Sunny Flowers

If you’ve been following this series of blog posts featuring the wildflowers blooming in our part of Colorado this July, you may have noticed a relative dearth of the classic and recognizable form commonly referred to as sunflowers.

The local sunflower types tend to come out later in the summer; at our altitude, many are just beginning to bloom now. Fortunately, that’s just in time to close out my project with a cheery blast.

Identification, you might not be surprised to learn, is complicated; the plant family we’re talking about here (composites, or Asteraceae) includes not only the common sunflower and other disc-and-ray plants such as Black-eyed Susans, Blanketflowers and Coneflowers, but also goldenrods, thistles, nettles, artemisias, dandelions, and, as you might expect, asters.

Following my post on groundsels early on in this project, a friend commented, “You know, you could just call them DYCs, Damn Yellow Composites.”

Duly noted.


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Thirty days ago, I was inspired to blog the bloom by a prolific little flower I called “the little purple penstemon that blooms earlier than most of the penstemons” (kindly identified as P. virens by Susan J. Tweit in the comments to that post).

Those plants have now gone to seed, but their larger penstemon compatriots are blooming now, and it seems appropriate to allocate a post to them as this project winds down, even if it must be a group recognition.

When I started this series of bloom-a-day posts on the first of July, it seemed like thirty-one days might about cover it, and it’s been good fun to share some of the abundance of flowering plants we’ve been seeing this summer. Still, there are flowers I won’t have time for: lupine, cut-leaved evening primrose, wild rose, blue mustard, pussytoes, wild strawberry, Rocky Mountain bee plant,  fairy candelabra, Platte thistle, cinquefoils, buckwheats, and cacti, never mind some very attractive grasses and the various sages and rabbitbrush just beginning their bloom phase now. We’ll also miss some plants that flowered earlier, such as pasqueflower and mountain bluebell, and others I haven’t seen blooming yet, including Rocky Mountain clematis and bottle gentian.

But, July is not over yet. The varieties of penstemon aren’t quite as dizzying as the astragulus array, but a handful of species is in full glory as I write. Their tall spikes are like pennants of color waving here and elsewhere across the West, urging us to slow down and look.

Look really close on that front-facing blossom, upper left.


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Not all of our wildflowers insist on living “wild.”

Pioneer plants are the first to colonize disturbed ground, including construction sites and burn areas. They help recover disturbed soil by stabilizing against erosion and shading tender seedlings. What makes them pioneers rather than weeds is their willingness to share space: rather than simply taking over the place and keeping it to themselves, pioneers yield to successive, and typically more diverse, generations of plants.

For such plants, bare ground amounts to opportunity.

Yarrow is a willing pioneer where we live, and over the years I’ve been able to watch as solid patches of it gradually morph into the botanical mosaic characteristic of our grasslands: the yarrow is still there, but it’s a collegial part of the overall mix.

In the fall of 2004, we set up horsekeeping with a small field we now call the Barn Pasture. By the time we finished fencing additional fields on the other side of the driveway the next year, the horses had cropped those few acres short. High-traffic areas were trod into hardpan. Once the horses started spending most of their time in the larger pasture, the yarrow surged and, despite a fierce drought, the grasses soon followed.

Here’s a picture of part of that pasture about a year into the recovery, with our beloved Max soon after his arrival in September 2006.

Here’s how it looks today (sadly, without Max, who died in 2012).


Achillea millefolium


Another pioneer, Curly-cup Gumweed, thrives in the poor soil along the gravel roads. The plant pictured here has shot up since the area was scraped clean by the road grader in early June.


Grindelia squarrosa

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Friends, the month of July is running out of days faster than I am running out of flowers to post.

Here, then, is a sampling of the flowers from the Astragulus genus. By sharing them as a group, I’m able to show you more of the floral abundance and variety, whilst avoiding any pretense of being able to sort out the difference species. Sources tell me there are dozens of species in Colorado, of which eight are pictured here. I’m going to call this a representative sample rather than a comprehensive survey.

The challenges of accurately sorting one from the other are summed up nicely on the Southwest Colorado Wildflowers site, where you can read more if you wish. Or you can simply enjoy these clips from our local show. The flowering is winding down now, as the plants concentrate on forming seed pods.









