In bloom: Animal flowers can be zoo out in the meadows

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times


A weekly Saturday column in the summer, “In Bloom” features wildflowers that are prominent in the Aspen area at the time. Karin Teague, director of the Independence Pass Foundation, is a 25-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley and devoted student of its wildflowers. To see more facts and photos of the flowers featured here and blooming in real time on Independence Pass, go to

Why would a wildflower look like a smiling monkey? Or a kitten’s paw? Or an elephant — ESPECIALLY an elephant?

Elephanthead, Pedicularis groenlandica, is one of our most whimsical and aptly-named wildflowers. Its silver heads, flared ears and twisting trunks bare an uncanny resemblance to the beloved pachyderm. It is in bloom in prodigious numbers right now in wet places above 10,000 feet.

Flowers like Elephanthead have evolved in all manner of fantastical shapes, colors and sizes for a number of reasons, but perhaps none more important than ensuring that they go forth and multiply — that is, achieve reproductive success.

For many wildflowers, reproductive success means getting pollinators like bumblebees to visit them (see me! smell me!), and then making sure the bees leave with plenty of pollen to fertilize the next plant they visit, achieving cross-pollination.

Cross-pollination, like sexual reproduction in humans, is advantageous because it allows for the genetic information of different plants to combine, creating more variation. (Pinker elephants. Longer trunks.)

Using the wildly successful Elephanthead as a case study, what is it about its complex, animal-like shape that makes it so attractive to pollinators? And so good at sharing its pollen?

First, and critically, the attraction is mutual. Researchers have found seven species of bumblebees who regularly visit Elephanthead for its pollen. But it ain’t easy. The bee has to land on the flower’s trunk and reach its antennae toward its silver head. Using its mandibles, the bee grasps the forehead, pulls the ears with its legs, and brings the trunk beneath it to come into contact with its abdomen. The bee then vibrates its wings at warp speed to get the pollen to shake loose (“buzz pollination”).

This complex set of moves — how much easier it would be to land on the flat, welcoming button of a daisy — requires “learned behavior” on the part of the bumblebee, and suggests a long-term pattern of co-evolution between the bees and the flowers. Not all pollinators can pull these moves off, giving these bees exclusive rights to the pollen, and giving Elephanthead a reliable partner in reproduction.

Often found near Elephanthead, especially in roadside ditches, is the charming Monkeyflower, Mimulus tilingii. Its gaping, yellow flowers are said to suggest the smiling lips or grinning face of a monkey. Staring long and hard helps conjure up the monkey.

It takes little imagination, on the other hand, to see the resemblance of Pussytoes, Antennaria parviflora, to the underside of a cat’s paw. Pussytoes can be found from the valley floor to the high peaks. You won’t find them in the company of Elephantheads or Monkeyflowers, though. Like their animal namesake, they stay clear of water.