Plants that grow in high elevation, in addition to at Beaver Ponds EEC, must survive through very cold, long, windy, snowy winters and grow quickly in the short summer. In the summer, the open meadows fill in quickly with grasses and bright beautiful flowers like mountain blue bells, Indian paintbrush, Rocky Mountain columbines, and many other flowers. Under the tree cover, several types of shrubs flourish, as well as a few grasses. You may also see lichens growing in colorful patches on rocks that are exposed to the sun.
Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
One of the more common shrubs under the tree canopy is the bearberry, also known as kinnikinnick. It is an evergreen shrub with small, shiny, rubbery leaves that help it reduce water loss during dry times.
As fall nears, the leaves begin to turn red on their undersides. Clusters of small, bell-shaped, pink or white flowers appear in the spring and are succeeded by bright-red berries that persist into winter. This ground-trailing shrub has papery, reddish, bark that peels off in small, sheets. It does well in dry, low-nutrient forest soil. Its complete range is the largest of any in its genus, and reaches from northern Eurasia and northern North America south to the mountains of Virginia, California, Arizona, and New Mexico, with isolated populations in the mountains of Guatemala in Central America.
In Greek, "arctos" means bear, and "staphyle" means grape. The berries are indeed eaten by bears, as the name indicates. Kinnikinnick, an Algonquin word for many tobacco substitutes, is most frequently applied to this species, which also is said to have many medicinal uses. As with any plant, berries or other parts should not be eaten unless one is trained in plant identification.
Lichens are likely to be some of the least-noticed organisms at Beaver Ponds EEC, but they may be one of the most fascinating. Lichens come in a variety of sizes and types, but most lichens found at Beaver Ponds are of the “crustose” variety, forming gray, orange, and green crusts on stones that often look as though they were painted by an artist.
We know that lichens are actually a combination of two organisms living symbiotically: algae and fungi. They are considered “lichenized” fungi, not really plants. A symbiotic relationship is where each member of the organism provides a positive function to the other. In lichens, the fungal portion of the organism serves as an umbrella, providing shade from intense, alpine sunlight to the algal portion. The algal portion provides food through photosynthesis.
Over 13,000 species of lichen exist around the world. They have adapted to both deluge and drought over millions of years. Historically, naturalists have considered them to be essential in establishing plant life by dissolving rock into soil over hundreds or thousands of years. This assumption may not be true in light of new research. Wind and water erosion probably eclipse any amount of soil produced by lichens.
Research also shows that lichens are very sensitive to air pollution, since they take nutrients from air and rainfall. If either is contaminated with pollutants, the lichens will not flourish. In a healthy environment, some will live for a thousand years or more. Like other alpine species, lichens are also sensitive to climate change, since they are adapted to colder temperatures. As temperatures begin to warm, we may loose many of these primitive, ancient organisms.
Little Elephant Head (Pedicularis groenlandica)
In wetland areas around Beaver Ponds EEC, be on the look out for pink elephants. No, these are not the big, gray giants of Africa and India but tiny members of the figwort family, whose flowers are shaped like elephant heads. They usually bloom in June.
Bees and other pollinators love the sweet nectar of the flowers, and even the occasional hummingbird may be seen sampling their wares. The plant has fern-like leaves that grow in a clump at the base of its stem and then sporadically to the flower. It can reach 20 inches tall in the right conditions, though the more severe the environment, the more its growth is stunted. This pretty plant has a dark side. It is a parasite to the roots of neighboring plants.
Paintbrush (Castilleja sp.)
There are about 200 species of these plants worldwide. They come in many colors, which often represent distinct species. These plants easily hybridize among themselves, so it often takes an expert to determine the exact species.
When we look at the colorful paintbrush, we may think we are looking at the flower of the plant, but these brightly colored parts are actually leaf-like branches called bracts and sepals. The flowers are actually a long greenish-yellow tube, which is harder to see. At Beaver Ponds EEC, paintbrush colors include off-white, pale yellow, bright orange (as depicted in the photo above), pink, and deep red. Like the elephant head, paintbrush can also be parasitic, penetrating roots of other plants for nourishment. This, along with a liking for shade, may be why we often find paintbrush next to sagebrush.
Grasslands are a minor but important part of the Rocky Mountain region's vegetation. They occupy specialized habitats where the climate is too cold or dry and/or the soils are too shallow to support the growth of trees and shrubs. In general, grasslands are small, providing openings within the forested zone, but the entire floor of South Park is a montane grassland. Beaver Ponds EEC has several mini-grasslands, mostly in the riparian areas along Sacramento Creek.
Grassland plants have developed long, deep roots to promote survival during drought. Mountain grasslands are usually dominated by bunch grasses such as fescues, oatgrass, Junegrass, and mountain muhly, but wildflowers are abundant and diverse, making Colorado's grasslands a photogenic plant community. Grass provides stability for the soil; cover and food for birds and small mammals; and food for ungulates in both summer and winter. Deer and elk can often be seen pawing through deep winter snow to find a bit of last summer's grass.