In Bloom: Ugly wildflowers
August 17, 2006
Can wildflowers be ugly? I ask because this week, due to a valleywide scarcity of baby-sitters, I was relegated to hiking the Arbaney-Kittle Trail in Basalt. I say “relegated” because I consider Arbaney a terrific early-season hike, say late May, when the spring larkspur and arrowleaf balsamroot are running riot at the top, and the views of the still-snowy Elk Range whet your appetite for the bigger hikes to come. But by mid-August, it is dry as a bone at 7,000 feet and the flowers that remain are, well, kind of ugly.So what exactly makes a wildflower ugly? Let’s start with plumeless thistle, Carduus acanthoides, a spiny, threatening-looking flower designated a noxious weed by Pitkin County. To earn this dubious distinction, a plant must be deemed “invasive” – that is, it must have been introduced to this country, purposefully or accidentally, and since then transformed landscapes by outcompeting and displacing native plants and screwing up thousands of years of co-evolution between local plants and animals. Could it be that invasives are inherently unattractive? Perhaps we, like the pathogens and predators they evade in their new homeland, are not sufficiently adapted to their aesthetic novelties? The answer is no, as we have plenty of equally unattractive but thoroughly native thistles, like Eaton’s and Parry’s. And some invasives, like the charming butter-and-eggs and the brilliantly colored dame’s rocket, are downright attractive. (Their problem is the too-much-of-a-good-thing thing.) Maybe it’s just thistles? Apparently not. The three most abundant flowers on the hike, all natives and all nonthistles, are all, at least to this writer’s eye, unattractive. Curlycup gumweed, or Grindelia squarrosa, has disproportionately large bracts that are sticky, spiny, and smelly. Rabbitbrush, or Chrysothamnus nauseosus – so named for its poisonous, rather than aesthetic, qualities – is nonetheless an undistinguished shrub with negligible flowers. And if there’s any aster that isn’t in danger of being too frequently transplanted, it’s the tansy aster, Machaeranthera canescens, whose skinny, spine-toothed leaves and raggedy purple petals give it a weedy appearance.Other than cheery, yellow golden-eyes and a single cluster of delicate, light-purple harebells, I saw no flowers that I found particularly pretty. But the time I spent simply paying attention to the flowers – touching them, smelling them, thinking about what made them “pretty” or not – was time well spent. And of course the flowers are not there to impress me. The birds and the bees are the judges that count, and judging by their numbers, these ugly ducklings are doing just fine. Getting there: From Highway 82 just upvalley from Basalt, go north on Bishop Drive; take a left at the T; when the road turns to dirt, take the left-hand lane to the trailhead.