They come out late—latest, I guess you could say. They green up after all the bunch grasses, after the aspens. They’re later to leaf out than the other shrubs: the currants, the mountain mahogany, the ninebark, the rabbitbrush, the mountain spray. They emerge after the blue grama, too, a warm-season grass that bides its time before sprouting low mats of fine gray-green blades.
The leaves of the scrub oak—aka Gambel oak, Quercus gambelii—are in no rush. At our elevation, they unfurl after some of our wildflowers have already wrapped up their blooming business and set seed. Some years, their leafing-out seems to push to the extreme far end of spring, barely making it under the wire of the summer solstice. In the paint-by-number of vernal emergence, patches of scrub oak are the last to be re-tinted.
In this part of Colorado, on the eastern side of the continental divide, it seems fair to describe the spring of 2021 as miraculous. Weekly pulses of precipitation, starting with snow but ending with thunderstorms, made May our wettest month since July of 2018. The shadow of drought still looms, but the land here, for now, is green. We’ve been agog at the color for weeks now, amnesiacs astounded to discover that the landscape around us can be anything other than dusty tan.
This is, nonetheless, not the green of a wet climate: ours isn’t the emerald of England or the humid press of glossy Southern fecundity. Here, foliar green is a subdued mosaic, a patchwork of shades blended with earthy tones. Sage-tinted grasslands pool around gray rock outcrops, polka-dotted by dark pinons on south-facing slopes. Near-black stands of evergreen provide shadowy contrast. It’s up to the aspens and the scrub oak to provide the leafy-green highlights, and the scrub oak has finally colored in its patches.
With all the other vegetation already mature and sturdy, the tender green of new leaves on the scrub oak sear with their freshness. In the heat wave days of mid-June, before the afternoon thunderclouds of a monsoon pattern began interfering with the sun’s overhead glare, the oak brush was like a mirage, a teasing memory of cool refreshment.
That spring green is deepening as I write, its vibrancy seasoning to a darker, more businesslike hue. The shift lacks the flare and drama of fall and there’s no way to track its day-to-day progress with human senses. But the change is one of the steadfast rhythms that reassures and calms me if I’ve spent too much time with the news of the day. The world as we make it seems so perilous.
And I suppose it is. We live with the prospect of a future where this ritual of the oak leaves’ emergence isn’t necessarily a sure thing. But that’s a thought for some other time. For now, all urgency lies in watching the grass be green and the oak leaves quiver.