Rocky Mountain Wildflowers

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  • 1.ROCKY MOUNTAIN WILD FLOWERS By Gwen & Phil PhillipsSawtooth Mountains from Galena Summit Overlook, Idaho.

2. The Rocky Mountains are a chain of some 60 ranges and land forms that extend from just north of the Mexican border in the south virtually to the Arctic Circle in the north. The coloured portion of this map outlines the extent of the chain and its position within western North America.Map American Rock Garden Society 3. Geologically the Rockies are a young mountain chain, hence the abundance of peaks, as can be seen in the Sawtooth Mountains illustrated from the Lower Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho. 4. There are impressive glaciated valleys such as the one leading to the Tyndall Glacier in the Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. 5. Extensive areas of almost treeless alpine tundra abound, particularly in the Middle Rockies, with the Beartooth Plateau in Wyoming being a classic example. 6. In addition, some of these mountain ranges rise sharply from vast arid often sagebrush-covered basins that almost surround them (as in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming). Plants from these lower elevations (ranging from about six to eight thousand feet) have been included. 7. This presentation will cover the Southern and Middle Rockies, both contained within the coloured portion of this map, with a brief reference to the Northern Rockies at the end. The plants illustrated, which were photographed during three separate visits, have been merged into a single imaginary trip travelling from south to north, irrespective of flowering times. Plants growing at the lower elevations were photographed mostly in June and those in the alpine and sub-alpine zone in July. Of course, flowering times vary depending on latitude, location and aspect, with no two seasons being alike. Firstly, we go to the Southern Rockies that extend from Santa Fe, New Mexico in the south, to the Medicine Bow Mountains and the Laramie Range of southern Wyoming in the north. This area is coloured with the lighter tint and is clearly marked on the map. This continuous mountain barrier could only be crossed through high passes, all over 9,000ft, and some over 11,000ft. Map American Rock Garden Society 8. This barrier must have presented a formidable obstacle to the early settlers... 9. how stage coaches crossed Mosquito Pass at 13,185ft. we do not know, as crossing in a 4 x 4 was quite an experience in itself. 10. We have selected a much easier location for our starting point Mt. Evans, which is in the Front Range of Colorado as it has a paved road to the summit at 14,265ft. Growing on a slope below the road at about 10,000ft. were a number of plants of a distinctive Penstemon of the Rocky Mountains. 11. There are over 250 species of Penstemon in North America, many difficult for the amateur to identify, but Penstemon whippleanus is most distinctive with its pouting lower lip and its often bright colour. 12. The highest peaks of the whole chain are here in Colorado, where 50 or more exceed 14,000ft. This area of alpine tundra is near the summit of Mt. Evans. It was July. 13. Above the tree line there are extensive areas of alpine tundra, not to be confused with arctic tundra with its marshes and permafrost. Hurricane force winds will blast these peaks in winter, often completely removing the snow cover from many windward slopes. This is a natural reason for the dwarf stature of the tundra plants. 14. Much of the heavy rain from summer thunder storms will either run off the surface or literally evaporate into very thin air; therefore, there is relatively little moisture available for many of these exposed alpine plants. 15. The surface is granitic rock, sand and gravel that has very little moisture holding ability, meaning that many of these tundra plants are growing in a cold desert environment. On the left wasSaxifraga chrysantha. 16. Saxifraga chrysantha has tiny thyme-like leaves, which gives rise to the synonym S. serpyllifolia. It has no arching stolons, unlike 17. Saxifraga flagellaris, the whiplash saxifrage growing on the same slope. The flowers are similar, but this species has prominent stolons and larger foliage. The light is brilliant, the air is thin and the humidity low, so consequently there is intense solar radiation. 18. Trifolium nanum & Claytonia megarhizaSome of these plants are extremely dwarfish; not only does this minimise wind damage, but it is a degree or so warmer on the surface than even three or four inches above. 19. The mat-forming, ground-hugging alpine clover, Trifolium nanum has a very extensive, surface root system capable of absorbing rain from storms before it all evaporates whereas 20. Claytonia megarhiza has a long taproot, up to eight feet long, capable of obtaining moisture from deep amongst the rocks. It also has fleshy leaves with thick cuticles that restrict moisture loss, curved so as to channel any surface moisture into the centre of the plant. 