Field Trip: Desert Wildflower “Super-bloom”

Saturday morning, I packed my gear in Red, my pickup, and hit the road for a marathon field trip to the shale mesas of far western Colorado to see a once-in-a-lifetime spectacular display of spring wildflowers. I left town at a few minutes after nine in the morning, and backed Red into the garage at just after seven-thirty that night; in between I drove 458 miles and spent several hours wandering back roads ogling so many thousands upon thousands of wildflowers that I was almost jaded by the time I headed home.

Oh, another several hundred orange globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) flowers, backed by a waving expanse of needle-and-thread grass (Heterostipa comata) with perky sue (Tetraneuris ivesiana) coloring the distant hillsides bright gold. Yawn…

(That's what's blooming in the photo at the top of the post.)

I hadn't intended to do the whole trip in one day, but when I got the alert from Colorado Native Plant Society (thank you, Jan Turner and Jen McGuire Bousselot for the heads up!) that the desert blooms on the mesas above the Grand Valley were spectacular, I looked at my calendar and realized that the only day I could reasonably play hooky was Saturday, and the coming heat wave would soon end the display. 

Was my 450-mile drive and the dregs of exhaustion I can still feel worth it?  

Definitely: I am still cruising on the high of seeing what normally appear to be barren shale slopes lit up with millions of wildflowers, blooms that only occur en masse like this after an unusually wet winter and spring, on plants that manage to compress a whole life cycle–sprouting from the clay soil while it is still wet with spring snow, and growing, blooming, attracting pollinators and setting seeds–before the soil bakes to concrete-hardness with the late spring heat. 

Here are some of my hundred-plus photos so you can see for yourself:

Scarlet globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea) and Cutleaf blanketflower (Gaillardia pinnatifida), the gold flowers with maroon centers. (The burgundy grass is cheatgrass, an invasive annual from Eurasia that is incredibly flammable, leading to frequent fires and larger cheatgrass invasions.)

 

Yellow perky sue, orange globemallow, pink and white sego lily (Calochortus nutallii)

 

The sego lilies came in rose too, and you can see ants sipping nectar from the base of one cup-shaped blossom in this clump.

 

The Indian paintbrush was blooming like crimson flames. 

 

Oval-leafed buckwheat (Eriogenum ovalifolium) with pom-pom balls in white touched with pink.

 

Short-stemmed lupine (Lupinus brevicaulis), the whole plant no bigger than my thumb

 

Jones desert-star (Amsonia jonesii) filled dry washes on north slopes with its fragrant, starry flowers.

 

The cactus were blooming too, including this prickly-pear (Opuntia polyacantha), in the less-usual magenta-flowered form. That's I-70 in the background, and the Book Cliffs in the far distance. 

 

And this mini-barrel-shaped cactus, Colorado hookless cactus (Schlerocactus glaucus), a species only known from the shale mesas of western Colorado. (I think the white daisy-like flower is sand aster, Chaetopappa ericoides, but didn't key it out.)

Every time I came around a ridge or over a mesa, there were masses of wildflowers as far as I could see, like this vista:

Those are the usuals, pink and white sego lilies, scarlet globemallow in orange, and yellow perky sue. Plus you can't see the charming fuzzy seedheads of desert parsley, already done blooming, or the rattlesnake grass with its rattle-like flower-heads, the tiny white easter daisies, or the charming little blue annual flowers on thread-like stems with yellow centers that I should know but can't remember… 

 

Just another view of wildflowers everywhere, and Book Cliffs hazy in the far distance…

By three-thirty, it was 87 degrees and the wind was gusting up to 50 mph. I decided to ignore the wildflower display and just head for the paved road and the long trek home. Except I kept seeing new species.

 

Like this spiny sagebrush (Picrothamnus desertorum or Artemisia spinescens) with the ghostly white branches from last year and its yellow flowers, blooming a clay pan where the soil was already dried into cracks deep enough for me to insert my middle finger in all the way–these are tough plants!

One more photo–this time of Red, my trusty companion whenever I get the urge to play hooky and make a ridiculously long trip to see more wildflowers than anyone could ever imagine…

My smile of delight carried me all the long way home that night. In fact, I'm still grinning two days later. It was definitely worth the trip. 

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