Posts Tagged ‘Boulder Colorado’

Flora on the Forest Floor

June 6, 2018

This Spring in Colorado has been a gift. Thanks to mild temperatures and abundant moisture, the Boulder forests are resplendent with late Spring flora. The floor on the North Fork of the Shanahan Ridge is one of the best places to experience the joy of Spring’s reawakening.

The Shanahan Ridge Trail is easy to get to. My entry point starts where Lehigh and Lafayette streets intersect (Map search 1903 Lehigh Street Boulder). Parking is on the street.

Shanahan Ridge Access Point

Shanahan Ridge Access Point

The forest floor with its tall green grasses forms the stage where the plants will perform their evolutionary duties by producing sweet treats and visual clues to attract their pollinators. Fortunately these visual clues are very pleasing to humans and keep photographers busy.

Grassy Field

The Forest Floor with Foothills Backdrop

Here’s a bee caught in the act pollinating Blue Mist Penstemon. Note the yellow pollen sack on the hind leg. Blue mist covers large sections of the forest at its peak and it does look like mist…

Bee on Penstemon

Penstemon with Pollinating Bee

Asteraceae offer the butterflies a sweet treat in exchange for transporting its pollen to another aster…

Aster (Asteraceae) with butterfly

Aster with Butterfly

These shy Chiming bells (Mertensia fusiformis) have pink buds which turn blue to purplish…

Chiming Bells

Chiming Bells

The Blue Flax (Linum lewisii) makes no secret of its pollen…

Blue Flax (Adenolinum lewissi)

Blue Flax

Mouse-ear chickweed grows in bunches attracting crowds of insects…


Cerastium – Mouse-ear chickweed

Add Heart-leaved Arnica to the cast of flora …

Heart-leaved Arnica (Arnica cordifolia)

Heart-leaved Arnica

Here’s a glimpse of the National Center for Atmospheric Research with arnica…

NCAR with Arnica

NCAR with Arnica

No nature celebration is complete without Wild Roses (Rosa arkansana)…

Wild Rose on Rock

Wild Rose

The ladybugs (Coccinellidae) are prolific this time of year…


Ladybug Waiting for Lunch

Add some lonesome Western Wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) to the mix…

Western Wallflower

Western Wallflower

These southwest desert spikes of Yucca are throwing up their flower stalks. This is about as far north as these pointy plants can grow…

Yucca with Rock


Put all these plants together for ten thousand years or so (after the end of the last glacial period) and let them compete through natural selection with each other for survival on the forest floor. The result is a very pleasing panorama where the flora and fauna have all found their niche…

Shanahan Ridge Forest Floor

Shanahan Ridge Forest Floor


The Creation of the Boulder Flatirons

January 18, 2017



Summer Flatirons with Sweet Pea Flowers Captured 29 June 2013 6:45am

We Boulderites love our Flatirons. In the dozen years that I’ve lived in Boulder, Colorado I have taken hundreds of photos of the Boulder Flatirons but I never knew what created these iconic structures. I dusted off my old (unread) copy of The Geology of Boulder County by Raymond Bridge and tried to figure out how the Flatirons were constructed.

Boulder has witnessed a complex geological history including the rise of two Rocky Mountain ranges, the present day Rockies and about 300 million years ago the Ancestral Rockies. Over the past 150 million years, Boulder’s environment ranged from inland seas to floodplains, deserts, swamps, seashores, then back to floodplain conditions again. Each setting deposited layers of sedimentary rock formed by broken fragments of older rock. Out of this rich geological past grew the set of outcroppings which defined the geomorphic term flatiron. There are flatirons all over the world. Other well developed flatirons in the Western US are found in the eastern Uinta Mountains in northwestern Colorado, the Waterpocket Fold in Capitol Reef National Park and the Superstition Mountains near Phoenix, Arizona.



