Hummingbird wants that flower…

Some days everything, including my camera, just clicks.

Yesterday was one of those days.

broadtailed hummingbird 1

This female Broad-tailed Hummingbird tries to get nectar from American vetch.


broadtailed hummingbird 6

But she can’t quite get her beak into the drooping flowers.

broadtailed hummingbird 5

Animals don’t usually sit still and work this hard to get something. It just makes them too much of a target.

broadtailed hummingbird 4

But the vetch is in a really cluttered area. She can’t get the nectar by hovering in front of it.

broadtailed hummingbird 3

The vetch must be loaded with nectar to make it worth her while to work on it for this long.

broadtailed hummingbird 7

But finally, she is rewarded, and gets to enjoy the nectar.

May your weekend be full of rewarding projects.

Need a break from the heat

Denver hit an all time high temperature of 105o F (40.5o C) on Thursday. Fires rage throughout the West. Politics are just as heated.

I need a break from the heat.

Although I couldn’t get to the high country recently, I still have some good photographs from my trip up to tundra last month.

alpine spring beauty

Claytonia megarhiza

Alpine spring beauty

Claytonia megarhiza

These little flowers peaking out from the big fleshy leaves are Claytonia megarhiza, Big rooted spring beauty. And they do indeed have thick roots that go down up to 6 feet!


Alpine Clover-3

Alpine or dwarf clover

I didn’t take the time to get a good picture of the leaves, so I couldn’t decide if this was alpine or dwarf clover. No matter. I love it’s perky flower poking above the soil.

Alpine Primrose-4

alpine primrose

Alpine Primrose-1

Alpine primrose

The dramatic two-toned flowers make these alpine primroses easy to identify. Each alpine primrose plant produces just one flower a year. The boat-shaped leaves collect water during the dry alpine summers.

American pipit-5

American pipit

While I was taking photographs of flowers, an American pipit flew in to forage nearby. These birds nest on the tundra in the short summer, and retreat to the forests below in winter.

Maybe this month I’ll get back to the high country to cool off in person.


Alpine Flowers

A couple of years ago, when I was giving presentations for my book (A Natural History of Trail Ridge Road: Rocky Mountain National Park’s Highway to the Sky), a member of the audience asked me where she could find wildflowers in the alpine tundra. I was a little nonplussed, because you can find wildflowers in the alpine tundra everywhere. But you have to change your frame of reference to do it.

Alpine wildflowers are small. There just isn’t time in the short, high-altitude summer to get big, especially when flowers cost the plant so much in terms of energy. And they are spread far apart, to ensure that they get plenty of sun and water. So you’re not going to see meadows dense with flowers blowing in the wind.

The showiest flower you’re going to see in the alpine is Old-man-on-the-mountan.



The name “old-man-on-the-mountain” refers to the dense white hairs on its leaves and stem. These hairs retain moisture and heat, while acting as a sunscreen against ultraviolet radiation that is extra strong at high altitudes.



This alpine sunflower always faces the sun. It is the only annual of the alpine tundra; it puts all its energy into it’s flower instead of the rest of the plant.

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

purple fringe

Purple fringe is another showy plant I saw in the tundra. It has such general growth requirements that it grows anywhere from the montane to the alpine.

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

purple fringe, gravelly hillsides, montane to alpine

This gorgeous plant is termed a “pioneer plant”, because it grows on disturbed soils like you see in the photo.  If it had it’s way, it would be a weed — growing everywhere. But other plants come in after it, and are able push it out, which is why you don’t see it often.

alpine avens

Alpine avens is one of the most common flowers you’ll see in the alpine tundra. If I’d come a little earlier, I would have seen all these heads in bloom.

alpine avens
alpine avens

Alpine avens is in the rose family. Pika enjoy eating the plant.


Alpine paintbrushAlthough I would call this plant white, I think it is a Western yellow paintbrush. Even it has a covering of hairs. It must be a strategy that works for alpine plants.

