In Bloom: Life under the snow
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
There are certain hikes that should be done every year. For me, Electric Pass is one of them.
It’s clear of snow early thanks to its south-facing aspect; it takes you as high as you can get without climbing a fourteener; it provides reliable amusement in the form of unacclimated, over-dressed, under-hydrated visitors asking, with looks of desperation, how far it is to Cathedral Lake; and, of course, it boasts stunning wildflowers, especially of the alpine variety.
The alpine flowers begin in earnest above the lake. The skunky but beautiful deep-purple sky pilot (Polemonium viscosum), alpine bluebells (Mertensia lanceolata), and the big-headed, bedraggled old-man-of-the-mountain (Tetraneuris grandiflora) line the trail to the top of the saddle. In some spots there are still patches of snow, with white marsh marigolds (Caltha leptosepala) and globeflowers (Trollius laxus) poking up around the edges. They serve as a reminder of the journey the flowers have taken, from the brutal alpine winter through to the fleeting summer flowering season.
That journey begins under the snow which, somewhat counterintuitively, is generally a better place to be than on open ground. A blanket of snow keeps the plants and the soil under them at a relatively stable 34 degrees, as opposed to the widely fluctuating air temperatures that a flower on bare ground must endure. In the alpine, just a foot of snow can mean a 60-degree temperature differential between the snow-covered soil (at freezing) and the air just above it. The snow cover also protects the plants from drying winds, ice blast, and solar radiation, which is particularly dangerous to dormant tissue ” approximately two-thirds of alpine plants are dormant during the winter.
As for the other one-third, they don’t wait for the snow to melt before beginning their growing season. Sometime in January through March, the plants begin developing green leaves. Some flowers, like the snow buttercup (Ranunculus adoneus), even blossom, then push their cheery, bright-yellow heads up through the snow. How can plants grow under the snow with no direct sunlight?
In rotting spring snow, the large crystals allow short-wave blue and green light to penetrate up to six feet. This light is absorbed by the darker, red-hued leaves of the underlying flowers and allows them to photosynthesize, effectively extending their growing season by a couple of weeks. These hues also protect the plants from the harmful ultraviolet radiation that greets them upon emerging from the snow. This explains why so many of the plants you see coming up right after snowmelt look like plants from the Triassic period, all tightly curled and purplish. These are the same plants that will become spring beauty (Claytonia lanceolata) and other favorite wildflowers.
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