Superstition Mountains Arizona Captured 10 December 2012 @ 5:07pm


The first stage of the construction of the Flatirons was the deposition of a thick layer of sand and gravel which occurred about 300 million years ago when the Ancestral Rockies were completely eroded. Powerful rivers draining these ancestral peaks carried sand and gravel to the adjacent plains, where they accumulated in a massive, 1,000 foot thick sediment that geologists have named the Fountain Formation. The Ancestral Rockies were eventually worn down completely and the eroded material formed younger sedimentary rock layers on top of the buried Fountain Formation. Even our Flatirons are made from recycled materials! 


Frosted Flatirons Captured 27 March 2009 @ Noon

The next stage of the Flatiron’s construction is the result of a unique event that occurred 70-80 million years ago known as the Laramide orogeny. This orogeny caused a renewed period of uplift and deformation from Canada to northern Mexico. The easternmost extent of this mountain building is represented by the Black Hills of South Dakota. This type of event is usually associated with the subduction of one continental tectonic plate under another. The subducted plate melts into a hot layer of viscous molten rock deep under the Earth’s crust known as the asthenosphere. In this instance the subduction zone is off the coast of California where it causes faults like the San Andreas as well as  earthquakes, volcanos, and the Sierra Nevada mountains. This event also uplifted the modern Rocky Mountains and the western great plains.

How could this event have affected Boulder which is 1000km (600 mi) east of the Pacific ocean? Geologists speculate that a particularly low-angled subduction of one tectonic plate beneath the other caused mountainous bulges deep into the North American continent. These forces pushed up the Flatirons and its neighboring mountains. The subducted plate, known as the Farallon Plate took an unusually shallow angle under the North American Plate. The Farallon Plate did not descend into the asthenosphere in the Earth’s mantle until it moved east causing the upheaval of the Colorado Plateau.


Reproduced From Light Train Productions

The sandwich of layers laid down by the erosion of the Ancestral Rockies and subsequent events were uplifted to their present position by this orogeny. Erosion re-exposed the Fountain Formation on the Flatirons.


The third event that made the Boulder Flatirons so unique is the cement that hardened them. Although the Fountain Formation stretches the length of the Front Range, Boulder is unique because of its dozens of well formed flatirons. This is due to a geologic quirk. Here, and only here, the Fountain’s layers are held together by an unusually strong cement called adularia, which is called moonstone when it’s gem-quality. This cement  formed only in Boulder because on two occasions—about 135 million and 94 million years ago warm, potassium enriched water welled up along an ancient fault zone that stretches between Eldorado Springs and Idaho Springs. The Fountain Formation’s grains reacted with that water to form the adularia that tightly cemented its grains together.


Spring Flatirons with Lilacs Captured 26 may 2016 @ 8:30 am

Another consequence of the uplifting of the Fountain formation is that it occurred on the Western Slope of Colorado as well. In the same way a drawbridge is tilted upward to allow ships to pass, the Rocky Mountains rose tilting up the overlying sedimentary rocks. In fact, the other flank of the  “drawbridge” can be seen in Aspen, Colorado on the Western Slope. The iconic Maroon Bells near Aspen form a portion of the Fountain Formation’s western counterpart called the Maroon Formation. Boulder and Aspen are linked by their geological icons.

Maroon Reflections

Maroon Reflections Captured 14 August 2013 @ 7:30am

For those who don’t believe all those geologists and their fancy pants scientific theories and speculations here is an alternative explanation for the construction of the Flatirons. This one was created by Jerry McElroy. He graciously gave me permission for the use of this photo and description of an alternative to the fact-based geological explanation…


Construction of the Flatirons (click to purchase a print)


The construction of the Flatirons in 1931 was the largest building project undertaken by the Civilian Conservation Corps. This massive development was designed to bring jobs to the Town of Boulder, Colorado and to help promote sagging post-depression tourism. Popular tours inside the Third Flatiron were discontinued in 1948 after a Ranger discovered that the interior space was taken over as a convenient den by black bear.


The last time I searched for photos of the Boulder Flatirons there were about 4,350,000 results! Here are some more of mine…


Cold Flatirons Captured 5 February 2014



Smoky Flatirons Captured 7 September 2010 @ 7:37am during Fire Season!



