As we stand here at the end of summer it is interesting to reflect back toward springtime and recognize the cycle that has passed. There are four distinct phases to our local wildflower cycle producing blossoms of springtime, early summer, mid-summer, and late summer.
The pasque flower is only found in early spring when the snow has just receded. Its name means Easter, and the soft purple blossom and light green leaves would be perfect on and Easter egg. The flower leaves and stems are covered in thick wooly hairs that insulate the flower on cold nights, diffuse intense sun light on bright days, and help it to retain moisture by providing shade.
The red columbine kicks off the early summer wildflower season with showy bright red and yellow blossoms that remind me of a jester’s hat. The flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds, whose return also signifies the early summer season. Hummers search out the bright red blossoms, and while sipping nectar get pollen stuck on their needle-like bills, and then transfer the pollen from flower to flower.
The blue columbine does not show its face until the onset of mid-summer. Like a personal starburst firework, this flashy flower reminds me of the fourth of July when our state flower seems to be blooming in full force.
Another mid-summer favorite is the little red elephant head. This bright pink flower grows in moist meadows generally above 10,000 feet elevation. An up-close look at the blossom reveals two floppy ears, a big broad forehead, and a perfect curly elephant trunk.
Suddenly in mid August there’s a shift. Grasses begin to yellow, and there’s a special crispness in the morning air. Yes, autumn is coming, but one more special family of wildflowers puts on an end of the year show. The gentians are found in late summer and represent the onset of autumn. Right now is an especially good time to see the vivid deep blue explorer gentian, the propeller-like purple fringed gentian, and the fabulous deep creamy green cups of the arctic gentian, which only grows near or above timberline.
Autumn is now arriving by the day with ripe berries for nibbling, and rich golden colors of the serviceberry catching our eyes. The first aspen leaves speak of shimmering yellow coins, as the day lengths get noticeably shorter. Life in the natural world follows a cycle, and that big wheel just keeps on turning.