The sage flats are subtly colorful, mostly with yellow, cream, and rose hues of persistent and pervasive sulphur buckwheat flowers and fruits (Eriogonum umbellatum varieties). Lupines still flourish, sage is extending its silvery flower stalks, and the grasses wave gracefully in the breeze. For fresh blooms and splashy color you have to go higher and higher.
Cool canyons and high meadow slopes feature floral bouquets. What we think of as spring flowers: Spring beauties (Claytonia lanceolata) may be blooming in recently melted snow patches. On dry slopes, late summer bloomers may be out already, such as Engelmann Aster (Eucephalus engelmannii). On any given slope, flowers will mix in different combinations of pink sticky geranium, red to yellow paintbrushes, blue lupines and asters, lavender erigerons, yellow sunflowers, white columbines, to name a very few!
Mid-elevation hikes are good for botanizing. Trails south from Teton Pass and north to Ski Lake exhibit extraordinary diversity of bloom.
Moose-Wilson Road and hikes to Phelps Lake are also great right now. You may want to visit Goodwin Lake, Two Ocean Lake, and other mid elevations at the north end of the valley as well. This list does not include the incredible alpine and subalpine flowers found at 9,500’ and above.
Keep scrolling down to discover what is in bloom now and to identify what you may have already found. Also reference past “what’s in bloom” pages:
Colorado or White Columbine – Aquilegia coerulea var. ochroleuca– The delicate “talons” or spur-like petals extend 2” beyond the rounded sepals (which look like petals) and contain nectar for long-tongued pollinators: hummingbirds and hawkmoths.
Not to be confused with the lemon-yellow to bluish color Yellow Columbine (Aquilegia flavescens) which flexes shorter, stubbier spurs. Long-tongued bees are more likely pollinators.
Harebell – Campanula rotundifolia – The dangling blue bells are long-time favorites of locals, blooming from mid summer to the end of autumn.
Paintbrushes – Castilleja spp. These members of the Snapdragon family have complex flowers. Often the fused petals (galea) hide amidst colorful sepals and bracts. The species often hybridize or double their chromosomes, making it difficult to identify the species precisely. For instance, color can be highly variable. Below are samples of the more obvious and beautiful, common species.
Wyoming Paintbrush – Castilleja liniarifolia – The state flower inhabits sagebrush habitat and dry slopes. Unlike many other paintbrushes, the “galea”, the beak of fused petals, is green and sticks out well beyond the tube of colorful orange-red sepals which split deeply on the back. Colorful forked linear bracts (leaf-like structures) are held beneath each flower adding to the show. Alternating down the 2-foot stem, the leaves are thin and often forked. The plants have a wild, lean elegance.
Other paintbrushes in the mountains include the Scarlet Paintbrush – Castilleja miniata. Stems are up to 3’ high. Colors vary from pink, to salmon, to whitish to scarlet.
Also look for the very similar, shorter Alpine Paintbrush – C. rhexifolia – in subalpine to alpine locations. The bracts are slightly lobed at their tips. Distinction by color, unfortunately, is in the eye of the beholder.
Sulphur Paintbrush – Castilleja sulphurea – The “galea” barely pokes out beyond the sepals and bracts which are both usually pale yellow (but there are color variations!) with many long, often sticky hairs. The leaves, like the bracts, are usually more or less entire, not divided.
Mountain Bluebells – Mertensia ciliata – The sky-blue flower clusters drip over mountain streams at this time of year. This is the only bluebell species of this large 3-4’ size.
Western Sweetvetch – Hedysarum occidentalis – The violet pea-shaped flowers dangle in stiff racemes above 1’ foliage. Look for the flattened fruits that hang down in chains later in the summer.
Wild Hollyhock – Illiamna rivularis – stands out along sunny dry roadsides as well as in shady canyons. The 4-6’ plants are hard to miss with their large lobed leaves and lavender to pink hollyhock-like flowers.
