In bloom: Wildflowers and weather |

In bloom: Wildflowers and weather

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Karin TeagueMoss campion and rocky senecio.

It’s been a fascinating summer to watch the relationship between rain and wildflowers.

After May and June’s heavy rains, the mountainsides responded by quickly greening up with grasses, but the flowers held off, apparently needing a good dose of sunshine before they responded in July. Now, after just a few weeks of warm, dry weather, those flowers that aren’t growing next to streams or snowmelt are starting to look stressed. Overall, what we’re seeing is a pattern of blooming – valley floor and hillsides first, dry alpine ridges and aspen groves second, subalpine and wet alpine last – more typical of the “old days,” before spring began arriving sooner and hotter and all the flowers began blooming closer together.

While it’s plain to anyone living here that the rains have a big impact on our local flora, what is less obvious is that the prior statement could be made in reverse – it is our flora that is responsible for the rains in the first place. Scientists studying the relationship between plants and our atmosphere now believe that without plants, not only would we receive much less, if any, rain, but the green and blue planet we call home would look a lot more like Mars – red, dusty, and lacking any intelligent beings to complain about it all.

The first and most critical thing plants do for us is produce oxygen. When plants make food by photosynthesis – that is, when they use their green pigment, chlorophyll, to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, thereby freeing up electrons to add to carbon dioxide to make sugar – oxygen is the waste product. This wonderful “waste” accumulates in the air as an ozone shield, protecting our planet from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. And, of course, every plant and animal you can see without a microscope depends on that oxygen for life.

Beyond producing oxygen, plants also seem to play a crucial, long-term role in reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Mountain wildflowers accelerate the chemical weathering of our rocky mountains, sending carbon dioxide-laden sediments downstream to be buried at the bottom of the seas. Without plants removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in this way, some scientists believe carbon dioxide levels would be 15 times what they are today – talk about global warming!

Oh, and did I mention that, one way or another, all of our food comes from plants?

So next time you’re out in the mountains, remember that the wildflowers are more than just a pretty accoutrement to your hike. In fact wildflowers, just as surely as the shifting plates, the simmering volcanoes, and the industries of man, have shaped the world we live in.

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