Alpine Glory

­by Susan Simons

LA VETA- Denver Botanic Gardens (DBG) offered a road trip this July called Alpine Glory on West Spanish Peak. Folks from around the state will bus down with Director of Outreach, Panayoti Kelaidis, stay at a private lodge and hike the peak to see rare alpine plants.

    Last week, Kelaidis traveled to La Veta for a scouting hike and ten local plant enthusiasts hiked with him.  The group was interested in bagging plants rather than bagging the peak.   

    We walked the first two miles up West Spanish Peak from Cordova Pass to tree line.  That two-mile hike took most of the day because we stopped often to hear Kelaidis talk about plant life along the trail. 

    Kelaidis has traveled the world studying plants.  One of his enthusiasms is finding plants in South Africa or the Himalayas or the Alps which are adapted to an ecological niche similar to ours here in the Rocky Mountains and then introducing them to local growers.

    He was one of the founders of the Plant Select program which encourages local growers to offer plants especially selected for their adaptability to our climate.  He is one of the creative minds behind the rock gardens at DBG and the native plants collection.  Many of the most innovative offerings at DBG can be traced back to Kelaidis.

    On our hike, we were especially interested in locating the Sangre de Cristo Easter Daisy (Townsendia eximia), a lovely lavender alpine daisy, and we did find it just below tree line.  Just at tree line we located a rare alpine cushion larkspur (Delphinium alpestre) which was budding but not yet blooming.  Along the way, the King’s Crown, Penstemon, and Old Man of the Mountain were especially fresh.  Kelaidis pointed out the Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus), a low, light-green shrub related to the blueberry growing under the pines.

    Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pines (Pinus aristata) grow along this trail. These are pines with needles in bundles of five which grow at high elevations. They are long-lived.  The Great Basin Bristlecone has been known to live 4,862 years.  These trees do not show signs of age and do not die of old age.  They die only when something kills them.  “The roots, trunk and branches are arranged in semi-independent sections that contain damage …so that the whole tree is not harmed” (Lanner).  In fact, we saw one tree which was hollow at the base but still alive up top.  The dead Bristlecones have gnarled, twisted trunks with streaks of color.  Because they prefer high, dry and cold conditions, they are somewhat rare and may be threatened by global warming.

    It’s magical to be in the company of an expert who can identify a plant by its species, genus and family then tell you where else in the world that species can be found and how many other varieties can be found and where.  We learned that at least seven alpine plants are endemic to this region, occurring nowhere else.

    It was a grey, misty, chilly day on West Spanish Peak.  We hardly noticed.  According to Kelaidis, southeastern Colorado is one of the last unspoiled places in the state, and he opened our eyes to some of the wonders around us.

    (Lanner, Ronald. The Bristlecone Book:A Natural History of the World’s Oldest Trees.)