Flower Fireworks for the Fourth of July

by Rebecca Shankland
July 1999

When does water make fire?

Ordinarily, never. But the recent rains have brought forth a fireworks display of wildflowers, visible in vast profusion at spots like the White Rock Y, the traffic intersection near the main Lab entrance, and lots of road edges that have been carefully seeded with native plants.

Let's look at a July bouquet of red, white, and blue: scarlet bugler, paintbrush, Apache plume, yarrow, blue flax, and Rocky Mountain penstemon.

First, the reds. Road edges that sparkle with one- to two-foot tall plants bearing brilliant scarlet blossoms are home to Penstemon barbatus, subspecies torreyi. Because it's so spectacular, it has several common names: scarlet bugler, beardtongue, hummingbird flower. Hummingbirds hover over the inch-long tubular flowers whose lower lip curls back underneath. One distinctive feature is the way the flowers parade up the stem, tapering from fully grown ones at the lower end, to not-quite-open ones in the middle, to tiny buds at the top. Stems and leaves have a reddish cast.

Penstemons are members of the Schrophulariaceae family, which most of us know as snapdragons and which plant lovers affectionately call scrophs. Like their cultivated cousins the snapdragons, their flowers have two lips, the upper with two and the lower with three lobes.

Look for scarlet bugler at the entrance to LANSCE, beside the road a half mile below, or at the White Rock Y. Don't confuse it with its smaller evergreen relation, Penstemon pinefolius, beautifully planted all along Central Avenue, but not native to Los Alamos.

Adding to the red bouquet (but don't ever pick this unusual plant) is the beloved Indian paintbrush, perfectly named as it looks freshly dipped in a pot of red-orange paint. The red flower is really red leaves (bracts) surrounding a slender green tubular flower (another in the snapdragon or figwort family). Its scientific name is Castilleja integra, honoring a Spanish botanist, according to Foxx and Hoard's Flowers of the SW Forests and Woodlands. The eight-inch tall plant has its showy "flower" at the top of each stem.

Now for the white flowers of our bouquet. We find dwarf white violets along the trails in the ponderosa forests of Los Alamos, and a few tiny white strawberry blossoms. But let's find something more showy for our patriotic collection.

The white, rose-shaped flowers of Apache plume are now bursting into fireworks displays of fuzzy pinkish-white plumes in balls about an inch in diameter. These cotton-ball puffs cover the four-foot high shrubs, turning them into delicate, feathery apparitions. All along Pajarito Road, the truck route, and the main hill road, Apache plume is in its glory.

Pearly-white yarrow is another perfect bouquet flower with dozens of tiny daisy flowers arranged neatly in a nosegay atop the stems. A close look shows that the ray flowers are pure white and the central or disk flowers are pale cream with bright yellow anthers-hence the pearly effect. Yarrow loves mountain meadows, but several roadside clumps appear in White Rock (a lovely stand is at the top of Piedra Loop where it meets SR 4) and it's abundant along the end of Diamond Drive by the Lab buildings.

Yarrow is scientifically Achillea lanulosa. The first name alludes to Achilles, who is said by Homer to have used it to cure arrow wounds of his soldiers. The English believed yarrow to be the same plant used by Achilles. Lanulosa simply means "wooly." The sparsely set leaves are exquisitely dissected, like miniature fern leaves.

Blue flowers come in several shades, from delicate blue flax to deep blue-violet penstemon. The flax, Linum lewisii, blooms sky-blue in the morning sun, then sheds its five rounded petals from noon onward. The next day each stem has another blue blossom and the earlier flowers turn into knot-like seed pods. The plant is two feet tall, with narrow leaves. It thrives in gardens and used to bloom in profusion along the newly landscaped edge of SR 4 in White Rock. But today not a trace of blue can be seen-since it's a perennial that easily seeds itself, one wonders "where have all the flowers gone?"

The name linum is Latin for the flax plant, whose stems were used to make linen and seeds were pressed for linseed oil. Both Europeans and Native Americans recognized how to use the stems as fibers. The second name, lewisii, is for Meriwether Lewis of expedition fame.

The intense blue-violet flowers seen all over Los Alamos now are Rocky Mountain penstemons. They grace all four corners of the traffic-light intersection by the main Lab entrance and are also blooming prolifically at the White Rock visitor center and the White Rock Y. Like their fellow scrophs the scarlet buglers, their flowers march up the stem, but these blooms are fat tubes and the plant is more robust and taller. Some plants have more than ten stems.

The name penstemon refers to their five (pente) stamens (stemon), one of which lacks an anther (the pollen-bearing tip) but instead has a fuzzy perch for insects. Look inside an open flower to discover the four normal stamens and the golden fuzz near the lower lip-this gives the whole species the name beardtongue. And strictus? The same as English, but with a twist-strict as in upright. Sounds patriotic enough for the Fourth of July.