by Sandy Swegel
The fields and meadows of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado are awash in wildflowers this year. Lots of moisture in the Fall and Spring has turned our mountains into riots of color that started early and keeps going and going. We gardeners keep playing hooky from our weeding tasks to hike along mountain meadows and enjoy the beauty of nature that doesn’t have to be weeded or watered. We also get excited about how wildflowers make us very happy and we try to plant more of them in our gardens.
There’s a deeper story to the wildflower bloom. It’s that we’ve actually been having longer wildflower seasons for years now. I look at a good wildflower season as a reason to rejoice and do more wandering and hiking. Scientists at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory looked out their windows in Crested Butte, CO forty years ago and said, “Hmmm. What’s that about?” “Let’s collect some data.” So for the last 39 years, they sent out scores of graduate students to count wildflowers. They recorded when the flowers first bloomed, how many flowers were produced, how long the flowering lasted, etc. Now many years later, the wildflowers are telling an important story about climate change. Turns out we do have more wildflowers. Almost a full month’s worth more. The flowers bloom earlier in the Spring and last longer in the Fall.
It’s still too early to know exactly what it means that we have an extra month of wildflower season. Clearly this is evidence of climate change. But what it means is less clear. We get the first bloom six days earlier than 40 years ago. That means birds and pollinators have food earlier. But we still get the same number of flowers which means the actual amount of nectar hasn’t changed.
Up in Crested Butte, the scientists still look out and ask “Hmmm? What’s that about? Let’s collect some data.” Graduate students still count the number of flowers in little 30 foot plots across the mountain. A new study is putting tiny radio transmitters on hummingbirds to see how their feeding is changing.
Meanwhile, the wildflowers give us abundant beauty …and… hard data that climate change is happening, rather rapidly.