In bloom: The big (and little) picture
July 9, 2009
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – On Wednesday I spent a perfect summer day indoors, getting both the big picture and the little picture on Colorado wildflowers at the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival. The little picture came in a microscope course, in which we discovered whole new layers of complexity and beauty in even the most banal wildflowers (think dandelions). Microscopes are the great equalizer; up close, all flowers are astonishing.
Take the female reproductive part – the carpel – of the dandelion. In the field it is a barely visible thread-like projection at the base of the dandelion’s ray flowers. At 20 times its normal size, though, the carpel becomes an exquisite piece of curling, curving sculpture.
Or take the hairs found on wildflowers’ leaves and stems. Like Eskimos and “snow,” botanists have dozens of words for “hairy,” and a microscope reveals why. Hairs come in myriad different sizes, textures, and even shapes. “Stellate” hairs fan out at their tips like stars, “dendritic” hairs look like trees, and “pectinate” hairs like combs. The course made me realize what a small part of the wildflower picture we are seeing out in the mountains.
The big picture was delivered by biologist David Inouye, who began studying wildflowers and their pollinators 38 years ago at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab in Gothic. What he couldn’t have anticipated at that time was that his meticulous counting of plants in 2-by-2 meter plots, every other day throughout the summer for more than 30 years, would begin to tell the story of what is happening to our local wildflowers as a result of global climate change.
The news is good and bad. The bad: Over the past 30 years, the trend has been for the winter snow pack to melt earlier. This leads many flowers to bloom earlier, which leaves them more vulnerable to late frosts or snowfalls that kill their buds. No flowers means no seeds and fewer flowers in years to come.
The good news, though, is two-fold. First, while the early bloomers may not successfully reproduce, they will survive the frost and continue to live for up to decades, with many more chances for flowering and reproduction and lots more time for us to enjoy them. The other good news is, the last two years have bucked the trend of earlier snowmelt, the result being later-blooming, healthier flowers, as evidenced by the profusion on display in Crested Butte right now. Dr. Inouye lamented with a smile that he may have to come back to this wildflower paradise for another 38 summers to see if this is a new trend.