In bloom: Mining for flowers
August 6, 2009
LAKE COUNTY, Colo. – Just east of Independence Pass is a 13,600-foot peak called Mount Champion, where Colorado’s mining heritage is on display. Gaping holes and heaps of rock, tilting log buildings, rusty wheels, and innumerable empty tin cans serve as reminders of the hard summers miners spent here 100 years ago.
Still spending hard summers here are wildflowers that have just now warmed up enough to bloom, along with flowers that can only be seen with a magnifying glass, and rare flowers found only in the kind of rocks worked by Mt. Champion’s miners.
The hike up Lackawanna Gulch below Mt. Champion begins with a beautiful if somewhat melancholy-inducing display of all the half-dozen species of purple gentian in our area, including the fringed, bottle, rose and star gentian. The gentians’ appearance always makes me a bit sad, because it typically marks the twilight of the summer wildflower season here, a season I am never ready to see end.
Up on top of Mt. Champion, though, it still feels like June. Iridescent blue forget-me-nots and bright-white alpine smelowskia, both considered early-season bloomers, are still out among the rocks and ledges of Champion’s northwest facing slope, where summer has apparently just arrived.
Also out are ground-hugging mats of the 1/8-inch, yellowish-green Rocky Mountain nailwort, which the undisputed authority on Colorado flora, William Weber, calls “the most extreme of dwarf mat plants.” It doesn’t have the lush color or elegance of the gentian – hell, you can hardly see it – but partly for this reason it is infinitely more rewarding to find.
Also on the summit are twisted-arm draba and James’ snowlover, two of the 15 alpine species identified as “rare” in the must-have book for amateur botanists, Rare Plants of Colorado. I have never seen the yellow twisted-arm before (so named for its hairs, which resemble a “piano tuning fork that has been run over by a truck”). It is found only along the Continental Divide in Colorado.
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As for the snowlover, its small stature and rather nondescript, white and tan-edged flowers blend in with its high alpine surroundings, making it easy to overlook. But as is the case with so many other small, uncommon flowers, once you’ve seen snowlover, you will know where to look for it and will start seeing it, in all its understated elegance, all the time.
So do the thriving alpine flowers of Mt. Champion suggest our wildflower season will linger well into August? Or do the gentian signal the inevitable decline of the season? Please get out there and let me know – I’m heading to Maine for the rest of the summer!