In bloom: The elegant, unusual twistflower

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

CARBONDALE – One of the best places to see loads of wildflowers early in the season is the Thompson Creek area southwest of Carbondale. Owing to its unique mix of sun-baked, low-elevation hillsides intersected by aspen-lined creeks and old-growth spruce and fir-filled ravines, flowers here run the gamut from the desert-steppe variety to Rocky Mountain classics. Right now is the time to see more than 60 species of both, before the heat of summer dries out the hillsides.

The best way to access the Thompson Creek area (involving the least amount of driving) is via the Perham Creek Trail, located 10 miles south of Carbondale off Highway 133. The trail begins on a drab hillside made instantly electric by 3-foot high penstemons whose luscious, lavender-blue flowers beckon like gaping mouths (Penstemon osterhoutii). Penstemons have taken the art of attracting pollinators a step beyond colorful petals, adding a tangle of golden hairs to the end of one of their five stamens in order to further attract bees and to provide them with a good foothold for nectar probing.

Sharing the dry hillside is one of the strangest but most elegant flowers to be found in our area, the heartleaf twistflower (Streptanthus cordatus). Dotting this mustard’s three-foot stem are tiny, urn-shaped flowers with just the tips of their deep-maroon petals protruding from the green calyxes.

The twistflower’s understated display is the opposite of the showy penstemon’s, and illustrates well how petals are important not only in attracting pollinators, but in attracting the right pollinators. If a flower has a distinctive color, shape, and size, like the twistflower, and offers a good reward of nectar or pollen, a pollinator is likely to search for and fly to other flowers with the same pattern. This reduces the odds that a flower’s pollen will be wasted on a different species of flower.

As the trail makes its way down off the oak and juniper hillside to the heavily-wooded Perham Creek, the flowers change instantly from the desert-loving variety to the shade-and-water-loving variety. All three colors of violets, yellow, white and purple, are in bloom right now, as are the wild strawberries, the shy ballhead waterleaf, and the striking red columbine.

It is our great fortune that the floral richness and other unique features of the Perham Creek area have been recognized by the Carbondale-based Wilderness Workshop which, in conjunction with other state and national conservation outfits, is working to attain wilderness status for this and other areas in and around the White River National Forest. Get out and see what these groups are working so hard to protect, and see how you can help at