July in a high mountain meadow is as close to heaven as we mortals can find on earth; especially by mid-morning. The sun is driving away the dew, a light breeze brings in the sweetness of nearby spruce trees, a few harmless puffy clouds (so far) dot the sky, and there are millions of flowers embellishing the scene. No need to be particular as to where; most any high elevation field will do.
Shoulder deep (some of the plants are that high) within the bounty of blossoms, there are many varieties to regard. I’m partial to those of the buttercup family. The family holds many of our more popular mountain flowers. Ranunculaceae (ra.nun.cue.LAY.sea.ay) – it almost roles off the tongue – is the scientific name for the buttercup family. Give it a try when nobody’s around.
The flowers are intricate by design, and some of our favorites are kit and kin in this family: monkshood, larkspur, clematis, sagebrush buttercup (with its porcelain-like petals), and columbine. Which of these are most intriguing? There among the open rocks is a collection of Colorado columbine. Who could resist checking them out?
They are long since done blooming at mid-elevations, but with recent rains, you might be able to catch them near the mountaintops. Of course you’ve seen them before; they are our state flower. Familiarity can breed nonchalance for their presence, though, and in their abundance lies a fragility we might not recognize.
I sit down by a clump (bugs notwithstanding) to investigate. Many buttercup flowers are surprising at least, but the implausible spur at the back end of the columbine blossom is startling.
The five white petals ring a center of yellow stamens (the spindly pieces that shoot out from the middle). Look closely; the blades (modified petals) are actually attached to the long lavender spur. The purple sepals (SEA.pals), behind the blades support the flower, particularly before it opens.
Just as ancient people migrated across the Bearing Land Bridge in the Pleistocene, columbine plants crossed into North America some 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. The new habitat of North America called for new pollinators, and the new environments provided them.
Like Darwin’s finches, the columbine plants diversified their flowers. The length of the spur varied by plant depending on which type of pollinator it could attract. The spurs elongated, over time, not by adding more cells to the tubes, but the cells themselves elongated. This moved the nectar chamber further back, making it harder for various insects or birds to reach the sweet liquid.
The white-lined sphinx moth is the primary pollinator of Colorado columbine. Its proboscis fits the perfect length of the spur; and while reaching for the nectar it fertilizes the flower. Moths and hummingbirds are the primary agents of reproduction of all the columbines. Bees also participate but are as likely to bite the end of the spur, rather like biting the end of a honey stick to pop it open, to get at the fluid.
While the moths are happy to pollinate many different kinds of flowers, the Colorado columbine relies almost entirely on the white-lined sphinx moth for its blossoms. There is disagreement among botanists whether or not the insects and birds drove the changes in the columbine flowers or the other way around.
To be sure, there are some 60 to 70 species of columbine in North America; they hybridize easily and parsing them out can be a biological challenge. Yet, it seems that relying on only one species for pollination to ensure the next generation of plants could be slightly risky. I wonder.
My backside gets stiff, sitting by these columbines after a while. They ARE fragile. I cradle one in my hand as it sways on its stem. It’s as light as a feather, as delicate as a butterfly.
Their presence is a masterpiece of art; wholly unbelievable in their form, yet completely common to our understanding of flowers in the wild. These are the fairest flowers of our hearts – binding us with strong ties to our natural world in ways that almost nothing else can.
So get up to the high country while they might still be there. Walk among the meadows and peaks. Revel in the blue sky, and the craggy rocks which seem so permanent. And most importantly, restore your sense of the remarkable that comes from knowing one of the most moving, and momentary symbols of the west.
Paul Zaenger has been a supervisory park ranger at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park since 1993. Other park assignments include Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.