In Bloom: Pygmies and fairies
As residents of a place where14,000-foot peaks and starter castles dominate, we would seem to be a people who subscribe to the “bigger is better” motto. When it comes to wildflowers, though, I would argue that our loveliest and most astonishing flowers are our smallest. Flowers we call “dwarfs” and “pygmies,” smaller versions of more commonly seen species, scrape out a living in the high mountains, waiting to reward those willing to take their eyes off the big vistas to look low and hard.
One trail that starts high and stays high, serving as a perfect showcase for our subalpine and alpine flowers, is the Lyle and Mormon Lakes Trail up the Fryingpan Valley. The snow just recently melted here, providing excellent wet meadow conditions for these diminutives. The first one you’ll see (just after the sign-in station at 10,800 feet) is the pygmy bitterroot, Oreobroma pygmaea. The smaller cousin of Montana’s state flower, the bitterroot, the pygmy sits just an inch off the ground, its seven pink or occasionally white petals nestled in fleshy, green leaves. Its genus name comes from the Greek “oros” for mountain and “broma” for food, alluding to its edible (if not tasty) root.
A mile and a half up the trail at Lyle Lake, keep an eye out for pink carpets of alpine laurel, Kalmia microphylla, a low-lying, evergreen shrub with stunning rose-pink saucers for flowers. Notice the ten red anthers held under tension in little “pockets” in the flower’s petals ” when an insect lands on the flower, the anthers snap upright and sprinkle the insect with pollen.
After summiting the steep slope above Lyle Lake, start looking for another magnificent pink flower, the fairy primrose, Primula angustifolia. Usually solitary and standing only two inches off the ground, its five magenta petals surrounding a yellow eye immediately identify it as a relative of the larger and more famous Primula parryi, the extravagant Parry’s primrose that graces stream banks and rocky outcrops throughout our area. This hike provides a perfect opportunity to compare the two, including Parry’s noticeably stronger (but definitely not better!) scent.
All of these flowers’ small stature allows them to avoid the worst of the drying winds and cold temperatures that make life at 11,000 feet so precarious. What they lack in height, though, they make up for with the exuberant colors of their relatively large flowers, guaranteeing that they are not overlooked by pollinating insects.
From downtown Basalt, drive 32.8 miles up Frying Pan Road past Ruedi Resevoir until the road turns to gravel; turn left on Hagerman Pass Road (No. 105) and drive just under 11 miles to the trailhead, below the (currently closed) gate to Hagerman Pass.
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