The Big Boys of Summer
If you’ve been reading this column for the past five weeks, you may have detected a preference on my part for the wildflowers of the high alpine. While I readily admit to having a particular fondness for all living things that are able to survive in such rugged conditions, be they pika or ptarmigan or alpine flowers, there is a practical reason, too.
Counterintuitively, alpine flowers bloom earlier than many lower elevation species, as wind and exposure on the tundra cause it to lose its snow cover sooner than forested areas, where sun and wind can’t penetrate as well. And since winter-like conditions return to the alpine early, often in August, alpine flowers have the shortest growing season — no time to lose!
So while the alpine flowers are reaching the end of their blooming season (except in wet, protected areas, like Willow Lake or Upper Lost Man), the big boys of the subalpine are out in force.
First among them, in any aspen grove you choose to visit, is cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum. Standing 6 feet tall, with enormous umbels of white flowers and maple-like leaves, this is the largest species of parsley in North America.
There is wonderful debate among foragers as to how delicious, or allergy-causing, cow parsnip is. Just know that while it is a member of the family that includes carrots, fennel and other delectables, the parsley family also includes some of the most poisonous plants on earth, including the poison hemlock of Socrates fame. Forage with care!
Another towering giant is green gentian, aka monument plant, Frasera speciosa. For somewhere between 20 to 80 years, green gentian patiently stores up nutrients in its underground root system. When conditions are right, it sends up a 4- to 6-foot stalk overlaid in exquisite, four-petaled flowers, goes to seed and dies.
Last year you may have noticed an extra abundance of green gentians in bloom. After several decades of study, Dr. David Inouye at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab determined that a “superbloom” of green gentians occurs four years after a wet July and August (thank you, 2015). This year green gentians are out, but sporadically — look for them in sunny, subalpine meadows.
Lastly, but always first in my heart, is a wildflower that can only be seen in the Marble and Crested Butte areas, Case’s fitweed, Corydalis caseana. This majestic, water-loving, completely unique flower grows — you guessed it — as tall as 6 feet, has the silkiest, fern-like leaves these hands have ever touched (think newborn’s bottom), and towers of white, lavender and purple flowers that smell divine and create seed pods that explode like popcorn upon the touch.
Enjoy the largesse!
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