In Bloom: Movin’ On Up, to the East Side
This weekend’s In Bloom takes you just a mile outside the Roaring Fork Valley, but worlds away wildflower-wise. Just east of the Continental Divide there are species you will never see on the west side, and unusual blooms that will confound and delight even the most seasoned wildflower watchers.
One of the first species to catch your attention on a drive over Independence Pass is showy locoweed, Oxytropis splendens. Standing up to two feet tall, its hundreds of flowers range from purple to lavender to pink to blue, all on the same plant. Add to that three-dimensional leaves covered in silvery-silky hairs, and this flower surely meets the definition of “showy.”
In fact, when I first encountered this plant at the historic Interlaken Hotel at Twin Lakes, I thought it might be an escaped domestic, as I had never seen such a flamboyant wildflower. Alas, it is a native, just one you won’t see on the west side of the Pass. In addition to roadside on Highway 82, it can be seen in sunny, sagebrush meadows near Twin Lakes and in the South Fork Lake Creek valley.
Higher up the mountains is showy locoweed’s polar opposite, dwarf phlox, Phlox condensata. Its porcelain-white flowers stand just one-half inch off the ground, and are the definition of elegance. Found only to the east and south of us, dwarf phlox can cover swaths of rocky tundra in ground-hugging mats, conjuring small, scattered snowfields.
Another unique east-sider is alpine wallflower, Erysimum capitatum. While its yellow version is seen everywhere in the Roaring Fork Valley—indeed, it has greater ecological latitude than most plants, ranging from Glenwood to our highest peaks—it makes a lovely lavender appearance on the east side, usually in the 11,500 to 12,500 foot elevational range. I have never found an explanation for why or how this flower sports such different colors: all the more reason to love this enigmatic rarity.
Finally, perhaps most astonishing is the east-side version of alpine spring beauty, Claytonia megarhiza. Many of you know this plant: it has white flowers with yellow centers and pink anthers cradled in circular rosettes of succulent leaves, and grows only in high, harsh places like West Maroon and Electric Passes. It is generally the size of a tea saucer, often tucked into rocks for protection, and seen only occasionally.
Imagine my surprise, then, when walking an old mining road at 13,300 feet in the Sayres Gulch area and finding hundreds upon hundreds of alpine spring beauties, many more than two feet in diameter and standing a foot tall.
What a difference a mile makes!
Karin Teague, director of the Independence Pass Foundation, is a 25-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley and devoted student of its wildflowers. To see more facts and photos of the flowers featured here and blooming in real time on Independence Pass, go to independencepass.org/2021-wildflower-checklist
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