Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the August 8, 2005 Newsletter issued from the Sierra Nevada foothills somewhat east of Placerville, California, USA

You never know when a magical moment might come along, and sometimes it happens exactly when you least expect it. That was the case in the mountains as I crossed a large clear-cut area where pine forest had been reduced to stumps and weeds.

That open area was sizzling and the glare was awful. Entering it from the forest had been like stepping from a cathedral into a Wal-Mart parking lot. I just kept my eyes on the dust hoping for an interesting track.

Suddenly I sensed some kind a change that was much more subtle than a shift of key in a fugue. There was something about the light, and a shimmering kind of movement...

At my side, all along the road, chest-high Yellow Salsify, TRAGOPOGON DUBIUS, was fruiting. Hundreds of spherical fruiting heads more than three inches across, each head composed of dozens of slender fruits topped with off-white fuzz parachutes, glowed dazzlingly in the intense sunlight and nodded in the day's breezes. You can see how large those heads are -- like oversized Dandelion "puffballs" -- here.

The intensely bright, dancing globes of light atop slender stems appeared to hang beside me at different levels like lights inside a Christmas tree, each globe dancing with its own wind. Sometimes a cooling breeze came along catching just right in a single fruit's parachute and that little tuft of sunlight-fuzz would launch out over the field shining like a Walt-Disney fairy.

So, I happened to be present at the exact moment in the local Yellow Salsifys' lifecycle when their fruiting heads reached maturity, and the exact time of day when it had grown hot and dry enough to be perfect for fruits to be released. Down below at Fred's the peak of Yellow Salsify fruiting season had passed a month earlier but then, despite having passed hundreds of fruiting heads every day, I'd never experienced a Yellow Salsify moment like this.

Long I stood, sometimes rogue breezes shattering entire Yellow Salsify heads all at once, making them crumble on the wind like big, dry snowflakes on a windshield, then whole squadrons of parachutes would float off to who-knows-where, each little future Yellow Salsify alone and full of promise.

Sometimes the parachuted fruits accumulated against clumps of grass and inside large spider-webs. What a plague those fruits and their fuzz were to the spiders that day! But, the ones who caught the right currents of air went far, far, far, and I watched them as long as I could.