“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.
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:
And here blanketing a hillside:
But it 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.
And here are the charming curlicues of a short grass called blue grama, the state grass of Colorado (also New Mexico).
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:
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.