CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Favorite Fall Wildflowers

 by Yvette Henson, San Miguel Basin CSU Extension 

I am a person who transitions slowly but our extended fall season, with its azure-blue skies and golden- aspen, fall-color explosion eases the transition from glorious mountain summer to snowy, gray winter.  The tops of the mountains, where the tundra is, are green from June to mid-August until high-elevation frosty nights put an end to the fleeting summer wildflower show. Then the tops of the mountains turn from green to gold and finally to white.  

I'd like to share of few of my favorite wildflowers that lead up to and last through the seasonal shift from summer to winter.  I am cheered to see them return, year after year.

Gentiana parryi, Parry’s gentian, signals that summer is soon-to-end. The goblet-shaped blooms are a true blue, which is rare as a flower color.  It can be found July through September on the forest edge, in moist meadows and along stream banks at elevations between 7,500 and 13,200 feet. Look closely at the bloom to appreciate the detail!

A close-up Gentiana parryi bloom
(photo Yvette Henson)

Gentiana parryi plants
(photo Yvette Henson)

Rudbeckia laciniata var. ampla, cut-leaf coneflower, comes into bloom about the same time. I admire its stature, it's deeply lobed leaves and its domed center-disk with droopy ray flowers.  It weaves a ribbon along the creek bank of one of my favorite jeep roads.  It also grows in damp ditches.  It can be found from 5,000 to 9,000 feet elevation, late June through September.  I’ve collected seeds of this plant for our seed library but haven’t tried them at home because of my dry site.  However, I saw them featured in a British gardening publication, where they were grown in ‘regular’ garden conditions so I will give them a try next year.

Someone else enjoys Rudbeckia laciniata var. ampla almost as much as I do! 
(photo Yvette Henson)

Solidago velutina, velvet goldenrod, grows on its own in my yard.  It grows along the path to my door where it welcomes me home on summer evenings. I often sit down beside it just to watch the many pollinators enjoying its bright yellow blooms.  Velvet goldenrod begins blooming in late July and is still blooming at my house today.  When its flowers all wither, I know it is almost winter.  It does well in dry soil at elevations from 5,500 to 10,500 feet. 

Solidago velutina
(photo Yvette Henson)

There is an unidentified (to me) 'aster' that blooms all along the highway, through a local mountain town at almost 9,000.  Maybe it is really an Erigeron?  Or maybe it was a cultivated aster that escaped?  I have yet to figure it out.  The ray flowers are a deep purple, a much richer hue than the similar purple fall 'asters' that grow in other mountain communities near me.  I look for this particular aster each year.  I always say I am going to collect seed but since it’s an hour and a half drive from home, all its seeds have usually blown away before I make it back.

My favorite fall 'aster', growing in one of my favorite mountain towns
(photo Yvette Henson)

Gentiana algida, arctic gentian, blooms in the high alpine tundra after most of the summer blooms have faded.  The Flora of Colorado says it is one of the last plants to bloom in the alpine and can be found July-September, 10,000 to 14,000' elevation. The entire plant is rarely more than 6” tall, including the blooms, and to me it's like a magical fairy plant with its comparatively-large, tubular white flowers, streaked in purple and spotted in green.  

Gentiana algida -- perhaps I should call it 'farewell to summer' 
(Photo Yvette Henson)

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