Flowers keep unfurling this Fourth of July week. Here is a quick post of wildflowers you may see hiking or driving throughout Jackson Hole. Enjoy skimming through the photos for their names. And if you have a moment, read the captions to find out a quick fact you can share with a friend.
Sunny dry habitats, such as sage flats and south facing slopes:
Silky Lupine – Lupinus sericeus – has fine silvery hairs covering most of the 2’-2.5’ plants.
Both sides of the “palmate” leaves and the back of the “banners” of the blue pea-like flowers are silky —good identification features. Hairs on plants help keep plants from drying out in hot, open spaces: they reflect back the sun and shade the leaf surface, cut the velocity of drying winds, and reduce abrasion by wind-swept soil particles. These hairy adaptations are found in many desert and alpine plants, too.
Scarlet Gilia – Ipomopsis aggregata –is blooming strong. The 1-3’ stems wave in the wind like red wands. The red, 1”, trumpet-shaped flowers are pollinated by hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are attracted by the red color (most insects can’t see red) and hover as they insert their long beaks and even longer tongues down into the tough flower tube. While the hummingbird is lapping (not sipping) high-test nectar, it gets doused by pollen, which it distributes to the next flower if the sticky female stigma is stretched out to collect it from the hummingbird’s forehead.
Growing only a few inches high, Lance-leaved Stonecrop – Sedum lanceolatum – is related to hens and chicks, popular garden and house plants. The pudgy leaves are succulent, designed to hold water in reserve in dry conditions. If knocked off the plant, the leaves can grow roots and start whole new plants, which is one way stonecrops can move around the neighborhood.
If pollinated, the bright yellow, star-shaped flowers of Lance-leaved Stonecrops form seeds, which is the other way plants can get out of the shadow of their parents.
Sulphur Buckwheat – Eriogonum umbellatum var. majus – has umbels of creamy yellow flowers often with a blush of pink held above a whorl of leaves. Below the 12″ stems, small oval leaves and creeping stems form large mats upon the ground, out of the wind.
In mostly dry locations, delicate clumps of Ballhead Sandwort – Eremogone congesta – are scattered among more robust plants. ‘Congesta’ in the botanical name refers to several small white flowers grouped tightly together in a head at the top of each wiry stem.
Sandwort is in the same family as florist carnations and garden pinks, sporting opposite needle-like leaves joined together in a bit of a bump on the stem.
Three blues: Stickseed, Bluebells, Flax
Jessica Stickseeds grow to 3’, have several 3-6” leaves around the base and up the stem, and are found in a variety of habitats with a bit of moisture.
Jessica Stickseed flowers look similar to “For-get-me-nots” – Myosotis – with 5 sky-blue peals in a pinwheel around a “yellow eye”.
However, the four nutlets (fruits) have 2-barbed prickles which will stick to you—you become the vector for its seed dispersal–hence the name Stickseed.
Mountain Bluebells – Mertensia ciliata – are in the same family as the Stickseeds (Borage Family) and have a similar sky-blue color. The 5 petals form a tube and flowers dangle together at the tips of 2-3’ stems. Plants grow along stream edges and in wet meadows.
Pollinators zero in on individual blue flowers, where they hang or hover while reaching into the tube for nectar. Watch the color changes of the flowers as they ripen and then fade in the course of pollination and for what insects show up!
Lewis’ Flax – Linum lewisii – named after Merriweather Lewis the explorer, is common along roadsides and in meadows. Each saucer-shaped flower appears to reflect the sky. Many kinds of insects can land and pollinate the flowers. Each flower lasts only a day.
Particularly showy and popular: Paintbrushes, Cinquefoils, Penstemons
Found in a variety of habitats, Paintbrushes – Castilleja spp. – come in different colors and shapes. They hybridize, thereby forming intermediates, making ID difficult. Paintbrush flowers are complicated: most color comes from bracts and sepals, not from petals which are often green. Bracts are modified leaves found just below each flower. Each flower has 2-4 sepals fused together. The petals form a long tube with a lip, and are often hidden inside the bracts and sepals until the flower is in full bloom. This “galea” protects the anthers and stigma until pollination.
Here are a two common paintbrushes which are relatively easy to ID.
The state flower – Wyoming Indian Paintbrush – Castilleja liniarifolia – stands out. The green petals form a narrow tube beyond which extends the stigma (seen here on the right). This tube or “galea” arches beyond the bright red sepals and flaring red bracts. Red elongate flowers appeal to hummingbird pollinators. Stem leaves are dissected into 2-3 narrow segments. Plants can be 2-3’ tall.
Mostly mingling in meadows, Scarlet Indian Paintbrushes – Castilleja miniata – are usually red but range into orange. Green and red bracts are broad and pointed. Sepals are red, pointed, and fused, concealing the green tubes (“galea”) of petals until fully mature. This species is found at lower elevations, such as along Moose-Wilson Road, than the look-alike C. rhexifolia which is subalpine.
Potentilla or Cinquefoil flowers are 5-petalled with many anthers circling a cone of many pistils. White Cinquefoil – Potentilla arguta – is the most commonly seen species at this time and has mostly yellow, not white, flowers. For precise ID (using a hand lens helps!), one counts up to 25 anthers, notes the roughly marked stigmas on smooth ovaries forming a slight cone in the center, and sees several flowers held tightly together on sticky stems. They look very similar to Sticky Cinquefoil – P. glandulosa – which holds its flowers a bit more broadly. Some plant experts say both should be the same species.
