Mystery Plant

John Nelson

This week’s Mystery Plant is capable of tolerating high winds and weather extremes in the Rocky Mountains. The leaves are round in cross-section, and pointy — commonly greenish, but sometimes red.

”He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below.

He saw everything as far as you can see.”

— John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

How about a little trip to the Rocky Mountains? The Mystery Plant featured in this column is almost always from here in the Southeast, but this week, I thought I would mix things up a bit.

A couple of years ago, I went on a trip to Colorado and was able for the first time ever to see, up close, the central Rocky Mountains.

Some friends and I spent a whole day driving through Rocky Mountain National Park, not too far southwest of Fort Collins, and we eventually got up to an elevation of slightly over 12,000 feet above sea level. This was so high up that there were no trees, as we were well above the timberline. The mountain views were amazing, and there was a good bit of wildlife: birds, elk, mountain sheep and little furry critters scurrying around. Plenty of football-field sized patches of leftover snow and ice, too.

To me, though, the most interesting areas of the whole park were the windswept, tundra-like meadows. You might think that places like this should be barren and boring, but they are actually filled with thousands of flowers, all of which are short, and nearly all of which are brightly colored, forming acres of spectacular displays.

Yes, the air up there was a bit thin, and, yes, my ears were popping. The resident plants, too, must put up with some challenging situations in order to thrive and reproduce. High winds and rough weather demand short or even dwarf plants, and many of these grow only in low, densely tufted, roundish cushions. Plants in such places must have physiologies that allow them to tolerate relatively abrupt changes in temperature, which may be extreme. Soils here are typically rocky and very thin (almost like pavement). And, intense solar radiation is a constant problem, unless there is cloud cover.

Our little yellow-flowered survivor is a true succulent, able to store considerable amounts of water in its tissues and thus able to minimize water loss into the atmosphere. It’s a member of a genus with about 500 species, these scattered over much of the northern hemisphere, mostly in dry places. Many of these species are popular in cultivation, and rather easy to grow, including here in the Southern states.

The leaves of our cushion-forming mystery plant are round in cross-section, and pointy — commonly greenish, but sometimes red. The stems only get to be a few inches high, and then blooming occurs. Flowers consist of five greenish sepals and five bright gold-yellow petals, 10 stamens and five pointed pistils, clustered together in the center of the blossom. This species was described in 1828, based upon a specimen that had been collected a few years earlier from Pike’s Peak. (I didn’t get to go there.)

I’ve only been out there once, but I can highly recommend a summer trip to the alpine meadows of Colorado’s high Rockies. You’ll never forget it.

Answer: “Lance-leaf stonecrop,” Sedum lanceolatum.

John Nelson is the retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit herbarium.org, call (803) 777-8196 or email nelson@sc.edu.

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