Originally Published: September 21, 2011 5:51 p.m.
With fall just around the corner, it's time to expand our horizons and venture further afield to southwest Colorado where the colors of foliage, fruit, and flowers are nothing short of stunning.
Cross Mountain using Trail 637 will be our focus. This trail is conveniently located off CO Rd. 145 between Cortez and Telluride. The trailhead is two miles southwest of Lizard Head Pass. Following the trail north about four miles with Lizard Head in view, you'll pass small streams and rise through aspens and a mixed conifer forest. The views are truly grand. Approaching the saddle between Lizard Head and Cross Mountain, you'll discover a variety of colorful shrubs and alpine wildflowers. The three I have chosen to display are widespread at higher elevations across the Southwest and the mystery plant is easily recognizable with its bell-shaped flowers.
The first shrub is Currant or Gooseberry. There are about a dozen species across Arizona, with most occurring at higher elevations. Further north, in UT and CO, I would expect the species to show up lower down the mountainside due to their more extreme winters. On the way to Cross Mountain, these shrubs were common along the trail as the forest canopy opened up along a streamside or as the trees gave way to alpine meadows. They were about a meter high and covered with bright red berries, that were a bit tart, but were certainly edible. Fortunately, these berries were not spiny. Some species have spiny stems as well as fruits. Wildlife enjoy the fruits as well.
The second shrub had two black berries on a broad, leaf-like bract. The shrub was not as common as Gooseberry but grew in a similar spot, at the upper edge of the forest near alpine meadows. It too was about a meter tall, but it had opposite leaves that had no teeth around the margin. I've read conflicting reports about the berries. Some books report that all shrubs in this group bear poisonous fruits. Other books say only some species are poisonous. I tasted the black berries and suffered no ill effects. Wild plants may not be harmful, depending on the quantity consumed as well your own susceptibility to its chemistry. You may recall the book and movie, "Into the Wild" where a young man died from eating one part of a plant late in the season and it killed him. A different part of the same plant, eaten earlier had no ill effects. Timing, the specific plant part, and how it is prepared all play a role in whether or not a wild plant is edible. As I have stated before, never eat it if you don't know what it is or what you are doing. It's not worth the risk.
Finally, Parry Gentian graced the alpine meadows with the most beautiful blue flowers. The flowers were large enough to be quite noticeable. The flowers are bell-shaped and are generally clustered at the end of the stems. The plants stood about 30 cm tall, with bright green opposite leaves.
I should not fail to mention fungi since we are talking about plants and foliage, fruits, and flowers. Returning to the Cross Mountain trailhead, I noticed a number of fungi left along the trail. Near my truck there were some young men prancing in the creek, barefoot, singing. I took my pack off and ate a snack. They approached me and asked if I wanted some of the mushrooms they had just collected along the same trail I had hiked. They showed me an "owl's wing" and other specimens, explaining that, though they were novices, they had some very tasty mushrooms. I declined, saying "I wasn't much for mushrooms." One of the young men, responded by saying, "I wasn't either until I ate some of these." He showed me a bag of coral fungi and claimed that local restraints paid big bucks for them. I told them, I appreciated their offer, but "I would stick with the abundant Goose Berries I had seen." Interesting folks in Colorado. I suppose that goes with the interesting plants found there. Be that as it may, fall is a great time to see some beautiful fungi along with the foliage, fruits, and flowers.
So, whether you are looking at foliage, fruits, or flowers, Southwest Colorado has something for everyone. There are many trails and peaks to explore at any level of experience or energy. Now is a great time to enjoy the sights and heights, before the snows arrive and put to sleep the beautiful flora. If Colorado is too far to go this year, remember the Town of Prescott Valley is offering a fall color hike on 10/15. Call Parks and Recreation for more information 928-759-3090.