Our ancestors have walked on this earth for such a short time it may be impossible for us to truly appreciate conifers. We take them for granted until beset by beetles or fire. Once gone, they leave a gaping hole like missing teeth. Our landscape changes dramatically and suddenly we realize why.
Conifers are ancient so we must look at them as highly successful: evergreen needles constructed to conserve water, tough cones to protect seeds, quick seedling germination after fire. They predate any flowering plant and once coexisted with dinosaurs. We know dinosaurs lost their grip on the earth. But conifers did not. They continued to live among ferns and mushrooms, lichens and mosses. No need to change much; they were perfect in every way.
Perhaps that’s why it’s all the more discomforting that they are in jeopardy. A beetle or drought, perhaps a combination of both, can fell our conifers. Gardeners plant them in city and suburban gardens, but most conifers struggle in our cities. It’s not a natural garden for them. They prefer the quick drainage of a mountainside. Often they’ll succumb to a watered lawn or crowding between the street and house foundation or a failure to water at all. Size alone makes them a chore to accommodate.
According to botanists, trees command such power that they alone define an ecosystem. Ponderosa pines dominate much of the West as the signature tree of our forests. They begin at the foot of the Rockies and move up into the foothills with a mix of shrubs. There they join Douglas-fir. At montane elevations lodgepole pine meets Engelmann spruce, blue spruce, Douglas-fir, aspen and a scattering of ponderosas. By the subalpine altitudes, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and limber pine forests take over. Pinyon pines, which can be found with their juniper friends, won’t be discovered often north of Colorado Springs but instead spread south and west. In each of these plant communities unique collections of wildflowers and shrubs grow under the branches of particular tree communities.
As if to oppose the longevity of conifers, aspen and cottonwoods are short-lived. Members of the willow family grow quickly and die quickly. Like shrub willows, they provide food and shelter for a vast assortment of wildlife. But the soft wood deteriorates. And rather than depend upon a firmly protected seed, willows will sucker, rejuvenating themselves even as the mother plant dies.
None of our mountain trees grow particularly robust on the plains. True, there are a few exceptions, but those go against the rule. Shrubs and grasses have dominated Colorado’s plains and they continue to flourish from the foothills to the east as the eye can see.
That’s why non-native trees that appear to fit well with our demanding conditions have taken hold. Hawthorns and crabapple trees—both from the rose family—hold a charm that suits our landscape. True, most are not natives, although we do have native hawthorns, but many dig in and survive not asking for much. They bloom for pollinating insects and provide shade and homes for birds.
Trees define a network of other plants and animals that find shelter. Ponderosa pines promote light-filled, dry slopes where shrubs flourish. Boulder raspberry, gambel oak and sagebrush join larkspur, creeping mahonia, pasque flowers, pussytoes, wallflowers and one-sided penstemons. These wildflowers are as common as Abert’s squirrels and Steller’s jays. On the northern, or wetter side of a mountain, Douglas-firs may take over. There you’ll find heartleaf arnica, as well as fairy slipper orchids and bog wintergreen—two of the most delicate wildflowers. Look for a shrub with glossy leaves, kinnikinnik, and, with some luck, the great horned owl.
Aspen forests, with dappled shade, support Colorado columbine, wild roses, chiming bells, the broad-tailed hummingbird and Weidemeyer’s admiral butterfly, whose caterpillar feeds on aspen. The adult velvety-black-with-white butterfly blends perfectly with the black-and-white aspen bark. Unlike conifers, aspen forests collect the decaying leaves of the aspen trees, turning the forest floor into rich humus promoting the perfect germination for a roster of wildflowers.
A lodgepole pine forest, with its dense shade is home to remarkable mushrooms, chanterelles and morels. Here, you’ll find pinedrops, a parasitic alien-looking plant. It needs no sunlight on the dark forest floor since it contains no chlorophyll.
Bristlecone pines, which can live 2,000 years or more and limber pines grow at high altitude under harsh conditions among shrubby cinquefoil, alpine clover, Whipple’s penstemon, purple fringe and alpine thistles. Engelmann Spruce and subalpine fir hug the topmost snowfields, often turning into flag trees—with all the branches pointing in one direction. The forest is dark but at the edge where light penetrates, you’ll see Jacobs ladder, globeflower, marsh-marigold, Parry primrose. On the forest floor, look for the tiny orchids: heart-leaved twayblade and lady’s tresses.
No tree is more striking than the Colorado blue spruce. Found in high, cold mountain meadows where water is plentiful, unlike all other conifers, this tree doesn’t dominate its surroundings. The blue spruce prefers a solitary space or a small collection gathered apart from other conifers. One of the best places to enjoy them is Mueller State Park, west of Colorado Springs, where they line up along old, abandoned forest roads that now double as hiking trails. And, like so many conifers, 800 years is not too long a life for these fine trees–providing the environment caters to their needs.
Mueller State Park is an astonishing laboratory of Colorado trees on 5,000 acres. With over 50 miles of trails, you can hike into zones of ponderosa, Douglas-fir, aspen, bristlecone pine, limber pine and Engelmann spruce. Each of these distinct forests opens onto high meadows. The park personnel list shrubby cinquefoil, Rocky mountain maple, red elderberry, baneberry, Colorado blue columbine, monkshood, bluebells, golden banner, yarrow and harebell as growing under the aspen. High mountain meadows a bit drier include Arizona fescue, needlegrass, blue grama, prairie Junegrass, squirreltail, milkvetch, locoweed, penstemon, pussytoes and stonecrop. Natural springs provide wetlands.
In such a varied mountain landscape, birds flourish, too—about 115 recorded species. Among the most common are the raptors: golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, Cooper’s hawk goshawk, American kestrel, great horned owl, turkey vulture. Others include the broad-tailed hummingbird, common flicker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, hairy woodpecker, Stellar’s jay, Clark’s nutcracker, mountain chickadee and mountain bluebird.
With its large paved loop for campers, Mueller is a favorite destination on weekends and holidays. But don’t let that deter you. Like the blue spruce, you, too, can find a solitary space among the many hiking trails. As you hike from one forest to another, it’s a perfect opportunity to take note of the changes from one to the next. Any hiker could spend an entire summer in this state park.
Mueller State Park
Directions: From Woodland Park (west of Colorado Springs), take US-24 west for 7 miles to the town of Divide. Turn south on Colorado 67 and proceed for 3.8 miles to Mueller State Park. The entrance is at 38.8854N, 105.1581W.
Features: The Park has 5,000 acres of dense forests, rolling meadows, and over 35 trails. This is a stunning landscape, perfect for watching wildlife and enjoying the trails. Pick up a trail map at the Visitors Center. I particularly enjoy the trails with an abundance of wildflowers such as these:
Preacher’s Hollow: This is a moderate 1.8-mile loop that circles the Never Never Pond.
School Pond: This is an easy 1.6-mile loop around the meadow next to School Pool.
Elk Meadow: The moderate, 2.2-mile loop around Peak View Pond with wildlife views across broad meadows.
More Info: Mueller State Park, PO Box 39, Divide, CO 80814, 719-687-6867, http://parks.state.co.us/Parks/Mueller.