Haggerty’s Hikes Column July 05, 2009


A GROUP OF WILDFLOWER ENTHUSIASTS scours a Grand Mesa hillside recently. Below are wildflowers native to the mesa. Top, king’s crown; bottom left, Grand Mesa penstemon; and bottom right, scarlet gilia hybrid.

“We can eat after botanizing,” said Mary Mastin, secretary of the Western Colorado Gardening Foundation.

Mary and her first mate, Joe, have a cabin on the Grand Mesa near Alexander Lake Lodge, where they graciously entertained 14 wildflower aficionados following a beautiful botanizing tour.

Botanizing is an addiction to analyzing botanical stuff, i.e. looking for wildflowers. But not just looking. I mean, really looking. And really finding.

Admittedly, I know nothing about wildflowers other than that I really like ’em. Red ones, white ones, yellow ones, blue ones. These botanizers, though, are in another league.

In a field of yellow dandelions, which I discovered were non-native, I’d see only dandelions. They’d spy 15 different plants, grasses and flowers, all native to this part of the world, then stare and photograph in wonder at the beauty surrounding them.

They discuss why this plant or that lived here or there. They looked at issues such as cattle grazing and understood the introduction of non-natives, such as dandelions.

They addressed the possibilities of other natural forces, such as avalanches, scouring certain areas where certain plants now lived and others couldn’t.

It opened my eyes — which is why I went.

The Western Colorado Gardening Foundation (http://www.wcgf.org) is a group of flower fanatics — true plant nerds, as one openly admitted — who formed a nonprofit charity to fund horticultural projects. It promotes water resource conservation and “sound gardening practices that protect and beautify our environment in Western Colorado.”

This year, the foundation is raising money for the Montrose Botanical Garden. In the past, it has assisted the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens, which are at Seventh Street and the Riverside Parkway.

Many in our group also participated in the CSU Extension Service Master Native Plants program. They were all experts who were happy to be led across the Grand Mesa by botanist Kathy Darrow, author of a great wildflower guide called “Wild About Wildflowers: Extreme Botanizing in Crested Butte, Colorado.” In the guide, as well as this trip, Darrow discussed wildflowers found only in the southern Rockies, and she knows her stuff.

Darrow earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology and art at Colorado College and a Master of Science degree in botany and ecology at Colorado State University. She taught environmental education for Yosemite Institute, Bear Creek Nature Center in Colorado Springs and Colorado Outward Bound School. She worked as a botanist, environmental consultant, and research assistant for the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service and Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado.

The book is packed with great photos and descriptions of native wildflowers. So was the Grand Mesa the other day. The subtitle of the book, “Extreme Botanizing in Crested Butte” is a parody of the extreme sports so celebrated in the Crested Butte area, “as compared to the less risky and physically demanding, yet equally passionate and addictive ‘sport’ of botanizing.”

Let me tell you, these folks are truly “extreme.” It was fun joining and observing them.

We found tall white valerian, which as it turns out, has certain medicinal uses as a mild sedative. However, for 10% of the population, including Kathy, it acts as a stimulant.

We photographed monument plants (green gentian), which may have 100 flowers per plant, and 100 seeds per flower, yet out of 10,000 seeds, it will produce only one plant to replace itself, AND each plant can grow from 2 to 7 feet tall AND live to be 30 and 60 years old. (See how much I learned?!)

AND, we’d barely stepped out of the truck at the Crag Crest Trailhead near Island Lake. “You can go a quarter mile botanizing and spend three hours,” Mary honestly quipped.

We found elderberry, large shrubs with beautiful white flowers, purple phacelia, yellow arnica and at least two different varieties of potentilla. By the end of the trip, we’d found five different varieties of this (five-fingered) cinquefoil.

Then we moved to two different spots along the Lands End Road. One was near a wet, grassy meadow, the other near the edge of Land’s End, not far from the visitor center. We found reddish king’s crown sedum, yellow buttercups, marsh marigolds and an interesting hybrid of scarlet gilia.

I learned that what most people around here call skunk cabbage is actually corn lily.

No matter what the name, sheep herders don’t like it. Darrow explained that if a ewe eats corn lily on the 18th day following gestation, “the lamb will be cycloptic and probably won’t live.”

We found the Grand Mesa’s own brilliant blue Grand Mesa penstemon, and we found the Mesa’s own infamous mosquitoes, but they weren’t horrendous. A little bug juice did the trick.

If you’d like to find a copy of Darrow’s book, go to http://www.wildaboutwildflowers.net.

Then, go botanizing. It’ll really open your eyes.


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