When hiking on the nearby trails doesn’t suffice anymore, we usually set out toward a mountain area to immerse in the richness of alpine landscapes. Two years ago at the end of July, we travelled to Snowbird, situated in the heart of scenic Wasatch Mountains, Utah. Although better known as a ski resort, during the summer, Snowbird offers an easy and comfortable access to some of the floristic gems of the Utah Rockies.
Wasatch Mountains stretch for nearly 200 miles from the Wellsville Mountains on the north, to the Mount Nebo on the south. Elevations range between 4,200 and 11,957 feet (at Mount Timpanogos). Along with jewel-like lakes there are pockets of lush green mountain meadows and areas of alpine tundra. Climate and microclimate differences produce a broad seasonal flowering spread. The basic rock types are made up principally of limestone and dolomite rocks. Soils of widely varying chemical composition are found throughout the area, thus providing a suitable environment for plants that require either acid soil or lime. These diverse habitat conditions make Wasatch Mountains a hotspot for plant endemism. One place where you can spend the whole day, just basking in the sun and admiring wildflowers is the Albion Basin. It is located at the top of glacially carved Little Cottonwood Canyon, above the ski resorts of Alta and Snowbird at over 9,500 feet. During the summer months of July-August there is a spectacular wildflower display in the high-elevation meadows with natural gardens of paintbrush, columbine, lupine, Jacob’s ladder, penstemons, and many more. This is where the Wasatch Wildflower Festival is held every year.
A very interesting plant that I saw for the first time was Pedicularis groenlandica – Elephant’s head (Orobanchaceae), which grows along streams and boggy mountain meadows, forming sometimes large colonies. It has fern-like leaves, mostly basal and dark green stems of about 1 foot high with flowers that look exactly like little magenta-pink elephant heads. Plants blooming for many weeks offer an image that is hard to forget. This beautiful plant is parasitic on the roots of the plants that grow in its vicinity, from which it extracts the nutrients it needs. Because of the parasitic life cycle, it would be probably very difficult to cultivate.
Another first was Aquilegia coerulea – Colorado Blue columbine. It is a columbine with very long spurs and large flowers that can vary in colour from light blue to white (4 varieties in Flora of North America). Usually it grows close to wet stream areas in part-shade, but also can be found on rocky outcrops in full sun. The population we found had almost entirely white flowers. Taking the trail to Cecret Lake and then towards Germania Pass you’ll find a fabulous rocky area hosting Penstemon humilis – Low penstemon (Plantaginaceae). It grows in many-stemmed clumps 4 to 12 ft. tall. The flowers are about 1.5 inches long, colored in every shade of blue from lavender to light sky blue and even magenta. Considering that there are more than 60 species of Penstemon in Utah, I have to mention at least a local endemism, the Wasatch Penstemon – Penstemon cyananthus, which is common in the area, growing on dry, gravelly hillsides. Each plant produces several 2 to 3 ft. tall stems of magnificent blue flowers. You can definitely get your fix if you have agentian blue craving! We even found two very localized forms with white and pink flowers. Another day, on a hike to the Flagstaff Peak, we lost the trail that starts from the Alta Lodge, but were rewarded to find at the top of the ridge clumps of Clematis columbiana var. tenuiloba – Rock Clematis (Ranunculaceae). This is a rhizomatous clematis with aerial stems that are not viny, usually up to 10 cm tall and tufted. Leaves are typically 3-lobed and the flowers are deep pink to violet. It grows on cliffs and rocky summits, usually in open sites. It is a prized rock garden clematis, hard to find to buy, so this year I’m trying my own seeds (hope they’ll come true!).