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Technicolor explosion of wildflowers springs from epic snowpack in Colorado’s high country

We have some ideas where to find the humdinger of a flower show, from the Eastern Plains on west. But please don't call it a "super bloom. "

The setting sun sets a field of mule's ear flowers ablaze along Trail 810 in the Almont Triangle near Almont. At lower elevations flower watching is in its prime. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Residents of Crested Butte have been wearing out superlatives as the piles of snow around the Wildflower Capital of Colorado have slowly begun to disappear.

“Astounding!” “Extraordinary!” “Incredible!”

Those adjectives are popping up from petal peepers like the blooms that had been lying in wait under the epic, late-melting snow. After a few sunny days and warmer temperatures, the wildflowers have started showing themselves, unfurling their technicolors in sizes and numbers and combinations not seen in many years, even in a town that has officially been the state’s wildflower capital for three decades.

Part of the surprise of this year’s wildflowers is just how wild those plants are behaving: they are all sprouting at once. Bright red Indian paintbrush are mingling with sapphire-blue lupine, gaudy yellow sunflowers, green-on-green corn lilies and magenta wild onions. Larkspur have turned entire fields purple. White prairie flax has bloomed so abundantly that some fields and slopes appear covered in snow. Lemon-colored glacier lilies are thick as thieves.This year’s lupine plants are the size of bushel baskets. 

Normally elusive species, like purple fairy slipper orchids and the red columbine are out in copious clumps instead of the solitary plants normally found hiding here and there.

“It’s a really unique year,” said Michelle Bivens, executive director of the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival, as she worked in an office filled with “to-do” lists and wildflower posters while wishing she could be out traipsing among the real blooms.

Blue flax along the Hummingbird Trail in Reynold’s Park Open Space near Conifer. The sun-loving flower, also called wild blue flax, prairie flax and lewis flax, blooms all summer long in Colorado’s mountains. A wildflower fan doesn’t have to travel to the mountains, though, viewing opportunities abound along trails in the Open Space and Mountain Parks near Denver. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Of course, the wildflower hotspot of Colorado is going to have a mother lode of blooms after a winter of heavy and late snow and abundant moisture. But that is also the case across Colorado, according to the Colorado Native Plant Society and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

Colorado is — or is soon going to be — a riot of color.

The state drought maps that morphed this past winter from red and yellow blotches signifying extreme and extraordinary drought, are now a blank white slate meaning most of Colorado has adequate moisture. If the state had a wildflower map, it would now be crowded with colorful spots signifying where some of the state’s 2,973 species of native wildflowers are coming out thanks to all that moisture. Blooms are popping up in unusual numbers from the prairies of the Eastern Plains to the San Juan Mountains.

That is not only because it was a wet winter. It is also a matter of timing. When the snows melt later, some of the perennials tucked under the snow make a delayed appearance. That is why the many wildflowers that come out in stages in a normal year, are all blooming at once.

“To me, everything looks much more vibrant,” said Christine Kassar, a Salida author and photographer who has written two guides to wildflower hikes in Colorado and the Southern Rockies.

It’s not technically a ‘super bloom’

Derya Senol photographs a Colorado columbine with her iPhone on the Shadow Pine trail in Flying J Ranch Park near Conifer. Columbines normally blossom in early June, but can be found all summer long at varying elevations. Wildflower viewing opportunities abound along trails in the Open Space and Mountain Parks near Denver. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

So, can this year’s profusion of Colorado flowers be called a “super bloom,” like the mega-flora phenomenon that drew hordes of petal peepers to southern California early this spring? The answer is, “no.” Colorado is having a year of superb blooms, but technically it doesn’t qualify as a super bloom — no matter that the term is turning up on social media. Super bloom only applies to what happens in a desert when the seeds of multiple flower species that have been lying dormant in the arid soil all of a sudden wake up and bloom at once. 

And this year is definitely going down in the books as a late year, meaning July visitors to wildflower haunts will have more to ooh and aah over than usual.

