Sunday, June 25, 2017

Visiting Northern Colorado-- June Flowers

Pinewood Reservoir, Larimer County, CO
I walked the grasslands by Pinewood Reservoir in Larimer County on June 14, 2017.

From a distance it looked like rather dull grassland

grassland, Pinewood Reservoir, Larimer County, CO

because although grasses have flowers, they don't receive much admiration since they're not bright colored, sweet smelling or curiously shaped.

timothy, Phleum pratense,  in flower
The grass, timothy, Phleum pratense, was in full flower
BUT the closer I looked, the more bright flowers I saw.

Grasslands have so many more grasses than any other group of plant--see second photo above, but also most of the photos--that there's a word for non-grass flowering plants in a grassland, forbs. People in forests and deserts don't need the word, but it is a very helpful term for grasslands.

Here are some of the forbs I saw in flower

silver lupine, Lupinus argenteus
silver lupine, Lupinus argenteus
silver lupine, Lupinus argenteus
silver lupine, Lupinus argenteus
Lupines are in the pea family, Fabaceae, called legumes, and like many legumes, the foliage is toxic. Lupines are a big genus, 200 species worldwide, of which Colorado has 12. The name Lupinus, with common names lupin and lupine, comes from Europe. The names are in fact from the Latin word wolf, as in Remus Lupin of the Harry Potter books. What my botany books say is that the Romans called them lupins because they ate up the nutrients in the soil with the appetite of a wolf, indeed wolfed down the nutrients. Since legumes add nitrogen to soils, making soils more fertile, that is a puzzling view and I hope to work out why the Romans thought that. But yes, lupines are the wolves of the grassland.

golden banner, Thermopsis divaricaria
golden banner, Thermopsis 
Golden banner Thermopsis, is a handsome legume native to the western U.S.  It is not clear how many species there are--my sources disagree. Like lupines, golden banner leaves are toxic to livestock.

vetch, Vicia
a vetch
Vetches are early-summer flowering legumes (genus Vicia, also pea family, Fabaceae) which are viney. The flowers are often brightly colored. There are two native and one introduced vetches reported for Larimer County and I didn't look at the right characters to identify it, but it is most likely the American vetch, Vicia americana

prairie mouse-ear, Cerastrium arvense
prairie mouse-ear, Cerastrium arvense
Prairie mouse-ear, a cute, common white flower. While there are four species of Cerastrium reported from Larimer County, only one is widespread in meadows, prairie mouse-ear, Cerastrium arvense. Mouse-ear is also called mouse-ear chickweed and is in the chickweed family, Caryophyllaceae. It has five petals, so deeply divided that they look like ten.

Penstemons, also called beardtongues (plantain family, Plantaginaceae), flower in June. Colorado has 42 different species of Penstemon, 10 in Larimer County. Worse, they are variable, their flower colors described as "blue to purple to pink" or "pale to dark blue-tinged violet." So I cautiously identify the one above, which was quite short, maybe 6" tall, as Front Range beardtongue, Penstemon virens

penstemon and beefy
penstemon and bee-fly
I snapped photos wildly trying to show this bee fly visiting the flowers in the above photo, pollinating. I love bee flies (family Bombylidae) because they are every day mimics. The great stories of mimicry told in university classes are from exotic locations like Java and Brazil. But looking like a dangerous animal to fool a predator occurs where ever there are animals that defend themselves by being dangerous and predators who learn to avoid them. Bees sting. We don't grab them because we don't want to be stung.  Birds and other animals that eat insects learn that insects with gold and black stripes sting and don't grab bees unless they can avoid the sting. Bee flies don't sting. But they have the colors, the hairiness, the behavior, including a buzz, of a bee. If you could see it from the other side you'd see fly-like compound eyes, not bee-like eyes and here, you see one pair of wings. Bees have two pairs of wings. This insect won't sting you if you grab it. But that moment that you hesitate, thinking "bee?"  gives it a moment to escape. Mimicry works. (More on bee flies link)

This penstemon was also in flower, twice the size of the ones pictured above, a different shade of purple and with silver-gray leaves. Maybe Penstemon glaber. 

taller penstemon
A third penstemon was flowering along the Pinewood Reservoir trail three days later but I don't have a photo. It was even bigger, a deep red-purple and the flowers were only on one side of the stem, suggesting Penstemon virgatus, one-side penstemon (link)

And then there was this forb:

sugarbowls, Clematis hirsutissima
sugarbowls, Clematis hirsutissima
It is so distinctive that when you see it in a book, you know "that's it!" Called sugarbowls or leather flower, it is an odd clematis, not much of vine and with the bowl-like flowers. It is Clematis hirsutissima or you can call it Coriflora hirsutissima if you agree with W.A. Weber that it is too strange to be lumped into Clematis. (Buttercup family, Ranunculaceae). The species epithet, hirsutisimma... Well, hirsuta is like hirsute in English, hairy. The -isimma ending means the most, so this is the hairiest clematis. 

sugarbowls, Clematis hirsutissima
sugarbowls, Clematis hirsutissima
old flower and seed pod
The seed heads of sugarbowls are distinctive and attractive too.

And along the path, I saw this little rose, a bit over an inch across, the plant equally small and right at ground level. It was either the prairie rose, Rosa arkansana, or the smooth rose, Rosa blanda. I should have looked at the thorn-pattern on the leaves and stems, not just snapped its photo.

Three days after I hiked, there were a dozen more plants flowering that I didn't remember seeing, some I surely wouldn't have missed.  So the season rolls on. What you will see keeps changing. Go take a look!

Comments and corrections welcome.

Ackerfield, J. 2015. Flora of Colorado. BRIT Press, Fort Worth, Texas.
Bee flies, (Bombylius spp.,) a pollinator with a bad reputation. USDA Forest Service, Pollinator of the Month  link
Weber, W.A. and R. C. Wittman. 2001. Colorado Flora, Eastern Slope. 3rd edition. University Press of Colorado, Boulder.
Young, H. 2014. Wildflowers and Other Plants of the Larimer County Foothills Region. Larimer County Natural Resources, Fort Collins.

Kathy Keeler, A Wandering Botanist

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