As one drives along the Moose-Wilson Road or up to Two Ocean Lake, or hikes through montane meadows, several tall 3-6’ wildflower species may divert your attention. Most of these thrive in relatively moist and/or cool situations where they can take up sufficient moisture to support their large bodies of stems and leaves, along with plentiful, showy flowers.
Pause and take a close look and think about what is happening: What do the flowers look like: are they simple or complicated; all they all the same color or highly variable; what are their pollinators? Unseen variations may be that some species are extremely poisonous. Other species display an extraordinary abundance of flowers this year due to unusual environmental triggers last year. Many factors: environmental and biological–affect what grows where in Teton County and well beyond. Below are a few species to ponder.
Tall Larkspur – Delphinium occidentale – Many have noticed the 4-6’ tall, deep blue, pale blue, to white spires along the Moose-Wilson Road and meadows of Two-Ocean Lake and near Goodwin Lake Trail. The reason for the three color variations of our Grand Teton populations was studied by Ron Scogin in 1993. While he didn’t come to any direct conclusions, the researcher found that all plants had similar number of flower stalks (inflorescences) although the albino stalks had many fewer flowers/stem. All had similar seed results per flower indicating that the pollinators–bees and hummingbirds–visited them without discrimination. Furthermore, over time, the proportion of each color morph has remained pretty much the same. The proportion was likely dependent on the original number of seeds per morph and are result of the “founder effect”. So far the colors remain separate and in the same approximate proportions. A follow up study, with new genetic understanding, would be interesting. For more details on the work 20 years ago: http://repository.uwyo.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1792&context=uwnpsrc_reports
Monkshood – Aconitum columbianum –The genus name Aconitum comes from the Greek akoniton: Theophrastis used this name to indicate “poisonous plant”, which indeed it is!
Monkshood is pollinated by both queen and worker bumblebees, as well as moths and hummingbirds. Observe the structure of the flower. The five sepals (not petals) form a complex purple flower.
The two lower and two side sepals encase and then expose the numerous anthers, while the hood covers two greatly altered petals which contain a stiff coiled spur terminating with nectar glands. Observe when the anthers open and release their pollen (then fade), and when the 3 hidden stigmas become available amidst the anthers: the timing of the male and female reproductive parts is separate to facilitate out-crossing.
Sharp-tooth Angelica – Angelica arguta – A member of the Parsley Family – as one can tell by the umbrella arrangement of their tiny flowers, this plant typically grows to 4-5’ in moist montane situations.
Sharp-tooth Angelica can be mistaken for the more robust Cow Parsnip, but notice the large, toothed leaves are divided into numerous, smaller leaflets. The stem is smooth and slightly bluish. Angelicas have been used for medicines by many indigenous people, but note the species also resembles Water Hemlock – Cicuta maculata – called “suicide plant” by the Iroquois – which also grows in moist to wet sites! Always make sure you know the ID of any plant you use!
Cow Parsnip – Heracleum spondylium – One of the largest and most obvious members of the Parsley Family, this giant is found in wet meadows. The inflorescence is the size of a dinner plate. The stems are very hairy (hairs may cause a rash) and the giant leaves are divided into three large, jagged lobed leaflets. Many pollinators take advantage of the numerous tiny flowers.
Butterweed Groundsel – Senecio serra – This tall, 4-5’ yellow composite plant is frequent in moist to wet meadows. The leaves are 4-5”, oblong to lance-shaped, with many teeth (unlike the similar S. triangularis whose leaves are elongate triangles.) Senecios typically have a “palisade fence” of waxy, even-sized bracts surrounding the flower head. In this case, each bract is black tipped. The showy ray flowers are few—here about 6-8, and the disc flowers several. Combined, the head provides a platform for many pollinators—including butterflies–which can crawl over and sip nectar from each of the tiny goblet- shaped disc flowers. The fruits (achenes) will have a tuft of white fluff to help send them on their way. “Senes” = old man. Ragwort is another common name.
