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Vail Daily column: A rare flower thrives in Eagle County

Matt Stern
Trust Our Land
Matt Stern

When the Eagle Valley Land Trust conserves a property, we conserve not only the view, the agricultural heritage and the historical significance, but also the habitat for native plants and animals to thrive.

For many, summertime in Colorado evokes images of vibrant vegetation and beautiful flowering plants carpeting our landscapes. One of the rarest and most fascinating of these plants is Harrington’s penstemon (Penstemon harringtonii). Have you ever spotted one? If you haven’t, then please join Eagle Valley Land Trust for our free, guided hike July 11 to explore the 478-acre West Avon Preserve conservation easement to view Harrington’s penstemon.

If you have seen Harrington’s penstemon, you will understand its superb beauty. The plant differentiates itself from related penstemons in a number of ways. Most penstemons have over 18 open flowers per plant, whereas Harrington’s penstemon generally has 12 to 18 open flowers per plant with petals that are colored a mixture of hot pink, purple and baby blue. There are also slight differences in the composition of the flower that are often indistinguishable except to the well-trained eye.



Fortunate Location

Harrington’s penstemon is most often found flowering in June and July in dry, sagebrush landscapes between 6,400-9,400 feet on all aspects. One would think this flower could grow in many landscapes found across Colorado. For unknown reasons, Harrington’s penstemon has not been found in any other place in the world except six counties in Colorado (Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Pitkin, Routt and Summit) and documented in only 74 locations, totaling an estimated 43,000 plants. Of its 74 documented locations, 50 locations are found in Eagle County. It’s an incredibly rare flower, and we are very fortunate to have the most documented Harrington’s penstemon right out our back doors.



Sensitive Habitat

Seven conservation easements, totaling over 2,500 acres of potential Harrington’s penstemon habitat, have been protected by the Land Trust, thus protecting this sensitive habitat forever. These elusive and beautiful flowers have been documented on four of those seven conservation easements. Eagle Valley Land Trust is working to sustain this rare and beautiful flower for our future generations to enjoy.

Unfortunately, Harrington’s penstemon are under constant threat of eradication and extinction. Habitat loss due to residential, oil and gas development is all too real; motorized and non-motorized recreation impacts the fragile soils these flowers rely upon for survival; invasive, non-native weeds steal vital nutrients and already scarce water from these delicate flowers; picking these beautiful flowers for gardens and bouquets eliminates their reproductive capabilities; and climate change will inevitably create a harsher environment for the flower. So what can we do to help sustain this gem of Eagle County and Colorado?



Learn How to Identify the Flower

First, spend some time learning how to identify the plant. Purchase or download an identification guide for wildflowers in Eagle County, and explore our local public lands and our community’s public access conservation easements. Please do not pick any flower that looks like Harrington’s penstemon. If everyone in the county picked one of these flowers to show their family, friends, or loved ones, then there would be none for our future generations.

Understand its Significance

Understanding the significance of this flower for our community. Eagle Valley Land Trust is offering a free, guided hike July 11 to explore the 478-acre West Avon Preserve conservation easement to observe Harrington’s penstemon. The hike will start and finish at the June Creek trailhead, beginning at 8:30 a.m. and finishing around 11 a.m. The hike is capped at 30 participants, so please RSVP as soon as possible to reserve your place. Additionally, there are a variety of organizations in the county that offer guided wildflower hikes and identification classes throughout the summer such as the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens, and Walking Mountains Science Center.

Finally, please support the Eagle Valley Land Trust and our mission to preserve forever our scenic vistas, open space, historic lands, waterways and wildlife habitats that represent the uniqueness of Eagle County and the Rocky Mountains for the enjoyment, education and benefit of all who experience this special place. With your support, we can all work to protect the pink, purple, and blue Harrington’s penstemon of our Rocky Mountain summer.

Matt Stern is the land stewardship specialist at the Eagle Valley Land Trust. He has training and experience in Rocky Mountain forest ecology, management and protection. For more information, visit evlt.org. Contact Stern at stewardship@evlt.org or 970-748-7654.


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