Footsteps of Spring

Another in my monthly series challenging readers to stay in touch with the seasons by locating one of the quintessential plants flowering at this moment in Central California. This month’s (March’s) flower: footsteps of spring.

Bare Foot Healthy

Botanists have a history of assigning ironic, sometimes deeply ironic, Latin names to plants. This one’s Latin name is Sanicula arctopoides. Some suggest that going barefoot is good for your health, others suggest caution. This plant’s Latin name does nothing to settle that score. The first name comes from the Latin “Sanus” meaning ‘healthy’ (sanitary, for instance) and its second name is a play on words: “arcto” means ‘bear’ and “poides” refers to ‘foot:’ put the two together and you start sensing the wordplay – “bear foot.” In full, the name means bear foot healthy. I’m not suggesting that the Latin name refers to the horrible and unsupported consumption of bear’s feet for health benefits. Rather, I suppose it was meant to be a twist on words. There has long been controversy over whether or not going bare foot makes for better health. I’ve had hippy friends swear to the benefits of going barefoot – I tried it myself for quite a long time with mixed results. I spent a semester of my undergraduate time in a Costa Rican cloud forest, during which I mostly went bare foot as my shoes otherwise never seemed to dry out. This led to a memorable experience where an itchy blister turned out to be full of maggots, an infection of tropical foot-burrowing flea larvae. That experience was kind of the opposite of this plant’s Latin name translation, “healthy bear (bare) foot.” But, I digress…

Magical Tracks

If there was a magical grassland Sprite calling up the advancing Spring across our meadows, she might dance from one ridge to the next, leaving her first footprints in the form of this gorgeous plant, subsequent waves of other wildflowers and color emanating from her earlier footfalls.

Yellow-Splashed Rocks

Footsteps of spring plants are the brightest of yellow, but it’s not just the flowers. As the plant starts to make flower clusters, the leaves surrounding the flowers emerge as pale, bright lemon yellow framing the likewise pale yellow flower clusters. The entire plant frames and highlights globe-like clusters of tiny flowers. This species is low-growing – ground-hugging even – and can’t take light competition from surrounding taller plants. And so, patches of footsteps of spring are found on rocky ridge tops or rocky-shelved outcrops especially where the surrounding vegetation consists of grassland species and where soil conditions aren’t conducive to taller, shading, more productive plants.

Smells Like…

I don’t want to prejudice your sniffer, but I am hoping to hear from people about what scent they get from the flowers of this plant. Also, the leaves of the close relatives of this plant normally have interesting odors…one species releases an uncannily cilantro-like scent, for instance.

Whatever scents this wildflower emits, the only types of pollinators I’ve seen visiting the flowers are different types of flies. Maybe the presence of flies as pollinators hints at the scent of the flowers…

-this essay originally published by Bruce Bratton at his weekly blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s