At around 3 am, on my first night in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, I awoke with the camper’s urge to pee and was forced out of the comfort of my little tent. As I struggled with my shoes, trying not to wake my friend in the adjacent tent, I threw myself into the cool mountain air and paused for a moment as my brain reworked.
A bright moon and a veil of stars illuminated the scene, gilding the surfaces of lichen-strewn granite boulders and fluffing large redwoods. In the distance, the jagged silhouette of Longs Peak. At the foot of the nearest trees, a pool of wildflowers shimmered that made my heart sing in this fleeting nighttime moment: upright blue penstemon, pink geranium, creamy huchera, and pincushion buckwheat that looked almost like sulfur in the moonlight.
I was drawn to them like a moth (forgetting for a moment the potential bear risk – the camp ranger had warned they were here the night before). Together, it was just an ounce of Colorado’s rich botanical offering. All of this was a good sign; tomorrow we would go in search of the mountain dove (Aquilegia caerulea) – the state flower of Colorado and the wild western that has long formed the basis of English gardens.
For most of the last decade (Covid disruptions aside), I’ve been steadily making progress in the contiguous United States, accelerating about two-thirds of the “Lower 48”. What has always fascinated me is the amazing array of native plant life of America, many of which have been introduced and contributed to English gardening over the years.
Last summer, I took Colorado off the list: that enormous rectangle located a little west of center, home to the wild ancestors of many cultivated garden treasures (asters, penstemons, coreopsis, gaillardia, rudbeckia, and others). I can wholeheartedly say that “The Centennial State” is unmatched when it comes to stunning views and refreshing vegetation.
As the regional anthem proclaims: “This is the land where the doves grow, overlooking the plains far below,” and no flower is as graceful as the wild doves of Colorado. Seeing this cottage garden growing wild in the rugged Rockies has been on my botanical bucket list for a long time.
When you arrive in Denver, you get a sense of why Colorado is a mecca for the outdoorsy type. Despite the city’s entire urban sprawl, its plethora of outdoor recreation shops and outfitters cement the state’s reputation as the number one for hiking culture. Conservation of native Rocky Mountain vegetation, a locally valuable asset, also takes center stage at the popular Denver Botanical Gardens.
Therefore, during the stay in the “Mile High City” one gets used to the altitude, enjoys a craft beer, and buys the necessary gear in a backpack to explore the surrounding landscape. At least that’s what my friend and I did the night before we camped at Hermit Park in Larimer County; Even before I unpacked the tent poles, I was amused by the drift of the lupine-like purple locoweed and the iconic American blanket flower, or Gaillardia aristata.
We chose Hermit Park for its relative quietness: a less populated summer campground within reach of both Rocky Mountain National Park (415 square miles of stunning mountain scenery) and the lofty town of Estes Park. In the late 19th century, a few years after Colorado’s gold rush in the 1850s – but just before its accession to the Union – British writer-explorer Isabella Bird visited Estes Park in her published journal, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. , as “perfection”. She enthusiastically said: “The view is the most magnificent I have ever seen … health is in every breath of air.”
In the weeks before my trip, I studied Bird’s narrative of the pre-Colodonia state; traversing sage meadows and scaling the dizzying Longs Peak. Along with encounters with jumping bronchos and grizzly bears, Bird paints a landscape as diverse as it is beautiful: glowing peaks and lily-covered lakes; its rippling plains like the waves of a calm sea. What surprised me when I visited was that, apart from the ubiquitous strip mall, much of the state remained akin to these centuries-old visions of changeable countryside.
In Garden of the Gods, I wandered under the Martian red rocks as the horizon faded into endless grassland along Route 285; I followed woodland trails and mountain tundra trails and sat under giant aspen trees in Salida, my legs cooling in the roaring Arkansas River. Throughout, diverse vegetation reflected the changing landscape: arid yucca and prickly poppy gave way to mountain hermitage and cool blue flax.
In the high meadows of Crested Butte, an unimaginably beautiful place where a wildflower festival (crestedbuttewildflowerfestival.org) is held each year after the snow melts, we encountered the widest range of plants. But following the crystal-clear Tonahutu River through a forest valley that had been renewed after a recent wildfire, I stumbled upon my doves on the fringes of Rocky Mountain National Park.
While hiking with a guide, my friend and I stood before us at the sudden and majestic sight of a young deer passing by. Worried that an ascendant parent might also be nearby, our guide asked us to wait a while in the clearing. I gladly accepted: the seeds sprouting after the fire formed a valley that literally shimmered in the wildflowers: rattles, asters, arrow leaf, the bedstead, and the perfect blue of the Colorado dove appearing there in the grass beside me.
Widely considered the most beautiful of all aquilegias, Aquilegia caerulea’s extraordinary delicacy comes from its slender posterior spurs that reflect the large bicolor flower like a shooting star. This is a flower that completely blurs its surroundings: its petals are white, like snow-capped mountains; outer sepals, pure caerulean azure. I was immediately able to see how it earned state flower status and why it won the RHS Award of Garden Merit in October. Harsh life in the Rockies has instilled a natural tolerance for sun, shade, cold, and wind: as tough climbers, we must be humble to grace our gardens.
Five Rocky Mountain perennials to try in the garden
Aquilegia caerulea is best sown from seed during the summer and overwintered to produce a short-lived perennial. Although it prefers a moist but free-draining environment, it will take up a range of spaces and soils. Remove the flower stalks after flowering to prolong the life of the plant.
I should have known penstemons would distract me when I was looking for Colorado doves. Numerous species occupy this intermountain region, from the vibrant, candy-blue P.strictus and P. virens to the fiery red P. barbatus that covers the roadsides.
But my favorite was P. whippleanus: a plum-purple dwarf seen all over Rocky Mountain National Park. Try the ‘Drop Chocolate’ variety.
Veratrum californicum, known as ‘corn lily’, is a tall, verbascum-like perennial with attractively large, curved leaves. It is home to a range of habitats: I came across clusters of these impressive creamy-white flowers in the high meadows around Crested Butte. Note: It is toxic if eaten.
Among all the types of flowers that are abundant in the Rockies, you can not escape such compositions as daisies of any color and shape. Here and there—especially in open meadows—I’ve come across low-flowered clumps of asters, beautiful American daisies that have been reclassified as Symphyotrichum. A popular cultivar is S. laeve ‘Calliope’, which has dark green leaves and cornflower-purple flowers.
At the Garden Museum’s latest herb expo, I purchased an intriguing ocher golden pea (Thermopsis montana). New to me at the time was common in the Rockies, illuminating riverbanks and wooded clearings. Somewhere between lupine and baptismal, it is an excellent perennial rhizome for penumbra.
For more information, visit colorado.com