Best of In Bloom 2005 |

Best of In Bloom 2005

Karin Teague
Great wildflower hikes this is in Fravert Basin are the focus of In Bloom. (Dan Bayer)

What a difference a week makes.Suddenly the mornings are cold, the scrub oak is turning, and the wildflowers have mostly gone to seed. Raspberries and rose hips are out now, leaving only a smattering of late-blooming flowers to brighten the mountainsides.This column, the last of the year, will pay tribute to one of those late bloomers, the often overlooked and definitely underrated yarrow. Still in bloom from Glenwood to Independence Pass, this floral success story teaches us why we have flowers at all.As its name suggests, Achillea millefolium has numerous (though probably not a thousand) tiny leaflets making up its comblike leaves, which are sometimes mistaken for those of a fern. Any resemblance to ferns ends there, though. While ferns are one of the world’s oldest and simplest plants, yarrow is a member of the composite family (also known as the aster, daisy or sunflower family), a relative newcomer to planet Earth that has quickly become one of its most successful and highly developed plants.Most composites, like the purple asters that are still out in abundance, are composed of dozens of ray flowers (the “petals”) surrounding hundreds of tiny disc flowers (the “button”) to form what looks like one flower. This allows the composite’s tiny flowers to compete with the likes of roses and buttercups for pollinating insects.Yarrow, by contrast, has only five white ray flowers surrounding 20 or so disc flowers. To make itself seen, yarrow masses dozens of these blossoms into flat-topped clusters that are as large and visible as asters. And because the tiny flowers are packed in right next to one another, pollen is quickly and easily transferred from one flower to the next off the body of a foraging insect, making for a highly efficient transaction for both the flowers and the pollinators.Other reproductive advantages yarrow enjoys include its indifference to poor and even polluted soils, as well as its long flowering season – June through early September here in the Roaring Fork Valley – virtually guaranteeing successful pollination. And in case seed dispersal fails, yarrow also spreads by rhizomes, or underground stems.Finally, yarrow’s camphor-like scent discourages nonpollinating insects and other animals from feeding on it (except the occasional cow, whose milk is apparently tainted by it). All these clever adaptations help to ensure yarrow’s successful reproduction and explain why it is found from sea level to the tundra on five continents around the world.So at a time when Mother Nature appears merciless and destructive, take heart that eight months from now she will again get back to the business of life in the form of another glorious wildflower season.This article was originally published on Sept. 2, 2005

Some places on a map just scream to be checked out, like Fancy Pass in the Holy Cross Wilderness.What could be fancy about a 12,400-foot, rock-strewn pass? As it turns out, absolutely nothing, but it does have awesome views and makes for a great day of alpine flower viewing.Starting at the Carter Lake trailhead in the Fryingpan River drainage, this 14-mile round-trip hike takes you by a dozen lakes into a seemingly different world on the Vail side of the Holy Cross Wilderness. The flowers here look nothing like those in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness no shoulder-high fields of larkspur and sunflowers here. Rather, on display are legions of brightly colored, miniature alpine beauties, first and foremost among them the regal gentian.Regal not just because of its royal blue coloring and fussy appearance. More than 2,000 years ago in Illyria, a country on the Adriatic near modern-day Albania, King Gentius attempted to treat his ailing army with an extract from this spring beauty. The treatment apparently didnt work too well (the Romans conquered them shortly thereafter), but the flower named in his honor lives on. Here in the Rockies, gentians are strictly late-summer bloomers (save the green version, our monument plant), which do more to ease the pain of the impending end of summer than any medication I know of.Half an hour into the hike at Carter Lake, start looking for three blue gentians: (1) bottle gentian, Gentiana parryi, with five fused petals forming a wide-mouthed bottle; (2) fringed gentian, Gentianopsis thermalis, a skinny flower with four tightly twisting petals whose fringes help keep nonpollinating insects from entering; and (3) star gentian, Swertia perennis, a dark purple flower with five pointed, spreading petals. All these gentians love the crisscrossing streams of the Carter Creek valley, which tops out at an 11,800-foot unnamed pass overlooking Blodgett Lake and the northern Holy Cross.As you make your way toward Fancy Pass, which looks out toward the old mining town of Holy Cross City, keep an eye out for the delicate, white arctic gentian, Gentiana algida, clinging to the scree. Arctic gentian is one of the last flowers of the summer to bloom, so stop and linger a moment the only thing to follow this white beauty will be snow.Getting there: From the intersection of Two Rivers Road and Midland Avenue in downtown Basalt, drive 26.4 miles up the Fryingpan past Ruedi Reservoir; take a left on County Road 501; drive 7.4 miles (staying left at the fork at mile 4.5) until you see Carter Creek on your left; the unmarked trailhead is 100 feet to the right of the creek.This article was originally published on Aug. 26, 2005.

