In Bloom: High-alpine splendor
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Having trouble believing it’s July already? Wondering how you’re going to squeeze in all your outdoor adventures? Well, the alpine wildflowers understand. They have about six weeks a year to do it all ” flower, make food, reproduce, and hunker down for the long winter ahead. So when July arrives, the alpine wildflowers get busy, and busy they are, exploding across alpine ridges throughout the valley.
The trick is getting to those ridges. The subalpine fir and spruce forests below, which don’t get the same scouring winds and blazing sun as the tundra, are still loaded with snow. On a recent bike ride up to the Maroon Bells, however, I noticed that the south-west facing mountainside known as Little Wasatch Bowl by backcountry skiers looked clear of snow. It had the further advantage of no creeks to cross, but the serious disadvantage of no trail. Fortunately, Little Wasatch has a large avalanche chute running the length of it, which compared to bushwacking up an aspen- or oak-infested slope, feels like a walk in the park. I decided since I was never going to get in all the wildflower hikes I wanted to this summer, better to do a few memorable ones.
And memorable this was, owing not only to the exhilaration of exploring new, challenging terrain, but to the breathtaking show of alpine flowers that awaited me at the top of what turned out to be Highland Bowl. Carpets of lavender alpine daisies (Erigeron lanatus and pinnatisectus), white mountain dryads (Dryas octopetala), moss campion (Silene acaulis), and 50 other species of alpine flowers now occupy the same place you hiked and skied seemingly bottomless powder all winter. How do these delicate beauties survive winter at 12,000 feet?
One way they do it is by “hardening,” or acclimating to increasingly colder temperatures. In the fall, the flower’s membranes become more permeable, and water moves out of the cell’s living cytoplasm and into the intercellular spaces where growing crystals don’t hurt the plant. The increased concentration within the cell also lowers the interior’s freezing point. In this way, moss campion can withstand temperatures as low as 320 degrees Farenheit below zero after hardening (that’s right ” 320 degrees below), when a relatively balmy 14 degrees above zero in the summer would kill it.
Knowing what these tough, tiny flowers endure in the winter, and seeing them out for their six weeks of glory fulfilling their life’s mission ” making more life ” never fails to move me. Add to that their exquisite beauty, devised solely to enlist members of an entirely different kingdom in the cause of reproduction, and you have one of evolution’s great stories. Greater even than the skier making perfect S-turns down the Bowl.
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