In bloom: Welcome, summer! | AspenTimes.com
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In bloom: Welcome, summer!

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Karin TeaguePrairie smoke (Erythrocoma triflora) at the base of Mount Sopris.
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CARBONDALE – This year, unlike most, it felt like the solstice marked the first real day of summer.

Sunday began inauspiciously with rain, but by mid-morning the clouds had parted and a true-blue Colorado day emerged. And after several more days of the same, the mountain wildflowers have finally come out of hiding after weeks of cool, wet weather. Overnight, it seems, the aspen groves are alive with columbines, and the tundra is spotted with all variety of tiny alpine flowers. A great place to welcome their arrival, and to bid adieu to the peaking wildflowers of the lower-elevation scrub oak, is Mount Sopris, outside of Carbondale.

I’m usually hesitant to recommend Sopris for wildflower viewing, since most of the rocky hike above Thomas Lakes is devoid of wildflowers. On Wednesday, though, the occasional pockets of moss campion (Silene acaulis), alpine kittentails (Besseya alpina) and rockjasmine (Androsace chamaejasme), perhaps because they were the first of the year, perhaps because they were such a welcome diversion from the endless scree slog that is summiting Sopris, were thoroughly satisfying.

The real stars of the show at Sopris, though, can be found at the trailhead, where huge stands of yellow false lupine (Thermopsis montana) and carpets of pink alpine onion (Allium geyeri) welcome the hiker. “False lupine” is aptly named, as its flowers and the overall look of the plant so resemble the more familiar purple lupine (Lupinus ssp.) cloaking our oak hillsides. However, the yellow version has been placed in its own distinct genus (“Thermopsis”) because its filaments (the delicate stalks holding the pollen-containing anthers) all stand separately, whereas purple lupine’s filaments are united at the base.

Such fine distinctions have also recently been employed to move the genus Allium, which includes the leeks and chives we enjoy at our tables, out of the lily family and into its own family, the onion family. Unlike the large, solitary flowers of the alp lily (Lloydia serotina) or the avalanche lily (Erythronium grandifllorum), both of which are in bloom higher up on Sopris, the alpine onion at the trailhead has multiple, tiny flowers on stalks that radiate like spokes from an umbrella.

Another highlight of the hike is up on the first bench, just before the scrub oak gives way to the aspens, where prairie smoke (Erythrocoma triflora), a nodding, soft-pink, urn-shaped flower, is about equal parts in bloom and in fruit, with the latter, which most resembles a messy head of hair, as interesting as its precursor.

It’s hard to imagine a better hike with which to ring in the summer – one with an optimum blend of spring and summer flowers, from montane to alpine, with arguably the best view in the valley as the final reward.

To see the prairie smoke flower, go to aspentimes.com/hiking.


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