In an “oh my God, summer’s almost over” act of desperation, two friends and I set out to see as many flowers as possible in the span of a day.Our chosen route was the four-pass loop, which begins at the West Maroon trailhead and covers Buckskin, Trail Rider, Frigid Air, and West Maroon passes. Twenty-eight miles and 8,000 vertical feet later, I can confirm the flowers are still out in abundance. Whether you care after climbing four 12,500-foot passes is another matter.There were three surprises on the trip. First was the huge number of species still in bloom, approximately 140 by my count. (I stress the word “approximately” – needless to say, one isn’t discerning numbers and sizes of stamens when trying to cover 28 miles in a day.) For mid-August this is an extraordinary number, which can probably be attributed to our wet, cool spring and the lingering snowpack, both of which made for a late flower season. This, combined with a steady supply of rain throughout the summer, have kept the flowers going.The second and related surprise was the presence of flowers whose time I thought had long passed. Avalanche lilies and snow buttercups, flowers one usually associates with the spring snowmelt, were abundant below Trail Rider Pass. Apparently a large avalanche occurred here during the winter, leading to a pileup of snow that is just now beginning to melt in spots. As long as the weather stays mild, these yellow beauties will continue to bloom through the summer wherever snow is melting.More surprising, perhaps, was the presence of a single red columbine near Snowmass Lake, a flower I haven’t seen anywhere in more than a month. Why this usually early summer flower was blooming in mid-August I can’t explain, but it did remind me of a ditty: “I met a little lady, a stranger here mayhap, she wore a gown of green, she wore a scarlet cap, graceful was her figure, her manners very fine, a fairy airy creature, her name was Columbine.”The third surprise, and the highlight of the trip without question, was the south side of Frigid Air Pass. Here the lupine, larkspur, sunflowers and paintbrush didn’t seem to realize it was mid-August, painting a veritable rainbow across the mountainside. This show, combined with the intoxicating smell of the lupine and the uninterrupted views of the Ireland-green mountains rolling toward Crested Butte, boosted our spirits for the final push over West Maroon.Getting there: The four-pass loop begins at the Maroon Bells drop-off on West Maroon trail. Since you’ll need to start well before the buses start running, drive up Maroon Creek Road to the day parking area.This article was originally published on Aug. 19, 2005.

As the summer moves on, the flowers move higher, so now’s the time to take to the tundra.Anywhere on Independence Pass is a good place to be right now, including Ptarmigan Lake, two miles southeast of the headwaters of New York Creek. (Be advised, older maps call it Tellurium Lake – apparently someone felt a name change was in order.) If there’s a finer way to spend a summer day than wandering at 12,000 feet on rolling green mountaintops with 360-degree views, boundless flowers underfoot and the company only of marmots, I don’t know what it is.The hike to Ptarmigan Lake starts out on a utility road made bearable by the wildflowers. Keep an eye out for the heavenly scented white bog orchid and the intricate fringed grass-of-parnassus in the wet areas. When you hit the first water diversion, keep walking another few minutes until you see a sign for the New York Trail (if you hit the second diversion, you’ve gone too far).From here on, the trail is lovely, passing through evergreen forests and stream-crossed meadows to above timberline. The ridge below the 12,300-foot pass is a marvelous place to study our alpine flowers and the myriad ways they have adapted to the brutal winds, cold temperatures and abbreviated growing season of the tundra.Take our alpine buttercups – notice how they’re facing the sun? They’re employing heliotropism, or solar-tracking, to follow the sun as it crosses the sky. The buttercups’ saucer shape captures the heat, warming itself and the insects that pollinate it (a warm fly is a happy and active fly).Another obvious adaptation is the flower’s form. In order to stay close to the ground, where the air is warmer and the wind quieter (lie on the ground to feel the difference), many alpine flowers grow in either rosette or cushion form. In a rosette, low-lying leaves form a circle around the taller flower. In this way, the leaves are protected from the desiccating winds, while the flowers are able to reach up to pollinating insects. Snowball saxifrage and alpine spring beauty are examples you’ll see here.As for cushion flowers, look for the bright magenta moss campion. It grows close to the ground in tight clusters, anchored by spreading taproots. The short growing season means these beauties grow exceedingly slowly – a two-foot cushion could be 350 years old. All of which leads one to ask, why grow here at all? What better question to ponder while wandering the tundra than the mystery of life?Getting there: From Aspen, drive approximately 10 miles east on Highway 82 to the Lincoln Creek turnoff; drive 3.3 bumpy miles (clearance recommended) to the sign for New York Creek.This article was originally published on Aug. 12, 2005.