Flatirons from McClintock Trail Captured 13 October 2014 @ 10:50am




Spring Flatirons with Golden Banner Captured 7 May 2007 @ 10:45am




Dawn Flatirons Captured 11 January 2011 @ 7:30am





Mandy the Dog Loved the Flatirons Too. Captured 16 January 2013


I always thought the top of the 3rd Flatiron looks like Mandy the Dog…


The Mandy Flatiron Captured 2 February 2014 @ 1:25pm


This sculpture of the Boulder Flatirons was created by the late Cydd West a local artist who also used recycled materials to form his Flatirons…

Cydd West's Flatirons.jpg

Cydd West’s Flatirons Captured 13 August 2010 at 3:20pm


If you’re in Boulder here’s a nice 3 mi / 4.8 km round trip hike to a big flatiron that I call the Red Slab.



The Red Slab from the East




The Red Slab from the Sky (39°57’51.19N 105°17’7.80W)


To get there take the North Fork of the Shanahan Ridge Trail past the Mesa Trail and you’ll walk right up to this massive flatiron (see the push pin in the above satellite image).



The Red Slab from the Trail



Approach To Slab



The Bottom Of Slab is a Nice Spot to Have Lunch with a Flatiron…



…And Look Up An Ancient Streambed!





There’s A Big Moon On The Rise

November 16, 2016

“Do not swear by the moon, for she changes constantly.”

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet   

On November 14, 2016 the full Moon came closer to Earth than it has since 1948, the same year that there was a surprise victory in a US presidential election – President Harry Truman and New York Governor Thomas Dewey. Perhaps it is fortunate that we won’t witness another so called “supermoon” like this until 2034.

The term “supermoon” is not astronomical, but it originated in modern astrology. The astronomical name for this celestial phenomena is the perigee-syzygy of the Earth–Moon–Sun system (hence the popularity of the non-scientific term supermoon). It occurs when a full Moon comes closest to Earth as it follows its slightly elliptical orbit around us.


A Supermoon Occurs When a Full Moon is Closest to Earth in its Elliptical Orbit (

A bigger Moon seemed like a good excuse to watch this lunar event from Panorama Point on Boulder’s Flagstaff Mountain


Panorama Point On Flagstaff Road


Panorama Point Overlook


This overlook faces East with a view of the City of Boulder. The University of Colorado is directly below. The lakes are the Valmont and Baseline Reservoirs .


The Daytime View From Panorama Point at 12:18 PM


Waiting for a Super Moonrise in 15 Minutes at 5:07 PM

The first hint of moonlight occurs on the horizon at 5:33 PM…


Can You See The First Light of The Silvery Supermoon?


At 5:40 PM The Supermoon Rises Above Low Clouds


At 5:46 PM It Is Clear of The Clouds


Here It Is At 6:08 PM Reflecting Off Of The Valmont Reservoir.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to capture a clear image of the moon and the city lights at the same time so I opted to expose for the Earth rather than the Moon. Here’s a photo I took of the (same) full Moon on 7 December 2014 at 9:39 pm.


Same Moon Different Year


Winter Solitude

January 6, 2016


Winter solitude –
in a world of one color
the sound of wind. –Matsuo Basho

Dried Flowers in the Snow

When the flowers have dried and snow covers the ground there is quiet beauty in Winter’s solitude. It is as if life is suspended while waiting for the natural world to reawaken.

A recent snowfall motivated me to capture some quiet solitude here on Boulder Colorado’s Open Space and Mountain Parks trails

Snow Pix -7.jpg

Snow Pix -2

Snow Pix -4

Solitude can be found in small things too…

Snow Pix -6

Moving closer reveals the feathery crystals of surface hoar on the snow. This frozen frost is beautiful but deadly

Snow Pix -11.jpg

My close-up lens exposes a world of crystal fragility…

Fern Crystal-3



Fern Crystal-2 edit

This is close enough to see individual ice crystals…


Hoar Frost Crystals

In a few months the snowmelt will nourish our early spring flowers and sustain the reawakening of the natural world for the next cycle of life.

