Summer rains bring colorful wildflowers to the foothills

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By Sylvia Brockner

Late June and early July are probably the most beautiful time of year in the mountains. Rain has finally come in enough quantity to restore life to the foothills and everything is lush green.

It is so green that you might think you are in Ireland. The grasses are green, the trees are green, kinnikinnick is green, our whole immediate world is green with blue sky overhead, and around every twist of a road or trail you are greeted by a splash of color from wildflowers.

Right now sulfur flower is splashing my hillside with brilliant yellow, and alpine penstemon is dabbing strong brush strokes of deep blue and purple. Soon mariposa lilies will be dancing over the meadows like white butterflies. In August, there is usually less rain, though the fall flowers seem to be able to bloom no matter what. They seem to relish the drier weather.

If the rain pattern continues into August, then we have prolific crops of mushrooms in every color imaginable.

Sulphur flower, eriogonum umbellatum, was well named for it is the only flower that is truly the color of sulphur, a brilliant yellow with just a hint of green. It is a member of the knotweed family and is closely related to buckwheat and rhubarb. It grows from the plains up the mountains to above timberline. However, the color changes as many subspecies and varieties have formed in different areas.

The local plants are mostly bright yellow, but as you climb the mountains, they become pale yellow to nearly white. The flowers are born in an umbel, which means the individual flower stems radiate from the tip of the stem like the ribs of an umbrella.

Alpine penstemon, penstemon alpinus, is also in bloom now along the gravel roads and in my gravel driveway. This hardy penstemon is one of my favorite wildflowers. It is shorter and more branched than many of the penstemons, but it is also most beautiful. It has large broad flowers that are usually a mixture of deep bright blue and deep purple. It was first collected by Edwin James on Pikes Peak and later named by Schmidel, who mistakenly thought it was an alpine plant since it had come in the same collection of plants from Pikes Peak.

However, the newest edition of Weber uses the name penstemon glaber, which refers to its smooth glabrous stamens. The name penstemon derives from the Greek pente, meaning five, because penstemons all have five stamens. Usually one of these stamens bears hairs that gave them the common name of beard-tongue. Weber shows about 20-some species occur on the eastern slope.

Summer is continuing with a good many afternoon rain showers so our meadows and hillsides remain green. In the past, I used to say a wet June meant mariposa lilies in July, but we haven’t had a good mariposa lily year for a long time now. Lilies have only one stem that bears foliage and a flower at the top. If this stem is cut off, they do not have enough foliage left to manufacture food for the bulb. When this occurs, they may not bloom as a way of protecting the bulb and saving it to grow another year. If the next year is wet and the stems can grow, they will restore themselves, but if they get mowed or eaten off for a couple of years in a row, the bulb will die and they are gone.

Many people are now mowing their yards regularly to have better fire protection. This is undoubtedly necessary, but will be the death nell of our lilies both mariposa and the orange wood lily.

August will bring a fascinating crop of mushrooms if we continue to have damp weather. They are beautiful and great to photograph, but don’t eat them unless you know what you are doing. We have a good number of poisonous mushrooms, and many of them look so much alike that it’s not the place for an amateur to think he’s become an expert. There is a mushroom club associated with the Denver Botanic Gardens. Join it and become an expert if you want to eat them.