Buttercups Herald Early Arrival of Spring in Montana

The first sign of approaching spring came especially early in western Montana this year. The buttercup — which typically blooms in March — was spotted on Jan. 11. Jim Habeck, professor emeritus of botany at the University of Montana in Missoula, talks about the flower's early appearance.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

It's been a mild winter so far in western Montana and the first sign of approaching spring came extra early this year. The buttercup, which typically should bloom in March, was spotted on January 11th. Wane TreE was birding in a wildlife refuge in the bitter root valley when he spotted the small golden flowers.

WAYNE TREE: It usually has at least six yellow petals and they're waxy and they're very easy to see because they're so bright yellow and everything else is so drab. It's just that we're not used to seeing them other than sometime in March and I found one on the 23rd last year of January and so I looked this January on the 11th and scored.

BLOCK: Now when you say you scored, tell me what you saw.

TREE: I looked down and saw buttercups. I was amazed and so I put my camera down there and stuff and I walked around and I started seeing others. Some bigger than others, some smaller, some just opening their buds and some that are not. I kept track of that so that I could write a story about it and tell also Mr. Habeck what I found.

JIM HABECK: Well, he certainly did call me and it was late afternoon. It became apparent that we probably should make more out of it than perhaps we did the year before.

BLOCK: That's Jim Habeck, Professor Emeritus of botany at the University of Montana in Missoula.

HABECK: I made a visitation to the Herbarium where we have a collection of butter cups that spans a hundred years of former collectors and it was my examination of these plants that showed that typically, you should not find buttercups flowering until mid-March. And so any flowering in February would be very unusual. To find it in the middle of January is almost off the scale of adjectives that describe how unusual it is.

BLOCK: Well, what should we take from this, the fact that you have buttercups blooming as early as January 11th this year and typically, you wouldn't expect to see them until March?

HABECK: It's the possibility that those of us who are interested in global warming may want to take this as another small piece of the global warming puzzle and add it to receding glaciers in Glacier Park, the melting of the icecap in the northern latitudes and so on. And all these are contributing small pieces to the story that is related to this much bigger question about global warming and whether man is contributing to it or whether we're dealing with natural cycles.

BLOCK: Professor Habeck, do you figure that you're now going to be out looking for buttercups earlier and earlier?

HABECK: I think I have reason to begin looking for buttercups perhaps shortly after Christmas Eve.

BLOCK: Jim Habeck, thanks very much.

HABECK: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Botanist Jim Habeck, and before him, Wayne Tree, talking about the early discovery of buttercups in bloom in Western Montana on January 11th.

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