Runtrails' Rocky Mountain Journal
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"Common names of plants are highly variable and often differ from one region to the next.
A geographically widespread plant may have several common names or, if well known,
perhaps just one, whereas a plant that has a more restricted distribution may have no
common name at all. In addition, the same name often refers to more than one species, which
may or may not resemble one another. Each plant, however, has only one scientific name."
- The American Audubon Society, Field Guide to Wildflowers, Western Region, 2001, p. 25


This is the third and final essay on alpine wildflowers that I photographed in Colorado last summer and this summer. These flowers are usually found at elevations above 9,500 feet in sub-alpine meadows and near the edges of forests along the Hardrock Hundred trails and the Colorado Trail between Denver and Durango, including mountains in the Leadville/Sawatch Range and Silverton/San Juan Range.

As noted previously, I don't know the identities of many of the flowers and I don't have adequate internet access (slow dial-up!) to research them beyond looking in the book mentioned above. So if you can help me out with the correct names of any of the flowers, please contact me. Meanwhile, I'll give what information I can about where they were found, how big they were, etc.

There are three predominantly blue-to-purple "elongated cluster" types of flowers that are very common in the Colorado mountains -- and they resemble each other so much that it is difficult for me to tell them apart unless I get up close to them. They are Larkspur, Penstemon, and Monkshood.

I've taken more photos of Larkspur than the other two because they grow in so many places and in such profusion. Larkspur is a member of the buttercup family and belongs to the Delphinium genus. It grows two to five feet tall and has dark blue or purple-colored flowers that are grouped on top of a single stem. They often grow in masses, as on the north side of Mount Hope in the Leadville area:

Larkspur are often in the company of Cow Parsnip and Wild Carrot in the San Juan Range:

I think this is a purple version of Larkspur:

Penstemon comes in several varieties and colors, including blue, purple, lavender, and pink. The  flowers are more tubular than Larkspur and are clustered along the eight-to sixteen-inch stalks. They grow in well-drained meadows at sub-alpine and lower (montane) elevations. Here are two types I've found in the San Juan Range, one blue and one purple:


Whipple's Penstemon is an unusual eggplant-colored variety of the flower that I've seen in only one place -- in the Mineral Creek area on the road up to Clear Lake NW of Silverton (not far from Grant-Swamp Pass):

Monkshood, which goes by other names including wolfsbane, is unique with its deep blue to violet-colored sepals that form a small hood. The plants grow up to four feet tall, but the ones I've seen have been much shorter. They grow best in moist meadows and forest openings. Although it is pretty, Monkshood is toxic to wildlife and poisonous to humans.

I photographed the following four flowers in the Clear Lake/Mineral Creek area west of Silverton in the San Juans. The first are Yellowbells:

I think the next flower is Purple Loosestrife, which has become a noxious weed in some areas of the West where it has crowded out native species of plants. This is the only clump I remember seeing on my journey through Colorado:

The blue flowers in the two photos below may be variations of Prairie Gentian, which come in several blue to purple colors and are also known as Bluebells. They prefer moist environments in meadows and prairies.


I photographed the next two flowers in the northern half of CT Segment 25 between Molas Pass and Rolling Mountain Pass. In that eleven-mile stretch you can find almost every flower in these three entries! It's a good place to run or hike if you want to see as many alpine flowers as possible in one or two days.

The leaves make identification pretty easy for this Heart-leaved Bittercress, which grows up to 31" high and likes mountain stream banks and alpine meadows:

Just a guess, but the next plant looks like a Wild Strawberry to me! It was growing in little clumps about 5" wide and 2" high:

I photographed the next flowers on the trail from Telluride to Mendota Ridge when Jim was doing a trail work day on the Hardrock course. I think the flowers on the left are a type of Clover and the ones on the right are Wild Blue Flax:

These two flowers look like varieties of Wild Rose. The one on the left is along the trail to Mendota Ridge, and the other is on Colorado Trail Segment 27:


Wild Geraniums also come in several varieties and colors, as shown below. The first two were along the Colorado Trail, the third on the way up to Mendota Ridge:



Jim photographed the next flower on the Hardrock trail below Handies Peak in the San Juan Range east of Silverton. It may be in the Phlox family, which is also well-represented in Colorado:

I'm clueless what the two little flowers are in the photo below. They are growing in the Mineral Creek drainage area (i.e., a wet meadow) west of Silverton:

I do know what this is -- a type of Thistle that was just beginning to bloom. I've seen these in various dry, rocky areas along the CT and Hardrock course. This particular one is on the trail from Cunningham Gulch to Dives Basin. A Mountain Bluebell is peaking out from behind:

I found these pretty little purple flowers in CT Segment 14-15 in a dry, rocky area:

The last flower I'm including in this series is unusual enough that it should be a cinch to identify, but it's not in my book. It resembles Penstemon. If I were to choose a name for it, I'd call it Pink Mountain Bells! I found it in a field in CT Segment 27 last summer:

That concludes my series of Colorado's alpine and sub-alpine wildflowers, There are many more that I haven't included here for various reasons -- my photos were too blurry, the flowers weren't blooming when I passed through (Skunk Cabbage comes to mind), or I just failed to photograph them. If I see any different ones this summer I'll include them in subsequent entries.

All these and more are out there, waiting for you to hike, run, cycle, or ride by on a horse -- or a mule, like Erin! The wildflowers are just one of many reasons to visit Colorful Colorado. (I think they should pay me for all the publicity I give them!)


"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2007 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil