This past week flowers have become spectacular in the mountains. For instance, the trail south from Teton Pass to Mt Elly (upper part of Black Canyon Trail) in the Bridger-Teton National Forest display an array of flowers thriving between elevation 8,431’ up to 9,275’. Other high elevation routes, such as Ski Lake Trail, have similar species. With the heavy snow pack, colder temperatures, and late snowmelt, flowers bloom much later in the mountains than in the valley floor at approx. 6400’. And they bloom all at once!
Trail south of Teton Pass is in full bloom in early July. Sticky Geranium, Fern-leaf Lovage, Silver Lupine, and Bracted Lousewort are just a few flowers covering the slopes.
Last week one could see plants of early spring – spring beauties, low larkspur, multiflora phlox–with plants that have just finished blooming on the sage flats and aspen groves – balsamroot, hawksbeard, louseworts–with summer bloomers: columbine, Wyoming paintbrush, sweetvetch. Furthermore, the more alkaline, sedimentary soils of mountains south of the granite Tetons provide for some specialties. A walk 1.5 miles south of Teton Pass takes you through montane meadows, spruce-fir forest, subalpine talus and three months of bloom!
The trail south from Teton Pass travels through some limey talus–hot and dry–with interesting plants!
Specialties of the first part of the trail include several low growing oddities:
Multiflora Phlox – Phlox multiflora – was still blooming on Teton Pass last week! It was blooming the the valley in early May. Its fragrance is remarkable.
Nuttall’s Gilia – Leptosiphon nuttalii – is related to phlox and also to Scarlet Gilia (see below). They are in the same family with tubular 5-parted flowers. It forms mounds on dry edges of forests or rocky areas, both south of the pass and on the way to Ski Lake.
The flowers of Nuttall’s Gilia remind one at first of Phlox, but the leaves appear needle-like and whorled. (Actually they are deeply dissected opposite leaves.) Nuttall’s Gilia – Letosiphon nuttalii – is frequent on the Teton Pass Trail and on the way to Ski Lake.
One of the smallest (maybe 2-3″ high) and oddest plants is Opine Stonecrop – Sedum debile. Unlike its cousin Lanceleaved Stonecrop – Sedum lanceolatum, the succulent leaves are rounded and opposite and have a rosy color. The 5-parted yellow flowers are similar. The fleshy leaves of succulents are designed to hold water through droughts. Often, they can start new plants from the leaves — some of us may remember propagating Jade Plants (a popular houseplant) the same way.
Another specialty of the limestone talus, delicate Nuttall Sandwort – Minuartia nuttallii – forms very low mounds on dry sites. It may look a bit similar to the Nuttall’s Gilia, but the single neeedle-like leaves are opposite and the 5 white petals are separate, not fused into a tube. Nor are they as fragrant.
Rocky Mountain Groundsel – Packera (Senecio) streptanthifolia – is highly variable in its size and shape of lower and upper leaves. It is a frequent orange composite in meadows and canyons . While it may be 18″ tall in some places, here the tough growing conditions support only 6-8″ plants. Note the leaves are somewhat succulent, a good adaptation to dry situations.(Note: this could possibly be P. cana–correction welcome.)
Scarlet Gilia – Ipomopsis aggregata – is another adaptable plant in dry sites. It is still blooming in sage flats in the valley, as well as now in high mountain meadows. It raises its sturdy, elegant, 2-3′ stems above many surrounding plants. Note the finely dissected leaves. The red, trumpet-shaped flowers are perfectly designed to attract hummingbirds for pollination.
Slightly similar to Scarlet Gilia with tall slender stems and finely divided leaves, the state flower Wyoming Paintbrush – Castilleja liniariifolia – holds out a cluster of red-orange flowers (color ranges widely). Look closely: the flowers of all paintbrushes are oddly structured. Typically, the color comes from leaf-like bracts below each flower. (Here you can see the 3-4 lobed bracts holding the flower above) . The sepals, which are usually green, are also orange-red. They are fused at their base and then split into 4 sharp teeth. In this species, there are 4 pointed teeth and a deep split down the front of the tube. The petals form a yellow-green tube which leans well beyond the rest of the flower parts. The pistil, with its sticky knob at the end, protrudes out the end, ready to receive pollen. The most red Wyoming Paintbrushes are pollinated by hummingbirds, other shades typically by bees.
At the south end of the trail, Wyoming Paintbrush – Castilleja liniariifolia – and companions create a remarkable display reminiscent of an Impressionist painting. Other flowers include yellow Rocky Mountain Goldenrod, Sulphur Buckwheat; blue Harebells and a small Penstemon; and deep purple Silky Phacelia, to name a few.
In locations where snow accumulates to greater depth and melts slowly, a taller more profuse collection of species grow.
Some parts of the trail collect more snow and consequently have a greater profusion of flowers.
Three cinquefoils – Potentilla arguta, P. glandulosa, P. gracilis – are common on our trails right now. All have five yellow-hued petals that form wide platforms for a variety of pollinators to land upon. Rewards of nectar are hidden in the center. In this species: Showy Cinquefoil – Potentilla gracilis – there is an extra daub of orange at the base of each petal–to help guide pollinators.
On the other hand, some flowers have evolved to fit specific pollinators perfectly. In louseworts – Pedicularis spp., bumblebees are key pollinators. They seek both nectar and pollen. When they visit a flower, the bee squeezes in at an angle created by the petals, the bee gets pollen on its hairy back. A pair of its 6 legs has combs to groom off the pollen and stow it into baskets on its hind legs. However, the bee can’t reach the crevice between head and thorax, leaving some pollen behind. The stigma of the lousewort, however, curls perfectly to reach this remaining pollen, and fertilization occurs. Pretty neat! This coiled flower belongs to Parrot’s Beak – Pedicularis racemosa. However, it looks a more like an elephant trunk!
Splashes of lavender purple on meadow hillsides are likely Western Sweetvetch – Hedysarum occidentale. Look for the pea-like flowers and, later, flattened pea pods. The 12″ leaves are pinnately divided with raised veins.
Here are the pea-like flowers of Western Sweetvetch – Hedysarum occidentale. The Pea Family was historically called the Legume Family (Legumosae Family – now Fabaceae). Members of the Pea Family have nodules in their roots that harbor bacteria. These bacteria can absorb nitrogen from the air in the soil and convert it to a form easily used by the plant. Legumes, therefore, can grow in many poor soils, and have for centuries been cultivated to “add fertilizer” to fields.
A common plant that looks like For-get-me-not – Myosotis sp. – is Stickseed – There are 2-3 species in Teton County, but Meadow Stickseed – Hackelia micrantha – is a native, blue perennial growing 2-3′ tall.
Look closely at the barbs on these fruits. You can see why they are called Stickseed – Hackelia sp.
A few more favorites can be seen in mountain meadows right now.
Colorado Columbine – Aquilegia coerulea – is a favorite. Elegant flowers have 5 flaring white petal-like sepals, 5 tubular petals that form 2”-long spurs trailing out the back, and many yellow anthers. Leaves are delicately dissected into 9 parts. These 6-24” plants are pollinated by moths and hummingbirds which have mouth parts that can reach the nectar way back in the flower spurs.
Scarlet Paintbrush – Castilleja miniata – grows in high meadows. The reddish bracts and sepals are highly variable in color. The greenish petals are fused and hidden inside until they finally extend out to a pollinator. Leaves are simple.
Sulphur Paintbrush – Castilleja sulphurea – is similar in design to Scarlet Paintbrush – C. miniata (see above); however, the bracts and sepals are yellow instead of red. Stems 8-22” often branched. Subalpine to Alpine.
Silky Phacelia – Phacelia sericea – is truly an elegant plant which stands up tall to 2-3 feet in crowds of flowers or alone on trail edges. Stems are trimmed with coils of royal purple flowers, each with elongate, gold tipped anthers. The leaves swirling around the base of the stem are neatly lobed.
Continue to hike higher to see the flowers. Your effort will be generously rewarded with bouquets strewn at your feet. Enjoy!
Looking north mid-way along the trail south of Teton Pass.
Frances Clark, botanist
July 6, 2015