Crimson Canyon

October 21, 2015

Here in Boulder Colorado the native plants are generally earth-toned in Fall leaving our bright yellow and red aspens for higher elevations. One notable exception is Sumac (Rhus glabra). Sumac’s fall foliage fills our canyons with a deep crimson that is a photographic magnet.

Sumac, poison ivy, Brazilian pepper, cashews, mangoes and pistachios are all related. Rhus glabra is not poisonous and, in fact, the seeds (drupes) are a widely used spice in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. It is also used as a lemonade-like tea called Sumac-ade.

My favorite area for Sumac peeping is on Boulder’s South Side. I was hiking on the Fowler Trail a few days ago when I noticed the signature crimson on the lower portion of Shadow Canyon. I decided to return there with my cameras the following day.

Lower Shadow Canyon

The houses are in the town of Eldorado Springs (home of Eldorado Natural Spring Water). The pool is the Eldorado Swimming Pool and Resort.

This portion of the Canyon can be reached by descending from the Shadow Canyon trail. Parking is available at the South Mesa Trailhead (there is a small fee for non-Boulder cars)

South Mesa Trailhead Signage

Hike up the Mesa Trail for 1.5 miles/ 2.4 km until you reach this sign, then follow the Shadow Canyon Trail…

Shadow Canyon Signage-1

Soon you will pass the McGillvray Cabin to the South of the trail…

McGillvray Cabin

The main part of the McGillvray Cabin was built sometime between 1870 and 1885.  An addition was made in the mid-1920s and since their construction style is quite different, it’s easy to determine the original cabin from the new.

Stay on the Shadow Canyon Trail past this turnoff back to the Mesa Trail…

Shadow Canyon Signage-2

Behold The Matron in Autumn, popular with climbers…   The Matron in Autumn (8x10)

At 2.1 mi / 3.4 km you will see this missing sign which is the way to the Lower Shadow Canyon. I’ve heard this trail referred to as the “Old Mesa Trail” but I haven’t found any references to that name…

Lower Shadow Canyon Sign

Proceed down this trail over the ridge past this weird sign. The Fowler and Goshawk Ridge trails are across the way. Down toward Eldorado Springs and through the sumac hued canyon we go…

Shadow Canyon Sumacs-20

Shadow Canyon Sumacs-2

These sumacs are taller than humans…

Shadow Canyon Sumacs-18

Shadow Canyon Sumacs-12

Shadow Canyon Sumacs-13


Shadow Canyon Sumacs-17

Leaves in transition…

Sumac Leaves in Transition

The drupes are full of lemony seeds…

Lemony Droups

After 1 mi/ 1.6km the trail abruptly ends in Eldorado Springs…

Lower Shadow Canyon Trailhead

The walk back to the South Mesa Trail parking area is about another mile east on Eldorado Springs Drive. Unfortunately this stretch of the loop is on the highway. To get there cross the South Boulder Creek

South Boulder Creek

It is possible to take a shorter hike up the Canyon from Eldorado Springs but the parking is limited and the trail access is tricky. Here is the loop I hiked, the mileage is shown…

Shadow Canyon Loop

Soon the snows will come and the leaves will fall…

Sumac Leaves In Snow

I Like Lichen

May 6, 2015


Lichens are a strange and wonderful life form. They are composite organisms made up from as many as three biological kingdoms; fungus, algae and bacteria. While they all need each other in this symbiotic triangle of life, the dominant partner is a fungus.

Lichens are fungi that have discovered agriculture- lichenologist Trevor Goward

The fungus benefits from this relationship because algae and cyanobacteria produce food by photosynthesis. The algae or cyanobacteria benefit by being protected from the environment by the filaments of the fungus, which also gather moisture and nutrients from the environment, and usually provide stability. This little arrangement works very well as lichens can be found in almost every habitat and geographic area on the planet. It is estimated that 6% of Earth’s land surface is covered by lichen. They are also considered the world’s oldest living organisms. Cooperation is a powerful survival tool and it accomplishes what evolution alone cannot provide in a single creature.

