The meadow abounded with them.
In what has been a stellar wildflower year, there is one that literally stands above all the rest. Each meadow we encountered on a recent backpack trip in the Indian Peaks Wilderness, giant stalks dotted with white flowers. As I counted 30, 40 and even 50 of them at a time, I reflected on this final showy display. Because it really is the ultimate fireworks display before the end of its life for this particular wildflower.
Known as the Monument Plant or Green Gentian, it is unique among wildflowers. If you’re a lover of flowers at all, you’re probably familiar with the terms perennial or annual. Perennials come back year after year from the same plant. One of the most well known of Colorado’s perennial wildflowers is the lovely Columbine. Annuals die off each year and only return from the seeds that spread and germinate.
Monument Plants are monocarpic. Meaning they can grow for many many years, but only flower once in their lifetimes. One they flower, they die. There’s something amazing about saving the best for last. They can grow for decades reaching 70-80 years before their bloom.
Monument is an appropriate name, as they tend to tower over all the wildflowers in meadows, reaching heights of 4-5 feet. Research shows that large numbers of plants will bloom in unison creating quite the display. I’m thinking that 2021 will go down as one of a massive bloom, similar to 2003 and 2010. It feels like every meadow I’ve hiked through this month as been filled with flowering gentians.
Monument plants can easily be confused with a couple of other wildflowers, Corn Lily and Miner’s Candle. They all have showy white colored blooms, and are taller wildflowers that bloom in meadows. But if you look carefully, you’ll notice the difference. A miner’s candle flowers is actually a very pure white five petaled cluster of flowers along the stalk. The Green Gentian is like it’s a name a green-tinged four part star shaped flower with flecks, not pure white like the miner’s candle. Corn Lily bloom are normally six petals with corn type leaves that belie its name.
Talking about white wildflowers bring up a park ranger memory from my time at Sequoia National Park. During the early summer, it felt like every other person who came into the visitor center asked this same question. “What’s the white wildflower blooming by the side of the road?” I always chuckled to think we’d be able to tell them the answer definitively. As you might guess, there were probably 10-20 white wildflowers blooming near the main road depending on the time of the year. Usually with the help of additional questions and sometime a field guide, we’d be able to provide an answer.
This year has been a stellar wildflower year, so whatever your favorites, get out there and enjoy. The purples, whites, pinks and yellows will probably only last another month. The growing season in the high peaks of Colorado only lasts about 90 days before a freeze brings an end to the glorious hues.