In Bloom: Rare Wonders
If you’re reading this column, you likely have a favorite wildflower experience: perhaps reveling in the unmatched abundance on a hike to Crested Butte, or encountering brilliant-blue alpine forget-me-nots atop a 13,000-foot peak.
Such sights fill me with an elation undiminished since coming here 25 years ago. But nothing thrills me like finding a rare Colorado wildflower.
Of the almost 3,000 species of native plants in Colorado, less than ten percent are officially considered rare, with designations ranging from “critically imperiled” to “vulnerable” to “secure but rare.” Some wildflowers are rare because they occupy highly specific and uncommon ecological niches; some have been picked to near extinction; others are losing habitat to development, resource extraction, recreation, or climate change.
Whatever the reason for their rarity, and whether they’re found as a result of meticulous research and dogged searching or sheer, dumb luck, it always feels like a moment of grace to find one.
One such rare plant that I set out this week to find, successfully, is white-veined wintergreen, Pyrola picta. Recently published books and rare plant authorities do not include Pitkin County as a region where this flower can be found, making it all the more thrilling to find here.
Like other Pyrola species, white-veined wintergreen is a “mixotroph:” that is, it makes some of its food on its own through its green leaves, and some through mycorrhizal fungi attached to other green plants. This makes good sense for this plant, since it grows only in dark, coniferous forests with limited sunlight.
Knowing where it grows — in our area, usually between 8,000-9,000 feet in lodgepole pine forests — and its distinctive feature — its prominently white-veined, dark-green leaves — makes for a challenging but doable treasure hunt. Let me know if you find one! (As with all wildflowers, never pick them, and if it is rare, don’t share its specific location: that’s how the ravishing wood lily disappeared from our area.)
Another rare plant we are lucky to have here in the mountains above Aspen, designated “vulnerable” with less than 100 known occurrences in the state, is Colorado tansy aster, Xanthisma coloradoense (until recently Machaeranthera coloradoensis). It lives above tree line on dry, rocky slopes, and is distinguished by its large, pinkish-purple flowers and abundant, greyish-green leaves toothed on the edges. Bonus: it never hurts to have a word starting with an “x” in your word game quiver.
Finally, a plant not deemed rare by any entity other than me — it eluded me for 25 years, until this past week — is nodding saxifrage, Saxifraga cernua. This whimsical alpine flower, with its bright-red bulblets, fuzzy, kitten paw leaves, and single, white flower that, contrary to its name, stands erect, is the definition of delight.
All these and other rare flowers have called Colorado home for thousands of years. Let’s make sure they stick around for a few thousand more: enjoy and protect your natural heritage!
Karin Teague, Director of the Independence Pass Foundation, is a 25-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley and devoted student of its wildflowers. If you have a wildflower question or would like to share your own discoveries, email Karin at firstname.lastname@example.org.