Wildflower season is upon us. Spring has passed, and now early summer wildflowers are coming into bloom. Although the height of wildflower season is in mid July, there are some real gems to be found, which only bloom this time of year.
In mid June, the upper reaches of our mountains begin to transform from a stubborn layer of blanketing snow to many rivulets, gushing streams, and lush green meadows. The densely forested band of spruce, fir and pine that line the mountain slopes from treeline to about 7500 feet elevation is known as the sub-alpine. This is one of the richest areas on the mountains for magnificent wildflowers.
Because the snow is now retreating from elevations above 10,500 feet, spring has just arrived with globeflowers and marsh marigolds decorating the wet meadows with bright showy eyes. Although these two flowers look similar, because they are both white and yellow, they can be distinguished by examining their leaves. Marsh marigolds have leaves that look like spinach, in fact, the young leaves can be eaten as refreshing salad greens that can be enjoyed anytime. The globeflower leaves on the other hand, look like a ruffled collar beneath the creamy flower head, and the leaves in no way resemble spinach.
My absolute favorite wildflower is now quietly in bloom, the highly elusive fairy slipper orchid. This fluffy pink super-fancy slipper really catches the eye when viewed up close. Look for fairy slippers in rich partially shaded areas beneath pines. By late June, they’re gone.
Another early-season favorite is the red columbine, cousin to the Colorado state flower, the blue columbine. The red columbine looks like a bright red and yellow jester’s hat. This fun-looking flower can be found near streams and along moist banks.
The sunny slopes are now blooming wildly with blue and purple penstemon. Recognize penstemon by facing one of the many blossoms toward you. It looks like a set of lips with a fuzzy tongue in the middle. Also in brilliant bloom on the sunny slopes is scarlet gilia. The many flowers resemble bright red trumpets.
Although the high alpine wildflowers will inevitably steal the show later this summer, there are now some exceptional standouts to view in the sub-alpine. As the snow retreats, it is refreshing to hike into a wilderness landscape, and recognize these wildflowers as our long familiar friends.