There are so many amazing wildflowers to marvel at in the high country around Telluride. Above and beyond their looks, these beauties hold purpose and legend, medicine and nutrients. Here is a closer look at five of the flowers you are likely to spot on the trails here:
One ubiquitous flower is Yarrow, Latin name Achillea millefolium. Achillea is named after Achilles, a character in Greek mythology. Achilles’ mother, knowing he was destined for a life on the battlefield, dipped him in a vat of Yarrow tea as a protection spell. But she was holding him around the ankle when she bathed him, hence the Achilles heel, a metaphor for vulnerability. This was one of the most common plants used as a battle wound dressing, as it has antibacterial and hemostatic/styptic (stops bleeding) properties—Yarrow is a good one to know for wilderness first aid.
Like Yarrow, the Cow Parsnip is in the umbel family. It is one of the most common flowers seen on any trail, and noticeable because of its very large size. The flowers are often head high. The plants in this family can be easily recognized by their umbrella-shaped coronas or flower clusters. Many “umbels” are the sources of popular spices including fennel, dill, and parsley. They are all very aromatic, and like them, Cow Parsnip also has an intense celery-like smell. The Native Americans dried the leaves, burned them, and used the ashes as a form of salt. The seeds can be ground and used sparingly in place of celery salt.
Blue Bells are another very common wildflower. They like their feet wet and can be found along any stream. As their name suggests, they have small, light-blue, bell-shaped flowers hanging together in a cluster. If you want to sample some wild food, this is a good one to start with. Just pinch off a handful of the flowers and eat. I have shown these to many a friend to let them try a bite, and I always ask, “What do they taste like to you?” I’m continually surprised by the variety of answers, ranging from green beans, to tuna, to cranberries.
Indian Paintbrush is perhaps my favorite wildflower because it has such a wide spectrum of colors and forms. It is always a brilliant vermillion in the desert, and a similar red-orange on the nearby mesas. However, up in the alpine terrain, it ranges from an almost fluorescent yellow-green, to maroon and cream, to fuchsia and purple. Interestingly, the actual flowers are very insignificant, hardly noticeable at all, but the bracts (which are green on most plants) give the plant its vibrant color, and resemble a brush dipped in paint. It is believed that these delightful species co-evolved with hummingbirds their primary pollinator.
The Pink Elephants or Elephants Heads are one of the most ornately and delicately shaped flowers. They are deep pink-purple-fuchsia colored and have fern-like leaves that are also sometimes purplish. Each tiny flower has two ear-like flaps and a slender, upturned trunk. They can be found in marshy areas in subalpine and alpine terrain. These sweet flowers are also edible, and can make a fun and tasty addition to a salad.
Whether you’re identifying these flowers for their edible/medicinal properties or just admiring their beauty, you will enjoy being able to name them and spot them in the high country and impressing your friends with your new knowledge.
—By Julie Peterson
Julie Peterson lives in Telluride and is the owner of Singing Springs Botanicals. She is a professional botanist/herbalist and practitioner of Ayurvedic medicine (NAMA).