Mountain dryad

Mountain dryad

Mountain dryad is also in the rose family. The leathery leaves help it hold moisture. It is a favorite food of Ptarmigan.

mountain dryad going to seed

Mountain dryad going to seed

The wispy seed heads of mountain dryad have been said to “resemble white-haired waifs, waiting to be carried away to distant lands.” Who said scientists were all hard facts?

whiplash saxifrage

Whiplash saxifrage

Whiplash Saxifrage is one of the first tundra plants on disturbed ground, like a rock slide, or where pocket gophers have burrowed just beneath the surface. It moves in quickly by putting out runners, or whiplashes, like a strawberry plant does.

Gold flowerThe sunflower (or Composite) family is huge, and notoriously hard to figure out. Botony students have a name for sunflowers they can’t identify: A DYC (Darn Yellow Composite). I don’t know exactly what it is, but it too has a covering of short white hairs over its long leaves.



Great Wildflower, Part 2

From our great spring crop of blooms, ( this continues to be an outstanding season for wildflowers.

Every time we begin to dry out, we get a rainstorm that waters the plants. And the flowers just keep comin’.

According to the USDA Plants Profile webpage, you can find pink bergamot all over North America. This is a flower head, made up of many different flowers.

Monarda fistulosa

Pink bergamot, in the mint family. It is sometimes called bee balm.

Monarda fistulosa

Individual pink bergamot flowers.


Here’s a close-up of the bergamot flowers.

Many different tribes used the leaves and flowers of this plant as a seasoning, and as a cold and congestion remedy.






 This is a close-up of a bull thistle and a wild bee. Normally, I have little patience for bull thistle — it is a big, spiny, invasive plant. But this purple-pollen sprinkled bee may change my mind. If bull thistle can provide pollen for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, I will give it some respect. These pollinators need all the help they can get.

Bee in thistle-07_edited-1

Wild bee on a bull thistle head. Each purple fiber comes from a separate flower.


The Mariposa lilies are opening in the foothills right now. This is another plant that will continue opening at higher and higher altitudes as the summer progresses.

Mariposa lily-5

Gunnison’s mariposa lily.

 Purple prairie clover has striking orange anthers that catch your eye.

When I sent this to my Project Budburst coordinator, she said that it had never been recorded in the Mount Falcon Open Space before. It is a plains plant; finding becoming established in the foothills may indicate a warmer climate. This is one of the reasons we are monitoring plants in Project Budburst.


Purple prairie clover.

Mathematical Patterns in Plants

One of the things that I really enjoy about nature is that it produces proofs that it obeys natural laws in the most unusual — and beautiful — ways. This spring and early summer I ran across three examples of math in plants.

Scorpianweed, like most plants in the hydrophyllaceae family, has a flower stalk that is tightly coiled. It reminds me of the shell of a nautilus seashell that gets bigger as the animal grows. The coil of each grows according the Fibonacci sequence: 1+1=2; 1+2=3; 2+3=5; 3+5=8.

Coiled scorpionweed flowers follow the Fibonacci sequence.

Coiled scorpionweed flowers follow the Fibonacci sequence.

For scorpionweed, though, at the top of the curl is an open flower. As the flower fades, the stem uncurls to allow another flower to come to the top and open.

When you look at the face of a sunflower, you are really looking at many many flowers that grow on a central disk. These flowers follow the Fibonacci sequence as well, but here it shows up as ever expanding spirals on the disk face.

Disk of the sunflowers is made up of spirals of flowers that follow the Fibonacci sequence.

Disk of the sunflower is made up of spirals of flowers that follow the Fibonacci sequence.











Finally, I was astounded by this picture.

The flowers of miner's candle march up the stalk in spirals.

The flowers of miner’s candle march up the stalk in spirals.
















What I thought I was taking a picture of was the really cool butterfly on the miner’s candle, in the borage family. It was only when I was sprucing the picture up that I realized that the white flowers were arranged in several spirals, or helixes. The geometry here is a bit more complicated, but the flowers do indeed appear on the stalk with mathematical precision.