Pinedrops – Pterospora andromeda – One- to four-foot singular stalks grow in dry coniferous woods. The rusty red stems have no green leaves. Instead of photosynthesizing, the plant roots are surrounded by mychorrhizal fungi that draw upon another unknown host for carbohydrates to benefit the pinedrops. Much is still mysterious about this species.
Western Larkspur – Delphinium occidentalis – Growing 5-6 feet in moist meadows, this plant has complicated flowers perfect for specific bee pollinators to puzzle out. The smart bee’s reward is nectar at the end of the “spur”.
Aster Family – Asteraceae:
The Aster Family is one of the largest plant families in the world. The basic plan of several tiny flowers sitting on a receptacle making each cluster or “head” look like a single flower is universal. However, the variation in “involucral bracts” surrounding the “head”; the receptacle shape; outer and inner flower types—ray vs. disc; color; pappus -bristles or scales; seed shape and size are technical aspects that place “asters”, “ daisies”, and “sunflowers” into different genera. Common names add to the confusion. Regardless, it is fun to investigate the plants: Can you see similarities and differences between flowers? Pollinators know which is which, if not by name.
Subaplpine Erigeron – Erigeron peregrinus – Flower heads are usually one per stem and the petal-like rays are 2-4 mm wide (relatively broad), usually bluish lavender. Plants can grow 2+ feet tall. The upper leaves may or may not be reduced.
Oregon Erigeron – Erigeron speciosus – Rays .5-.2 mm., narrower and more plentiful (75-150) than Subalpine Erigeron. Each stem may have 1-10 flowers. Upper leaves are gradually reduced and usually egg-shaped (ovate), the lower leaves are more elongate. Leaves are typically smooth with some stiff hairs along the margin (ciliate).
Little Sunflowers or Helianthellas – Helianthella spp.– This genus has sunflower-like heads, e.g. yellow petal-like ray flowers around the outside, and small disc flowers on the inside. The large elliptical leaves are arranged opposite near the base to sub-opposite higher on the stem. Leaves are sandpapery rough. Unlike dandelions, the “pappus” is scale-like, not fluff-like. This genus has flattened achenes (frutis) with thin edges vs. not flattened of a true sunflower (Helianthus sp. –think of the sunflowers seeds you shell and eat!).
Groundsels – Senecio spp. – This genus has yellow ray flowers plus disc flowers. The involucral surrounding each flower head is made up of one row of narrow, equal bracts, like a palisade fence. (Occasionally, a few smaller bracts can be seen at base.) The plants are typically smooth or cobwebby, never rough with stiff hairs as in look-alike sunflowers or sticky-hairy as in arnicas. The silvery white pappus (fluff) gives it its Latin name Senecio meaning “old man”. The following three species are large, leafy, and common in the appropriate habitat.
Toothed Senecio or Butterweed Groundsel – Senecio serra – The large leaves are linear or lanceolate, with pointed tips. The margins are saw-toothed. Plants grow to 4-5 feet, with multi-branching, rounded clusters of flowers. Common in meadows along open areas of Moose-Wilson Road and elsewhere.
Thick-leaf or Bracted Senecio – Senecio crassulus – Smaller than the Toothed Senecio, this species is approx 2’-3 tall, with thickish leaves often rounded near the base. They alternate up stem. Edges smooth (entire) or with very small teeth. Involucral bracts are thickened, waxy, with black tips. Seen in high elevation meadows.
Arrow-leaf Senecio – Senecio triangularis – Leaves several up the stem to 2-6” long, elongate, obviously triangular and toothed. Found in wet areas such as seeps, stream-sides, and wet meadows. (no photo)
Goldenrods – First, goldenrods are not the cause of hay fever. Their pollen is way too heavy to be tossed on the wind and up your nostrils. Strong bees and flies are needed to carry pollen, it is so heavy. These pollinators are attracted to the yellow clusters of flowers. Look closely. The flower heads are tiny: 1/8-1/4” wide. Each of these flower heads has both yellow ray and disc flowers. Often these tiny flower heads are arranged along one side of the branching inflorescence. Leaves are simple, alternate, smooth edged or slightly toothed. Low growing species — less than a foot or so –typically have basal clusters of leaves and then small leaves which reduce in size up the stem. Tall growing species typically have many, mostly same sized, leaves up the stem, and no basal leaves.
