The stark, barren surface of the windswept “tundra” (treeless land) is transformed into a tapestry of vivid color as wildflowers begin to bloom on Trail Ridge in Rocky Mountain National Park. Usually by early June the beautiful tiny blue clusters of forget-me-nots dot the landscape, and yellow snow buttercups peek through the patches of melting snow. As the spring turns to summer, a large variety of flowers bloom during the tundra’s short growing season of six to ten weeks. Blooming starts in late May to early June and usually peaks about mid-July, although some flowers bloom throughout the summer.
Extreme conditions exist in the tundra — desiccating winds, often over 100 miles per hour, extreme cold, a growing season with only about 40 frost-free days, repeated freezing and thawing cycles, and intense solar radiation. Tundra plants, most of them perennials, have unique ways of adapting to these conditions. They typically grow close to the ground to preserve energy, put out long tap roots to search for moisture, and have stems with wax or hairy coverings to preserve moisture and heat. Most of the plants are small and compact, and some contain “anthocyanin”, a chemical “antifreeze” that converts sunlight into heat.
A short stay at Forest Canyon Overlook, a one mile walk at Rock Cut, or a leisurely walk along the trail at Medicine Bow Curve pullout will introduce you to the diversity of Trail Ridge’s interesting wildflowers. A variety of cushion plants are found in rocky areas of the tundra such as these. The cushion plants include blue Forget-Me-Nots, pink Moss Campions, white Sandywinks (Sandwort), and bluish to white Alpine Phlox. Another variety of cushion plant is the colorful yellow Draba. Always remember to stay on the trail if an area is designated as a “Tundra Protection Area”, as these flowers are fragile.
An excellent way for visitors to learn about the tundra plant life is to join a ranger tour, usually offered in the mornings. The ranger may go to a variety of plant communities such as fellfields, snowbeds, alpine turfs and meadows, and even “gopher gardens”. The fellfields are bouldery, dry areas, often on ridgetops, that are favorable for the cushion plants. In snowbed communites the wind creates snowbanks that provide a bonus of water during the spring. Plants here may include the Snow Buttercup, Sibbaldia, and Snowlovers. The alpine turfs and meadows, covered with sedges and grasses, support a large variety of wildflowers, many listed below. Keep on the lookout for “gopher gardens” — the snake-like casts of soil that result from pocket gophers tunneling. These disturbed soil areas create ideal conditions for the growth of certain flowers, such as yellow Alpine Avens and blue Sky Pilot. Alpine Avens cover a variety of locations, as does the Alpine Sunflower, “Rydbergia”, affectionately known as Old-Man of the Mountain. The Alpine Sunflower likes to face east, often avoiding the harsh westerly winds. This sunflower may store energy for as much as ten years before blooming. The plant then dies.
The vivid colors of the tundra wildflowers span the colors of the rainbow. Some of the flowers you can see through the spring and summer include:
White: Black-headed Daisy, Sandywinks, Bistort, Alpine Phlox, Alpine Spring Beauty, and Mountain Dryad
Yellow: Snow Buttercup, Alpine Avens, Wooly Actinella, Alpine Sunflower, Glacier Lily, Draba, Stonecrop
Pink to Magenta: Moss Campion, Parry Primrose, Fairy Primrose, Dwarf (deer) Cover, Little Pink Elephants, Alpine Daisy
Red to rust: Paintbrush, King’s Crown, Queen’ s Crown
Blue to Purple: Forget-Me-Not, Lanceleaf Chiming Bells, Sky Pilot, Pinnate-leaved Daisy, Pasqueflower, Penstemon, Purple Fringe