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In Bloom: Flowers in heat

Karin Teague

This recent heat wave sent me scurrying from the sun-baked scrub oak hillsides in search of water and shade. East Snowmass Creek Trail, with its aspen and conifer forests and subalpine meadows strewn with springs and waterfalls, proved the perfect antidote to the scorching heat. Right now it is showcasing some of our most enchanting, forest-dwelling wildflowers, along with some real surprises ” flowers we don’t normally see until July, probably fooled by the heat.

The hike begins at 8,400 feet next to the now-raging East Snowmass Creek. As soon as you’ve passed the wilderness boundary sign, start looking for one of our most ornate flowers, the fairyslipper, Calypso bulbosa. This dainty lavender and white orchid prefers the dappled sunlight of spruce and fir forests, as does the equally lovely red columbine, Aquilegia elegantula, which you will see in fiery bouquets throughout the hike.

Two miles in you will emerge from the trees into a series of water-strewn meadows. Here the usual early-bloomers, like rockcress, candytuft and draba, all four-petaled mustards, predominate. But easier to miss because you may not be looking for it at this time of the year is Tolmachevia integrifolia, or king’s crown, so named because of its crimson head of flowers resembling a crown, and whose overall appearance is that of a succulent paintbrush (although they are unrelated).

King’s crown, which you will only find now near seeps in the meadows, helps illustrate one of the most basic patterns of life on Earth ” namely that larger geographic areas contain more kinds of species of plants or animals than smaller areas. The basic rule is that a tenfold increase in area supports approximately twice as many species. Amazingly, this rule holds true all over the planet, from the tundra to the tropics.

The reasons for the doubling of species are (1) the larger area has a greater diversity of habitats, even in a seemingly monolithic meadow (like a spring supporting king’s crown, or a different aspect, or a different soil type), and (2) larger areas support rare species by having a greater abundance of all organisms. But don’t take my word for it ” in one of the meadows, do a rough count of wildflower species within a 10-square-yard area, then move out into a 100-square-yard area and see what you find!

From Highway 82 take either Snowmass Creek Road (from down-valley) or Watson Divide (from Aspen) to the intersection of Watson Divide and Snowmass Creek Road, drive eight miles south on Snowmass Creek Road toward the Snowmass ski area to the T intersection, take a right and drive 200 yards to the trailhead on your left.


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