In bloom: wildlife and wildflowers |

In bloom: wildlife and wildflowers

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” When’s the last time you were out on a hike and saw a fox, a bear, and a bull elk ” all at the same time? That’s the sight that greeted me as I came out of the trees and into the “sugar bowls” just west of Buttermilk.

This hike, which can be linked with the Government Trail (opening June 21) for a great loop, features abundant wildflowers in addition to wildlife, including no less than four species of yellow violet, one of which I’ve never seen before, and which, according to the experts, is not supposed to be here.

Starting at the base of Tiehack, take whatever route you usually skin or snowshoe up in the winter to the top of the West Buttermilk chairlift. From here, take the trail behind and to the left of the patrol shack up to the ridge where tremendous views of the Willow Creek valley await. The big wildflower show, and the spot where I had my “big three” wildlife sighting, begins when you come off the ridge and out of the trees into open, rolling slopes regularly enjoyed by middling backcountry skiers like myself but rarely by hikers.

The meadows are covered in pink spring beauties, Claytonia lanceolata, attesting to how recently the snow melted. Also in abundance are yellow violets, all of which at first glance appear the same ” a closer look, though, reveals subtle differences in the leaves that add up to four different species. Viola praemorsa is the largest, its plants standing six inches tall with smooth-edged, feather-shaped leaves tapering gradually to the stem. Viola vallicola is similar but smaller with leaves squarer at the stem.

More obviously distinct is Viola biternata (also known as “sheltonii”), the leaves of which are deeply dissected into multiple segments. Viola biternata is rarely seen in our area and ordinarily would be cause for excitement, were it not for the discovery of what might be Viola utahensis, whose leaves are egg shaped, with coarse teeth and shallow lobes.

I say “might” because according to Weber and Wittman’s “Colorado Flora, Western Slope,” the most authoritative reference book on wildflowers in our area, Viola utahensis is found only in Moffat County. No other violet in Weber or in any of the other numerous books or websites I reviewed comes close to matching this flower, though, leaving three possibilities: 1) Viola utahensis has a broader range than previously believed, 2) this violet is actually a heretofore unidentified variety of Viola praemorsa, vallicola, or biternata, or 3) I’ve discovered a new species of violet. Needless to say, I’m rooting for the last”Viola karinii has a nice ring to it.