From a hill overlooking the little town of Dorothy I could see green in every direction.
The grasslands rolling out from the Hand Hills to the north and east were lush. The coulee-slashed highlands of the Wintering Hills to the south and west almost looked astroturfed. The backlit grass in the ditch beside me reached nearly as high as the bottom wire on the pasture fence and it glowed in the afternoon sun.
Gotta admit, all that green caught me a bit by surprise. I mean, it is that time of year when everything is at its maximum growth, the season where photosynthesis is working overtime. This is when plants store nutrients for the coming winter and make seeds to create future generations.
This is the time of year when the prairie should be green.
But for the past couple of years, it hasn’t been. Oh, sure, there was growth on the grasslands. There always is, even in the driest years. Looking back on my pictures from a year ago, though, it was nothing compared to this.
At this time last year, the grass along the Red Deer River valley had barely grown as high as the dry grass left over from the year before. Same with late June back in 2020. The grasslands were green. But there was also a lot of brown.
So, yes, all that green caught me by surprise. Even more so because I was looking for yellow.
It’s cactus blossom time on the prairie, that brief window when the prickly pear cactus open up their big crepe-paper blossoms to soak in the summer sun. Palm-sized and bright, buttery yellow, they shine in the badlands and any other patch of eroded land where their spiky pads can put down roots.
Prickly pear cactus grow throughout most of southern Alberta. If you look around, you can find them pretty much anywhere that native prairie meets a rough patch of land. In fact, there are patches of prickly pear right here in Calgary and on most of the south-facing slopes downstream along the Bow River.
But they are most abundant in the dry country further east. The valleys of the Bow, Oldman and Milk Rivers are full of them and scattered patches of cactus can be found on virtually every patch of native prairie throughout the region. Varieties of prickly pear even grow as far north as the Peace River country of northeastern British Columbia, the most northerly-growing cactus in the world.
And right now, they’re all in bloom.
I’d been seeing their bright faces practically from the moment I dropped into the valley at Drumheller but I didn’t pull over to take any pictures until I was on a side road between Rosedale and Cambria. This short stretch of gravel runs across a relatively flat patch of eroded badlands before cutting up through a coulee to the benchlands above.
And it was that coulee stretch that I was most interested in.
Okay, I’ll try to keep this short.
Like most parts of the world at our latitude, we have a variety of little ecozones. Close to the mountains we have forest and alpine zones. In the foothills, we have a damp, deciduous zone. Out in the open where the topography is flatter, we have the drier, mid-continent zone. And just a bit to the north, we have the aspen parkland zone, a combination of grass and trees.
And in places, we have a combination of a bunch of zones. Like here along this gravel road.
The flat section, the part that’s out in the blazing sun, is very desert-like with cactus and sagebrush and clumps of speargrass.
But roll maybe a hundred metres past the last patch of prickly pear and into the coulee and you have aspens, chokecherries, saskatoons and currants. A little spring-fed creek — trickling now because of all the rain — runs through the bottom of the draw and damp-loving horsetails grow.
Songbirds nest among the shrubs and in the trees. Roses bloom, their pink flowers bright against all the green, and myriad insects like blister beetles and sweat bees mine them for pollen. And there are wood lilies.
Their bright orange flowers stand out even more than roses, more than the cactus, even. I normally associate them with the foothills where they are quite common but, here they are. Somehow, they found this tiny patch of suitable habitat out here on the sun-baked plains. Very cool.
Yep, you could trip in one ecozone and fall in another out here.
And get up with your pants nailed to your knees by cactus spines.
I didn’t actually trip as I got down to take pictures of the cactuses blooming back down the road but as I was lowering my bulk I slipped just a bit and my knee landed closer to the cactus patch than I had planned. But if you’re going to take pictures of cactus, you are going to get spiked, no matter how careful you are.
It’s worth it, of course. Admiring cactus blossoms from a prudent distance is nice but it’s even better getting up close to them for a good look.
The first thing you notice is how delicate the petals are. They are thin and translucent and though they are quite soft, they have a papery look to them, almost as if they were crafted by hand instead of by nature. They’re big and a bit gaudy with their red stamens and green pistils.
