In bloom: High-alpine heaven
July 2, 2009
ASPEN – One of my favorite anecdotes about John Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club and unequalled lover of wilderness, takes place on a high mountain ridge overlooking the Sierras, where Muir has led a group of scientists to observe the mountains’ glacial features. While the scientists solemnly and seriously make their observations, Muir jumps up and down in elation, crying, “Oh, the joy! Oh, the joy!”
I echoed that sentiment on 13,500-foot Electric Pass south of Aspen on Wednesday. In few other places is the awesome scale and magnificence of central Colorado brought into such sharp relief as when viewing the Conundrum Valley and Cathedral Lake surrounded by the Elk Mountains. Equally awe-inspiring are the wildflowers, impossibly clinging to life year-in and year-out in a place where a hiker is lucky to spend more than a few minutes enjoying the views. Many of these flowers can only be seen in such inhospitable places, beckoning the hiker to make the journey. And some, like the tiny yellow mustard I saw on Wednesday known as Wind River Draba (Draba ventosa), are considered “critically imperiled” by Colorado’s Natural Heritage Program and can be found only in our local mountains.
Wind River Draba, standing one inch high and cradled by a small rosette of succulent, hair-dotted leaves, perfectly illustrates how alpine flowers have adapted to their harsh environment. Studies have shown that when the same wildflower grows at different elevations, the plant above tree line will have fewer flowers, smaller and fewer leaves, and shorter and slenderer stems than its lower-altitude counterpart. This response to its environment keeps the plant lower to the ground, out of the worst weather. The Wind River Draba further protects itself by tucking itself into rock crevices and surrounding itself by leaves that insulate the flower and retain moisture against the desiccating winds.
Having less plant tissue also allows alpine plants to mature more quickly when the short growing season begins. More of the plant’s energy goes into producing its flowers, which interestingly stay the same size regardless of elevation (explaining why alpine flowers seem so large compared to their green parts – they are!). This way, the plant can flower and set seed early, allowing it to spend most of the summer season ripening its seeds, which requires the warmth of the summer sun.
So pick a high peak and go see these rare, hearty beauties while their flowers are still out. As John Muir said, “Strange and admirable it is that the more savage and chilly and storm-chafed the mountains, the finer the plants they bear … every flower a window-opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.”