JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald
The drought hasn’t treated the Ipomopsis ramosa well, but the species will bounce back, Al Schneider said as he pointed to withered flower stems along Roaring Creek Road about 30 miles north of here.
Only a few of the flowers displayed their delicate coral-colored blooms.
Schneider, a retired English professor and amateur botanist who lives in Lewis, has reason to keep his eye on the Ipomopsis ramosa.
He’s credited with discovering the flower, to which he gave a common name: Coral ipomopsis.
Recognition came slowly, which isn’t unusual in the world of botany, Schneider said. He first noticed the species in June 2006 while driving Roaring Creek Road with his wife, Betty.
Several prominent botanists examined specimens and told him it was a variant of an already-known species.
But doubt nagged as he observed the flower time and again while traveling the road on his way to hike the Colorado Trail.
In early 2011, he made a minute analysis of the flower, the findings of which were corroborated by professionals in the field.
Finally, it was confirmed as a new species in November 2011 after the two top experts on Phlox family members (of which the Ipomopsis ramosa is one) recognized its one-of-a-kind attributes.
“There is no local, national or international authority in botany as there is in birding,” Schneider said. “In botany, consensus and time count. There is no final, single arbiter.”
He held a blossom of the Ipomopsis ramosa next to one from an Ipomopsis aggregata growing nearby, pointing to differences that at a cursory glance escape the untrained eye.
Schneider arrived in Southwest Colorado in 1990 after a career in academia. He taught English at the University of Wyoming and at Saint Louis Community College in Missouri.
A lifelong interest in nature, particularly botany, and a keen eye paid off with two earlier botanic discoveries.
In August 2008, Schneider came across a flower he didn’t recognize while helping Peggy Lyon, a Colorado Natural Heritage Program field botanist, catalog plants in Lone Mesa State Park.
Three months later, he published information about the Gutierrezia elegans, a member of the sunflower family that displays abundant yellow blossoms.
Earlier the same year, Schneider was hiking with his wife in Lone Mesa State Park when he found a ground-hugging plant with yellow flowers. But new-species recognition for the Packera mancosana, a member of the sunflower family, wasn’t established until June 2011.
Lone Mesa State Park, 23 miles northwest of here, is under development and closed to general access. Special activities are allowed with a permit – elk hunting, a butterfly count and cataloging of plants.
The Ipomopsis ramosa grows most frequently in disturbed and undisturbed Cutler formation red sandstone at elevations ranging from 8,200 to 9,200 feet. It prefers steep slopes with south, southwest or southeast exposures.
“It’s common in this valley, but not common throughout Montezuma County,” he said.
Lyon, who has been with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program for 18 years, said there are 13,000 locations in Colorado with rare plants, animals or natural communities (specific combinations of species).
“We keep track of hundreds of vascular plants and nonvascular species such as mosses and lichen,” Lyon said.
Species are ranked from 1 to 5 statewide and globally, with 1 being rare and 5 common, she said. Rankings of 4 and 5 don’t get much attention.
At this point, Schneider’s three discoveries should carry a No. 1 ranking globally and in Colorado because they’re not known to exist in more than one place, Lyon said.
The discovery of the Ipomopsis ramosa paves the way for in-depth studies of the species, Schneider said.
Interested scientists could study the soil, elevation and temperature most favorable to the species; how its seeds propagate; whether it has predators or if it hybridizes. The current emphasis on genetics in college botany could result in a study of its DNA.
The two earlier discoveries take nothing from the thrill of his latest find, Schneider said.
“They’re different, but they’re all special,” Schneider said. “Each one was brand new – the same as the 1,000 flowers on my website were new to me at one time.”