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Larry Sagers
Mountain pennyroyal thrives on rocky hillsides in the Albion Basin, grows to about a foot tall and gives off a minty smell if crushed.

This past week I indulged myself with a trip to one of Mother Nature's most beautiful spots.

Located at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon, above the town of Alta, is the incomparable Albion Basin, which features stunning displays of wildflowers. With an elevation near 10,000 feet and a snowfall last year of more than 700 inches, it is not the typical vegetation of the nation's second-driest state.

The number of plants is astonishing. The Utah Nature Study Society gives this information on its Web site:

"It is said that there are more different varieties of wildflowers growing here than in any other area of similar size in the United States. At this high elevation, alpine and sub-alpine plants are found, which do not occur on the foothills or lower in the canyon. But many of the plants which do live lower down, also bloom here. (Only they bloom later here than they do at the lower elevations.) So this basin is a meeting place of several different habitats."

The U.S. Forest Service has a downloadable checklist that covers 120 species of plants. Dr Sherman Brough, a retired botanist, lists more than 210 species in his publication "Identification of Flowers in the Albion Basin" and he adds more each year. In short, this is wildflower heaven.

The amazing part of visiting the high mountain meadows is the continuous splendor. I see many plants that grow in local gardens, as well as others that have been seen nowhere else. Some bloom for many weeks, while other are fleeting, and finding them takes a sharp eye and several trips as the snows give way to summer heat.

Columbine (Aquilegia) has a unique flower with backswept spurs. They get 2 feet tall with blossoms that range from white to deep blue. They are excellent perennials for spring gardens.

Common alumroot — or littleleaf coralbell (Heuchera) is a plant that thrives in our alkaline soils. Look for it growing out of limestone boulders with wispy strands of white or greenish flowers. Red alum root is a similar plant with red flowers. There are dozens of improved nursery cultivars of this plant.

Leafy Jacobs ladder (Polemonium foliosissimum) is blooming abundantly right now. It likes a rich soil and some moisture. The light green stems grow 2 feet high, and the blossoms are in clusters with white or blue coloration.

Sticky geranium and Richardson's geranium are true geraniums, not the plant called geranium in garden stores. Sticky geranium is a round, bushy plant 16-30 inches high. It is covered with many rose-pink flowers and dark, deeply cut green leaves. Richardson's geranium has lighter colored flowers that are sometimes pure white. It prefers a moister environment.

Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) is a widely distributed plant, and some gardeners get it to establish in their gardens. As the name implies, it comes in after a fire. On moist sites, the plant can grow to 8 feet and has striking bright pink or lavender colored flowers.

Mountain pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima) is a more drought-tolerant plant that thrives on rocky hillsides. It grows in clumps and gets up to 12 inches high but often spreads twice that wide. The lavender blossoms make it one of the most attractive plants in the landscape, and it gives off a pleasant minty smell if crushed.

There are two species of larkspur in our mountains. Low larkspur (Delphinium nuttallianum) is the showy lavender-blue delphinium common to the foothills in May. It gets 12 inches high. Tall wood or Western larkspur (Delphinium occidentale) is the taller form growing in the Albion Basin. It sends up numerous 4- to 6-foot stems of purple or dark blue flowers.

Monkshood (Aconitum columbianum) is another striking vertical flower that gets 30 inches tall. Look for it in aspen groves and other damp, shady places in high mountain areas. The interesting purple- to royal-blue flowers have sheltering hoods that give the plant its name.

Lupine are abundant in our mountains — there are more than 150 species. The native lupines are not as showy as the nursery cultivars, but they are easier to grow. Spurred lupine (Lupinus argenteus) is the most common in the Albion Basin and is a perennial with blue-purple or (rarely) white blossoms.

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja) are a real treat in this location, with extremely variable flower color ranging from the familiar orange—red to coral, pink orange and even greenish white. These are harder to grow in a garden as they seem to have more exacting need.

Indulge yourself and visit these flowers in their native environment. Don't procrastnate because at the high mountain elevations, fall comes early and many of these areas get frost around Labor Day. That ends the show for many of the flowers until next season.


Larry A. Sagers is a horticulture specialist at the Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.