Osage spring offers the mind startling beauty

Gary Lantz For the
Journal-Capital
Carolina anemones, like these, have been attracting pollinators as spring takes off in Osage County. Photo by Gary Lantz

While driving west recently on Highway 60 through a soft gray mist, a shaft of sunlight illuminated the newly arrived tint of green painting roadside trees. Almost overnight spring had crept north, breaching the highway between Bartlesville and Pawhuska. Renewal was brewing in the blackjacks, and I could only hope it was a harbinger of better days ahead.

The late Hal Borland, author of numerous books on nature and editorial writer for the New York Times, once speculated that spring made its way north at about the same rate that a man can travel on foot. That’s steady yet uneventful progress, making it easy to overlook a determined green advance that, during the past week, marched north past Nelagoney, leapfrogged Bird and Sand Creeks, then crossed Highway 60 with a flourish. Finally virus-weary Osage Countians had reason to rejoice—spring’s green flame was once again glimmering. Soon it would dazzle the landscape with a fierce green fire.

Everywhere I stopped little wildflowers hugged the ground. Tiny bluets, pink and white spring beauties, yellow and white false garlic. A search of sparsely vegetated spaces between dry bunchgrasses revealed some of early spring’s most beautiful wildflowers. Both blue and white Carolina anemones already were attracting pollinators. The anemones rose on short stems covered with tiny hairs, an aid in combatting late frosts. On one vibrantly blue anemone, a metallic green bee positioned itself for a nectar feast, content to rock back and forth on the wind while gorging on the flower’s rich repast.

When I was growing up along the headwaters of Sycamore Creek, late March meant a yard carpeted with spring beauties. Purple violets grew along the creek, and every year my brother always gathered a few for my mother. Euell Gibbons, wild foods guru during the 1960s, spread the word in one of his books that the corms of spring beauties were not only delicious but steeped in nutrients, something that small mammals and native peoples knew long before Gibbons documented the idea. The best-selling author had a large and nearly cult-like following, and in places not even the ubiquitous spring beauties could stand up to their grubbing assault. In time Gibbons managed to forge a truce, reminding his followers that while spring beauties were indeed good for the body, maybe they were better left alone to nurture the soul.

The first warm rains in late March or early April always flooded temporary pools along Sycamore Creek. Almost on cue they erupted with the piercing calls of frogs my brother and I knew as spring peepers. Since then I’ve learned that the high-pitched pleas were those of Strecker’s chorus frogs. As days lengthened and nights warmed their serenades were accompanied by the prolonged trilling of dwarf American toads and the chattering and loud snores of leopard frogs.

Last week on a warm afternoon following an overnight thunderstorm, frog and toad music was in full blast as three amphibian species chattered, chirped and trilled in a patch of native prairie bordering Hulah Lake. Spotted chorus frogs and American toads echoed their raspy whinnies from rain-filled depressions, while a small pond splashed and swirled with a leopard frog orgy. The croaks, chatters and prolonged snores sounded more like a Halloween dirge than a springtime choir. But seasonal rebirth employs a variety of voices, and in these bleak days of worldwide pandemic, anything adhering to the natural order of things seems almost heavenly.

The little ground-hugging flowers of late March and early April eventually give way to taller, more statuesque stands of coneflowers, coreopsis and stately blue spiderworts. As the danger of frost subsides and warm-season grasses erupt, little flowers fade. By May many plants are robust rather than dainty, and the Little Flower Killer Moon of the Osage oversees a lush green world.

A prairie spring can be aggravating with its temperamental ways, but in spite of fitful stops and restarts, a robust display of new growth always seems to arrive in time to lift downtrodden spirits. This year more than ever its been good to awaken on a sunny morning and watch the world green up. We need the promise of spring to temper a pandemic’s dark thoughts. And the universal joy that comes with the season’s first wildflowers.

— Gary Lantz, who grew up in Osage County, is a keen observer of its flora and fauna and an accomplished nature writer/photographer. His most recent book was “Heart Stays Country: Meditations from the Southern Flint Hills,” published by the University of Iowa Press.