Lichens grow where other things can’t such as desert sand and bare rock. Their trick is to hibernate or shut down metabolically during extremes of heat, cold or drought. When they get wet conditions they reawake to capture solar energy and let their true colors shine. This is because moisture causes the lichen’s surface skin to become more transparent, exposing the colorful photosensitive partner (the photobiont) to light. This transition can happen within minutes. The next time you see some dried-up lichen, sprinkle it with water and watch it wake up.

It has been a soggy week here in Boulder, the cloudy wet conditions are getting to me and I need some color. This is perfect weather for our tiny lichens to come out of hibernation and make the rocks glow with color. Finding them is easy, just seek a place with rocks. Maybe the name appealed to my wishful thinking but I decided to head up Sunshine Canyon (40° 2’1.35″N, 105°18’56.63″W) to see what’s on the rocks. As you can see, the lichen was full of color on this grey and rainy day…

The Rocks Were Alive

The Rocks Were Alive and Photosynthesizing in Sunshine Canyon. Green Algae in the Forest.

This called for my close-up lens (60mm macro). Now everything is revealed in this miniature world…






Lichen Abstract Art

The moss was pretty well soaked too…

Moss Droplets

I interrupted this Abert’s Squirrel’s lunch (this photo was taken with a 200mm zoom)…

Aberts Squirrel

Thanks to lichen It turned out to be a Colorful Colorado day despite the soggy weather.

Pasques in the Storm

April 17, 2014

Living on the edge of the Rocky Mountains presents a challenge to things that bloom in early Spring. Temperatures quickly fluctuate from hot to below freezing while a heavy wet Spring snowfall can suddenly blanket the hillsides. What’s a plant to do to protect its sensitive stamens and pistils?

This week we had a warm spell followed by freezing and snow, the perfect conditions for checking out the survival of the most striking of our early flora, the pasque (Anemone patens). Pasque flowers have a showy, beautiful blossom that is composed of 5 to 7 sepals that look like petals. True petals are missing. The plant is common throughout northwestern U.S. up to northern Alaska. Common names include the pasqueflower, wind flower, prairie crocus, Easter flower, and meadow anemone.

I went searching for pasque flowers before the storm on Boulder’s McClintock Trail. I found a few entering the risky world above ground…

The Pasque Before the Storm

The Pasque Before the Storm

The name “pasque” is probably from the Hebrew “paschal”, “relating to Passover”. The pasqueflower begins blooming as soon as the mountain snow melts, about the time of Passover. Another interpretation is that the flower is named for Easter since Pasqua means Easter in Italian.

Religious controversies aside, these early bloomers are important to honey bees and other pollen gatherers to replenish their food stores after a long winter. From an evolutionary standpoint an early flowering niche strategy can provide abundant snow melt moisture and less competition for pollinators

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

Pasques Get Moisture from the Melting Snow

One downside of this early bloomer strategy is that early flowering requires survival techniques that enable the plant to withstand harsh climate conditions. In one adaptation the pasque does what we do, it puts on a coat. The plant has evolved a thick silky coat to insulate the leaves, stem and flowers and to protect them from direct contact with snow…

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasque Plant

A Coat of Silk Protects the Pasqueflower plant

Another risk of early blooming is that the timing of “early” is critical for successful reproduction. We can see that this plant, like many others, depends on the synchronization of snow melt with the early emergence of pollinators. Both of these events are being disrupted by climate change. It is possible that plants like the pasque and the bees that pollinate them will get out of sync. This nasty aspect of rapid climate change is called pollinator dislocation.

