Sageflats, hillsides, and ridges throughout Jackson Hole are a bloom! Now is the time to catch the balsamroot extravaganza and to look for other treats throughout. There is so much to see. To encouarge you, below are photos with ID tips of the most common species. We have also provided some information on how flowers “work”—which pollinators come by, how do they fit, where do the fruits and seeds form. By looking closely (including dissecting plants) and knowing more, flowers are more fun. So please enjoy botanizing as you hike; or just take a walk, sit and watch what is unfurling and flying about you.
Balsamroot exhibits a classic form of the former Composite Family now called the Aster Family. Sunflowers, asters, pussytoes, dandelions are all related. Let’s take a closer look using balsamroot as our first example.
The basic flower plan in the Composite Family is a set of many small flowers arrayed on a platform surrounded by green bracts to form a “head”. Balsamroot has a ring of showy ray flowers which consist of 5 fused petals that are tongue-like (ligulate). The inner flowers are “disc” flowers also with five petals which fuse to form a tube with flared tips.
Five dark male anthers develop facing inward. The female pistil pushes through the press of male anthers to push out pollen grains that tend to stick to the outside of the stigma ready for pick up by pollinators. Soon the pollen is gone or dried up, and the stigma opens wide into a two-parted arch ready to receive pollen from another flower delivered by a pollinator helping in cross-pollination. Many different insects can easily land and forage for pollen and nectar over the course of several days. Composite heads for insects are sort of like you parking and shopping at Walmart.
Disc flowers start blooming on the outside and form a Fibonnaci spiral inwards.
Each fertilized flower produces a fruit below the petals (inferior ovary). Inside the dry fruit will be a single seed (achene). This is the same design as sunflower seeds: the hard outer shell with one seed inside. Often when you open the flower head you will see grubs settled in for a good meal.
The Composite Family has hundreds of variations (species) on this theme growing around the world. More examples are below.
Arrowleaf balsamroot – Balsamorhiza sagittata – still dominates many slopes and sage flats in Jackson Hole right now. It has arrow-shaped, slightly hairy, large 1-2′ grayish leaves all growing on long petioles from the base. Stalks have 1-2 large flowers with yellow ray flowers and disc flowers. Fresh flowers smell like chocolate, and the roots have a balsam scent.
Mule’s Ears – Wyethia amplexicaulis – look similar to Arrowleaf Balsamroot at first. But note the leaves are shaped like a mule’s ears and are smooth and green.
Several orange-yellow flowers alternate up the stem along with smaller leaves. Mule’s Ears tend to be found in relatively moist, often heavy clay soils.
Twin Arnica – Arnica sororia – is having a good year around Antelope Flats and foothills. The bright yellow flowers stand upon 1’ stems with 2-3 pairs of narrow opposite leaves with a few more at the base.
Common Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale – This introduced European plant is still popping up in our lawns, fields, and trails. It has all ligulate or ray flowers that look like petals – actually each “petal” is 5 petals combined. The bracts are in two rows, the outer row is reflexed, the inner stands upright.
From each ray flower, tiny rough fruits (achenes) are formed and are attached to a pappus that serves as a parachute for distribution of the seeds by wind.
While annoying to us, dandelions are favored by many bees and seed-eating birds. They are also full of healthy vitamins and nutrients. https://www.mountsinai.org/health-library/herb/dandelion Note we have native dandelions seen mostly at higher elevations.
Mountain or False Dandelion – Agoseris glauca – All the flower heads have yellow, ligulate or ray flowers, as in the common dandelion. Each plant produces only one flower head.
Several rows of upright bracts encircle the heads. All the leaves are basal.
Fruits are elongated and smooth. You can see why this is called False Dandelion–it takes a close look to tell the differences.
There are three varieties of this species and two other genera (Nothocalais nigrescens and Microseries nutans) that are very similar. The achenes or fruits are the best way to be sure of your ID and are not addressed here.
Pussytoe – Antennaria sp. – flower heads have only disc flowers and scaly inconspicuous bracts and, therefore, look very small and plain compared to many of our composites. Pussytoes in general are easy to ID by their “pussytoe”-like flower heads. Heads have either male or female disc flowers on separate plants (dioecious).
