In bloom: Wildflowers help shape the world |

In bloom: Wildflowers help shape the world

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

After a week away and reports of serious rain during that time, I was thrilled to awake Tuesday morning to blue skies and a chance to see how the wildflowers were responding to all the moisture.

On a long meander from Sunnyside to Smuggler, I counted ninety or so species of wildflowers (including roadside weeds) in bloom, about average for this time of year. Their volume and exuberance, however, were only fair-to-middling (a few fabulous stands of penstemon on lower Sunnyside notwithstanding). It appears what the flowers really need now is a good dose of sunshine.

On the other hand, the grasses (many of which also have flowers, but which are too tiny to notice) are having a field day – the rain has turned our mountainsides Ireland green.

Or could this be stated the other way around? Is it, in fact, our plant-besotted mountainsides that are responsible for all the rain we’re getting? 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 CO2-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 CO2 levels would be fifteen 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? ALL of it?

So what does all this have to do with the wildflowers blooming in Hunter Creek right now? At a time when the flowers are not at their showiest, it may help to recall that they are more than just a pretty accoutrement to our alpine excursions. In fact wildflowers, just as surely as the shifting continental plates, the simmering volcanoes, and the industries of man, have shaped the world we live in.

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