooming wildflowers and bird feeders to fuel their high-strung systems during recent cold spells.
Not so good, perhaps, for islanders who have been subjected for months to relentless dark skies and rain.
I was ready for some sunshine - not just occasional sun breaks - but that magic March 21st date that makes spring official was still nearly a month away and I needed a little inspiration to get through this last, lingering phase of winter. It was time for my pre-spring ritual: finding a blooming satin flower to remind me of the brighter and warmer days to come. I had just the place in mind. As a creature of habit, it has been the same location every year for nearly two decades. Oh, I knew there were possibly satin flowers blooming elsewhere on San Juan Island but this was my special spot and I wouldn-t have begun my wildflower season anywhere else.
Those of you who have followed this column over the years know of my fondness for satin flowers, Sisyrinchium douglasii var. douglasii. (I will address the name change later.) It is a beautiful bell-shaped purplish-pink wildflower of the iris (Iridaceae) family. The six-tepaled bloom (tepals being undifferentiated petals and sepals) has a stem of up to 12 inches and narrow, silvery-green, grass-like stem leaves. In the islands, it may be found on south-facing slopes where the soil is a mix of gritty glacial till that has been refined for thousands of years along the rocky coastline. Satin flowers thrive on grassy balds, knolls and atop bluffs on cushions of bright green mosses and lichens, and in moist grasses nearby. Even meadows farther afield accommodate the enchanting wildflower. They keep company with a bright pink early bloomer called shooting star, often Dodecatheon hendersonii. Handsome goldenback ferns with their shiny blackish-brown stipes also reside in the shallows of split rock till near some satin gems.
Satin flowers, while not common here, are becoming increasingly evident from those grassy meadows and rocky outcrops near the shoreline to the higher rockwork of Cady Mountain and Young Hill. Many years ago it was a treat to find a few of the elegant blooms, and now they thrive in many familiar locations including near Finlayson and the Redoubt at American Camp. Regionally, they grow from this northernmost part of their range to California and a bit eastward.
Finding that first satin flower is always a thrill for me, like welcoming an old friend back for spring and the beginning of another field season. I knew the red-flowering currant was blooming at several places on the island, salmonberry at English Camp, and Indian Plum at Eagle Cove. While satin flower was not first to awaken this year, it was still my first choice for inspiration.
Satin flowers are small but showy, perhaps because it often blooms under the gray countenance of the last throes of winter. Its magenta blooms charmed early botanists. Scotsman David Douglas (1798-1834) discovered it near Celilo Falls in the Columbia River Gorge in 1826. A. Dietrich named it in his honor in 1838. Botanist and photographer Dr. Lewis J. Clark wrote enthusiastically about satin flowers in Wild Flowers of the Pacific Northwest: "... reigning queen of the genus (Sisyrinchium). Indeed, a rock slope covered with these sprightly bells, sensitive to every whisper of wind, is one of the floral delights of early spring."
My favorite reference remains one by botanist Leslie Haskin in Wild Flowers of the Pacific Coast. He wrote: "One of the few places where I found it abundant is on the brow of a precipitous butte. Here, where all about the abrupt slopes fall away for hundreds of feet, it abounds, and in this breezy aerie starry blossoms dance and flutter like purple butterflies."
Grass widow, satin flower, purple-eyed grass, and Douglas' grasswidow: all these names court the beautiful little iris. The scientific nomenclature has changed several times over nearly two hundred years. The current classification is Olsynium douglasii var. douglasii - a genus change from Sisyrinchium several years ago. In the 1800s it was regarded as a Sisyrinchium, Latin for 'Iris-like plant'; then Olsynium from 1900-1930; back to Sisyrinchium for several decades, and now classified as above. While scientists will doubtless continue analyzing the finer points of this plant’s structure and refining its taxonomy, both references are generally acceptable.
The Land Bank's Westside Preserve remains a predictable location for satin flowers in the San Juan Islands although their numbers are modest there. This fragile area, nearly 16-acres of shoreline, is rife with several species of wildflowers in the early spring. A new gravel path provides adequate access to the remnant patch of prairie while protecting emerging plants from the hiker's boot.
I had planned to do some botanizing on February 29th but high winds discouraged me from walking along the rocky bluffs on the west side of the island. The next day, March 1st, the winds subsided and there were even a few small patches of blue amidst the gray boulders in the sky and, with temperatures in the 40s, all it took was a warm jacket to get me on the trail.
And so I walked the short distance on the preserve path toward the bluff with binoculars in hand and hope in my heart for a satin flower sighting. The cinnabar and celery-colored buds on the big-leaf maple were still tightly clenched as I walked past the fine old tree; closer to the bluff several shooting stars were near bloom under still- wintering madrones; and the red-flowering currant in that rock crevice just below the road was showing promise - much to the delight of returning rufous hummingbirds I suspected.
The view was magnificent even on a somber day: snowy Olympic peaks in the distance; shafts of silver light streaming across the straits as the clouds parted; and a pair of pigeon guillemots - resident alcids - in animated vocalizations close to shore perhaps contemplating a new generation of their kind as they transitioned into their spring breeding plumage.
Finally, I spied the prize: a single satin flower nestled in moss at the edge of a rocky knoll. Considering the high wind gusts that had pounded this very spot the day before I marveled at the plant’s perfection and pondered the still unfolding of its tissue thin tepals in the chill. I smiled. My timing was perfect. Here was my fortuneteller assuring me that spring was on the way. I could see it in the plant’s bright purple sheen. As I looked about, I saw several deep green shoots emerging from the moist, gritty soil. And up the hill, a fist full of fiery magenta inflorescence, reminiscent of those purple butterflies Haskin wrote about so long ago. I stood admiring the lustrous blossoms for quite a spell knowing more of the flowers would soon be gracing this remnant patch of prairie. Indeed, spring is almost here.
Wildflowers speak to us in many ways. Perhaps it is not always as literal as the symbolic voice of the little Sisyrinchium perched on the rocky knoll but still each flower is bearing witness to the character and natural history of the land, to the diversity of wildlife that has evolved to thrive in a particular place, and to the interconnectedness of the flora and fauna. Witness here the hummingbirds' attraction to the red-flowering currant, the bees in the big-leaf maple, the robins in the madrones, and the butterflies that will soon flutter down to nectar on field chickweed, camas, and ragged starflower just beginning to stir in the rocky substrate. Who do you suppose will sup on satin flower?
Each of us may have our own harbinger of spring to extol the return of the light. I have put my faith in satin flower - the tiny promise of an often-overlooked wildflower whose seed sleeps through the cold, dark winter in shallow soil among the shelves of an ancient mountaintop. I wonder how it perceives the howling wind hurtling in from the Pacific, the chirping of bald eagles overhead, and the rain and snow seeping into the soil. Is there a hint of the awakening to come during a momentary sunbreak on December’s solstice day? Whatever the plant’s power of perception, come February or early March, miraculously it emerges on a bluff overlooking the inland sea and unfolds its rosy splendor. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of that first unfurling; other years I do not. It does not matter to satin flower. But the cycle of life continues and the sunshine is coming. That is reason enough for celebration.
Susan Vernon is the author of RAINSHADOW WORLD – A Naturalist’s Year in the San Juan Islands. SAN JUAN NATURE NOTEBOOK / SATIN FLOWER (DOUGLAS’ GRASSWIDOW) / text and photographs copyright 2012 by Susan Vernon. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form without the expressed written permission of the author.