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 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.
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 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 is in the rose family. Pika enjoy eating the plant.
Although 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 is also in the rose family. The leathery leaves help it hold moisture. It is a favorite food of Ptarmigan.
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 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.
The 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.