And they have no scent, at least none that I’ve been able to detect. But their brightness attracts all kinds of bugs and the blossoms are alive with insects like beetles and bees that carry the copious pollen from flower to flower. They open wide during the day to welcome their insect guests and then close up at night.
I crawled around the patch for a few minutes and then stumbled back to the truck where I sat and tried to unpin myself before rolling on. Much as I loved exploring the coulee and the cactus, I was eager to get back onto the open prairie. I wanted to see just how green it was.
I crossed the river and passed the hoodoos — lovely but too crowded — and cut north onto the native prairie between Dorothy and Delia.
And it was green. Oh my, it was green.
A pair of buck antelope stood there with grass up to their hocks and stared at me as I took pictures. Cattle grazed on seeming endless swaths of golf-course green. Dugouts that were likely dry just a month ago were now, thanks to all the rain, nearly full. Back down in the valley at Dorothy there were butterscotch-tinted pools in every low spot.
I hit another patch of cactus down in the flats along the river in a place where the bentonite clay and bright white sandstone meet the river valley. After crawling around getting re-punctured and setting up a camera to shoot a timelapse of the puffy clouds rolling by, I sat on a rock to pick cactus spines out of my arm while the camera ran.
The valley across the way from me was filled with clumps of buffaloberry and tall sagebrush. Twisty cottonwoods stood close to the river while the badlands merged into the grasslands on the far side. All of it was in varying shades of green. The sage and buffaloberry, a bit silvery, the cottonwoods deep and dark, the greasewood and the fescue on the plains above brighter and tinged with yellow.
It was late afternoon now but the light was nice and the day was warm so I decided to keep on exploring. Back in the truck I headed east onto the green plains and then turned north toward Little Fish Lake. But cactus stopped me again. And this time it was bright pink.
I’d slowed down to take pictures of the sky reflected in a body of water that I hadn’t expected to be there. According to the map on my phone this would be called Antelope Lake but I seriously can’t remember ever seeing much water here. There was always some, usually just enough for cattle to drink, but now it was nearly full.
The grassland around it was bright green and there were even a few antelope by their namesake waters. On the opposite side of the road, a little gopher ran up to a prairie rose began nibbling at the petals. Stepping from the truck to go for a short walk I found asters and blanket flowers blooming.
But back in the truck and about to pull away, something bright in the grass caught my eye.
We technically have three kinds of cactus here. There is the common plains prickly pear, the less common brittle prickly pear. And the one that had just caught my eye, the pincushion.
Unlike their more common cousins, pincushion cactuses grow alone, singly instead of in clumps. They are small and lie close to the ground and are more common out on the grasslands than in the badlands or broken country. They’re easy to miss.
Unless they’re in bloom.
The blossoms are small but shockingly bright, a hot magenta or pink that screams out from the green that surrounds them. And they’re easier to get close to as well. No kneeling on spiky dried-out pads around these guys.
Clouds were moving in from the west, a thunderstorm building, as I got to Little Fish Lake. And like at so-called Antelope Lake, the rocky shoreline was completely underwater. A wind that accompanied the approaching storm was kicking up whitecaps on the lake and filling the air with cottonwood fluff.
It was everywhere around the trees and in the air, the bits of fluff catching the sun as they scored along or danced in the breeze where they’d caught on bits of grass and buffaloberry branches. I laid down in it to take some pictures and came up covered with it. Messy but it didn’t nail my clothes to my skin.
Cloud shadows were rolling across the green plains now and wind was making the blanket flowers along the roadside buck. Meadowlarks were singing their evening songs from the fenceposts, their voices strong enough to carry the notes over the breeze.
Back down by Dorothy, a lone antelope walked through the waving grass and a momma mule deer disappeared over the edge of a coulee. As she did I caught a glimpse of the tiny fawn at her side.
I crossed the river and headed up toward the Wintering Hills but I stopped part way up the switch-backed road on the far side to look back onto the grasslands.
Everywhere I looked it was green. There was yellow in there, too, and bright pink from the prickly pear and pincushion cactus. And, tucked further back in their niches, orange from the wood lilies and pink from the roses.
But it was the green that was most striking, green like I hadn’t seen in years.
A month ago I never would have guessed that the prairie would look like this. But I’m so happy that it does.
Smiling, I headed back to town.