In Bloom: Savoring Sky Pilot’s ‘stink’ is in nose of the beholder
Special to The Aspen Times
A weekly Saturday column in the summer, “In Bloom” features wildflowers that are prominent in the Aspen area at the time. 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.
“Why would a flower smell bad?” a hiking partner recently asked when a gust of wind on a high, rocky ridge blew the distinct smell of skunk our way. I identified the culprit as Sky Pilot, Polemonium viscosum, one of our most dazzling, and common, alpine wildflowers. It can be seen in abundance right now on a hike to Crested Butte, Electric Pass, or any of our 12,000-foot-plus mountains.
Sky Pilot has adapted to live on tempestuous high peaks, where we humans can linger only briefly, by cloistering between rocks, sheathed in copious, fuzzy, ladder-like leaves. This strategy allows its widely-flaring, light-purple flowers to grow larger than most of our alpine flora, making for a striking and beautiful sight. Which renders its distinctly unbeautiful smell all the more incongruous.
Why, indeed, would a flower smell bad? When so many of our wildflowers — think Wild Rose — seem designed to entice us?
Of course, wildflowers are not really interested in enticing us. To ensure their reproduction, it’s the pollinators they wish to attract. (Or is it? More on that momentarily.) While most pollinators like bees and butterflies are attracted to a sweet fragrance, which signals sugar-rich nectar and pollen, there are certain pollinators, flies especially, who downright love the smell of skunk, or carrion, or other (human) unpleasantries.
Flies are probably the most important pollinator in the alpine, making Sky Pilot’s choice of odor logical. Moreover, Sky Pilot doesn’t seem to lose the bumblebees, probably because its flowers are highly visible and smell at least a little bit sweet. It’s actually Sky Pilot’s sticky, resin-covered leaves, which discourage ants and other herbivores from eating them, that throw off the most stink.
Next time you see Sky Pilot, try an experiment. Put your nose up to its blooms and decide for yourself: sweet or skunky? To this hiker’s nose, skunky always wins.
Which brings us to a final point regarding attraction and reproductive success. In his enchanting book, “The Botany of Desire,” Michael Pollan stands the notion of who benefits in the human-plant relationship on its head. Using the 17th century tulip craze as an example, he notes that, in typical human-centric fashion, we think of cross-breeding and cultivating flowers as a one-sided strategy to bring beauty into our lives, that doesn’t benefit the flower.
When in fact, as a result of humans’ obsession, tulips can now be found on every continent on Earth save Antarctica, in numbers unimaginable without human intervention. In other words, by enticing humans with their beauty, tulips ensured their wildly successful reproduction. So who, exactly, is benefitting whom? Maybe we’re all partners in this beautiful game of life?
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