Rocky Mountain or Low Goldenrod – Solidago multiradiata – About 1-1.5’ tall, these tufted plants are often wedged into rocks or along sides of trails. Look for approx. 13+ ray flowers per head and ciliate hairs along the petioles of basal leaves.
Canada Goldenrod – Solidago canadensis – 2-3+’ tall stems with leaves of similar size. Canada goldenrod has pointed, 2-4” leaves with sharp teeth and three strong veins. The tiny flowers are arranged along one side of the arching flower stems. The plant is finely rough hairy along much of its stem.
Parsley/Carrot family – Apiaceae.
This family used to be called the Umbelliferae because the tiny flower are arranged at the ends of umbrella-like ribs—e.g. stalks arising from a central point. Each flower has 5-tiny petals and an interesting fruit that splits in two called a schizocarp. These fruits can be the key to identification and are fun to compare.
Cow parsnip – Haracleum spondyleum – This floral giant is hard to miss in moist areas and aspen groves: the flat flower clusters are the size of dinner plates. The inch thick stems are bristly hairy and the huge compound leaves are divided into three broad leaflets each with 3 pointed lobes. Overall the plants can be 4-5’+ tall.
Fern-leaf Lovage – Ligusticum filicinum – The white flower clusters are salad-plate size and are held 1-2’ above large finely dissected leaves—reminiscent of giant carrot leaves. Fruits will be 1/4″ oblong schizocarps.
Fernleaf Lomatium/Spring Parsley – Lomatium dissectum –Remember the large pale yellow spring parsley with fern-like leaves, similar to lovage, that bloomed in spring? Most of the plant has dried up, but the fruits are held up at eye height on umbrella ribs to disperse by wind or bird.
Sweet Cicely or Western Sweetroot – Osmorhiza occidentalis – This 3’ species is the largest of three local members of this genus. Note few “umbrella” ribs compared to some other members of this family. The tiny yellow-green flowers have turned into inch-long, elongate, smooth fruits that taste a bit like licorice or anise.
Two other species can be hard to distinguish as both have elongate fruits with downward pointed hairs. Both are be found in shady, moist locations. Again it is just fun to observe and taste the differences!
Sweet Cicely – O. berteroi/chiliensis – Flowers borne on approx 1.5 feet stalks which may stretch to 4’ high in fruit. The narrow, pointed fruits with stiff hairs attach to hikers and wildlife for dispersal.
Bluntseed Sweetroot – O. depauperata – 10” or less tall with elongate, club-shaped fruit with a blunt tip held on wide spreading stalks.
Common Yampa – Perideridia montana – Look for the tiered lacey white inflorescences 3-4” wide just beginning to bloom in sage flats and meadows. The leaves are very skimpy: only 1-3 on the 1-2’ bluish gray stems, each with maybe 4-5 pairs of linear leaflets that fizzel quickly. The swollen roots are relished by bears and other wildlife.
These are just a few wildflowers you may find while out hiking mid-summer. It is fun to try to recognize a plant family and compare its members’ flowers and fruits. Slowly, the plant varieties will become familiar friends, and with practice you may remember their names! In any case, you have had a good “conversation”.
Frances Clark, Wilson, WY
Note: Measurements are approximate. Using the scientific names you can look up precise details and more about each species. Also, there may be other look-alikes than are compared here.
Another incredibly educational posting! Many thanks! Alice
You folks have done a wonderful job of putting this all together. It is a much needed plant ID for all of us. I enjoyed out trip to Jackson and Wilson to see the Steer’s Head this spring and appreciate the time everyone took to show us around. Hopefully I can open this anytime of year to remind myself of the plant names and how to Identify them.