The leaves of this cinquefoil are “pinnately” divided into 7-9 coarsely toothed leaflets.
Graceful Cinquefoil – Potentilla gracilis – is common along trails, leaning out and shining up at you.
Beardtongues – Penstemon spp. – are fascinating puzzles. Most have opposite oval to elongate leaves going up the stem. The lower 3 petals form a landing pad and all 5 petals fuse together to form a tunnel sized for specific pollinators. The name “Penstemon” refers to the false fifth stamen- staminode – which lies like a tongue (say ahh!) at the base of the flower and is often hairy or “bearded”. There are 4 true stamens, each with two divergent anther sacs, which curve over the bodies of pollinators—bumble bees in this instance.
Right now at least four beardstongues stand out in patches along roadsides or on dry slopes. One representative is Wasatch Penstemon – P. cyananthus – seen hiking south from Teton Pass.
Another common species is Smooth Penstemon – P. subglaber – 3’ wands of blue, often found along roadsides in gravelly soils.
Two sizable plants of meadows and aspen groves: Giant Hyssop and Little Sunflowers
Looking closely at Nettle-leaf Giant Hyssop – Agastache urticifolia – you can see the “irregular” whitish flowers (with five fused petals ) with long anthers sticking out. The surrounding pointed sepals are pinkish. The egg-shaped, toothed leaves are aromatic and sit opposite one another, each pair set at 90-degree angles from the one below. The 2-4’ stems are square. These are characteristics of the Mint Family.
One-flower Little Sunflowers – Helianthella uniflora – are big bright spots on dry slopes and ridge lines. This species usually has 1-3 flowers per stem and only 3 veins on its leaves.
The more robust Five-nerved Helianthella – Helianthella quinquenervis – appears to stare right at you! The large lower leaves have 5 distinct nerves and the 4-5′ plants usually have only one big 3-4” flower per stem.
Particularly impressive: Monument Plant, Cow Parsnip, Elk Thistle
This is a great year for Monument Plants or Green Gentians – Frasera speciosa. Once upon a time, botanists thought these plants grew like biennials or short-lived perennials in the garden…a rosette of leaves one year, a tall stalk of flowers a year or two later. However, a long-time researcher in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado determined that these plants don’t in fact flower until they are 40 to even 60 years old!
This stage of growth–a rosette of leaves–can last dozens of years before Green Gentian or Monument Plant shoots up its flower stalk.
With a fresh rosette of leaves each year, Green Gentian continually stores energy into its deep tap root until it has sufficient fuel for its final, tremendous act. Flowers buds are triggered four years before the spring when each stalk stretches up to 4-5’, arrayed with dozens, even hundreds, of flowers.
Once pollinated by myriad insects, the plants form fruits which split open to scatter thousands of seeds. The plant then dies. Snow depth appears to be the stimulus for flower bud set for the individuals old enough to bloom. Consequently, plants bloom in cohorts, overwhelming the ability of predators to eat all the seeds.
Flowers of Cow Parsnip – Heracleum spondylium – unfurl from huge buds into dinner-plate sized umbels of tiny flowers. How did all that stuff fit into one bud?
Cow Parsnip grows under aspens and in moist meadows where there is enough water to supply the very large leaves on 4-6’ plants. It is the largest member of the Parsley Family here in Jackson Hole.
Elk Thistle – Cirsium scariosum – is almost as impressive as the two large plants above. The first year, it forms a flat rosette of leaves which store energy into the tap root before the winter. The second year a 1-3’-tall, thick stalk arises with elegant elongate, spine-tipped leaves. The plants are covered in fine cobwebby hairs. The large flower heads are nested in the top. Elk Thistle is a native thistle which supports a diversity of insects and is indeed eaten by elk and should be treated with respect.
Teton County Weed and Pest is targeting this monstrous alien Musk Thistle – Carduus nutans – before it overwhelms pastures, hayfields, and meadows. Let them know if you have these scarey plants on your land.
Surprises: Cactus and Sego Lily
Flowering in a small rocky cleft across from Kelly Warm Springs is Brittle Prickly Pear Cactus – Opuntia fragilis. The waxy, thickened stems contain chlorophyll to manufacture food and to hold extra water. Spines are actually modified leaves, which help shade the plant and provide defense. The spines coupled with fragile stem joints help spread the plants vegetatively—they attach to your shoes or worse your flesh. Do not touch!
Along Old Pass Road, we spied a Sego Lily – Calochortus nuttallii – an elegant flower which grows from a bulb in dry locations. Sego Lily was voted by school children as the state flower of Utah in 1911. Between 1840-1851 Mormon settlers dug and ate the soft bulbs when the plague of crickets ravaged crops.
At another location near Bryan Flats, we spied White Mariposa Lily – Calochortus eurycarpus – with elegant goblet-like flowers which attract a variety of insects including bees, wasps, bee-flies and several kinds of beetles. One can imagine quite a pollinator party!
Please, enjoy these beautiful days looking at wildflowers up close.
Frances Clark, Wilson, WY
Julyl 4, 2016
Thank you, Frances, that was beautiful!