More wildflowers

It hasn’t rained here in a week, and the weather has turned hot, dry, and windy, which is pretty normal for June. But the wildflowers in my yard and the surrounding landscape are still blooming like crazy, putting on their finest colors, pumping out the nectar and producing pollen, and making whoopie with their pollinators…. They’re racing to make sure their flowers get pollinated and can produce seed before the soil dries out and this high-desert landscape goes dormant again. Here are some photos of the show, for those who aren’t lucky enough to see the miracle that happens when you add water to this perennially drought-parched landscape.

Here’s is a sea of Rocky Mountain iris in the vegas (pronounced “VAY-gahs” in Spanish, meaning naturally wet meadows–Las Vegas was named for natural springs that created oasis-like green meadows in the desert.) These vegas full of wild irises are east of the town of San Luis, the oldest incorporated town in Colorado. San Luis was founded in 1849, just after Mexico lost control of what was then the northern edge of its territory to the United States in the Mexican-American War. The mountains in the background of this shot are the Culebra Range, part of the Sangre de Cristos.

The thing about deserts, whether high-elevation ones like our valley or low ones like the Sonoran Desert around Tucson, is that when moisture comes, it doesn’t persist long. So the plants go into party-until-you-drop mode, sprouting, growing, blooming, and seeding as prolifically as they can, because they know the water that nurtures life won’t last. They’ve lived here for millennia, and their genes have experience with the reality of these landscapes: the next drought is just around the corner. So they take advantage of the abundance when it comes, and then hunker down to wait out the dry months–and years that their genetic experience tells them will surely follow.

Parts of the San Luis Valley, a windswept expanse over the mountains to the south of us, are the greenest we’ve ever seen them. These native grasses are growing on the sabkah, the partially stabilized sheet of loose sand west of Great Sand Dunes National Park. The grass with the silky burgundy flower heads is bottlebrush squirreltail, named for the way each silky strand will dry and bend at a right-angle, making a “tail” as full as that of a startled squirrel. That “bottlebrush” will catch the fur of passing grazers, whether cows, pronghorn, or bison, allowing the grass seeds attached to it to hitch a ride away from their parent plant to a new location to sprout and grow.

Here’s our front yard in full bloom. Once this property was a blighted industrial area covered in annual weeds and rusted junk; now it’s a natural “garden” featuring native bunchgrasses and wildflowers that stop traffic, and attract people wanting to shoot photos. That’s a miracle in itself, and one that’s taken us more than a decade to sprout. The neon orange wildflowers above are indian paintbrush, some of my favorites. The dark clump of blue-violet blossoms are Grand Mesa penstemon, a species of native beard-tongue. In the back against the wall are oriental poppies, not natives, but hard to resist for their extravagent show of late-spring flowers.

Here’s a clump of blanketflower, a wild daisy relative, with its sunny yellow rays and red central flowers. (Plants in the daisy or sunflower family, the Asteraceae in the language of botany, blossom with composite flower heads. What looks like a single flower surrounded by yellow petals is actually many flowers crammed together like a billboard to advertise their food to potential pollinators. Each yellow “petal” is the single ray-like corolla of an individual flower; the red center is a mass of tiny, petalles flowers crammed in together that produce an abundance of pollen to attract the bees that fertilize them.)


This one’s another favorite: scarlet bugler, a penstemon or beardtongue much beloved of hummingbirds. Who could resist that exhuberant shade of carmine-red? Doesn’t it just make you smile?

Next week, Richard and I will be on the road again. First to Aspen for the Colorado Book Awards: Colorado Scenic Byways is a finalist–wish us luck! Then on to Denver to help my parents prepare for a move, and finally to Walsenburg, where I’ll be speaking at the dedication of the Spanish Peaks Library District’s brand-new library and community center in the old Walsenburg High School. Check my Twitter and Facebook pages for breaking news….