Get to know an endangered plant – Colorado butterfly plant

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The Colorado butterfly plant (Gaura neomexicana ssp. coloradensis) is a magical little flower, who’s unique petal arrangement, and amazing red to green stalk has stole my heart. It’s found in the meadows that hug stream banks on the plains of southeastern Wyoming and adjacent Colorado and Nebraska are lush compared to the shortgrass prairie of the surrounding uplands. These refreshing places are the last stand of the Colorado butterfly plant, a plant threatened with extinction due to the loss and alteration of this rare meadow habitat.

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The Colorado butterfly plant is a member of the Evening primrose family.  Members of this family are distinguished by having flowers with four petals that are fused at the base into a slender tube situated above the seed-producing stem. The flowers of Colorado butterfly plants are unlike most plants in being bilaterally symmetrical (having 2 mirrored halves when divided in one plane) and shaped somewhat like the fore and hind wings of a butterfly. When flowers first open, the showy, 3/8 inch long petals are white but turn pink with age. Only a few flowers are open at any one time and these are located below the rounded buds and above the mature fruits.  The Colorado butterfly plant is a perennial plant that typically lives from 2-6 years. Typical plants are 1 ½ to 2 feet tall with leaves over 1 ½ inches long.

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The Colorado butterfly plant occurs primarily in southeastern Wyoming, northcentral Colorado, and extreme western Nebraska. plant flowers from late June until late September or October, depending on the date of the first hard frost. The Colorado butterfly plant is typically found in wetlands habitats along the meandering stream channels on the high plains.  In undisturbed sites, it grows among native grasses. The Colorado butterfly plant prefers open habitat that is not substantially overgrown by other vegetation.

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With less than 50,000 reproducing individuals, only 10 of the 14 current populations are considered stable or increasing. As ecological succession continues and more vegetation begins to take over its habitat, the Colorado butterfly plant tends to die out.  Historically, flooding was probably the most important type of disturbance creating and maintaining open habitat.  Wildfire and grazing also were historically present and likely were important in creating and maintaining Colorado butterfly plant habitat. Two populations of the Colorado butterfly plant occur on F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. In 1990, a research natural area was established to include all the known, naturally-occurring populations on the base. Additionally, various agreements have been implemented to provide protection to the plant on the base and it is the intent of the Service to meet with private landowners and develop further agreements.

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If you do spot one please note were it is (your phones GPS can really come in handy for this) and tell the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as soon as you can.

Find out more where I did. . .

centerforplantconservation.org

blm.gov.pdf

fws.gov

ecos.fws.gov

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