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Rocky Mountains: Plants and Fungi with Altitude

Whether you visit the foothills, mountain sides or alpine tundra of the Rocky Mountain West, iconic flora and fungi offer a sense of place unique to North America. Strong forms and silhouettes of drought-tolerant natives give the landscape structural focal points, whether in the form of bayonet-like Yucca harrimaniae, towering stalks of Frasera speciosa or Cirsium scopulorum’s prickly sentinels. Splashes of color dot the scene—red, yellow, purple and magenta—in blooms indigenous people used for dyes and medicine. Though only the hardiest plants survive and thrive in this rigorous environment, Rocky Mountain flora is nonetheless susceptible to the changes brought about by climate change. As temperatures climb, thermophilic species move into alpine zones, replacing cold-adapted species. 

Unprecedentedly large wildfires have become common in western North America, as well as pathogen outbreaks and extreme-drought mortality. While some plants succumb, others adapt through migration or changes in phenology. In the end, the landscapes that signal “Rocky Mountain West” to early-21st century Homo sapiens are sure to shift as nature evolves to meet these new threats. The plants and fungi illustrated here represent those common to the Rocky Mountain region today, produced by the faculty of the School of Botanical Art & Illustration, Denver Botanic Gardens.