Pasque with Pollinating Bee

Pasque with Pollinating Bee

Then the storm came to Boulder, Colorado

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

The Storm Came and Mandy Was Happy

Today the warmth returned to the McClintock Trail so I trudged through the mud to see how well their coat of silk allowed the pasques to survive the snow storm…

Worn Out Pasque Flower Protecting Delicate Pollen

Storm Bedraggled Pasqueflower Protecting Delicate Pollen

This Pasque Survived the Storm Intact

These Pasqueflowers Survived the Storm in Good Shape

Protecting the Future of Pasque Flowers

Protecting the Genetic Future of Pasqueflowers One Flower at a Time

Soon the weather will stay warm and the soil will dry out. Those warm lush slopes of early Spring will look like desert by Summer. Thus by late Spring these tough but beautiful flowers will have completed their life cycle and will toss their seeds into the wind for the next generation. The delicate violet sepals and yellow anther will be replaced by a twisting mass of feathery seed heads ready to fly away and spread the genetic secrets of their survival.

Pasque Gone to Seed

Pasque Gone to Seed

Here’s the handy guide to the Wildflowers of the City of Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks called Look Closely that led me to the pasqueflowers on the McClintock.

Cold Boulder, Warm Dog

December 12, 2013

It has been cold and snowy here in Boulder Colorado with temperatures dipping well below 0F/-18C for an entire week. Mandy the dog and I went out one frigid morning to photograph our Flatirons right after a storm when the snow is billowing. I guess we were viewed as crazy by photographer Paul Aiken when he took this photo for the Boulder Daily Camera.

Thanks to Paul Aiken for Taking Our Photo!

Thanks to Paul Aiken for Taking Our Photo!

I managed to squeeze the shutter several times before my fingers and toes were starting to hurt so we turned around to head for warmth…

The Cold and Frosty Flatirons

The Cold and Frosty Flatirons

Mandy was disappointed when we started back to the car. She loves the snow and cold and could stay out all day…

Mandy Loves the Cold and Snow

Mandy Loves the Cold and Snow

It Feels So Good

It Feels So Good

After seeing our picture in the newspaper article the next day, several of my friends thought I was wrong to take Mandy out without boots on a cold snowy day. Have dogs become so domesticated that unlike their ancestor the wolf they now need boots?

Japanese researchers have recently uncovered the secret that protects dogs from getting cold when standing on frozen ground. Previous studies have found that dogs can stand on ground as cold as -31F/ -35C without the tissues in their feet freezing. This Japanese study entitled “Comparative Anatomy of the Vasculature of the Dog (Canis familiaris) and Domestic Cat (Felis catus) Paw Pad” is posted in the Open Journal of Veterinary Medicine.

In the dog’s paw pad, the veins surround and run parallel to an artery. Both are in intimate contact so that when the arterial blood flows into the pad surface the venous blood flowing out is in close thermal contact. This establishes a constant temperature difference between arteries and veins and makes for an effective heat exchange. In cold temperatures the warm arterial blood transfers its heat to the adjacent cool venous blood. In this way body heat is re-circulated back to the body core through the venous blood prior to losing heat to the environment. If a foot pad is in a warm environment the blood in that pad will be warm and the heat exchanger will have little effect. When the foot pad is exposed to a cold environment heat loss is prevented by essentially shutting off the paw heat. This means that Mandy has evolved to maintain a warm body and to tolerate cold paws during exposure to cold. Indeed, Mandy’s paws are supported by a circulatory heat exchange that evolved from wolves. This system is also found in penguins, arctic whales, seals and foxes. This discovery has the evolutionary implication that ancestors of the domestic dog lived in cold climates requiring such an adaptation. Sorry kitties but this adaptation does not apply to you. Perhaps your feline ancestors lived in warm climates.

Mandy deserves our envy, not our pity, in the cold. I wish my toes and fingers didn’t hurt on a day like this…

Snow billowing off of the Boulder Flatirons

Snow Billowing Off of the Boulder Flatirons

Improbable Parasites On the Mesa Trail

June 6, 2013

“Less than the coral-root you know
That is content with the daylight low,
And has no leaves at all of its own;
Whose spotted flowers hang meanly down.”

-On Going Unnoticed by Robert Frost

While enjoying our showy spring wildflower display on the North Mesa Trail I came upon a small brown plant shyly hiding on the forest floor pine duff (partly decayed organic matter). While this Spotted Coralroot (Corallorhiza maculata) does not need to be in the spotlight its very existence is an improbable tale.

