There are hundreds of plant species in the park and preserve, adapted for environments as diverse as alpine tundra and warm water wetlands. View the 2005 List of Plants for Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (.pdf file). Note: recent field surveys have discovered additional plant species; this list will be updated with these species and included as part of a vegetation mapping project of the entire park.
Common Plants of Great Sand Dunes (.pdf file, 252 kb for web viewing), has color photos and descriptions to help visitors identify some of the frequently seen plants in the main day use area of the park, including the dunes, grasslands, and montane woodlands.
Below are selected plants found in ecosystems of the park and preserve, beginning with alpine tundra.
Alpine phlox look somewhat like "flocks" of sheep on a grassy hillside. They grow in a mossy mat, and are common on alpine tundra.
Dwarf clover are tiny magenta clover that grow out of a soft mat, hugging the ground closely to stay close to the earth's warmth on chilly alpine tundra.
Alpine forget-me-nots are dwarfed, brilliant blue versions of their larger low-elevation cousins. They grow in small bunches on alpine tundra.
Fairy primrose, like most alpine tundra plants, are small, fragile, and close to the ground to survive arctic-like conditions. These magenta-lavender flowers have daisy-like petals.
Alpine avens are one of the most common tundra plants, resembling small yellow buttercups.
Bristlecone pines (left) grow best along high, wet ridges in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Bristlecones and limber pines are the two primary conifers in krummholz at treeline in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.
Subalpine forests receive heavy precipitation each year in rain and snow, allowing for tall subalpine firs and pines. Blue penstemon are common along trails in Great Sand Dunes National Preserve.
Subalpine flowers grow in high, wet meadows surrounded by forest. At left, red Indian paintbrush, white lousewort, and blue-purple penstemon seem to be patriotic with colors of the United States flag. Small aspen daisies at lower left, and yellow western paintbrush at upper left are also part of this natural garden photographed high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Elephantella or "Little Pink Elephants" are an aptly named magenta stalk of little elephant-head-shaped flowers, blooming in mid-summer in subalpine meadows.
Snow buttercups begin growing under the snow, as sunlight and water begin filtering through in spring. When the snowfield disappears, the flowers are ready to open up for a short subalpine summer season.
Douglas fir and aspen trees can live in either subalpine or montane forests, as long as there is plenty of moisture. In drier montane woodlands, they are only found near drainages where there is sufficient groundwater.
Rocky Mountain juniper trees mix with pinyon trees along the montane foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Pinyon trees are the predominant tree of drier montane woodlands along the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. They are mixed with Rocky Mountain junipers (above). Pinyon nuts are enjoyed by animals and people.
Three-leaf sumac is a montane shrub that can turn brilliant shades of crimson or gold in fall. In summer, it produces sticky red berries that taste like a sour lemon drop; these have been used by pioneers and Indian tribes to make lemonade.
Smith's draba is a small, magenta-purple flower endemic to the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan Mountains surrounding the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. This rare plant is not often seen. Look for it in rocky areas of the montane foothills.
Blowout grass looks similar to Indian ricegrass (above), but lacks the characteristic black rice seeds. Along with ricegrass, it is a common grass found in the dunefield.
Prairie sunflowers can number in the millions during wet summers in grasslands surrounding the dunes on three sides.
Rocky Mountain beeplants generate a lot of questions from visitors in mid-summer. They resemble some kind of exotic tropical flower, and like tropical flowers need abundant moisture. They grow profusely in wet summers or in wet areas of grasslands or montane woodlands.
Rubber rabbitbrush is the most common shrub of the park's grasslands. In September, it flowers out to match the golden aspens on the mountains.
Speargrass, also known as needle-and-thread grass, is popular with children who throw the little "spears" at others' clothing. The spears stick not only to clothes, but also occasionally to animals and passersby, transporting the plant's seeds to other locations in the grasslands.
Small-flowered sand verbena has a large, pinkish seedpod that is often mistaken for a flower. The flowers on this plant are actually tiny, white and trumpet-shaped. Look for these in summer months in the park's grasslands.
Visitors are sometimes puzzled by ring muhly, a grass that grows in a circle in drier parts of the park's grasslands. This grass grows outward, releasing a chemical inside the circle that prevents other grass from growing there. In this way, a "bucket" is formed that captures rainfall in this desert climate.
Narrow-leaf cottonwoods are large, shady trees along riparian corridors through montane and grassland areas. Some of the largest cottonwood trees in the park have been dated at over 300 years old.
Inland saltgrass can survive wide variances between water saturation in early summer and dry, salty conditions in late summer. This is the primary type of grass around sabkha wetlands in the park.
Slender spiderflower is a somewhat rare plant, growing only in alkali wetlands in the western United States. It is related to Rocky Mountain beeplant (above), but prefers even wetter habitats.
Wild iris color wet meadows in and around wetlands in May and June each year.
Last updated: February 24, 2015