On the Trail: Flower season returns | AspenTimes.com

On the Trail: Flower season returns

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado

BASALT ” They’re baacckk! After one of the longest, wettest winters in memory, the wildflowers have finally arrived, about three weeks later than usual but looking, at least in some cases, better than ever.

Just about any sage or scrub oak hillside below 9,000 feet is a good place to be right now for wildflower viewing, but East Sopris Mountain behind Basalt High School is particularly abundant with more than 60 species of flowers in bloom, including three species of one of this year’s big winners, the regal penstemon.

Also known as “beard tongues” because of the characteristic tuft of golden hairs in their flowers, the penstemon out in the greatest numbers right now is Penstemon osterhoutii. Easily recognized by the whitish bloom on its smooth, blue-green leaves and stem, its large, five-part magenta flowers fold back to reveal the “beard tongue” (which may attract pollinators or at least act as a foothold) and four other stamens (the pollen producers) tucked inside.

If, however, you come across a very similar flower sticking two of its stamens out at you, you have found the much rarer Penstemon harringtonii. Found nowhere else in the world outside a 48-by-82-mile area in our part of Colorado, P. harringtonii has been designated a “sensitive” species (a notch below “endangered”) by the Forest Service and BLM because of a “significant current or predicted downward trend in abundance or habitat capability that would reduce its distribution.”

In other words, it is losing ground to real estate development and recreation around our hot ski towns. Look for P. harringtonii as you crest the first hill behind the high school, just five minutes into the hike (P. osterhoutii comes later). Get out and see this rare beauty if you can ” in a typical year, less than 50 percent of the plants produce flowering stalks. This year, it feels like all of them did.

Finally, don’t miss the less showy Penstemon strictus, the first penstemon to be seen on the hike, which has noticeably smaller, darker blue flowers and greener leaves than the other two. It just started blooming a few days ago, so the verdict is still out on whether it will have the banner year that its cousins are having.

To get to East Sopris Mountain, park at Basalt High School and catch the trail behind and to the left of the school. The trail roller coasters in the downvalley direction for a half-mile before climbing steeply up to the ridge at over 8,000 feet, where it continues in the opposite direction all the way to Gateway in Old Snowmass.