Coral Root Orchid Plant (Corallorhiza maculata)

Coralroot Orchid Plant (Corallorhiza maculata) “Corallorhiza” is Greek for “coral root” and “maculata” is Latin for “spotted”

On closer inspection you can see the tiny Orchid blossoms; this is one of our tiny native Colorado Orchids

Coral Root Orchid Plant Flowers

Coral Root Orchid Plant Flowers

I was surprised when I discovered my first Colorado Orchid; I thought they only grew in lush, tropical environments. Actually there are more than 25,000 species of Orchids. There are more orchids than any other kind of flowering plant except those in the aster and daisy families. Although they are most common in the tropics, Orchids can be found almost everywhere except Antarctica and the very High Arctic, occupying almost any habitat, including on other plants (epiphyte). One, known as a Western Underground Orchid, lives entirely underground. There are at least 33 types of native Orchids in Colorado (compared to only four Native Hawaiian Orchids).

Early Coralroot

Early Coralroot

Coralroot Clump

Coralroot Clump

Orchid seeds are too small to contain stored nutrients. To solve that problem they must be infected by a specialized fungus that establishes a symbiotic relationship, sharing food and enzymes until the young plant can survive on its own. While many plants use soil fungi as a startup strategy, some orchids have taken an evolutionary sidestep and do not use photosynthesis at all. Orchids were formerly considered to be capable of directly living off of dead organic material (saprophytic) in lieu of photosynthesis. Recent studies have revealed that plants cannot live off of dead organic material; only fungi can do that. It is now known that plants previously described as saprophytes are actually parasites living off of fungi. These fungi transfer nutrients from the host plant to the parasite (called Myco-heterotrophy). The fungi themselves are parasitic on the roots of living plants.

Our Coralroots are the type of Orchid that never becomes self-sufficient. Researchers have discovered that members of the genus Corallorhiza are parasitic Orchids. They derive all of their nutrients from mycorrhizal soil fungi in the family Russulaceae (think mushrooms). Despite their name they have no roots but only hard, branched rhizomes. The relationship with the soil fungus begins before the microscopic seed can germinate and continues for the life of the plant. Finding the right fungi to cheat for life is a chancy business and most seeds just die. To improve its survival rate the plant produces millions of seeds per flower. This is why the seeds must be small and light (the Coralroot seed is only about 0.2 mm in diameter). Those few that do go on to survive parasitize their fungi into forming a coral-like formation enveloping the root that resembles a clump of soft corals. Our pretty little Orchid is a lifelong biological cheater, cheating its fungus cheater…

Coralroot Root Fungus Host

Coralroot Root Fungus Host

In addition to the unlikely success of its seed, the complex mechanisms which orchids have evolved to achieve cross-pollination are risky as well. These mechanisms were investigated by Charles Darwin and described in his 1862 book Fertilisation of Orchids. The book was his first detailed demonstration of the power of natural selection, and explained how complex ecological relationships resulted in the coevolution of orchids and insects. The view has been expressed that the book led directly or indirectly to all modern work on coevolution and the evolution of extreme specialization.

Orchids have developed extremely specialized pollination systems often relying on a specific insect for success. The chances of being pollinated are often rare, so orchid flowers usually remain receptive for very long periods and most Orchids deliver their pollen in a single mass. When a protective cap is dislodged by a specific pollinator the pollen baring part called the anther is exposed to the insect’s body. Two pollen masses (called pollinia) are attached to a sticky pad (viscid) which readily adheres to the bodies of insects. When insects visit another orchid blossom, the pollinia are transferred to a sticky surface. Each time pollination succeeds, thousands of seeds can be fertilized.

Coral Root Orchid Flower

Coral Root Orchid Flower Showing Petals, Sepals, Lip, Column and Anther Cap

I observed many hikers walking by this extraordinary example of evolutionary complexity without even noticing its unlikely existence…

Mandy Can't Find the Coralroot, Can You?

