In Bloom: Warming and wildflowers |

In Bloom: Warming and wildflowers

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. ” This past week I spent several days in Crested Butte living and breathing wildflowers at the annual Wildflower Festival. Like here, the flowers in Crested Butte are blooming about three weeks later than usual, but early indications are that it’s going to be a banner year for flowers there, too. At least one scientist who spoke at the festival thinks this “unusual” year is just a reminder of years past, and one that’s going to be less and less likely to be repeated (remind you of any old-timers opining on this year’s ski season?)

David Inouye, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Maryland, has spent the last 35 summers at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, outside of Crested Butte, studying pollinators and monitoring the same group of one hundred or so species of wildflowers. Although he didn’t begin his studies with a focus on climate change, his several decades of research have proved invaluable in assessing the effects on local flowers and what we can expect in the future.

And the verdict is? As a meticulous scientist, Inouye isn’t willing, based on the data he’s obtained so far, to go too far out on a limb in predicting what the Elk Mountain flora is going to look like down the road. What his studies have shown, though, is that the generally earlier melting of the snowpack each spring has caused the wildflowers to bloom earlier, which puts their buds at risk of being damaged by a (fairly typical) June frost. This year, because of the “late” snowmelt, the flowers waited to bloom and therefore are looking healthy.

And in a wonderful example of interconnectedness, Inouye points out how the early snowmelt in turn affects the pollinators upon whom the flowers depend for optimal reproduction. It turns out the number of eggs a female butterfly can produce depends on how much energy she can take in ” that is, how much nectar she’s getting from the flowers. So if the flowers that she prefers have suffered frost damage, they won’t produce as much nectar and the butterfly’s reproductive numbers will suffer, leading to a decrease in the number of butterflies out the following summer, leading to decreased pollination of the flowers, and so on and so on.

A colleague at the lab, John Harte, who has been studying the effects of increased warming on plants and pollinators by using overhead heaters, is less restrained than Inouye. He thinks Crested Butte’s currently bounteous valley floor will become a sagebrush desert in the next 30 years, and that the Wildflower Festival will need to be relocated to higher ground. How does the Independence Wildflower Festival sound?

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