Colorado’s wildflower season should be one of the best ever, but it might come later than usual
Forest Service botanist: Above-average snow and precipitation means 'a lot more flowers this summer'
While Colorado’s Front Range is seeing the peak of wildflower bloom, the High Country is patiently waiting for its own.
“It’s definitely going to be, it already is, a very, very good wildflower year,” said Tyler Johnson, a U.S. Forest Service botanist for the Rocky Mountain region.
While expeditions in the High Country are likely to reveal early-season blooms, including lupines and yarrows, plants such as columbines, the iconic state flower, as well as paintbrushes and goldenrods are still dormant.
The region usually sees its wildflower season begin to peak around the Fourth of July weekend, when nightly temperatures tend to hover around 50 degrees. In order to avoid devastating summer frosts, wildflowers wait until temperatures are safe before reproducing, or flowering, and dispersing seeds.
A slew of environmental factors can have sway over when and where flowers can be seen, but nighttime temperature is “one of the strongest controls on where plants grow and how happy they are,” Johnson said.
Nighttime temperatures remain cool
According to National Weather Service meteorologist Bernie Meier, nightly temperatures in the central mountain region, which includes Summit and Eagle counties, have been as low as 30 degrees recently.
Over the next week, those temperatures are expected to be in the 40s, but Meier added, “We’re not seeing that warmth any time soon, at least not in the next seven to 10 days.”
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Monsoon season, which generally brings consistent rainfall beginning in mid-July, appears to be delayed this year, Meier said. Trends in Arizona suggest heavy precipitation will arrive before the month’s end, but without the added moisture, temperatures are likely to remain cooler.
That’s not to say the state isn’t experiencing warmth. On the Western Slope where elevations are lower, nighttime temperatures in Grand Junction have reached 60 degrees. Still, that’s slightly below normal for this time of year, Meier said.
“As the summer progresses, the south face and lower-elevation slopes will bloom first, in general,” Johnson said.
Johnson said he expects the High Country’s peak bloom to begin in one to two weeks. And while the snow and rain of the past months will help make a more vibrant scene, it’s the negative factors that can affect a wildflower season’s outcome more than the positives.
A ‘multiyear legacy’ for wildflower bloom
Drought, for example, can be a huge determinant of how well a bloom will perform. One dry summer can blunt a flower’s reproductive momentum for years, Johnson said, while consistent wet winters will ensure growth is steady.
According to June 29 data from the U.S. Drought Monitor nearly all of Colorado, including the entirety of the High Country, is considered drought-free.
“If we keep this (precipitation) pattern where we have a really wet summer … you might expect next year’s flowers to really benefit from this winter and spring, there’s sort of a temporal delay there,” he said.
Unlike the annual flowers seen in California, Nevada and Utah, Colorado’s wildflowers are mostly perennials.
The key difference, according to Johnson, is that annuals only grow for one season before producing a large amount of seeds while perennials regrow every spring. Because of this, annuals are more affected by precipitation which can supercharge growth and lead to super blooms like those seen this spring and summer in California and other southwestern areas.
“In those deserts, it really is as simple as when it rains all winter, the flowers are crazy,” Johnson said.
Perennials, on the other hand, typically have a shorter bloom season and are more impacted by several years of weather rather than a single season.
“There’s sort of legacy effect from previous winters and previous summers,” Johnson said. “Just speaking for this winter, if all of those plants were fat and happy last summer, then they’ve got more resources to bloom again this spring. So it’s a multiyear legacy.”
Finding and identifying wildflowers
As peak bloom approaches, Johnson said there are endless ways wildflowers can be used to enhance the exploration of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain region. Much of that can be found in the sheer diversity of growth across the High Country.
“Even on the same hill or the same mountain … it can be a completely different plant community,” Johnson said.
“I actually really enjoy trying to figure out why certain plants grow in certain places. So it’s much more of an ecology view for me,” Johnson said. “Why is that plant really short on those goofy rocks, whereas there are tall ones just 20 feet away? Why are those plants so different?”
For an introductory book for identifying wildflowers during an excursion, Johnson recommended “Plants of the Rocky Mountains,” by Linda Kershaw. For something more technical, Johnson advised the book “Flora of Colorado,” by Jennifer Ackerfield.
He also said several apps, such as Leafsnap, are “remarkably accurate.”
Searching for wildflowers, Johnson said, “does give you maybe a more complete experience to look at the land around you rather than having a goal.
“Stop and look at a flower. Ask, ‘what do you see?’ What color are the flowers? Are the leaves scratchy or are they smooth? Is it tall or is it short?” Johnson said. “You can really reinforce some basic observation skills into something that is tangible and real.”
And finding wildflowers doesn’t have to be a strenuous activity. Johnson said ski resorts, many of which grant access to mountain peaks via gondolas, are great for wildflower viewing thanks to constant snow activity that moistens the terrain.
“A lot of the more developed ski areas, Winter Park, Aspen, Vail, have a ton of summer activities and they’ve got a really well developed summer trail system,” Johnson said. “It’s a really easily accessible way to get a normal person to 9,000 feet, 10,000 feet, to see wildflowers.”
Summit Daily News Editor Andrew Maciejewski contributed to this article.
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