Thursday, April 30, 2015

it’s all right if you don’t know all the different kinds

knowing it’s an evening primrose is good enough (Tope Elementary students)

The Colorado Plateau is spectacularly scenic.  Every year many hundreds of thousands of people admire its mesas, monuments, narrow winding canyons and rocks colored red, orange and white.  But they speed right past the high desert shrublands that cover much of the Plateau.  This is drab boring vegetation – monotonous in topography and color.

But in spring – if you were to stop and look – you would find the dull green shrublands brightly decorated in white and pink.  Evening primroses are in bloom!  Old-timers call them gumbo lilies because they thrive in soil that turns to really sticky mud (gumbo) when it rains.
Tufted evening primrose, Oenothera caespitosa; flowers grow from tufts of basal leaves.
Soon this flower will be as pink and wilted as its comrades.
Evening primrose flowers open in the evening, and last into the next morning.  They use white and pink to advertise – to recruit pollinators.
White – "Come on in, I have pollen aplenty!"
Pink –  “Sorry, closed for the season.”
I smiled when I saw flower parts (and their shadows) clearly arranged in multiples of four.  Deep fond memories resurfaced – of field botany class and diagnostic characteristics of plant families.
4 petals, 8 stamens, 4-lobed stigma (left center) … must be Onagraceae, the evening primrose family.

Many flowers were blooming in the high desert shrubland I visited.  I “knew” most of them only to genus.  (It’s interesting that “do you know this plant?” really means “do you know what we’ve named it?” ... even though "knowing" could be so much more.)
Indian paintbrush, Castilleja sp.
A desert phlox, Phlox sp.
Desert daisy, Erigeron sp.
A very elegant sego lily, Calochortus sp.
Woody aster was especially common.  Its older flower heads had pink wilted rays … does the woody aster advertise with white and pink too?
Woody aster, Xylorhiza glabriuscula.
Old woody aster heads have turned pink.

Many other flowers were in bloom, but the wind picked up so photography came to an end.
High desert shrubland below the Book Cliffs; north of Fruita, Colorado.

The commentary at the top is from Through the eyes of children, a field guide to the Colorado Plateau by Tope Elementary School students & D Gallegos, 1998. For sale here.


  1. Your photos are stunning, Hollis--especially when enlarged to see the full effect! That last photo of the mountains--wow! So many beautiful wildflowers. We have a different genus of Indian Paintbrush here: Castilleja-coccinea. They're all so lovely. I got a kick out of the name "Gumbo Lilies." ;-)

    1. Thanks, Beth. This was just the start – I spent a week on the Colorado Plateau and couldn't believe how much was in bloom the "high desert"!

  2. Wow! I love seeing you include the "little things" from the region; to me, they are so much of what gives a place its character. Although much further south, I am already growing two of these plants in cultivated form: the Oenothera in its cultivar "Innocence" and a desert Phlox (P. grayii) as the variety "Shades of Pink". It is a great feeling to find these plants available for the private garden! btw, can you tell me what kind of soil the Calochortus was growing on? I love bulbs... :)

    1. Amy, I'm not sure on specifics, but the sego lilies were growing on finer soils than sand -- silty or even clayey. I saw a lot the week after my Grand Junction visit, in southeast UT, approaching "stands" in some places! I' not a gardener so I don't know what to recommend, but surely Google can help ;-)