Tom Ross: Beware of the calendar plant |

Tom Ross: Beware of the calendar plant

The magenta-colored Alpine primrose could be late to bloom in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area this summer, but wildflower experts expect this to be a season to remember.

— If you've been wondering whether this spring's lingering snowpack and early monsoon rain pattern could combine to make a memorable wildflower season, the answer might be a resounding "It depends!"

We set out this weekend for a slam-dunk overnight camping trip north of Columbine just so we could say we'd been camping this year. Snowbanks that refused to go away, road closures and sketchy stream crossings have made it a challenge to push into the high country this summer.

However, patient Steamboat campers may get their reward during the balance of the summer with a wildflower bloom that compresses peak blooms for different flowers, causing them to overlap into an unprecedented display.

"It's pretty interesting," Steamboat Lake State Park naturalist Desiree Wilcox said Monday. "We're still seeing mule's ears and arnica, which often aren't blooming this late in the year, so everything seems to be delayed."

Steamboat botanist Karen Vail said she almost had a tizzy last week when she spied blooming fireweed along Spring Creek.

"We call fireweed the calendar plant," Vail said. "It usually doesn't begin to bloom until late July or early August. The first blooms begin low on the stem and they work their way progressively up to the top. When they reach the top, it can snow at any time."

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So, if the fireweed is blooming three or four weeks early, that means … I don't even want to think about what it could mean.

In a very short hike on the Middle Fork of the Little Snake River on Sunday morning we spied scarlet gilia, wild rose, arnica, geraniums, Alpine bistort, purple vetch, yarrow, lupine, Alpine daisies, larkspur and the old standards columbine and paintbrush.

Amidst all the blooms, an unusual number of tiger swallowtail butterflies were bouncing around on the morning breeze and pollinating the flowers.

A hike to higher elevation revealed bluebells blooming in a marshy area within sight of glacier lilies (dogtooth violets) at the edge of a retreating mound of snow.

North Routt wildflower expert Kelly Hancock said until recently he has observed the typical succession of blooming wildflowers, just two to three weeks behind schedule. It was just in the past couple of days that he observed an exception. That was when he saw purple asters blooming right on time, raising the possibility that some species will overlap to an unusual extent this year.

More likely, Hancock expects that we could see wildflower season extend later into the year this season, unless of course an early frost shuts down some species before they can peak.

Vail estimates wildflower blooms already are overlapping in the valley around Steamboat, where she thinks the flowers are three weeks behind schedule.

People who keep annual records of natural events, from wildflower blooms to bird migrations, are called phenologists. Vail has been keeping these kinds of records season after season. They have implications for other species — insects and birds that pollinate the plants, for example.

Hancock is the grandson of the late Rilla Wiggins and a member of the larger Wiggins clan that has been tracking wildflowers in the Hahn's Peak area for many years. Rilla Wiggins wrote regular columns for the Steamboat Pilot & Today about Hahn's Peak Village and the flowers in the area.

Steamboat-based landscape photographer Rod Hanna recently made a 36-hour sprint to Crested Butte and returned with images of meadows filled with dense blooms.

"It appears to me that the wildflower peak is probably two weeks later this year," Hanna said. "But one of the great things about living here is that you can follow the flower bloom by elevation."

On the first leg of the trip to Crested Butte, Hanna stopped along Colorado Highway 131 on the way to State Bridge and made an image of spiky blue wildflowers along a barbed wire fence with the color display spilling over into the pasture.

You can see his latest wildflower images at Look for the link "Rod's Travels" on the left side of the page.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email

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