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Weedy Looking Not-Weeds

The conventional definition of a weed is a plant s growing where it’s not wanted. By that subjective measure, any of the twenty-six wildflowers featured on this blog over the past few weeks might qualify as a weed if it’s in the “wrong” spot.

More often, I suspect, we think of weeds as non-native or invasive plants, as those that misbehave by arming themselves with stickers and spines, as disruptive to orderly plantings or crops, or as toxic hazards to children, pets, or livestock.

Let’s face it, though, there are some plants we’re inclined to dismiss as weeds because they’re simply gangly or odd-looking. They’re weeds because they look…well, weedy.


Scorpionweed isn’t a pretty plant, and it’s also burdened with a common name with distinctly unpleasant associations. Its flowers, while obviously floral on close inspection, are small, of insipid color, and arranged peculiarly (the Latin name for the genus is Phacelia, which translates as “bundle”). After getting over my initial “What the heck is THAT?!” response and checking its native bona fides in my field guides, I’ve become rather fond of scorpionweed, but perhaps that’s because I can reliably remember its name.

These other two native plants look weedy, but when they’re in bloom, as they are now…the flowers. Oh, those flowers.

Eveningstars (Mentzelia spp), as the name hints, open at night. I have not pinned down the species present here, but I’m pretty crazy about the flowers and have been actively collecting seeds to try to get more of them blooming near the house where I’m likely to encounter them on an evening walk.

Prickly poppy is a fierce plant, unless you are diving straight into the heart of those frilly extravagant flowers.


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Yellowdot Saxifrage

This flower-a-day project has encouraged me to look closer at familiar blooms, but I’ve also found new ones, which has been great fun.

I knew this plant, but not its flower. The foliage grows in mats of tightly clustered rosettes, the plump leaves so tiny the plant resembles moss–and, in fact, I’ve thought of it as moss when I’ve walked past it in the dark timber on the shaded north-facing slope below our house.

This is clearly a vascular (flowering) plant, and not a moss. I am reminded (yet again) to both look beyond superficial appearances, and to check my assumptions before getting too reliant on them.

Saxifraga bronchialis

The flowers are small, their details hard to see without some magnification. Thank you, macro lens.

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Yellow Owl-Clover

Charming little plants when in flower: like candles in the grass, with crayon-yellow flames.

Orthocarpus luteus

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Nodding Onion

To my considerable relief, the nod of the Nodding Onion is distinctive, and I can assert with some confidence that this is Allium cernuum.

And since I have not yet had occasion to use the word “umbel”–and who wouldn’t want to use the word?–I will add this note: an umbel is a form in which flower stalks radiate from a common point. The shape is often described as an inverted or upside-down umbrella, with the ribs pointing up, but thanks to the characteristic nod, the umbrella in this species is right-side-up.

Although, looking from overhead, the umbel might also be likened to a UFO.


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Mariposa Lily

If Harebells are cute and Sugarbowl clematis is sweet, the word for this flower is elegant.

Calochortus gunnisonii

We’ve called these Sego lilies for two decades, but with this bloom-a-day-in-July project I’ve been cross-examining my assumptions while delving into a wider range of wildflower resources. Evidently, what we have here (in large numbers, right now) are Gunnison’s Mariposa Lily and not Sego Lily (C. nuttalli). The latter have a dark spot at the base of each of the three petals, and the hairs are arranged to form a crescent, rather than creating a contiguous band, as in these Mariposa Lilies.

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Shorthorn Spurge

Euphorbia brachycera

Although it resembles the pernicious invasive Leafy spurge, this little native is smaller and exhibits better manners. Some guides use the common name “Horned spurge,” but I think the “Shorthorn” version is more winsome.

Up here, the plants grow to seven or eight inches tall, and tend to be solitary rather than forming clusters. The lime-green foliage is a refreshing contrast to the sage-gray and khaki-green that tends to dominate our grasslands.

Leafy spurge (E. esula), in contrast, is a noxious weed in Colorado and other parts of the West. It’s a tall, fast-spreading non-native invasive, difficult to control on a number of fronts: the roots run deep, range wide, and sprout numerous small buds, any of which can form a new plant. Not only is seed production prolific (up to 130,000 seeds per plant), but the capsules explode when ripe, ejecting seeds up to fifteen feet. To top it off, the sap is a skin and eye irritant, and can affect the mouth and digestive tract in animals that might browse on it.


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