To a Colorado non-native, the the gypsum dust blowing through Eagle County could easily obscure the beautiful wildflowers growing amongst the mountainous anthills and dry lakebeds. Penstemon harringtonii is a rare, showy purple and blue flower limited to the sagebrush steppe in Colorado and limited in number as well. A changing habitat and the ever-so-ambitious human dweller threaten this endemic species.
This year, the horticulture interns joined up with the Gardens research team on their 14-year field study to ensure the future of this plant.
The first study site with gridding in the works
The weather was a bit cooler than the near hundred degrees predicted that day for Denver, and a stiff breeze made certain that any lingering heat did not stop us. The scraggly sagebrush, though beautiful from a distance, necessitated long trousers and thick gloves.
Through the dead branches and past other Penstemon (which tried to trick us with their similar colors!) lay our treasure. The rosettes were easy to identify as harringtonii due to their succulent feel and chalky appearance. The rarity of a plant in bloom, however, left us only our keen eye for spotting the leaves buried under grasses and at the bases of shrubs.
Upon sighting one, our task became less like hide and go seek than an afternoon on the floor of Wall Street as we shouted our grid location, rosette count, herbivory charactaristics, and flowering status in quick succession to the scribe. It seemed like a game at times--which row would find more plants more quickly--but that never belittled the importance of what we were doing.
Ultimately we left the sites with pages full of data. Some columns had more than the year before, some less, but the count looked promising. The interns' afternoon with the Gardens research team was a nice break from weeding, watering, and pruning that has come to define "public horticulture" for us, and was a glimpse into not only conservation but also into the many other paths a career in this field may take us.
About the author:
My name is Andrew Migneault and I am one of eight horticulture interns working this summer at Denver Botanic Gardens. I hail from the great Commonwealth of Massachusetts which is just a half-hour away from my college in Providence, RI. Finding myself in Denver this summer has been both rewarding and challenging. It is still a novelty to me to see cacti growing oudoors (in the ground, year-round!) and the tall yucca plants which add unique western flair to the Gardens. Though quite hot at times, the Gardens has become as much a passion for me as it is an outdoor classroom to apply all that I've learned in school.
Check back for more news from the interns!