It’s with mixed feelings that I write the Absolute Best Flowers of the Year column.Reaching the apex of the wildflower season in the high country is surely cause to celebrate. But the flip side is the flowers will soon be on the wane, with the hundred-count hikes soon turning to handfuls. Needless to say, the time is now to get out and, like Frederick the Mouse, drink in the colors for the long, white winter ahead. There is no better place to do that than Little Gem Lake near Marble, which I can almost guarantee has the best flowers you’ll see this summer. But go now – this show of shows won’t last long.First, be forewarned that you’ll need the whole day to do Little Gem. While the hike itself is only three miles one way and gains less than 2,000 feet in elevation, getting to and from the trailhead is a journey in itself. The dirt road from Marble to Lead King Basin is rough and winding (four-wheel drive and good clearance are a must), and thus a favorite with the ATV crowd. Don’t be dissuaded, though. All memories of noise and fumes will evaporate within the first 10 steps up the trail, where you will find yourself up to your eyeballs – literally – in larkspur, lovage, sunflowers and other 6-foot beauties.Why do flowers thrive here in such spectacular fashion? First, this part of the Elk Range gets lots of rain and snow. Next, the slopes are oriented to the southeast, maximizing the flowers’ sun time. Finally, the flowers seem to like the mineral-rich soil of this former mining stronghold. All these factors combine to create a Garden of Eden for the birds and bees who simultaneously rely on and make possible this rich flower community.Two miles into the hike you will hit Geneva Lake, a surprisingly large and lovely emerald-green lake with 14,000-foot Snowmass Mountain looming behind it. Tempting as it is, don’t stop here, because the flowers only get better. The mountainside between Geneva and Little Gem may be the single best wildflower spot in our area. Up at 11,700 feet, the flowers at Little Gem Lake turn noticeably smaller but no less spectacular. Take a seat and marvel at the incredible number and variety of tiny tundra flowers that surround you – you’ll cherish these memories in a few months.Getting there: From Highway 82 in Carbondale, take Highway 133 south 22 .5 miles to the Marble turnoff; drive six miles through the town of Marble, ; when you reach Beaver Lake, set your odometer and drive 7 .5 miles to Lead King Basin (where the road forks to Crystal, stay left) to the Geneva Lake trailhead.This article was originally published on Aug. 5, 2005.

This year I was fortunate enough to attend the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, a weeklong event held every July in the legislatively designated “Wildflower Capital of Colorado.” If “wildflower festival” conjures up images of ’60s flower children dancing hand-in-hand in fields of lupine, think again. With 30 workshops to choose from every day, from wildflower identification to photography to medicinal and culinary preparation, this festival has something for everyone … including flower children.A typical day at the festival began with “Sunrise Wildflower Photography,” starting at (gulp) 5:30 a.m. It seems our brilliant Colorado sunshine is great for wildflowers but lousy for photographing them. Midday shots tend to come out overexposed, with the flowers washed out and the sky white – hence the class’s early hour. Since many of us will never see a perfect pygmy bitterroot at 13,000 feet at any other time than the middle of the day, a good way to get a more saturated shot is to decrease the exposure setting on your camera (point-and-shoots included).Next on the agenda was “Sunflowers, Peas and Mustards,” a six-hour class endeavoring to make sense of these three large and notoriously difficult flower families. Here in the Roaring Fork Valley we have dozens of species of mustards, almost all of which have four small petals that are white or yellow. To tell them apart requires examining their seed pods, which come out late in the flowering process.And while it may seem taxing to have to repeatedly return to a flower in order to see it in fruit (and therefore correctly identify it), one soon finds that mustards’ pods, which look variously like pennies, cylinders, hearts, backsides and myriad other body parts, are fascinating; much more so, in fact, than their rather monotonous flowers.Sunflowers, by contrast, have wonderfully showy flowers, but often the same overall look – yellow “petals” surrounding a button center, with no helpful differentiating pods. (These “petals” are in fact individual flowers, called “ray” flowers, surrounding numerous, individual “disk” flowers, which make up the button.)Wrapping up a day at the festival was a “Blossom Buffet,” incorporating edible flowers into a multicourse dinner, followed by “Flutes and Flowers,” melding music with wildflower imagery – for the hippies in the crowd.This article was originally published on July 29, 2005.

