Hike high for the reward of fields of flowers. Wildflowers are blooming strong at elevations between 8,500-10,000,’ such as Mt. Ely, above Ski Lake, Rendezvous Mountain, and other subalpine habitats of the Grand Tetons. You can find lupines, little sunflowers, geraniums, stonecrops, milfoil, mountain dandelions, and mountain bluebells that we observed at lower elevations a few weeks ago, along with new flowers found only at these higher elevations.
Where to Look
Topography makes a difference as to the lushness of flowers. How the mountains collected snow over the winter and how fast it has melted is determined in large part by the shape of the land, as well as its aspect: which way the slope is facing.
Steep south-facing slopes and high ridge lines have less snow to begin with and face the hot sun. Their flowers may be past bloom or be different species, as is seen south of Mt. Ely: Wyoming Paintbrush, Sedum, Milfoils, and Harebells are still blooming.North facing, bowl-shaped terrain—Cody Bowl and the bowl above Ski Lake–captures more snow and holds it longer. Lupines and Sulphur Paintbrush grow luxuriantly. Areas of recently melted snow and streams coming down the north side of Rendezvous Mountain still have Mountain Bluebells and Fernleaf Lovage.Jackson Hole receives little predictable rain in summer—typically from spotty, if often intense, thunderstorms–so snow in winter is the main source of moisture for the growing season.
Below are some freshly flowering species frequently seen at high elevations later in the growing season.
Blue Composites Keep on Coming
The Daisy, Aster, or Sunflower Family—technically Asteraceae—flourishes. Traditionally, this large group has been called “composites” because each “flower” is in fact a “head” of many flowers on a platform. Individual flowers may be “ray”flowers—which look like petals or the rays of sun, and/or “disk” flowers, which are small flowers usually in the center. Each flower head is surrounded by protective, usually green “bracts.” These bracts help in separating out the different genera. Below are pictures of bracts!
Showy composite flowers attract different pollinators. At this time of year butterflies – particularly Fritillary – find room to land and sip nectar from the cups of disk flowers. Flies and bees also poke and prod about the flower heads. Observing pollinators adds a new dimension to understanding the ecology of flowers and insects.
Fleabanes or Daisies – Erigeron spp – (people use the names interchangeably) look like asters; however, their “involucral bracts” that encompass the heads of the composite flowers are more or less even in length and are arranged in only one, maybe two, rows like a palisade fence. Often, their ray flowers are thinner and more plentiful than in asters.
Two large fleabanes/daisies are in bloom right now:
Oregon Daisy – Erigeron speciosus -is frequent at lower elevations and very showy now at higher elevations. They grow to 1-2.5’ high, with elliptical leaves alternating up the stem to a cluster of purple flower heads.
Subalpine Daisy – Erigeron peregrinus – is a bit smaller than Oregon Daisy and is limited to higher elevations. It also has many oval to elliptical leaves up the stem, but the lavender ray flowers are broader and fewer than in Oregon Daisy.
Another look-alike, Alpine Leafy-bract Aster – Symphiotrichum foliaceum – has a similar color and many relatively broad ray flowers. However, looking at the bracts beneath, you will see they are green and leafy looking. As the name indicates, these are also typically at high elevations.
Thickstem Aster – Eurybia integrifolius – is about the same size as those species above. The thick, slightly zigzag stems are sticky hairy all the way up to the flower heads. Flowers have a few deep-violet ray flowers. The sticky bracts splay outwards. They grow at higher and lower elevations in meadows.
Englemann (Chaffy) Aster – Eucephalus engelmannii – stands tall to 3-4’. Unbranching stems are clad in large elliptical leaves alternating up the stem, with showy sprays of white flower heads near the top. White ray flowers are relatively long and few compared to daisy fleabanes. Look under the flower heads at the arrangement of bracts: they look like pointed shingles on a roof—one easy way to distinguish asters from fleabane daisies.
Nuttall Aster – Eucephalus elegans – is shorter than its cousin, but it too has the shingled effect of the bracts. The flowers are a lovely violet blue. This species is just coming into bloom and more sporadic in its appearance.
A third species Blue-leaf Aster – Eucephalus glaucus – has distinctly bluish leaves and grows in 1-2’ tall sprawling, rhizomatous patches. Flowers are light lavender.
Spiny-bracted Aster/Hoary Tansy Aster – Machaeranthera canescens – grows on much drier slopes, such as along Teton Pass. Rarely a foot tall, the plants have relatively few stems, with few leaves. The violet flowers catch the eye. Look for the spine-tipped, outward-arching bracts surrounding the flower head.
A Few Yellow Composites
Thickstem Groundsel – Senecio crassulus – is adapted to a variety of moist to dry meadows, varying its height according to level of moisture – taller to 3’ with more water, or stunted at 8” or less. The slightly succulent, elliptical leaves may be toothed. The lower ones are stalked, the upper sessile. The shiny green bracts are neatly aligned in one row and are black tipped. A few ray flowers surround the yellow disk flowers.