In the photo, the heads with male flowers are on the left with anthers bearing pollen, and the heads of female flowers are on the right with delicate white stigmas with many extra bristles. Pussytoes often make seeds without fertilization (apotomictic) and/or are polyploids (having extra sets of chromosomes) which can make ID more complicated.
Below is a Small-leaved Pussytoe – Antennaria microphylla with a mat of small, hairy leaves
and its rosy form with pinkish bracts (female heads):
Low growing Shaggy Fleabane – Erigeron pumilus – is common on many dry knolls. Fleabanes have heads surrounded by a ring of equal-sized bracts and many narrow ray flowers. In this species the maturing flower heads nod, the 1-2″ leaves are very narrow, and hairs stick straight out like the hairs on a frightened cat! Hairs reduce water loss by shading the surface of the leaf and reducing velocity of wind currents. Hairs are common on plants growing in dry locations.
One of Many Mustards
Rough Wallflower – Erysimum asperum – grows to 18″ with several yellow flowers at the top. Flowers in the Mustard Flower typically have 4 sepals, 4 petals, 6 anthers – 4 long, 2 short, and a single pistil with one stigma.
In this specis the ovary extends into a 4-6″ fruit called a silique–think sleek siliques.
Other mustards such as Penny Cress – Thlapsi arvense – may have roundish silicles where the fruit is about as long as wide. In the picture below you can seed the seeds forming inside.
This is a very weedy 12″ annual of disturbed sites; however, it can be helpful in stabilizing open slopes, providing a protective layer from eroding rain drops until other plants can take root. The Mustard Family is very large with many rare as well as many weedy plants. Fruits and even hairs may be essential for ID, a bit frustrating for this botanist.
Stoneseed – Lithosperma ruderale – has delicately scented yellow flowers tucked amidst the leaves near the top of robust 1-2’ plants.
Plants have been used historically as a contraceptive by various native peoples here in North America, and its cousin was similarly useful in European. The fruits will look like white tear drops and are very tough.
Cinquefoils – Potentilla spp. – are just coming out with their cream to yellow flowers on top of 2’ stems. About four common species with a variety of subspecies complicate precise identification, with several other low growing species also found in the county. Generally, Cinquefoil leaves are divided into 5 (cinque) or more leaflets arranged either in a palmate or pinnate arrangement. Flowers are held near the top and have 5 green sepals and 5 yellow petals with many stamens and pistils. Examining the small flower features with a 10x handlens is critical to accurate ID. Regardless of identity, cinquefoils are very important for many pollinator species, and are host plants for several different butterflies.
There are several species of red, orange and yellow paintbrushes in Teton County. While most people recognize a paintbrush, technical features separate the different kinds, and hybridization and allopolyploidy (multiple sets of chromosomes from different parents) add to the confusion. For instance, colors may range widely within a species.
Most paintbrushes are hemi-parasitic: they attach to grasses, lupines, and other host species to grow vigorously. Indeed, some siphon off toxins from lupines to produce particularly effective defense systems. If purchasing a paintbrush, be sure to also obtain its host plant for success.
Botany is a hands-on occupation: take a 10x handlens, find some examples (not in a national park) and do some dissection to see if you can distinguish the species. Below is picture of a typical unit to start with: full unit left, taken apart to show: bract which provides added color and protection; sepals forming a tubular calyx; and the petals (corolla) creating an elongate tubular flower with a greenish “lip”. Anthers and pistil are secured within.
The following three yellow species are found in and around lower, sunny, relatively dry elevations of Jackson Hole now. They are not easy to ID, and just knowing the plant is a paintbrush is great!
Yellow Paintbrush – Castilleja flava – is a bright yellow color. Flowers are rather remote and not so hidden by bracts as the other 2 species. Calyx 12-23 mm long, deeply and subequally cleft above and below, its primary lobes are divided into 2 triangular, acute segments 2-6 mm long. (The photo of parts above is also Yellow Paintbrush.)
Pallid Indian Paintbrush – Castilleja pallescens – is pale yellow, the calyx (fused sepals) is cleft more deeply in front and back than to the sides. Ultimate calyx lobes are acute to acuminate. Note the large expanded pouch: lip, and the stipma jutting out the top of the flower tube.