Five-veined Little Sunflower/Helianthella –Helianthella quinquenervis – Not so little, this 3-4’ robust plant is closely related to One-flowered Sunflower (H. uniflora) seen throughout the valley these past few weeks. This species is larger, the flower heads are bent at right angles to the stalk—they appear to glare straight at you, and the lower leaves have 5 strong veins. It prefers more moist conditions than H. uniflora.
Western Coneflower – Rudbeckia occidentalis – This member of the Sunflower Family never looks quite in bloom (compare to Helilanthella above). We expect yellow “ray flowers” to whorl around the outside of each “head”. However, in this species, there are no flashy ray flowers, only a whorl of green bracts. There is a “cone” of tiny “disc” flowers which begin to bloom from the base and gradually, with time, spiral up to the tip. The bees know it is ready for pollination somehow and are often seen crawling around, dipping their mouth parts into the tiny maroon cups for nectar and collecting pollen.
Mountain or Wild Hollyhock – Iliamna rivularis – Many people notice this pink plant popping up here or there along the park road or main highway, as well as in meadows or woodland edges.
The stems are lined with many large 2-3” flowers. The stamens form a tube in the center with 5 roundish stigmas sticking out. The leaves are like maple leaves.
The hairy fruit will look like a somewhat compressed 1” tangerine which divides into several sections. This plant in the Mallow Family (Malvaceae) is related to garden hollyhock, marshmallow, okra, and cotton.
Mountain Bluebells – Mertensia ciliata – Colonies of 2-3’ bluebells inhabit wet seeps and meadows at high elevations.
The 2-4” oval, bluish green leaves alternate up the stems which often arch over stream sides. The dangling tubular flowers start out pinkish and then turn blue when ready to attract bumblebee pollinators. The anthers have small pores at their tips. The frequency of buzzing bee-wing muscles shakes out the pollen onto the bee!
Mountain Bluebells are self-compatible—they can receive their own pollen and make seeds, although the resultant off-spring often are not as strong – inbreeding depression.
Monkey Flower – Mimulus lewisii – These cheerful brilliant pink flowers with splashes of yellow on their lower petals ornament rivulets and seeps in the cool mountains. The leaves of Monkey Flower, which have three strong veins, are arranged opposite to each other along 2-3’ stems. They are pollinated by bumble- and mason bees.
Some of you may have seen a very similar species in the Sierras – M. cardinalis – whose red flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds. In the laboratory, the species will interbreed; however, in nature where the ranges of the two species overlap they do not exchange genes: the pollinators are different. Therefore, the two species maintain their integrity and continue to evolve in their own way.
False Hellebore – Veratrum californicum/tenuipetalum – This is a very poisonous plant in the Lily family (now split off into the Bunch-berry Family-Melanthiaceae) which grows in very damp soils. It has formed a very large, 6’-7′-tall colony along the west end of Phelps Lake this year. This is a display of “masting”—when a plant species produces many, many flowers and fruits synchronously in one year. The overabundance attracts many pollinators: flies during the day, moths at night, and the plentitude makes it difficult for all the seeds to be consumed.
Research indicates that “masting” of False Hellebore is cued by cool July temperatures the previous year, a trigger which could be affected by warming of climate change. Observe the flowers near the top of the bountiful flower stalks: they are typically male and female, while the lower flowers are only male. See if you can find the difference.
Information on dispersers and fate of the seeds of False Hellebores was not readily available in a web search. However, there is great information on the masting biology of these plants: http://www.amjbot.org/content/100/3/519.full
These are just a few of the fascinating flowers in bloom right now. A future posting will discuss some of the smaller species that are beginning to flourish. In any case, keep on hiking, observing, and enjoying the bounty of flowers we have this summer!
Frances Clark, Wilson, WY
July 23, 2015
P.S. As always, this blogger appreciates comments, corrections, additions to the information provided here.