Left: Wild daisies glisten with raindrops on Rabbit Ears Pass near Steamboat Springs. There are many varieties of daisy with colors varying from white to blue to purple. Top right: Wild iris blossom along Jack’s Cabin Cutoff road near Crested Butte. Iris are early-spring flowers found in the delicate areas of wet meadows and marshes. Middle: Colorado columbine along the Colorado Trail below Searle Pass near Copper Mountain ski area. Columbines flourish in all kinds of conditions from lowland forests to the heights above treeline. Bottom: Mule’s ear and Indian paintbrush flowers create a wild splash of color combinations on the hillsides above Almont, along Trail 810 in the Almont Triangle. (Photos by Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Still to come around the wildflower capital is a flower feat Bivens calls a “once-in-a-lifetime” phenomenon. Tall spikes of green gentian — more commonly known as monument plants — are already jutting above other flowers around Crested Butte, promising an extraordinary but short-lived bloom. Bivens anticipates there will be full-blooming forests of the 8-foot-tall plants this season.

Ian Billek, director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory that has been researching wildflowers and other plants above Crested Butte for 91 years, said the monument plants are definitely going to have “a big year,” but it will be a few more weeks before he can say for sure that the crop is deserving of the once-in-a-lifetime superlative.  

In the San Juan Mountains, the official state flower is also slow to wake up. The lavender and white columbine, Aquilegia caerulea, which was designated the official flower in 1899 by an act of the General Assembly, is biding its time under newly melted — or still buried — slopes.

“Usually columbine are out in full blast by this time of year. But things are just starting to bust out now,” said Joe Lewandowski, the public information officer for Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s Southwest Region and a hiker of those mountains for 40 years.

Kassar said she knew this was going to be a bide-your-time year for blooms after she skied on Independence Pass the last weekend in June. It was at a time, and in a place, where she would normally be checking out wildflowers.

“Even with all our scientific knowledge and our experience, nature is still full of surprises and mystery. It’s just so hard to predict what nature is going to do,” Kassar said. “Only thing we can do is be patient, stay in the moment, and enjoy what does end up happening.”

Ryan Kempfer takes flower photographs while his friend Nala looks on. Kempfer was visiting Almont, drawn to the colorful display of wildflowers in the high country of the Gunnison Valley. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Here come the crowds

Around 1,500 people will soon have their payoff when the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival kicks off on July 5. As soon as the fireworks have died out, wildflower fans will be stalking, hiking in, picnicking amongst, listening to lectures about, painting, photographing, and learning to identify wildflowers. They will be making flower jewelry, eating flowery luncheon salads, and creating sandblast etchings of flowers during nine days of anything and everything wildflower.

Bivens estimates that the overall crowds that come to traipse through the wildflowers around Crested Butte will swell to 3,000 to 4,000 at festival time.

She doesn’t expect this super year for wildflowers to turn into traffic gridlock and trampling hordes of selfie-seeking flower fans like it did in Anza Borrego Desert State Park earlier this year, when some flower fans went so far as to have helicopters drop them in the middle of flower-covered meadows.

Just to make sure, Crested Butte is kicking off a new education campaign designed to teach petal peepers how to appreciate the wildflowers without destroying them. Cards and stickers are being distributed around town. Banners will be hung soon. They all bear the message: “If you love me, leave me for the bees.”

They enumerate the things not to do: no picking, no trampling, no cutting.

Kassar likes that. She stresses proper wildflower etiquette in her wildflower hiking book.

 “This will be a really good year, but remember how fragile the flowers are. Be kind to them even if they seem more plentiful than usual,” she said.

Christine Kassar, author of “Best Wildflower Hikes Colorado,” takes a break from photographing wildflowers in a field of mule’s ears and Indian paintbrush near Almont. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This show is what normal was in the ’80s

In the mountains above Crested Butte, Billek puts more pressing stress on that ethic. He points to the “warming meadow” at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, where lights have been strung over wildflower patches to show how global warming might affect flowers. Since 1991 the lights have been heating the air temperature around the wildflowers to three degrees above that in the surrounding area.

The flowers in the warmed area don’t produce as many flowers, and they are getting crowded out by sagebrush. He calls the experiment “a time machine” that allows researchers to fast forward years and see what the world of wildflowers will look like in the future.

“We are already seeing changes, “Billek said. “The question is ‘how dramatic are they going to be?’”

While the general-public flower fans are gushing about the motherlode of blooms this year, Billek said some of the longtime researchers at the lab say this year is what a normal year used to look like back in the 1980s and ‘90s. He has no idea how many more years there might be like this.

“We don’t know why this is exactly or if we will get it back again,” Billek said. “So, people should just enjoy it while they have it.”


Trails where you can enjoy wildflowers in Colorado: 

Here are a few trails we know to be filled with wildflower possibility:


Correction: This story was updated at 7:30 a.m. on July 7, 2019, to correct the date and the circumstances under which the lavender and white columbine was designated Colorado’s state flower.


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