Emblems of late summer in the Roaring Fork Valley
September 1, 2005
Around the Roaring Fork Valley, gold rules.Weeks before the aspens and cottonwoods flare into their display, rubber rabbitbrush and sunflowers glow along Highway 82. They are so gorgeous they outshine my garden. Neither the common nor the botanical name of Chrysothamnus nauseosus even hints at the beauty of rubber rabbitbrush.On a mesa in New Mexico, where I was gathering it to dye a batch of wool as the Navajo and Hopi used to do, I was told its name is chamisa. I haven’t dyed any yarn for years, but I think I may still have a hank of the greenish-yellow wool in my stash.The big clusters of small bright flowers are dense, fading into tawny, fluffy seed heads that hold their shape through the winter, particularly pretty after a snowfall, when each sports a white domed cap.Chamisa blooms concurrently with big sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, and like sagebrush, it is considered an undesirable shrub for anyone trying to raise cows, hay, or subdivisions. Unlike the sagebrush, it does not cause hay fever. The plants with inconspicuous wind-pollinated flowers are the culprits.The common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, is one of our most familiar natives. It is so determined to bloom and set seed that even repeated mowing by the highway department dwarfs the plant but does not prevent flowering. The almost uniform height of the mowed sunflowers gives the effect of an almost formal border along the shoulder of the highway.If you have let them into your garden, you can cut the tops off several times before flowering to keep them short and upright. Especially in fertile garden soil, they can become enormous, and the clouds of finches and other seed-eating birds they attract will bow them down. Sprinklers will, too. I have strict orders never to touch a wild sunflower in Gerry’s vegetable garden; they’re part of his “bird feeder.”I have planted many cultivated varieties of sunflower in my garden over the years. They’re namby-pambies and rarely perpetuate themselves but perhaps they hybridize – mate – with my wild ones, because I get interesting variations.While there is only a handful of native Helianthus species in Colorado, plus several from out of state and out of country, there are many kinds of rabbitbrush and sagebrush. I have only described a few abundant ones, emblematic of late summer and fall in the Rocky Mountains, ones you and I may encounter every day.In the arid strip between the boulder wall and sidewalk, where crocuses bloom in early spring, goldeneye, Heliomeris multiflora, another common native perennial of dry slopes, has seeded itself. It used to be called Viguiera, and I’m having trouble remembering the new genus name. A much-branched, fine-textured plant with thin, wiry stems and a very branching habit, its profuse inch-wide flowers are made up of yellow daisy-type petals around a low golden orange dome.At a couple of feet tall and wide, it is way too big for its narrow space but it obviously doesn’t mind crowded roots, persisting despite my efforts to dislodge it and refusing to grow when transplanted. I should collect seeds to spread around up the slope near the young pinyon pines where there is lots of room.Viguiera, oops, Heliomeris, would be a good plant to demonstrate deadheading because secondary blooms appear on little stems on either side of the first flowers so the old flower is easy to snip out. It will look fresh for several months if I keep up the deadheading. I wear gloves though, because the seeds prickle.Another perennial adding to the blaze of yellow is curlycup gumweed, Grindelia squarrosa. The golden daisy petals are attached to the top of a ball of overlapping rows of backward-curling bracts, or tiny vestigial leaves, as prominent as the flowers. If you touch it, you won’t mistake it for any other plant – it is sticky.Curlycup gumweed has a coarser, leafier texture than the goldeneye. Some of it appeared in my garden, but I gave it too much water and it departed.Take these beauties, all amazingly dryland native Western shrubs and flowers, out of the landscape we love and put them together in a garden in the sun and they will flourish with less work and water than almost any cultivated plants I can think of. They’ll blaze with warm color from August until the aspen leaves have fallen to the ground. I let them get mixed up in my garden however they like to volunteer. The north-facing slope across the valley from me is changing color. It happens so gradually that no matter how closely I watch, I am unable to pin down a moment of change. Nevertheless, I know it happened in the last week. Summer is ending. The autumn gold rush has begun.Anna gardens in Basalt with her husband, Gerry, and dog, Maggie. She’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Anna’s Garden” in the e-mail subject line. Anna gardens in Basalt with her husband, Gerry, and dog, Maggie. She’d love to hear from you at email@example.com. Please put “Anna’s Garden” in the e-mail subject line.