Low Goldenrod – Solidago multiradiata – is common in rock edges and along trails at many elevations. The tiny flower heads have about 13 ray flowers each and the heads are held in clusters mostly near the top of 6-12″ stems. To distinguish this species from look-alikes, find the ciliate – stiff hairy – margins to the elongate leaves at the base of the plants.
Paintbrushes are intriguing and confusing members of the Orobanche or Broomrape Family (formerly placed the Figwort or Schropulariaceae Family). Species in the genus Castilleja have unique attachments to other plant species, depending more or less on their hosts for extra carbon, water, nutrients and even chemical defenses. As such, they are termed hemiparasites. They can survive on their own but grow larger, produce more flowers and seeds, and have less predation if they attach to their host’s roots using special haustorium. Plant hosts include grasses, sagebrush, lupines, and larkspurs.
Paintbrushes have wide variation in color and shape due to polyploidy and hybridization. For identification pay attention to the shape of the leaves and shape and color of bracts–colored leaf-like appendages below each flower. In paintbrushes, sepals are fused to form a lobed tube and are colorful like the bracts. The petals are relatively inconspicuous. They are fused to form a tube called a galea which hides and protects the stamens and stigma within.
Here are four species you can see up high right now. Hopefully the description and the photos will help you distinguish to species—never easy. Once identified you can find more information on their hosts and their predators.
Wyoming Indian Paintbrush – Castilleja liniarifolia – is the most angular of the species we see right now. Its bright red to orange calyx splits to the side and back but most deeply in front where the green galea extends way out. The bracts and leaves are also often deeply lobed and linear and widely spaced on the stem.
Scarlet Paintbrush – Castilleja miniata – is blooming at mid to subalpine elevations. It is common along the trail south of Teton Pass right now. It is often two feet tall and branching with wands of bright red flowers. The bracts and calyx are often lobed and sharply pointed. They cover the green corolla or petal tube (galea) which extends out when mature. Overall flower color ranges from red to scarlet to orange. This is our most wide ranging and variable species. Polyploidy and occasional hybridization with C. rhexifolia and C. sulphurea confound strict identification.
Alpine or Rosy Paintbrush – Castilleja rhexifolia – puzzles me often, especially in comparison to Scarlet Paintbrush. References say they are crimson, rose-red to pink. Bracts are relatively broad and rarely lobed. Calyx lobes are relatively blunt. Often the parts are quite hairy. Plants are typically about one foot or less and rarely branch. They grow only at high elevations.
Sulphur Paintbrush – Castilleja sulphurea – Although yellow, this species is very similar and closely related to Rosy Paintbrush – C. rhexifolia. Look for broad, only slightly lobed, colorful bracts. The bracts and calyx lobes are rounded, not sharp. It is also sticky hairy. Look for larkspurs and lupines nearby. Sulphur paintbrushes are often connected, obtaining carbohydrates and alkaloids from their hosts.
Hosts Plants of Paintbrushes
Lupine – Lupinus argenteus – is a proven host plant of several species of paintbrush. Lupine is a source of carbon, water, and nutrients. It also provides a toxic alkaloid which helps protect the paintbrush from herbivory, such as from larvae of the plume moth – Amblyptilia pica. This chemical defense in not found in the petals or nectar of paintbrushes, therefore, allowing their pollinators, such as broad tailed and rufous hummingbirds to proceed unharmed.
Two Creamy, Coiled Louseworts
Louseworts are also in the Orobanche or Broomrape Family. They have highly evolved flowers. Bumblebees pollinators just fit amidst the lower lip and upper coil. The stigma, protected by the upper petal, sticks out when ready and tags the pollen from where the bees can’t glean it. Flowers contain no nectar reward.
Louseworts, like their relatives paintbrushes, also have hemiparasitic relationships with nearby host plants.
Parrot’s Beak – Pedicularis racemosa – grows 8-20” high. The leaves are lance-shaped with small teeth and are arrayed up the stem. The lower lip of the flowers is three lobed, and the upper lip is arched into a beak.
White-coiled Lousewort – Pedicularis contorta – looks very similar to Parrot’s Beak but the leaves grow mostly from the base and are deeply, pinnately lobed.
A Few More Subalpine Specialties
Found often in shade or meadows where snow melts late at high elevations, Mountain Bog Gentian – Gentiana calycosa – is a treat to find. Leaves are egg-shaped and paired up the 5-12” stems. Flowers are deep blue and are decorated to direct pollinators deep.
Many other flowers are blooming high. Go in search! Let us know what you find at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frances Clark, Wilson, WY
July 31, 2016, update Aug. 2 after hiking down from Rendezvous Mountain via Granite Canyon.
Note: What we once called “asters” and were in the Aster genus have been sorted by scientists into many new genera: Eucephalus, Eurybia, Symphiotrichum, Oreostemma, etc. However, the common name of “aster” remains attached to many. Indeed “Aster” is much easier to remember than the new scientific names. If you are frustrated by all this, just enjoy looking at the remarkable, if confounding, variation of this group of composites.