Monday, August 13, 2007

Wildflowers of Colorado

During a recent trip to the western half of Colorado I was fortunate to find myself amidst fields of wildflowers on a number of occasions. Even though I was able to identify most plants to genus right away, many of these plant species where new discoveries for me. I thought I would post some of my photographs and share with you some of my findings, along with additional information found in Don Mammoser's Wildflowers of Colorado Field Guide, 2007. Keep in mind that these plants were situated atop mountainsides at 10,500 feet above sea level and may not be suitable for gardens here in New York City.
Mertensia ciliata is commonly called tall fringed bluebells. As confirmed by Mammoser, these bluebells prefer wet mountainous areas and form dense clumps that stand 3-4' tall. You may recognize this plant as being related to Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), the spring blooming native found here in the northeast. Whereas Virginia bluebells bloom early and begin to die back by this time of year, these tall fringed bluebells were blooming late into July before the arrival of monsoon season in early August. The genus Mertensia is named after the German botanist Franz Mertens.

Pedicularis racemosa is commonly called sickle-leaved lousewort. This plant amazed me because the tubular curved petal at the top of each flower was like nothing I had ever seen before. I learned that this plant is a member of the snapdragon family, Scophulariaceae. The plant and flower spike stood about 18-24" tall. According to Mammoser there is another species, Pedicularis groenlandica, that is commonly called elephant's head, and has an even more pronounced "snout" of a petal. Just the same I was thrilled to find this less common species along a trail in Grand Mesa National Forest.

Identifying yellow or orange daisy-like flowers in the wild can often be frustrating because of the multitude of possible candidates. Here I believe I have captured three phases of Hymenoxys hoopesii, commonly called orange sneezeweed, from a budded to a fully open flower. Orange sneezeweed stands in clumps from 2-4' tall and attract butterflies, bees, and moths. As a member of the aster family, Asteraceae, you should know that each flower is in fact a collection of many flowers. Here many "disk" and "ray" flowers are situated together to give the impression that you are looking at a single flower when in fact you are looking at a large clump of individual flowers. To help explain this morphological characteristic, think about a sunflower, another member of the Asteraceae family. Eventually the center of that sunflower blossom produces many sunflower seeds, right? That is because the individual disk flowers in the center have each been pollinated and gone to seed. Take a look at this cross section of a flower in the Asteraceae family and hopefully that will help drive this little morphology lesson home. Do you see the individual flowers lined up next to each other?

Chamerion angustifolium is commonly called fireweed. The seeds of these native wildflowers are easily dispersed by wind and are known to be one of the first plants to grow after a forest fire, hence the name (Mammoser, 2007). Growing in large masses that stand 4-6' tall these plants are strikingly beautiful whether near or far. Each flower spike comfortably stands a healthy 12" above the upright herbaceous shrub of narrow, willow-like green leaves.

Erigeron speciosus is commonly called Aspen fleabane or showy fleabane. Standing 12-24" tall with light purple flowers typically 1-2" in diameter, this plant is also a member of the Asteraceae family. Native to foothills, aspen groves, and meadows along the forest edge in western Colorado, I seemed to find these on every trail. The name speciosus means "showy" and refers to the blossoms that stand atop long stems rising from the basal rosette of foliage. showy fleabane is a host plant for the Northern Checkerspot butterfly (Mammoser, 2007).
Geranium richardsonii is commonly called Richardson geranium. This perennial geranium grows both in low and high elevations, from New Mexico north to Colorado and up to the Canadian Rockies. The white petals have subtle purple venation to them and are quite delicate and beautiful when looked at up close, and sometimes the entire flower can have a soft pink hue. According to John Richardson was a surgeon and naturalist who lived and studied in the arctic and Canada in the 19th Century, but it was his fellow explorer, Thomas Drummond, who collected the first specimen in 1826 or 1827.

Of course, it wouldn't be Colorado without Aquilegia caerulea, commonly called the Colorado blue columbine. On the rocky slopes where I found these members of the buttercup family, Ranunculaceae, they were only standing 8-12" tall. A state protected species, Colorado blue columbines are an important nectar source for several hummingbird species in Colorado (Mammoser, 2007). Like other forms of Aquilegia, this species is known for its ability to self-seed itself throughout the challenging landscape.
Campanula rotundifolia is commonly called harebell. Do not let this picture fool you, these members of the bellflower family, Campanulaceae, only stand about 6-8" tall. The name bellflower refers to how the 5 blue/purple petals are fused together to create a bell shape. The flowers themselves are about 3/4" in size. Able to grow anywhere there is moisture and full sun, you can find these little plants mostly growing in rocky outcroppings and prairies. But do not walk too fast, or you might very well pass them by without even knowing.

Lastly, a representative from the genus Delphinium. Unsure whether it is Delphinium nelsonii or Delphinium barbeyi, members of this genus are commonly called larkspur. With a base of large lobed leaves with pointed tips, tall spikes of intense purple flowers shoot up making the plant stand 4-6' tall. Even though these plants put on a real show in the moist meadows and forest openings where they live, they are disliked by ranchers in western Colorado because they are toxic to livestock. According to Mammoser, "most of the plant parts contain poisonous alkaloids that can be fatal if ingested", and he even urges humans not to touch the plant. This, of course, I read after spending an afternoon studying and touching this plant, but luckily I did not fall victim to any such illness.