In Bloom: Which is a weed?
In the heart of Old Town Basalt lies a well-kept secret that deserves to be shared. Unofficially known as the Basalt Mountain Trail, this hike climbs over 2,500 feet through five different ecosystems, each with its own signature wildflowers. The trail begins at 6,800 feet in dry piñon-juniper country that quickly transforms into a riparian oasis, courtesy of a natural spring. Here the gourmet will find his favorite wildflower, the white-flowered watercress, a member of the mustard family. Like all mustard flowers, Nasturtium officinale has four petals, and while most mustards are edible, few are as tasty as watercress. Add some leaves to your sandwich for an arugula-like punch. Ten minutes into the hike, when the trail runs into an old wagon road, take a right into sage country and keep your eyes peeled for the plains prickly pear cactus, which is just starting to bloom. Easier to see is the 3-foot-high, gangly yellow tansymustard. Although this mustard is commonly derided as a weed, it is in fact an entirely natural and native flower (i.e., it was here when the pilgrims arrived), while watercress is non-native but never called a weed. This raises the question of what makes a wildflower a “weed?” As good a definition as any is a plant growing where it’s not wanted, in abundance. Since tansymustard is highly successful but relatively unattractive – and not nearly so tasty as watercress – it seems to qualify. After half an hour or so of climbing (ignore all roads and trails heading downhill), you will cross a stream filled with yet another mustard, heartleaf bittercress (as a nibble will verify) and the always surprising yellow monkeyflower, Mimulus guttatus. The genus name “Mimulus” refers to a mime or comic actor, conjuring the flower’s grinning, monkey-like face, and the species name “guttatus” means “drop” in Latin, referring to the brown spots on the flower’s lower lip that guide insects to the nectar inside. In another 20 minutes, at about 8,000 feet, you will pass a shelter and merge with a wagon road. Here you can either continue straight ahead and start your descent to Lake Christine, or you can make a sharp right and continue up to the aspens and conifers, where the shade-loving false solomon’s seal and heartleaf arnica are in abundance. To get to the Basalt Mountain trailhead, drive through downtown Basalt on Midland Avenue; take a left at the barbershop on Homestead Drive; take a right on Spur; park at the dead end.