Mandy Can’t Find the Coralroot, Can You?

nor its diminutive beauty…

A Small Improbable Event

A Small Improbable Event

The Canadians apparently appreciate the Corallorhiza striata (Striped Coral Root Orchid)…

Striped Coralroot 2006 Canadian Stamp

Striped Coralroot 2006 Canadian Stamp

Sugarbowls In Sunshine Canyon

May 18, 2013

It is springtime in the Rockies. The record snows of April have watered the foothills. The days are warm and the trails are covered with wildflowers. Mandy the dog and I were off to the Sanitas Valley Trail which is one of Boulder Colorado’s Cool Trails for Hot Dogs.

As soon as we got to the Centennial Parking Area we encountered a hiker excitingly reporting some sort of uncommon wildflower. She pointed me in the direction of an “undesignated” trail which I remembered as turning pretty steep and narrow up toward the Anemone Trail.

My first surprise was that this narrow footpath had been turned into a beautiful official trail by Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. The new trail is designated the Sunshine Canyon Trail.

Hey, a beautiful day a new trail and a rare flower! Let’s check it out…

Start at the Centennial Parking area and head toward the Red Rocks Trail which is on the south side of the lot…

The Centennial Parking Area is Our Starting Point

The Centennial Parking Area is Our Starting Point

Head Toward Red Rocks

Head South Toward Red Rocks

Our first stop is the Silver Lake Ditch. This new trail has plenty of cool clean Ditch water all summer and it is a Voice and Sight trail…

Mandy Hydrates For The Hike

Mandy Hydrates For The Hike

We follow the Trail west along Sunshine Canyon…

Head West Up The Sunshine Canyon Trail

Head West Up The Sunshine Canyon Trail

Our Hike Begins

Our Hike Begins

There is a profusion of flowers but all are the usual suspects…

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)

Larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum)

Nuttall's Violets(Viola nuttallii) and Phlox

Nuttall’s Violets and Phlox

Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)

Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)

Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)

The trail winds its way through meadows and woods…
Heading West Through Meadows and Woods

Heading West Through Meadows and Woods

Sunshine Trail

Up the steps…

Mandy on Sunshine Steps

Mandy on Sunshine Steps

Come On Slowpoke!

Come On Slowpoke!

We finally happen upon a field of large purple wildflowers. These uncommon flowers, known as Sugarbowls, are hard to find here in Boulder. I have seen a few on the Goshawk Ridge Trail but this is the largest patch of Sugarbowls I’ve ever seen in one place…

Field Of Sugarbowls (Clematis hirsutissima a.k.a.Coriflora hirsutissima)

Field Of Sugarbowls (Clematis hirsutissima a.k.a.Coriflora hirsutissima)

Hairs covering the flower and its stalk give rise to its name “hirsutissima” or “hairy”. “Cori” is Greek for “leathery”, referring to the texture of the flower. Frederick Pursh named this species Clematis hirsutissima in 1814 from specimens collected by Meriwether Lewis in Idaho in may of 1806. “Clematis” is an ancient Greek name for various climbing plants.

We Found Our Hairy, Leathery Beautiful Sugarbowls

We Found Our Hairy, Leathery, Beautiful Sugarbowls

After my photography session we continue west into the woods…

Into the Wood We Go

Into the Woods We Go

Until we reach the west end of the Trail…

The West End Sunshine Canyon Trail is 1.3mi/2.1km from Start

The West End Sunshine Canyon Trail is 1.3 mi/2.1km from the Start

Mandy gets to cool down and rehydrate in the Sunshine Canyon creek…

Mandy Cools Down for the Return Trip In Sunshine Creek

Mandy Cools Down for the Return Trip In Sunshine Creek

It’s time to head back…
It's Time To Head Back

Into the Woods and Back Down the Canyon We Go

Sunshine Canyon Trail

The view east reveals Boulder’s Red Rocks

Boulder's Red Rocks Means We Are Back

Boulder’s Red Rocks Means We Are Almost Back

We had many treasures to savor on this pretty little trail. We also found our wildprize…

Sugarbowl Treasure

Sugarbowl Treasure

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