In Bloom: Pygmies, dwarfs, and fairies

Karin Teague
In Bloom
Pygmy bitterroot, Lewisia pygmaea

“Be where your feet are.” This is excellent advice. First and foremost, for life, suggesting we cultivate presence in our immediate, physical surroundings, rather than lose ourselves in past or future reverie. It is also critical advice for wildflower watchers. Mental distraction or a focus on the big views could mean missing the tiny, beautiful things gracing our mountains right now.

Wildflowers we call “pygmies,” “dwarfs,” and “fairies,” smaller versions of more common, larger species, are some of our loveliest. The pygmy bitterroot, Lewisia pygmaea, is an excellent example. Sitting just an inch off the ground, its seven pink to magenta petals and sculptural reproductive parts are nestled in fleshy, green leaves. Like its larger relative, the bitterroot, Montana’s state flower, it was first collected for science on the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806.

As easy as it is to miss with its low stature, once you spot it, you will likely begin to see it everywhere. This year, in particular, it is thriving. Look for it on sunny, rocky-sandy slopes, just above and below tree line, throughout our area.

Another wildflower that could break your heart with its delicacy is the dwarf bilberry, Vaccinium cespitosum. Found in and above spruce-fir forests, this ground-covering heath’s tiny, pink and white, bell-shaped flowers will become sweet berries later in the summer. “Huckleberries” are an important food source for high-elevation birds like grouse and ptarmigan, and for mammals small to large, including chipmunks, black bears and, at least in the past, human beings.

Dwarf bilberry, Vaccinium cespitosum

Apparently west coast Native Americans used dried huckleberries to preserve salmon, deer and elk. While our plants don’t typically yield enough berries to support this kind of use, the profuse flowering occurring this year promises at the very least to provide a sweet end to a summer picnic.

Another diminutive standout, found only in Colorado and northern New Mexico, is the fairy primrose, Primula angustifolia. Its five magenta petals surrounding a bright-yellow eye immediately identify it as a relative of the larger and better-known Parry’s primrose, Primula parryi. While the extravagant Parry’s needs a constant source of running or standing water, fairy primrose is content on dry soils, frequently saddling up to rocks for protection in the subalpine and alpine.

Fairy primrose, Primula angustifolia

The small stature of these magical miniatures is both a response to their short growing season and a means of escaping the drying winds and cold temperatures that make life at high elevation so precarious. What they lack in height, though, they make up for with their exuberant colors and captivating designs, helping ensure they are not overlooked by pollinating insects.

Or alert hikers. Remember: be where your feet are!

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