Curious Nature: Spring bringing colorful wildflowers to the valley |

Curious Nature: Spring bringing colorful wildflowers to the valley

Walking Mountains Science Center
Vail, CO Colorado

Brightly colored plants delight the eyes on many south-facing slopes just on the other side of the spruces and pines.

Yellow and fresh green popping out of the ground, a beautiful small violet is open to the sun. There are mats of deep red, spikey leaves with shiny green leaves close beside. Perhaps the plants are enjoying a warming ground and the effects of Earth’s tilt giving way to more hours of sun. Amongst the first of the flowering plants to be on the lookout for are yellow violet, Oregon grape, Pasqueflower and spring beauty.

If you spot five bright yellow petals with brown to purple veins and heart-shaped leaves, perhaps you have found the yellow violets. Flowers of the violet family, Violaceae, exhibit asymmetry and have five petals, five sepals and five stamens. The species found here are common in the plains to subalpine zones and typically flower from April through July reaching heights of fifteen centimeters. Violet flowers and leaves are edible, although not all are desirable.

An extremely important plant for many birds and mammals is the Oregon grape of the Berberidaceae family. It is an evergreen perennial that closely resembles holly.

After frosts and cold weather, the green, spiked leaves may turn red. Typically blooming from May through July, look for bright-yellow flowers in five whorls, each whorl containing three small flowers.

Most species of Oregon grape grow as sprawling ground cover with root-borne offshoots. After the flowers die back, small red to purple berries appear. These berries grow in bunches like tiny grapes and are a sour edible, either raw or cooked. The plant contains an alkaloid known as berberine, which is noted for its antimicrobial qualities. The roots can be used to produce a yellow dye.

On dry slopes as the snow is melting, Pasqueflowers, in the Ranunculaceae family, begin to bloom. This flower has no true petals. Rather, it’s purple, violet or white flowers are technically made up of sepals. The sepals form a cup shape about 6 to 8 centimeters in diameter.

The stamens, part of the reproductive structure of the plant, are bright yellow, and the whole plant is covered with silky, white hairs. The flower only opens if the sun is shining. Seeds with feathery tails appear after the flower is gone. Pasqueflowers have been used historically for their medicinal properties; however, they are extremely toxic if used improperly. This is definitely not a plant to mess with.

The purslane or Portulacaceae family includes the spring beauties, which are common in moist meadows and mountain slopes. The snow melt provides excellent ground saturation for these beauties to flourish, and depending on soil moisture they will flower through August.

Stems are 5 to 15 centimeters high, and two stem-leaves grow opposite each other from each stem. Flowers have five white to pink petals with distinctive pink to red veins. All parts of this flower are edible; however, the spring beauty often grows in delicate soils, which are already vulnerable to human impact.

Alpine spring beauties are found in the alpine zone and grow in round patches up to 13 centimeters high. The flowers are similar to other species of spring beauties; however, they usually reach only 2 centimeters diameter.

Once a plant germinates, it really has no choice but to live and survive in its one spot. As a defense against predation, many plants have evolved toxic compounds. Although books and articles such as this one mention edibility and medicinal properties, it is important to only gather and use things from the wild if you are with trained professionals. Enjoy the search for a rainbow of colors during the wildflower season.

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