It’s time for the mountains to blossom, with flowers of every conceivable color blanketing everything from the low-altitude ponderosa forests to the alpine tundra. On a hike up to Arapahoe Pass last week, every step brought a new discovery.
Usually the delicate yet showy columbine come in small bunches, tucked under aspens or rocks, places where there is more moisture. But on the trail, I saw whole hillsides of them, a sight that can melt my heart.
As my friend and I climbed higher toward the pass, we looked for the yellow glacier lily, with its turned-back petals, like a 1970s Farah Fawcett hairdo. This lily emerges just as the snow is melting, often appearing to grow out of the snowfields.
You have to catch it before the ground dries out, because by then it’s gone. Arapahoe Pass is the only place in the area that I have seen the glacier lily. But last week not only were they growing on the hillsides at timberline where I usually find them, but we found them in places I’ve never seen them grow before—in this case, in an old mining hole.
At the top of the pass, my friend wanted to see the alpine forget-me-nots, miniature deep blue flowers with yellow eyes, that are the first to emerge on the tundra in the spring. Alas, we were too late for them, but we found many other tundra flowers, including the cheery yellow alpine sunflowers, the dark purple silky phacelia, the pale blue sky pilot and the moss campion—small pink flowers that grow out of a ball of green moss.
Two days later, at a lower altitude at my cabin of 8500 feet, I found just as many flowers growing in profusion. It was a rainy, cool day, which made the flowers more brilliant under gray skies, brightening the mood of the day even as clouds descended over Mount Meeker.
Among the aspen trunks floated the tops of the tall cow parsnip, with their wispy, willowy forms and white, almost ethereal flowers (above). In the meadows, purple asters are starting to bloom. Emerging singly from among the green grasses is the delicate mariposa lily, with its creamy white petals (above), while yellow cinqueflowers cover the meadows (below), and the blanketflowers, or gallardia, startle with their large yellow petals inset with a dramatic red/orange center. On the rocky outcrops, the aptly named stonecrop finds gaps in the rock to collect rainwater and thrive (above).
On a recent trip to the Chicago Botanic Gardens, thousands of people daily come from all over the world (judging by their accents) to ooh and aah at the amazing display of flowers, which are maintained by a mostly unseen group of hundreds of staff members who plant, dig up and plant a constantly changing palette of flowers every few weeks, according to the season.
Yet here in the wild, nature manages all on its own, effortlessly combining different patterns and colors, transforming from one set of flowers to another. Yet these plants flower for just a short amount of time, and by mid-August will be mostly gone. I can’t take them for granted. I need to savor each small masterpiece of botanic engineering. After all, these fragile pieces are only on temporary display.