A Colorado Wildflowers Guide
Spring is finally here, and that means Colorado is exploding into color. Trees and lawns are green, vegetable and flower gardens are blooming with life, and all around the state, wildflowers are beginning to peek their heads up from the ground. It’s a transformation that takes place at different times of the spring through summer depending on factors like elevation and location, but if gorgeous blooms are what you’re looking for, we’re here to help you find them. Please check out our wildflower hike recommendations.
Colorado Wildflowers: A Brief Field Guide
First thing’s first: when you’re checking out wildflowers in Colorado, you’ll need to know what to look for. There are literally hundreds of wildflowers that grow in Colorado, but here’s a list of some of the most common:
Colorado Blue Columbine
The Rocky Mountain Columbine is a gorgeous blue and white star-shaped flower you’ll find all over the state, which is appropriate since it’s Colorado's state flower.
In many parts of Colorado, the arrowleaf balsamroot plant’s sunny yellow flowers are a welcoming sign of spring. The flowers look a lot like mule’s ears, but if you look closely, you’ll notice some major differences. While mule’s ears have long, narrow leaves up to sixteen inches long, and are shaped like the mule ears for which they are named. Arrowleaf balsamroot has leaves that are wider, about four inches wide, and less than a foot long. As the name suggests, these leaves are shaped like arrowheads. The flowers grow on long stalks, and after they die, the leaves and stalks dry up—you can see the dried, graying skeletons of last year’s growth beneath the greenery of this year’s plant.
These large yellow blooms are found in higher elevation deserts; where there is sandy soil and a semi-desert climate. The leaves and stems are rough and scaly, and the broad flowers are about two inches wide. Larger plants grow in a bushy cluster full of cheerful yellow flowers.
Bitterroot was discovered on the Lewis & Clark expedition and stood out to the explorers because the plant’s roots can be dug up, dried completely, stored for months, and then planted again. As you might expect from the name, the root of this plant is edible and quite bitter. The root goes dormant in the heat of summer and starts activating in the fall, with leaves that remain green through the cold winter months and wither in the spring to be replaced with a short-stalked flower with pink petals that fade to white near the center. Bitterroot grows best in dry shrublands and piñon-juniper forests.
This gorgeous bloom comes in shades of red, orange, and yellow, like a fiery tie-dyed sunflower.
Delicate bluebells look exactly like what the name implies.
These intensely blue flowers grow in clusters along a stalk that can be up to a foot long. With blue-green leaves and delicate, 5-petaled flowers, broadbeard penstemon, also sometimes known as ‘whorled beardtongue,’ are easy to spot in the eastern plains and foothills of Colorado, usually in May and June.
This pretty flower is part of the buttercup family, and usually is one of the first signs of spring. It starts blooming around Easter or Passover in wet areas where snow is melting, anywhere from the foothills to subalpine regions of the state, and is unique because the flower blooms even before the leaves develop.
Elephant Head Lousewort
These little pink flowers, when viewed from the right angle, look just like the head of an elephant, trunk, ears, and all!
Fireweed gets its name from its ability to grow so quickly and prevalently in areas ravaged by wildfires, and since it can survive to a subalpine level of elevation, it blankets the ground on a lot of Colorado hikes.
This tall flower with its cup-like bracts comes in a variety of colors, but you’ll most likely spot the red and orange varieties in Colorado.
Lewis' Blue Flax
Blue flax, or prairie flax as it’s sometimes called, is not only beautiful, but it’s also incredibly useful. The seeds are edible and often used for baking or making oils, and the long stems can be used to make linen. Another fun fact—blue is a particularly favorite color of pollinators like honeybees, who go crazy over this beautiful little bloom.
Chances are if you haven’t seen this cute little flower out in the wild, you’ve seen it in one of your neighbor’s gardens. Periwinkles are not native Colorado wildflowers—they hail from Europe and are actually quite invasive. They do provide great ground cover in shady, wooded areas, and are quite beautiful.
Pink Mountain Heather
Pink Mountain Heather carries small pink blooms on a low, shrubby, bush-like plant. It grows at higher elevations in subalpine forests and meadows.
Rocky Mountain Bee Plant
This furry pink plant grows on a tall stem, and as the name implies, it attracts a lot of pollinators. Some of its other common names are less complimentary, like “skunk weed” or “stinking clover.”
Also known as “prairie rocket,” the sand-dune wallflower ranges in color from a light yellow to deep orange and prefers to grow in the dryer, hotter parts of the state.
Scarlet Gilia was first discovered by famous explorers Lewis and Clark in the mountains of Idaho during their expedition across the US. Each of its red, pink, or white flowers looks like a long tube with five petals at the end.
In the grasslands and semi-desert climates of Colorado like the Four Corners region, the sego lily usually crops up in April. This plant grows from a bulb, more like an onion than anything, with a thin stem and delicate, tulip-like flowers that range in color from white to magenta to lavender.
Starting in April, depending on elevation, with a season that extends into August. Shooting stars are delicate and instantly recognizable, with swept-back purple petals behind a yellow center and a pointed black pistil that looks like a little dart. A single stem grows in a cluster called an umbel, and can have as many as 20 flowers. Shooting stars are very bee-friendly and grow all over, but in Colorado, they’re most often found in mountain meadows, especially near moisture.
These grow best at 8,200 to 13,400 feet, and a fully mature plant can have dozens of gorgeous deep purple blooms on a single stalk.
White Marsh Marigold
Soon after the snow melts, the white marsh marigold appears along wetlands and riverbanks as one of the earliest harbingers of spring in the mountains. They are sometimes called “elks-lip” because of the shape of the broad, glossy leaves.
Wild Bergamot, aka Beebalm
Beebalm grows all over the US, but it’s perfectly suited for Colorado’s dry, sunny climate. Drought-tolerant, with spiky, colorful flowers that look a little like threadbare pompoms, beebalm is, as the name suggests, a very bee-friendly plant. You’ll find it in a lot of wildflower and pollinator seed packs, as well as out in the wild in alpine meadows.
Remember, this is just a sample of the many wildflowers you can find in Colorado, so use this list to get you started, but keep an eye out for more, because you’re sure to find them.
When to Find Wildflowers
You can find wildflowers pretty much anywhere in Colorado, from the flat prairie lands near Kansas to the subalpine meadows up in the mountains. The higher your elevation, the longer it might take to see wildflowers, but generally, the best time of year for spotting them on the plains is during late spring or early summer, and the best time to see them in the mountains is during the months of July or August.
Where to Find Wildflowers in Colorado
Whether you’re hiking, biking, horseback riding, off-roading, or taking a scenic drive, you’re sure to spot some colorful flowers this summer, but if you’re specifically on the lookout for wildflowers, check out these areas for some truly spectacular natural gardens.
by Emily Krempholtz
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