Goldilocks and the Finicky Monument Plant

August 10, 2015



Photographer: Ray Boren
Summary Author: Ray Boren

3A few years ago, a ranger urged a fellow hiker and me to look beyond the usual summer wildflowers coloring a high Utah meadow, to more closely inspect something she called a “monument plant.” She pointed us toward a stately yellow-green stalk. It was blooming, she said — and we’d be surprised. We were! It turns out the easily-ignored monument plant (Frasera speciosa) — also known as elk weed, deer’s ears, green gentian, is a shy beauty. Near its peak, the plant’s cone-like spear, about 3 to 5 feet tall (.9 to 1.5 m), is generously covered with light-yellow petals … most or all of them usually closed, from my experience. When the petals do unfold, they reveal striking flowers that bring to mind fine china: Firm, pale green-yellow starbursts, rimmed with blue-to-purple speckles.

The conversation with the ranger was five years ago. I’ve noticed monument plants in several Utah locations since — but, frustratingly, the petals were rarely (almost never!) open. That is, until this year, as in these photos, taken on July 23, 2015, in the Wasatch Mountains’ Mineral Basin, high in American Fork Canyon.
Like Goldilocks in the folk tale “The Three Bears,” the monument plant likes things to be “just right.” In my neck of the woods (Utah, though the plant is found in mountain meadows throughout the American West), that seems to include elevation (here, usually above 9,000 feet, or 2,743 m), precipitation (adequate moisture at just the right time — even in previous years), moderate temperatures, sunlight and other factors. Researchers say each long-lived monument plant grows incrementally over a period of 20 to 80 years. Only near the plant’s end does it send that promising spike skyward, perhaps opening the porcelain blossoms. And then, like other monocarpic species, such as the century plant, the flowering monument dies.

Photo Details: Top - Camera Model: NIKON D3200; Focal Length: 38mm (35mm equivalent: 57mm); Aperture: ƒ/10.0; Exposure Time: 0.0050 s (1/200); ISO equiv: 400; Software: Adobe Photoshop 7.0.