By Carol T. English
Colorado Native Plant Society-San Luis Valley Chapter
Look east from the floor of the San Luis Valley and the stunning Sangre de Cristo Mountain range towers above us with incredible majesty. From a distance you can see where the trees end, and the alpine tundra begins. From afar it may look barren—yet living organisms of all kinds have found a way to flourish.
It is early August and the perfect time to head up into these mountains to explore, so let’s journey up high. As we move through the forest the atmospheric pressure drops with less O2 available to breathe, so we slow down and breathe faster.
Before we go, make sure you have extra jackets keep the shivers at bay as the temperatures drop, and the wind picks up. Sunglasses and hats reduce the increased light radiation. Make sure you bring plenty of water and food to sustain your body through the journey.
Just as humans reach for jackets, hats, and sunglasses for protection, the living wild organisms also adapt to the change. Plants become tiny and hug the ground to avoid the wind, leaves become waxy succulent avoiding light radiation, and others grow hair for insulation. Roots become more robust to store nutrients, trees become gnarled and small from the extreme cold and wind, insects fly more slowly, many mammals hibernate for most of the year, and fur colors change for camouflage.
And as we climb, the forest trees begin to change. The mighty ponderosa pine and stately blue sprue give way to better adapted tree species living in even harsher conditions at higher elevations. Towering dense forests of Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir trees create a feeling of mystery and hidden secrets. Gnarled old, twisted bristlecone and limber pines appear. These pines can grow to nearly 1,500 years old here in Colorado, and even twice that age in the high mountains of California. As we continue to walk higher, the temperature change and unavailable oxygen is noticeable; deep satisfying breaths are more difficult to acquire. Winter here is long and cold, and the snow can linger into the summer months.
Patience is truly a virtue here, as it
takes 1,000 years for a single inch of
soil to form, and up to 10 years for certain plants to form flowers.
The chance of snow and frost is constant, and poses a continual challenge for plants, birds, mammals, and insects. Ocean spray, raspberry, wild rose, golden-banner, lupine, skunk cabbage, sugar-bowls, and tiny monkey flowers flourish within the forest and out among the grassy openings. Now we step above the treeline and observe life exploding into a million tiny details of incredible adaptations within one of the harshest ecosystems on the planet—the alpine tundra.
This is a place with even more intense wind, cold, ultraviolet radiation, and a growing season of only six-10 weeks. That means nothing grows here for 80 percent of the entire year. Plants hug tight to the ground and grow only inches high to avoid the harsh conditions. Leaves are thick, waxy, and hairy with red or blue pigments called anthocyanins which convert light to heat. The robust roots are often the largest portion of alpine plants and can extend into the soil for several feet.
Relative to lower elevations, life cycles and soil formation are extremely slow. Patience is truly a virtue here, as it takes 1,000 years for a single inch of soil to form, and up to 10 years for certain plants to form flowers. Pick a flower and you have just destroyed years and years of seed development, destroy soil and in an instant 1000s of years of decomposition is gone. Move deliberately with slow defined steps, bend in close and observe all the tiny cushion plants hugging the ground. You will find Moss Campion- Silene acaulis, Cushion phlox- Phlox pulvinata, Alpine Spring Beauty-Claytonia megarhiza, Stonecrop- Sedum lanceolatum, Old-Man-of-the-Mountains-Hymenoxis grandiflora, Rocky Mountain Lousewort- Pedicularis scopulorum, Rocky Mountain Sky Pilot- Polemonium confertum, Rocky Mountain Columbine-Aquilegia coerulea, and many more.
And now when you stand and focus your view to the distance in the west toward the San Luis Valley, you can breathe in and appreciate the alpine tundra in all its glory. Spread your arms to the sky and experience the vastness of this place and the amazing adaptations that allow life here to survive.