Parrot-head Indian Paintbrush – Castilleja pilosa var. longispica – Also pale yellow, the calyx is cleft to about the same length into 4 equal, pointed lobes. The inflorescence overall has puberulent to sparsely villous hairs. Plants are many-stemmed and generally decumbent at their bases. No photo, but in your dissection look for the calyx with equally sized, sharp pointed lobes.
Parsley/Carrot Family – Apiaceae
Look for the umbel of the inflorescence. The tiny flowers are held out at the end of stalks arranged around a central point like ribs of an umbrella.
Nineleaf Biscuitroot – Lomatium triternatum var. platycarpum (now L. simplex) – As the name implies, the leaves are thrice divided in threes to from nine linear lobes and look grass like.
The flower umbels each have a whorl of tiny bracts around their bases.
Each flower will have dried fruits that split into two single seeded parts=schizocarps. Here they are flat with a few ridges and wing-like edge. Fruits are important in ID of the Carrot Family.
The starchy, edible taproots were a source of food and medicine to Native American tribes. The roots were cooked or dried and ground into flour, which could be shaped into cakes and stored for later use. They were also used for flavoring.
Wyeth Biscuitroot – Lomatium ambiguum – blooms along dry, often disturbed slopes and flats, and are particularly abundant around the Saw Mill Pond overlook and the road cut on the north end of the Moose-Wilson Road and the inner park road. The compound leaves are divided in uneven segments. There is no set of bracts below the flower umbel. The yellow is a shaper tone than found on the Nineleaf Biscuitroot.
Whites, creams to pinks:
Bolander’s Yampah – Perideridia bolanderi – is clearly in the Parsley family described above with its lace-like umbels and thread-like divided leaves. It looks very similar to its cousin Common Yampah – P. montana/gairderni, but this species comes out earlier, the leaves often have swollen bases, and the fruits are more elongate.
It is locally abundant now at Saw Mill Ponds Overlook on the north end of Moose-Wilson Road, but generally is rare in Teton County. Yampah roots were important food for Native Americans, as well as bears.
Grassy Death Camas – Zigadenus venenosum var. gramineus – is indeed poisonous. It is considered by the USFS to be one of the most deadly meadow plants to livestock, particularly sheep, and is known to affect elk, mule deer, and small mammals as well. All parts are toxic due to the presence of zygacine, a neurotoxic steroidal alkaloid.
In the Lily Family, Death Camas is a bulb plant, and spreads vegetatively by bulblets. The leaves are grass-like, and the flowers are held in a panicle. Greenish yellow nectar glands form at the base of the 6 white tepals. When sepals and petals are similar they are called tepals, which is a frequent trait of members of the Lily Family, such as Easter Lily.
Field Chickweed – Cerastium arvense – is aptly named as it is often found spreading in fields as well as sunny trail sides.
Many people pull “dastardly chickweeds” from their gardens. Indeed, the much smaller Mouse-ear Chickweed (C. fontanum) introduced from Europe is considered a weedy species.
I have planted the native chickweed to brighten some corners of my garden. I have discovered it has a wonderful fragrance! There is also a higher elevation Mountain Chickweed – C. beeringianum for when you are above 9000’. Chickweed is in the Pink Family. It has five notched separate white petals and the the leaves are narrow and opposite.
Long-leaved Phlox – Phlox longifolia – have mostly pinkish, tubular flowers whose petals flare out at the tops. Plants grow to 6” or more, often sprawling. Relative to our earlier blooming phlox, the leaves are long at 2-3”, narrow, opposite, and slightly hairy. Flower fragrance is alluring to long-tongued butterflies, moths, and some bees which land on the flared petals and dip their probosci deep inside.
Sulphur Buckwheats – Eriogonum umbellatum – are just expanding from tight red fists, into pink to cream umbels of flowers that tower over a mat of oval leaves. (Yes, it has umbels, but no schizocarps as in the Parsely Family). Flowers lure in all sorts of insects which are in turn important protein sources for sage-grouse chicks. Plentiful dried capsules appeal to birds and rodents in the fall. Buckwheats are useful and beautiful plants for relatively dry, sunny spots in your garden.
