Guest column: Seize the day! The wildflowers won’t wait

Sarah Chase Shaw
Guest columnist
Red kings crown wildflowers bloom on the Alpine tundra zone of the Tenmile Range in Summit County on July 17.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

Just as the calendar turns the corner on the long days of summer toward the autumnal equinox, a verdant and glorious wildflower explosion is happening in the High Country. This summer, above-average temperatures coupled with unusually early monsoon moisture have sent the wildflowers into a frenzy, their beauty indomitable but fleeting.

From the minuscule spotted saxifrage mounding delicately over rock outcroppings in the tundra to the robust green gentian — also appropriately known as monument plant because it can grow over 6 feet tall — each plant is having its moment in the sun. They know their time is short and they’re making the most of it.

Moss campion grows on a rocky surface on July 17 near the slopes of the Tenmile Range in Summit County.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

A recent trip to a windswept 11,000-foot mountain deep in the heart of the Flat Tops revealed summer in its full glory, suggesting that mid-summer in the Rocky Mountains might just be the most wonderful time of the year. Located a few thousand feet above the arid, south-facing slopes of the Colorado River valley are millions of acres of verdant green forest interspersed with wildflower meadows, overflowing with sky pilot, scarlet gilia, varieties of paintbrush and penstemon, and sticky geranium.

Dense stands of mountain bluebells, sprinkled with bistort, monkshood, buttercups, and elephant head announce the presence of water — both standing and moving — in the rocky terrain. Pockets of plump Rocky Mountain columbine stand side-by-side with shoulder-high cow parsnip deep in the aspen forest.

Arrowleaf balsamroot looks toward the Mosquito Range near Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir in Summit County on July 23.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

In the crevices of sheltered rocks, yellow stonecrop (an alpine succulent) coexists with mountain thistle (the good kind) and a variety of saxifrage.  Basking in the meltwater from the few remaining snowbanks are carpets of purple violets. Observant hikers might even chance upon a singular glacier lily, its golden yellow flower hanging precipitously beneath an arching stem. At the top of the peak, hearty clumps of purple phacelia intermix with abundant perennial grasses.

Sharp cries announce the busy pikas, whose scurried movements among the boulders suggest they are already packing their dens with grass hay, seeds and other delectables for the long winter ahead. Marmots sun themselves on rock outcroppings, while butterflies and bees attend to business in the bustling cacophony of color. The flies, it seems, have time to rest in between their own pollination spree. Their tiny bite is a distinct reminder of who’s boss, even at 11,000 feet.

A marmot looks around an Alpine tundra landscape on the slopes of the Tenmile range on July 17.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

A trip to the top of Vail Pass yields equally splendid vistas of wildflowers this time of year. Along Shrine Pass, varieties of paintbrush and lupine are in full bloom. A more secluded hike up 12,200-foot Uneva Peak passes through a pine forest before ascending into the land above the trees where low-growing hearty alpines thrive amongst the talus fields, tundra turfs, and wet meadows.

Wildflower displays continue to evolve with the advent of afternoon rain showers during late July and August. Asters (of which there are an endless variety) intermix with the golden blooms of goldenrod, sneezeweed and showy goldeneye. Gentians, too, dot the landscape, their flowers closing with changing nighttime temperatures and frequent thunderstorms. Interestingly, the gentian’s unique ability to protect itself against the elements increases seed production up to 70 percent compared to flowers that remain open. 

Alpine sunflowers face toward the sun in an Alpine tundra zone of the Tenmile Range on July 13 in Summit County.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

For a more in-depth look at alpine plants of Colorado and the world, visit Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. As the sole keeper of the nation’s exclusive collection of Colorado’s alpine flora, the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is actively engaged in the conservation of alpine plants from around the world. Included in the Colorado alpine collection are rare and endangered species endemic to the state, including the Parachute penstemon, an unusual plant that grows only in oil shale talus along steep cliffs in western Colorado, and the Hoosier Pass ipomopsis, a member of the phlox family that is found only above 10,000 feet in the Mosquito Range.

A type of sedum wildflower blooms out of a rocky surface on the Tenmile Range in Summit County on July 17.
Andrew Maciejewski/Summit Daily News

Betty Ford Alpine Gardens is the highest elevation botanical garden in North America. Visit in person or online at BettyFordalpinegardens.orgSarah Chase Shaw is the author of “On the Roof of the Rocky Mountains: the Botanical Legacy of Betty Ford Alpine Gardens.”

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