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Wildflowers of the
Plateau and Canyon Country

(Excerpt from the Introduction)

People from a planet without flowers would think

we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things…

—Iris Murdoch.

There are many keys that unlock the mysteries of a place; many ways to understand its nature. In the formidable, rockbound realm of the plateau and canyon country, wildflowers are living guides—bright-faced geographers who tell us that the elevation here is high, the climate extreme, and the water scarce.

Two-legged geographers have long described the Colorado Plateau as a distinct physiographic province, a 130,000-square-mile tableland of ancient rock whose present surface averages more than a mile above sea level. The plateau is bordered on the north and east by the Rockies, on the west by the Wasatch Line, and on the south by the Mogollon Rim. It takes its name from the Colorado River, which together with innumerable tributaries carries rainfall and snowmelt from parts of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado to the Gulf of California, carving great canyons and intimate niches into the layers of colorful rock along its way.

However, such geographical assertions only set the grand stage of the Colorado Plateau. For many people, the plateau remains an intimidating landscape, difficult to relate to at first. Apparently, the appreciation of such scenery is a cultivated taste. Journals of the first Europeans to encounter the canyon country—from the Spanish conquistadors in 1540, to French and Anglo trappers, to early topographic expeditions—variously described it as appalling, frustrating, or at best of little importance. Only after it was interpreted by scientists, writers, and painters did Americans actually begin to like what soldier-geographer Clarence Dutton called “a great innovation in modern ideas of scenery, and in our conception of the grandeur, beauty, and power of nature.”

It seems that the appreciation of this sort of scenery is also an adult taste. A survey done at Grand Canyon found children to be far less intrigued with the spectacular vistas there than with the mule deer, the ravens, and yes, the colorful flowers.

He who is born with a silver spoon in his mouth is generally considered a fortunate person, but his good fortune is small compared to that of the happy mortal who is born with a passion for flowers in his soul.
— Celia Thaxter.

So it is that when many of us visit the Colorado Plateau, we look curiously about for signs of life. And to our delight, we discover wildflowers. Most of us relate quite effortlessly to these cheery faces of nature. Certainly the only thing I remember learning in kindergarten was how to be a flower. In a school play, four other buttercups and I crouched on the stage of the multi-purpose room, curled over our knees with just our leafy green arms and the backs of our sepal-hats showing. Then the sun (a lofty third-grader festooned with streamers of gold foil) paraded past us. We stirred, opened our arms wide, stood, and turned up our heads, our little faces beaming from the centers of floppy yellow petals to what seemed like thunderous applause from our parents.

I am reminded of that happy moment each spring in the plateau and canyon country, when after months of snow and early darkness I greet flowers that seem as sweet and fragile as those children. But like children, Colorado Plateau wildflowers are surprisingly tough, resilient, and diverse. They prove that although this is a land of extremes, sun-blasted yet subject to freezing almost any night of the year, still there are many strategies not only for survival, but for blooming…