This Mystery Plant grows high in Rocky Mountains

Photo by John Nelson This Mystery Plant grows in the Rocky Mountains and has five bright gold petals.

He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below

He saw everything as far as you can see…

— John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

How about a little trip to the Rocky Mountains? The Mystery Plant featured in this column is almost always from here in the Southeast, but this week I thought I would mix things up a bit.

Some time ago I went on a trip to Colorado…and was able for the first time ever to see, up close, the central Rocky Mountains.

Some friends and I spent a whole day driving through Rocky Mountain National Park, not too far southwest of Ft. Collins, and we eventually got up to an elevation of slightly over 12,000 feet above sea-level.

This was so high up that there were no trees, as we were well above the timberline.

The mountain views were amazing, and there was a good bit of wildlife: birds, elk, mountain sheep, and little furry critters scurrying around.

Plenty of football-field sized patches of left-over snow and ice, too.

To me, though, the most interesting areas of the whole park were the windswept, tundra-like meadows.

You might think that places like this should be barren and boring, but they are actually filled with thousands of flowers, all of which are short, and nearly all of which are brightly colored, forming acres of spectacular displays.

Yes, the air up there was a bit thin, and yes, my ears were popping.

The resident plants, too, must put up with some challenging situations in order to thrive and reproduce.

High winds and rough weather demand short or even dwarf plants, and many of these grow only in low, densely tufted, roundish cushions.

Plants in such places must have physiologies that allow them to tolerate relatively abrupt changes in temperature, which may be extreme.

Soils here are typically rocky and very thin (almost like pavement). Intense solar radiation is a constant problem, unless there is cloud cover.

Our little yellow-flowered survivor is a true succulent, whose leaves can store water, and are designed to minimize water loss into the atmosphere.

It’s a member of a genus with about 500 species, these scattered over much of the northern hemisphere, mostly in dry places.

Many of these species are popular in cultivation, and rather easy to grow, including here in the southern states.

The leaves of our cushion-forming mystery plant are round in cross-section, and pointy, commonly greenish, but sometimes red.

The stems only get to be a few inches high, and then blooming occurs.

Flowers consist of 5 greenish sepals and 5 bright gold-yellow petals, 10 stamens, and 5 pointed pistils, clustered together in the center of the blossom.

This species was described in 1828, based upon a specimen which had been collected a few years earlier from Pike’s Peak. (I didn’t get to go there.)

I’ve only been out there once, but I can highly recommend a summer trip to the alpine meadows of Colorado’s high Rockies. You’ll never forget it.

John Nelson is the curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or call 803-777-8196, or email

“Lance-leaf stonecrop,” Sedum lanceolatum