Back to My Roots (and Leaves)

by | Nov 8, 2008 | Colorado's Front Range, Knight of the Road

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Posts by: Brian

Speaking of scenic rest areas, this little stop for the weary thirty-some miles west of Memphis features its own rudimentary botanical garden. I’m amazed at the number of things still flowering this late in the year. And two items especially intrigue me: a miniature palm tree (in Arkansas?) called a Windmill Palm and a low, ground-cover-ish sort of thing called a Purple Moses whose leaves are Crayola purple. Gotta find out if I can grow it in Colorado.

Where I will be, to stay, in just few short days.

This final trip (of which there remain a mere four hundred and four miles) has been a delight to the eye. It is fall, after all, which is always a reminder that the two things one misses in Colorado are a seacoast (along with the tasty critters that live out there in the briny) and deciduous forests. Lots of conifers, mind you. Pines (Ponderosa, Piñon, Lodgepole, Bristlecone, just to name a few), spruces (Englemann and Colorado Blue), firs (chiefly Douglas), and lots of the smaller cedars. But trees with leaves? Aspens. Cottonwoods (both wide- and narrow-leafed) and willows along the creeks. Oaks? Gambel’s, better known by the apt name Scrub Oak. There is one other form of oak that can be found, if you know what to look for and precisely where. In one microscopic micro-climate hidden among the mesas in our southwestern corner there is a shrub form of Live Oak.

Am I forgetting a few? Probably, but they’re rare and hardly, in some cases, count as trees. You can find Black Birch if you know just where to look, but bring a tape measure (a ‘tree’ is a woody plant over 14’ high at maturity). There is sumac; definitely a shrub, unlike the tall boys you find back East. There is a shrub form of maple, called, strangely enough, Rocky Mountain Maple. Is Mountain Ash native? I don’t think so. You see them planted in town, and they usually don’t last long. Nor do most introduced species though we had luck with White Ash and Silver Maples for decades. The ashes began to go about fifteen years ago and the maples are looking awfully sick. The Red Oaks the city experimented with some time back are a joke.

I could go on, but you get the picture.

The only introduced shade tree that Colorado seems unable to kill dead is the Chinese or Siberian Elm, whichever it is (an old geezer told me once he’d always just called them Piss Elms, which suits very well). One of the ugliest trees ever invented and subject to an ooze known as slime flux that only kills anything it drips on, the Piss Elm is the only tree I know of whose leaves, come autumn, turn from dull green directly to dull brown with not a hint of red or orange or yellow in between. Piss Elms were planted along the front range of the Rockies from Wyoming to New Mexico back in the fifties. They were supposed to be able to survive the extremes of climate and the droughts. Which they have. Then there was that early freeze of October the 15th, 1991; it killed off thousands upon thousands of mature specimens. Others survived as zombies, which still spit out trillions of seeds now year after year. We will never be rid of the damned things.

We have, in Colorado, the tree rings tell us, a ten-year drought every hundred years. Our latest one, which they say is over now, only lasted for five. This last summer, though, was awfully dry again. It’s so easy to forget that the front range is a semi-desert.

Sure has been nice to luxuriate in (well, okay – not luxuriate in exactly but look at as I drive by) the wealth of fall leafage east of the Mississippi. The last really fine stretch, eastern Tennessee, was heavy on oranges and deep gold tones. What glorious country. What a relief it’ll be to get back to the boring old Rockies. All this color has been hurting my eyes.