There is order in the universe, and you can see it in the math of plants.

Project BudBurst Begins in Jeffco

Several months ago, I responded to an add in the local papers for volunteers for Jeffco Open Space. At their open house, they had many different options — desk

Chokecherry ready to bloom. Notice that the tiny flowers are still folded up on most of the blossoms.

Chokecherry ready to bloom. Notice that the tiny flowers are still folded up on most of the blossoms.

worker, naturalist, trail maintenance. All these were possibilities, but the option I signed up for in the in was that of plant monitor for Project Budburst.
At the training session for Project Budburst, they asked us why we had chosen that particular program to volunteer with. People gave variations on the idea that they wanted to be out in nature, to enjoy the plants. When it was my turn, I told them that I signed up because I like to fill out data forms. That got a laugh, as I knew it would. But I wasn’t joking. If I want to be in nature, I grab my stuff and go for a hike. What I had been craving, the need Project BudBurst will fill was Doing Science.
The data forms are not the point, of course. It’s collecting the measurements and comparing them to other locations and other years. What could be more fun than to see how ecosystems change through time and space?

Chokecherry past flower. It took just four days for all the flowers to blossom and drop their petals.

Chokecherry past flower. It took just four days for all the flowers to blossom and drop their petals.

I’m monitoring three plants: chokecherries, ponderosa pine, and a grass called big bluestem. I visit Apex Open Space two to three times a week to see what growth stage the plants are at. This information will be used for everything from pollen alerts to trail closures as bears search for berries. And of course, through the years, it will give ground data on Global Climate Change.

This spring started off slow — too snowy for the plants to be doing anything. But a month ago — just a month! — and the snow storms tapered off. The plants exploded in growth, trying to make up for lost time. Chokecherries went from first blossom to last in just four days,  and are now working on producing fruit.

Ponderosa pine producing pollen. Notice the yellow pollen flying out after I flicked the tiny male cone with my finger.

Ponderosa pine producing pollen. You can see the yellow pollen grains flying out after I flicked the tiny male cone with my finger.

The ponderosa pine have just put out their first needles, and at about the same time, begun to produce pollen. I can tell; people around me are sneezing and sniffling with pine allergies.

Yellow flowers brighten November days

Rubber rabbitbrush is a shrub in the sunflower family.

Do the grey skies of November have you down? Are you missing the colors of fall’s leaves? Don’t despair. There is one plant that is still blooming after hard frosts have killed everything else – rubber rabbitbrush.
Rubber rabbitbrush, a light green shrub about three feet tall, blooms in late fall – September through November. The flowers are a golden yellow, betraying the fact that it is in the sunflower family (one of the largest of all plant families). Plains Tribes used the flowers for yellow dye, and for a tea for coughs and chest pains. Today, the flowers earn this shrub a place as an ornamental in xeriscape gardens.

The masses of flowers produce abundant small seeds.

As with most shrubs, rubber rabbitbrush is well adapted to the desert. Its roots go deep looking for water, and its very thin light green leaves are covered with fine hairs to help hold in moisture. You’ll find rubber rabbitbrush among piñon pine-juniper forests and into the sagebrush if it gets an opening.
The masses of yellow flowers turn into small seeds. The seeds have parachute tops, just like their cousins, dandelions. The wind spreads these seeds far from their parents, scattering them into newly disturbed areas.
The Latin species name, nauseosus, comes from the plant’s smell. Between the bad smell and foul-tasting latex, few animals eat this shrub. Drought resistance, seeds that spread everywhere and bad taste means that you’ll see rabbitbrush in waste places after overgrazing, road building or other disturbance, places where other plants have a hard time getting started.
Rabbitbrush gets the ‘rabbit’ part of it’s common name from the fact that rabbits like to shelter under it’s dense branches. The ‘rubber’ part of its name was added with the discovery of latex in its sap. There have been several tries at extracting the rubber commercially, but so far, no success. Instead, scientists today are looking at the latex in rabbitbrush as a possible biofuel.