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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Our Natural World: Colorado's Botanical Symbols

By Doug Nichols
Berthoud Recorder

The State of Colorado has three official botanical symbols: the State Flower, the State Tree, and the State Grass. Probably you can name the first two, but who knew we also have a State Grass?

The State Flower is the white and lavender columbine, also called the Colorado columbine. Its scientific name is Aquilegia caerulea, and it belongs to the Ranunculaceae (buttercup family). Its distinguishing feature is a flower with a cluster of five backwards-projecting spurs. Each spur is a petal that has developed into a hollow tube, closed at one end and containing a gland that produces nectar beloved by hummingbirds. The name “columbine” comes from the Latin word for “dove-like,” because of the supposed resemblance of the inverted flower to a cluster of doves. Columbines grow wild in Colorado and are also prized in local gardens. In addition to the white and lavender variety, columbines may be yellow, white or white with shades of pink, blue, or purple. The closely-related species, Aquilegia saximontana, the Rocky Mountain columbine, may have been originally intended as the state flower. It grows wild in sub-alpine and alpine areas of our mountains at elevations well above 10,000 feet. However, Aquilegia caerulea was adopted as the State Flower in April 1899 (one hundred years before the tragedy at Columbine High School). One of Colorado’s two official state songs is “Where the Columbines Grow.”

The State Tree is the Colorado blue spruce, Picea pungens. The Colorado blue spruce was first discovered on Pikes Peak in 1862 by botanist C. C. Parry; it was named by George Engelmann in 1879, and adopted as the official State Tree in 1939. This handsome conifer with its characteristic bluish-green needles grows wild in our mountains up to elevations of about 9,800 feet, but not as high as the alpine tree line. It tends to grow in groves or singly among ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, alpine fir and Engelmann spruce. Individual trees can be 80 to 100 feet or more tall. It is a highly desirable landscape tree and is widely and commonly cultivated throughout North America. There are some magnificent specimens growing around our town, for example in Fickel Park and in some yards in the Old Town part of Berthoud. The National Christmas Tree, located behind the White House, is a Colorado blue spruce.

Not only do we have a State Flower and a State Tree, we have a State Grass. It is blue grama grass, and its scientific name is Bouteloua gracilis. Blue grama is native to the short- and tall-grass prairies of our state. As much as 90 percent of the prairie grasses growing in Colorado are blue grama. It grows as a bunch grass, up to 18 inches tall. As it matures and is grazed on by animals, bunches grow together and form thick sod. Blue grama is an important prairie grass because its dense, shallow root mass holds down the soil. Blue grama was adopted as the official State Grass in May 1987.

Doug Nichols is a Scientist Emeritus with the U.S. Geological Survey and a Research Associate with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. He is a resident of Berthoud. Send comments to recorder.science.guy@gmail.com.

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