21. The blue cushions in the right hand lower corner are Eritrichium nanum. They are seen here in a rocky habitat, but later will be seen covering an alpine meadow. 22. Eritrichium nanum is often referred to in North America as the arctic, alpine forget-me-not , and in Europe as king of the Alps where it is extremely rare. On Mt. Evans the colour of the flowers vary from this deep blue to light blue, various shades of mauve to 23. white. The foliage of many alpine, and for that matter desert plants, is covered with soft white or grey hairs, another adaptation that restricts moisture loss where little is available. 24. Pikes Peak stands almost isolated at the eastern edge of the Front Range and like Mt. Evans, it is possible to reach the summit in a saloon car. These granite rocks at about 12,000ft sheltered a fine dark form of the rare and endemic Telesonix jamesii. 25. Unfortunately the flowers were only just opening, 10 days later this plant would have been covered with a mass of crimson-purple flowers and the plant would have achieved star status. 26. Many of these western plants bear the name of early pioneers. Telesonix jamesii was named for Edwin James, a surgeon-naturalist, who made the first recorded ascent of Pikes Peak in 1820. 27. Growing below these giant rocks and boulders, in a mixture of sand and gravel, were a few plants that we have named 28. without any degree of certainty, Tetraneuris acaulis var. Caespitosa. Its soft grey-green tomentose leaves contrasted with the dark green of the invading Dryas octopetala. Many of the species found on Pikes Peak we had photographed on Mt. Evans, so we therefore move on to 29. the adjacent Park Range and Mt. Bross, another 14,000ft Colorado peak obscured by one of those thunderstorms that disturb many afternoons in July and August. 30. South Park as viewed from just below the tree line on the lower slopes of Mt. Bross. 31. Just above the tree line at about 12,000ft on the windswept, treeless slopes were shrubs of Dasiphora fruticosa, the shrubby cinquefoil previously known as Potentilla fruticosa. 32. This very common montane and alpine shrub of the northern hemisphere is almost prostrate at this altitude. These plants have been called subsp. floribunda in view of the many large flowers. 33. These slopes support many small and dwarf plants such as Calochortus gunnisonii, seen in the immediate foreground. 34. Calochortus gunnisonii is usually found at lower elevations where it will grow to 3ft. or more; these are a little more than 12 inches tall. Even the dwarfed Calochortus plants were visible from a distance 35. whereas some species were not, as they blended with the grasses and sedges. This matforming plant, named (we hope correctly) as Oxytropis podocarpa, certainly did not advertise itself, but rather blended with the surrounding ground cover. 36. Climbing higher, and stark evidence of the past is only too evident. Mt. Bross was once the centre of intense silver mining activity, so these slopes are covered with old workings and tailings, which are now gradually being re-colonised by tundra plants. On the lower slope are several 37. Physaria alpina. This Colorado endemic is restricted to a few mountain tops in the Mosquito Range (part of the Park Range) and the Gunnison Basin. 38. Blending with the stony habitat were many cushions of Phlox condensata. Cushion plants are natural pioneers of habitats at high elevations such as this where there is little competition from stronger growing plants. 39. Phlox condensata is a common high elevation cushion often found above 10,000ft. in Colorado. Perhaps we have given the impression that these mountain slopes are all dry and well drained, which is certainly not the 40. On leeward slopes, or where obstacles or depressions allow snow to accumulate, the plants will enjoy a protective covering of winter snow. When this melts, the soil becomes wet and sometimes very soggy, which results in different plant associations, sometimes referred to as snow bed communities. 41. Ranunculus adoneus, the snow buttercup, is a well-known snowbed species. 42. Some plants undergo significant development whilst under the snow and then flower literally within hours of, or sometimes before, snowmelt. These had pushed through the snow before it melted. 43. When the well drained screes are full of colour these plants are often just beginning to emerge, so their growing season can be even shorter than for the plants on the open tundra. Ranunculus adoneus is a species of both the alpine and sub-alpine zones. We had now descended to about 8,000ft. and 44. paintbrushes flowered across the range. Paintbrush is the common name for species of the genus Castilleja. There are over 200 species in the west, thus forming a significant part of the flora. 45. Whilst there is little difficulty in recognising the genus, the species can present no end of problems. This is probably Castilleja integra. 46. The flowers (or rather the corolla tubes) of the paintbrushes are