Wildflowers, including Indian paintbrush and lupine, are in full bloom above 10,000 feet in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

Photo by Tom Ross

Wildflowers, including Indian paintbrush and lupine, are in full bloom above 10,000 feet in the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.

Tom Ross: Who are you calling a lousewort, toadflax breath?


Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— How does a beautifully delicate wildflower like Alpine lousewort get such a repugnant-sounding name?

In my book, a louse is either an ill-behaved oaf of a man or a parasitic insect known to inhabit the human body in places where you don't want to be inhabited.

A wort is something you go to the doctor to have burned off your hand. Or is that a wart?

I've never been very good at memorizing the names of wildflowers. Consequently, recalling them in the field when I'm eyeballing the plant itself is always challenging.

However, I think I may have picked up several new species during the weekend.

We camped at Bear Lake south of Yampa and hiked above 11,000 feet on the shoulder of Flats Top Mountain. This hike offers the benefit of viewing wildflowers in aspen and evergreen forests, plus species that are more at home growing above timberline in the tundra.

The flowers are spectacular right now, and it's time to pull yourself away from all of the enticing activities in Steamboat Springs to stretch your legs and lungs. There's still time before the arrival of the late summer monsoons makes thunderstorms more of an issue.

In addition to the lousewort I learned to recognize Sunday, I was introduced to bistort (which sounds like an Austrian pastry to me) and phacelia sericea.

Phacelia is sometimes known by the descriptive common name, purple fringe. That name does the flower justice. However, it has another name which sounds to me more like wildflower names are supposed to sound: Alpine kittentails, as in, "We spent the better part of Sunday tip-toeing through the Alpine kittentails."

OK, OK, I would never be caught tip-toeing in the backcountry. I'm a guy after all. Maybe I should just stick to phacelia.

Rocky Mountain wildflowers have names such as golden smoke, mouse-ear chickweed, death camas, white checkermallow snowball saxifrage and wooly actinella. When you get right down to it, you can name them anything that suits you.

If you'd rather call toadflax butter-and-eggs, well then, it's your thang, do what you wanna do.

The familiar columbine are especially profuse this year on the road switchbacks between Bear Lake and Stillwater Reservoir. It's actually in extreme northern Garfield County. The lupine there is growing in bushes. And the dramatic green gentians are about 4 feet tall. But those familiar blossoms really just set the stage for smaller flowers such as Jacob's ladder, elephant heads, orange sneezeweed, tundra forget-me-nots, wild strawberry and bistort, which resemble little summer snowballs.

It turns out the name lousewort is derived from folklore that blames the plant for causing lice infections in livestock that ate the plant. The linguistic derivation of the suffix wort can be attached to words meaning "root." The term also can imply that a plant has medicinal value.

Steamboat-based environmental educator Karen Vail, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of area plants, describes the blossoms of lousewort as a "spiraled spike of cream." Those four words capture the essence of the blossom.

When we can remember to bring it along, we tote a 4-by-6-inch guidebook with us into the high country. David Dahm's "Rocky Mountain Wildflowers Pocket Guide" published by Paragon Press won't let you down. Nor will this summer's Alpine lousewort.


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