On Marshall Mesa

“Let’s go see what our plant friends look like in their native habitat,” says our volunteer leader, naturalist Dave Sutherland. After weeding and seeding once a week during the growing season, we volunteers have little left to do in the native plant garden at the Ranger Cottage in Chautauqua as it winds down for the fall. “The wildflowers down at Marshall Mesa are splendid right now.”

Of course we’d follow Dave on any hike; we’ve all learned more than we could absorb from just five minutes with this guy on a trail. So we meet up at the parking lot and trailhead south of town and hike out onto Marshall Mesa, a prairie teeming with stories.

The first story Dave tells is that millions of years ago the area was beachfront property to an inland sea. Ripple rocks show the movement of water across sand. With only the barest imagination we can hear the slosh of surf and feel sand give beneath our toes.

ripple rocks

And, oh, is he right about the wildflowers! This is a banner year for dotted gayfeather and goldenrod. Here they are in a small collection:

gayfeather & goldenrod

And here blanketing a hillside:

gayfeathers & goldenrod on hill

But big bluestemit is the native grasses that steal my heart on this walk. Marshall Mesa has a rich collection, and I can only spotlight a couple of them.

The first is big bluestem, a variety that can easily grow chest high here on the Front Range, but in wetter climes, such as in the tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas, can top your head.

Green in spring, big bluestem in late summer at last shows its true colors—amazing maroons, rusty tones, and of course bluish hues.

Grasses are fiendishly difficult to photograph, and I’m not set up with a fancy lens, so this photo does not in the least do the bluestem justice. But maybe you can get a sense for the hues of the grass—subtle yet dramatic, shading the early-fall prairie away from green and toward the reds and browns of autumn.

But what reds and browns! Rich and dusky, with a base of rust, burgundy, or aubergine.

The grasses are easier to see against the Flatirons, but the air is hazy this morning, thick with smoke from wildfires in Utah and southern California. I woke at dawn with the smell of smoke wafting ominously through dreams. The smoke gives the morning light an extra tinge of orange.

bluestem and smoke

And here are the charming curlicues of a short grass called blue grama, the state grass of Colorado (also New Mexico).

blue grama

Dave tells us a folk name is Gramma’s eyelash—no doubt a mnemonic device. As I later flip through the morning’s photos I will use the folk name to call its formal name to mind.

The final flowery treat of the morning is a showy flower that, after the subtle prairie tones of tan, maroon, and rust, now dazzles our eyes. The prickly poppy, complete with a ladybug, appears here against a background of goldenrod and asters, I believe Porter’s asters:

prickly poppy

The walk has indeed been splendid. With final look at a hillside with the beautiful and native yellow Indian grass, we head reluctantly back toward the trailhead.

Indian grass


6 Responses to On Marshall Mesa

  1. Claire Walter says:September 3, 2009 at 10:13 pm

    Marshall Mesa is fantastic — so accessible to Boulder. You really captured its beautiful flora.

  2. Sandy says:September 4, 2009 at 12:24 am

    Wonderful post, Priscilla! I just got back from a drive across the plains to Minnesota. And guess what – I looked at the Nebraska roadside with an entirely new set of eyes. Instead of the boring drive that everyone had predicted, I saw spectacular displays of prairie grasses and wildflowers. Yes, the colors were muted, but I could pick out stands of tall goldenrod and rudbeckia and, of course, sunflowers and an incredible canopy of colored grasses – all the hues that Dave showed us and more.

  3. Robin says:September 4, 2009 at 9:12 am

    I stopped by to say hello and thank you for your comments, and find this wonderful post. What a delight. 🙂

    We walked around Marshall Mesa while out there and the wildflowers and grasses were amazing. It’s nice to have names for some of what I saw.

  4. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 4, 2009 at 9:34 am

    Claire, I’m glad you enjoyed the photos! It is a fantastic place, isn’t it. I had no idea. And I didn’t even get around to talking about the mining history. That a landscape ravaged from coal mining a hundred years ago can recover so many natives is a sign of hope.

    Sandy, we’ve all been acculturated to seeing the grassy landscapes as boring, haven’t we? And yet looking closely (with an enthusiastic guide!) changes everything.

    Robin, welcome and thanks for your comment! Please visit again–virtually or in person!

  5. Dave Sutherland says:September 8, 2009 at 8:25 am

    Wow, I am so flattered by this post, Priscilla.
    Sandy, your comment about Nebraska: I can so relate, growing up in Illinois with summer trips to see the grandparents in Kansas. Used to hate the drives, now I look forward to them! I find the drive across Kansas particularly beautiful now that I’ve learned to embrace the prairie, and recognize its plants like old familiar friends. I almost ran off the road once near Topeka because I got so excited about the tall grasses! (OK, I exaggerate, but you know what I mean).

  6. Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:September 8, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    Hi, Dave, nice to see you here! I’d like an excuse to drive through Kansas again. I remember being bored years ago when I drove so many times across the plains, but I suspect it would be different now! I had a student who did his thesis as a creative project, documenting his experiments in restoring tallgrass prairie in Kansas, and after that I knew I would never look at grasslands the same. Apparently there is quite a bit of interest in that part of the country in restoring tallgrass prairie especially. If anyone has more info or is involved in this, please feel free to give us news here.