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In Bloom: Alpine Dreams

Dwarf clover, mountain avens are specialists able to thrive above 12,000 feet

Karin Teague
In Bloom
A menagerie of wild flowers along the trail on Independence Pass.
Photo courtesy Karin Teague

Is there anything more astonishing than witnessing a 12,000-foot, windswept ridge, barren for the past 10 months, transformed into a tapestry of pink, blue, yellow, purple and white wildflowers, seemingly overnight? The high alpine is among the most hostile environments on Earth, yet 6% of the world’s flowering plants, over 12,000 species, call it home. How, and why, do they do it? And what should we be looking for this weekend in our high mountains?

Alpine plants, like all plants of extreme environments, succeed in growing where they do because they have evolved as specialists, able to tolerate conditions that exclude or limit the competition.

One wildflower loving the conditions this year is dwarf clover, Trifolium nanum. Blanketing the tundra with its half-inch-high, magenta flowers, dwarf clover has adopted a growth strategy that is successful for many tundra plants. It grows in ground-hugging mats that protect the flowers from desiccating winds and prevent moisture and heat loss.



Wildflower know as the dwarf clover is in bloom on the alpine tundra.
Courtesy Karin Teague

Mats of dwarf clover can be seen in extraordinary numbers this year on peaks composed of bedrock granite, like the Continental Divide on Independence Pass. Walk south from the summit out the old wagon road for two miles: the higher you go, the better the wildflower show.

Another alpine flower having a stellar year is mountain avens, Dryas octopetala. Its flowers consist of eight, creamy-white petals and its sculptural, evergreen leaves serve as important soil stabilizers, holding vast swaths of otherwise loose dirt in place. Look for it on red rock like Hell Roaring Ridge and throughout the Elk Mountains.



Mountain avens is also playing an important part in the study of climate change.

The mountain avens thrive above 12,000 feet.

Namely, scientists studying past episodes of climate change are studying fossils of mountain avens to establish shifts in alpine vegetation, which suggest shifts in climate. Apparently, as we began to emerge from the last Ice Age of the Pleistocene, the general pattern of warming was abruptly reversed for periods of 300-1,000 years.

We know this because during those time spans, alpine vegetation like mountain avens returned to areas that had been changing to lower elevation forests. Ecologists refer to these periods as the Older Dryas—approximately 13,800 years ago—and the Younger Dryas—11,500-12,800 years ago. The cause of the relatively rapid change in climate, estimated to have taken just a few decades, is yet to be determined, but it may have important implications for contemporary climate research.

What role will mountain avens play in future climate studies? Will subsequent generations watch mountain avens disappear from the fossil record as the climate warms, which it is doing faster here than in most places in the country? Or will mountain avens, dwarf clover, and other alpine success stories find ways to adapt to changing conditions?

While these are questions we can’t answer, I do know I prefer to live in a world with alpine wildflowers. And I believe the mountains, and the flowers, feel the same.

Karin Teague

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