Bastard Toadflax – Comandra umbellata – is genetically speaking odd. It is the only species in its genus (monotypic), and one of only two genera in the Comandraceae, formerly Santalaceae – Sandlewood Family. This species is found throughout much North America and restricted to the Balkan peninsula in Europe. Strange taxonomy and distribution indeed.
This 6″ plant is a hemiparasite, with stubby root structures (haustoria) which attach to hosts such as pussytoes, grasses, and aspens to name a few. It is also the alternate host for the comandra blister rust (Cronartium comandrae), a rust fungus that affects lodgepole and other pine species in North America.
Pinks to Rose to Reds
Prairie Smoke – Geum triflorum – has clusters of three dangling flowers with pinkish sepals that almost hide the yellow petals.
With maturity, fruits stand upright holding aloft their hairy styles which produce a smoke-like effect and help the seeds fly off to new lands.
With the flowers and mat-forming, pinnately compound leaves that have a lovely fall color, Prairie Smoke is an enjoyable and commercially available native garden plant.
Sticky Geranium – Geranium viscosissimum – is one of the most recognized plants in our area. The 5 radial, pink-to-blue petals are perfect landing pads for a variety of insects. They can easily follow the fine “nectar guides” to the center to where pollen and stigmas await. The 10 anthers mature first. Later 5 sticky stigmas arch outward to catch the pollen. This arrangment is another strategy to assure cross-pollination.
Sticky stem hairs serve to capture small, possibly marauding, insects, which in turn attract bigger insects that then glean the insects, providing the plant double protection. Also, these glandular hairs can dissolve the dead insects, enabling the plant to absorb nutrients from their bodies.
Scarlet Gilia – Ipomopsis aggregata – “Ipomopsis” means startling appearance. Indeed, these brilliant red flowers have great appeal to hummingbirds that can see red (insects cannot). These biennial to short-lived perennial plants are currently shooting up their stems and expanding their hairy dissected leaves from last year’s rosettes.
Flowers unfold and hummingbirds hover and reach their beaks and lapping tongues into the long tube for nectar. In so doing, the birds bump their heads against the protruding anthers and get a dollop of pollen which sticks. They then fly to another flower where the white stigma is ready to pick up the pollen off the bird’s forehead.
Later in the year, or in other parts of the west, Scarlet Gilia flowers may bloom more pink to white, attracting moth pollinators. The flowers have an unappealing skunky fragrance to us people.
Lewis’ Flax – Linum Lewisii– is covering roadsides with their delicate wands of sky-blue flowers.
The European/Asian species Linum usitatissimum (roughly translated: very useful) has long been known for two main values. The stems have particularly long, strong fibers which have been used for centuries to make linen. Current research is being conducted on the mechanical properties of flax for making composite materials. Flaxseed or linseed oil has been used for constipation and control of cholesterol. Always check with a doctor for proper use as it can affect how one absorbs other medicines. In any case, flax is a beautiful plant.
Beards Tongues – Penstemon spp. – are hanging out in patches on dry hillsides.
Our penstemons are blue (rarely white) and are pollinated by bees. All penstemons have opposite leaves and 5 petals forming a tube. Inside are four arching stamens, each with paired anthers. A fifth stamen that looks like a hairy tongue lies at the entry. This “staminode” doesn’t have pollen but does direct pollinators (so the researchers say).
Bees land on the lower lip and follow the lines and variations of light back into the tube. Nectar is produced in hairs at the base of the stamens. Researchers say the hairy staminode helps push the bee into the anthers, where they get doused with pollen. Visting the next flower, the bee may then trip upon the long style with stigma to facilitate fertilization. Take a look inside the flowers and think like a bee or find a mini go-pro to attach to its head. (Really, how do the researchers know how a staminode works?)
Silky Lupines – Lupinus sericea – are just coming out on the sunny open sageflats and hills. The hairy palmate leaves and pea-like flowers are definitive for ID.
Look for white or pink dots on the upright banner: a contrasting white dot indicates the flower is fresh, ready to be pollinated; a duller pink or purple blotch indicates a pollinator has come for the nectar already or the nectar has dried up.
