True Mountain Mahogany (Cercocarpus montanus) is a perennial shrub found on dry and sunny foothills at elevations ranging from 4,000 to 8,500 feet. Specifically, it is most prevalent on moderately steep slopes facing south and/or east because the aforementioned slopes are hotter and drier than slopes facing north and/or west. Further it is found in shallow, rocky soils. Despite its harsh environments, it can grow to be up to 20 feet tall but is typically four to nine feet tall. It is abundant along Colorado’s Front Range. However, it is important to preserve its habitat because, globally, it is very rare.
Mountain mahogany shrubs can be found in small and large clusters. In addition, skunkbrush and currant are shrubs that coexist near it. Fringed sage is often found under and around it.
Its seeds are eaten by small mammals and birds. In addition, its twigs are eaten by deer and elk. Specifically, their shrublands serve as a calving environment for elk. Finally, it provides shelter and predator protection for birds and small mammals.
What is most interesting about mountain mahogany is the way in which its seeds are dispersed and germinated. Its seeds have a tail covered with one to two millimeter long hairs. In dry conditions, a seed’s furry tail coils such that the end of the tail is perpendicular to the base, as is seen in the following pictures. A coiled up tail and its hairs promote wind dispersal up to 450 feet.
After the seed hits the ground, changes in humidity cause the furry tail to coil and uncoil which, in effect, corkscrews the seed tip into the ground. The tail straightens out (i.e., uncoils) when it gets wet and quickly coils as it dries. Finally, the tail falls off after the seed is ready to germinate.
Its leaves are deciduous (i.e., shed annually), have jagged edges in the shape of rounded teeth, are not curled back, and are widest in the middle and narrower at the base than at the tip. Flowers can be seen in clusters of two to three or in isolation.
On a mountain bike ride on Hewlett Gulch Trail, I spotted the following seed germinating in the middle of the trail.
The aforementioned pictures were taken in the fall, winter, and early spring so they show seeds dispersal mode. However, the following pictures from Horsetooth Falls Trail were taken in July after a very wet spring and, thus, show it blooming.
In the summer, its seeds are hairless.
The following picture was taken on the Palmer trail at Garden of the Gods in late July.