A Fantastic Year for Floristic Adventures

October 25, 2021 Jennifer Ackerfield , Head Curator of Natural History Collections & Associate Director of Biodiversity Research

People often think that when you’re a botanist, your favorite time of the year must be summer. Well, I do love summer, but fall is actually my favorite season. Why? Because I can finally relax! Summer is a non-stop whirl of field work to collect plant specimens – the ultimate purpose of which is to increase our knowledge of biodiversity in Colorado. This summer was a particularly great one for making collections – the flowers were so plentiful!

Field work began with a trip to the southeastern plains. We sampled from limestone breaks on land owned by the Southern Plains Lands Trust (SPLT) and were even invited to join the land manager as he fed herds of bison and Texas longhorns. You just never know what will happen in the field!

I then joined an expedition to scout a rare plant for future seed collecting. I could not believe how green and lush the foothills were – flowers everywhere! The summer’s most intensive collection project began in June – a floristic inventory of Axton Mountain Ranch, soon to be the newest Denver Mountain Park. Every week, our team – me, the lead collector, and two high school interns – explored the property, documenting the floral diversity. Again, I could not believe the shear abundance of flowers! Just spectacular.

My next stop of the summer is always one of my favorites – the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival. I lead hikes for the festival, serving as a scientific expert while connecting people with plants. The flowers in the Gothic Valley were amazing this year as well – particularly corn husk lily (Veratrum californicum) and five-nerved little sunflower (Helianthella quinquenervis) presented especially incredible displays. 

In August, I traveled to the La Sal Mountains of Utah. My research on thistles (Cirsium) revealed a new species of thistle endemic to these mountains, and so I went to make type collections. These types will serve as the reference for this newly described species.

The summer ended with another expedition to the southeastern plains, but this time to the Comanche National Grasslands. We were targeting grasses, particularly a potentially new grass record for Colorado. During this trip, we also experienced the magic of Mentzelias. Mentzelias, or stickleaves, open their flowers in the evening. We arrived at Mentzelia decapetala as the sun was setting, just in time to see the flowers visited by hummingbird hawk-moths. The whole event took about 15 minutes and was indeed magical. All in all it was a busy, productive and fun summer in the field. Now to process all those collections for deposit into the Kathryn Kalmbach Herbarium of Vascular Plants


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