In Bloom: The royal family and why we love them
Not the British one (does anyone love them anymore, anyway?). Rather, the stonecrop family, consisting in our area of the king’s crown, queen’s crown, and yellow stonecrop wildflowers. With their succulent leaves and distinctive floral crowns, stonecrops garner as much attention and appreciation as any wildflower I know.
The first thing that stands out is their leaves: all members of the family Crassulaceae have thick, fleshy leaves adapted to water storage, along with a waxy coating that helps prevent water loss. This gives them a three-dimensional, cactus-like look. Those same leaves help light up late summer meadows by turning brilliant red and pink when their blooms have faded.
As for their flowers, king’s crown, Rhodiola integrifiolia, has unusual deep-maroon-to-black flowers packed tightly in a flat head. King’s crown grows in both wet and dry places throughout our mountains from the montane to the alpine.
Queen’s crown, Rhodiola rhodantha, has a more spherical head of sumptuous pink and rose flowers. It grows only where it’s wet, usually near and above treeline, and is hitting its peak now.
One might wonder why queen’s and king’s crowns are found in wet places, when their leaves are seemingly adapted for arid environments. As it turns out, stonecrops have shallow roots that make it difficult for them to get water out of the cold, acidic soil found in high-elevation zones. In other words, our mountain landscape is desert-like for stonecrops.
Indeed, yellow stonecrop, Sedum lanceolatum, whose larger, star-shaped, lemon-yellow flowers grow in clusters rather than crowns, is typically found in dry, rocky places, from the valley floor to the highest peaks, often growing from the tiniest amount of soil—very much like desert flowers.
Besides their water-storing leaves, another common adaptation in succulents like stonecrops is the timing of the opening of their stomata—small, mouth-like structures on the surface of the plant’s leaves. Stomata allow carbon dioxide to be taken in from the environment, and water and oxygen to be released.
Unlike most plants, the stomata of many succulents close during the day and open at night. This minimizes water loss during the hot, dry day, but only allows for carbon dioxide uptake when it’s dark: not the ideal time to conduct photosynthesis. The different method these plants employ to fix carbon dioxide and photosynthesize is called “crassulacean acid metabolism”: hence the stonecrops’ scientific family name.
Of course it’s not their adaptive acuity that makes us appreciate stonecrops. It’s their unusual forms and distinctive colors which, along with their minimal maintenance requirements, have made them in high demand throughout the world. South Africa, which is home to approximately one-third of all succulent species, is experiencing a wave of poaching of rare and endangered succulent plants.
Sound frustratingly familiar? If only we humans could adopt the axiom, at least when it comes to plants and animals, of “love ’em and leave ’em!”
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/2021-wildflower-checklist.
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