Summit County peaks painted with late-season wildflowers
The Colorado mountainsides are popping with perennials. Wildflowers paint the lush green hillsides with lively hues of yellow and the soft purple of the alpine columbine.
Moist spring weather conditions bestowed the High Country with a spectacular array of wildflowers this season. Native plants profited from late-spring precipitation, and recent moisture prolonged blooms. But local wildflower experts said anyone who wants to view the colorful blossoms should plan to do so now, before the fall frost shows up.
“This year we’ve seen an abundance of wildflowers, but heading into fall you are definitely going to see them going into their last blooms and start to decline as they brace for winter,” said master gardener Nicole Kinney.
Local landscaper and native plant expert Jon Harrington described wildflowers in the sagebrush north of Silverthorne as some of the most vibrant he’s seen in decades.
“They just exploded,” Harrington said.
Arnica, a wildflower in the sunflower family, covered the hillsides in yellow this season.
“I’ve never seen it that bright,” he said.
Most of the lower-elevation blooms have passed, Harrington said. The best bet for hikers to view blossoms is above the timberline.
Hikes along the Fourteeners, on paths off of Hoosier and Loveland passes and atop ski hills should offer some appealing hues.
Wildflowers likely to be flourishing this time of year include the marsh marigold, a luxuriant perennial that enjoys partial shade; the “Old Man of the Mountain,” a mini sunflower that follows the direction of the sun; elephantilla, a delicate wetlands plant; and castilleja, commonly known as the Indian paintbrush. The alpine columbine are also in full bloom right now.
“Fairly soon we are going to get a frost up on the mountains and floral show will be over,” Harrington said. “Once you start seeing a red hue on the tundra, the flowers are done,”
Fall generally starts in the High Country during August. Green alpine tundra begins to show reds, yellows and browns, colors that persist through the first snowstorms of mid-September, Forest Service botanists report.
Master gardener Kinney said “flowers get their memo from the sun” and begin to prepare themselves cold snaps as daylight hours wane. As winter sets in, perennial flowers stop the flow of energy into the parts above ground, and put it into their root systems instead. Deciduous trees embark on a similar process, Kinney said, which is why leaves turn color.
Wildflowers are more dependent on seasonal conditions and are affected less by long-term drought than trees and shrubs, Kinney said. The woody plants are more likely to show signs of stress from repeated dry winters, such as those Colorado has seen in the past few years, she said.
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Summit County is one of seven resort communities participating in the “Save our Season/Stop our Spread” initiative in response to level red restrictions on the states’ COVID-19 dial.