Crested Butte calls itself the Wildflower Capitol of Colorado, and with good reason. Not only are the flowers there extraordinary, Crested Butte hosts the only week-long festival in honor of the wildflower.I attended the Wildflower Festival last week (more on the festival in next Friday’s column) and used it as an opportunity to check out several different hiking routes to and from Crested Butte, a summer ritual for many Roaring Fork Valley residents. The good news is the passes are mostly clear, and the wildflowers have yet to peak. So start planning your trip now.West Maroon Pass is the most popular route to Crested Butte, and there’s little question the flowers on the Crested Butte side of the pass are unbeatable. However, as of last week, West Maroon was reported to be impassable due to waste-deep snow. With visions of the dead horse that lay at the bottom of West Maroon Pass for what seemed like years lingering in my head, I decided to try East Maroon Pass instead.At 11,800, East Maroon is the lowest and gentlest of the various routes, and aside from two tricky creek crossings, the route was clear. A highlight of the trip was the columbines, which were seemingly everywhere, from sunny meadows to shady aspen groves to alpine rock fields. The success of Aquilegia coerulea can be attributed to two things. First, it likes the cooler weather of the Rockies, which boast nine species of Aquilegia, as opposed to the East’s one. Second, it attracts a wide variety of pollinators, including butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, thus increasing its reproductive odds.Another highlight was Triangle Pass, a popular alternative route to Crested Butte that I added to my East Maroon itinerary when the sky was still cloud-free at noon. At 12,900 feet, Triangle Pass hosts a variety of scree-hugging alpine flowers, including the beautiful blue Polemonium viscosum, or sky pilot. Less beautiful is its odor, which is distinctly skunk-like and inescapable when the wind kicks up on the pass (“viscosum,” meaning “sticky,” refers to the flower’s sticky glands that produce the offending odor). The sheer tenacity these flowers display in living on this barren, wind-battered pass is oddly inspiring.Similarly inspiring was the 80-year-old couple who picked me up in Gothic as I hitched a ride into town. They have been coming to Crested Butte for years to see the wildflowers, and while their hiking days are over, they still enjoy the flowers from the car window, calling out their names and oohing and aahing like kids in a candy store. How heartening to know one needn’t climb 12,000-foot passes to find joy in wildflowers.This article was originally published on July 22, 2005.

With the hundreds of species of wildflowers we have here in the Roaring Fork Valley, it would be hard to choose a favorite. But one flower that probably makes most people’s top-five list can be seen right now in stunning profusion near a quiet, ice-strewn lake in the heart of the Continental Divide. Go judge for yourself.The hike to Blue Lake, just over Independence Pass from Aspen, begins at 11,000 feet in a wildflower-filled meadow. Fifteen minutes in, you will hit a small creek (Blue Creek) where you will leave the main trail. Cross the creek and pick up the unmarked trail on the left to Blue Lake along the creek’s right bank. Climbing steeply through spruce and fir, you will almost immediately spy the subject of this week’s column – the regal Parry’s primrose.Primula parryi, named after the English botanist Charles Parry, who was fortunate enough to catalogue (and hence serve as the namesake for) many of Colorado’s native plants, has large magenta flowers and a whorl of fleshy green leaves. Standing tall among Blue Creek’s lush islands, Parry’s primrose is surely one of the loveliest sights in the mountains.Don’t just look, though. Parry’s primrose has an unforgettable scent like fine perfume if the flowers are fresh, like rotting flesh if they’re old. To see for yourself, compare the fresher flowers up near the lake to those lower down along the creek.As you climb out of the forest and move into the tundra toward Blue Lake, two things will strike you about Parry’s. First is its size. Standing more than a foot tall, it dwarfs the other flowers of the alpine zone. While most wildflowers have evolved to withstand the wind and the cold of the tundra by hugging the ground, Parry’s primrose finds protected places among large rocks.The second thing is Parry’s color, which contrasts sharply with the white and yellow flowers that currently dominate the upper regions of Blue Lake. Why white and yellow? Flowers serve to attract pollinators, and in the alpine zone, flies are the primary early season pollinators. Flies, however, have no color vision, and therefore are attracted to reflective flowers, rather than colorful ones. Yellow and white bowl-shaped flowers reflect light best, hence the profusion of marigolds, anemones and avens. Fortunately, flies are as attracted to the smell of Parry’s as we are to its brilliant color.Getting there: Take Highway 82 to the top of Independence Pass; drive another 4.6 miles down the Pass; turn left at the sign for North Fork Lake Creek Trail.This article was originally published on July 15, 2005.