This color change serves as a signal for the bee not to waste its energy looking for nectar or pollen.
Low Larkspurs – Delphinium nutttallianum – have been blooming for a few weeks. They have welcomed migrating broad-tailed hummingbirds with their nectar.
Hummingbirds can hover just outside the flowers, thrusting their beaks into the long spurs to lap up nectar, thereby brushing against the cluster of dangling anthers. On a more mature flower, where the anthers have withered, the pollen-covered bee wiill bump upon the 3 protruding stigmas.
Larkspurs are poisonous to livestock and many mammals.
Different species of Bluebells – Mertensia spp. – are human favorites across the country and consequently have several common names. They are spring ephemerals—plants come up in early spring, are hopefully fertilized, store up food underground quickly, and then wither, leaving little trace of the plants by the end of the summer.
The dangle of flowers is advertisement. Several flowers together put on more of an show than if scattered on the stem. Flowers turn from pink to blue signaling treats are ready for bumblebee pollinators. And then the petal tubes drop off indicating no more customers needed. Virginia Bluebells – M. virginiana – are garden favorites in the east. Our local species may be good natives for our gardens here, as well.
Sagebrush Bluebells – Mertensia oblongifolia – grow to 12-16” on dry, often grassy hillsides (shown above). Tall Fringed or Mountain Bluebells – Mertensia ciliata – look very similar but are found arching 3’ high over streams at low elevations now, but then at high elevations in mid-August.
Stickseeds – Hackelia spp. – are members of the Borage Family along with For-get-me-nots – Myosotis spp. – and bluebells (above).
They have white to blue demure flowers open to the sky; however, they produce pesky fruits that attach to socks and dogs in order to make their way to new ground away from domineering parent plants. Although they appear delicate, stickseeds have an evolutionary determination to succeed.
Spotted stickseed – Hackelia patens – has white flowers with delicate blue nectar guides.
Two other stickseeds have truly blue flowers and tend to inhabit more moist, streamside habitats: Jessica’s Stickseed – Hackelia micrantha – has multiple stems which help indicate it is a perennial. Large-flowered Stickseed – H. floribunda has slightly larger flowers and fewer stems. It is an annual/biennial that grows in disturbed sites as along the Old Pass Road.
A Monumental Plant:
Monument Plant or Green Gentian – Frasera speciosa – is having a good year!
Its hard to miss the 4-5′ towers of flowers sprouting up on hillsides. Not so long ago, it was thought this species was a biennial or short-lived perennial: the tall tower rose from where there was a whorl of leaves the year before.
A researcher marked the plants, and through intensive research over years in the Colorado Rockies, Dr. Inouye https://www.jstor.org/stable/1940400 determined plants take several decades to bloom. They have to amass 20+ leaves, maybe adding one leaf a year if conditions are good enough. The leaves add energy into the deep tap roots for the winter which then sprout into new rossettes the next spring. Slowly, slowly they gather enough energy for the final climax.
Furthermore, it was discovered that the flower buds were triggered by relatively high rain in June and July three years before they actually bloomed! This trigger of mature plants produces cohorts of many plants blooming at once in a given area.
The open flowers attract myriad insect pollinators which then leads to hundreds of seeds, if not thousands, per plant This abundance is greater than the many consumers can stomach, and so there is a chance for some seeds to grow to maturity under the helpful decomposing shade of the toppled parent plant.
Please get out and enjoy!
There are so many places to go and see wildflowers right now. Most of these pictures were taken driving around Antelope Flats, out by Kelly Warm Springs, and along the inner park road in Grand Teton National Park. Flowers can be found hiking up around Cache Creek just to the east of Jackson, or Trail Creek just west of Wilson. Munger Mountain and Ann’s Ridge (photo above) to the south have similar open habitats. Note: While flowers may be fading at lower elevations or in more southern parts of the valley, they may well be blooming fresh to the north or higher elevations.
If you have questions or see mistakes, please contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. As we are out much of the time, our response may not be quick. Also check earlier postings of “What’s in Bloom” on this same website.
Frances Clark, Wilson, WY
June 28, 2022