Spring has finally come again as have the flowers!

On recent forays around Moose, Kelly Warm Springs, and out Flat Creek Road, eager botanists have found an array of early spring favorites. Often you have to get down on your belly to see the cool identification features (belly botany).  With so few flowers to date, this “What’s in Bloom” focuses on how much you can see if you really look.

Among sage flats or under open cottonwood stands:

Very early, and requiring a keen eye to find, are Turkey Peas – Orogenia linarifolia. The “peas” are underground bulbs. These starchy features are relished by squirrels and likely burrowing small mammals, such as voles and pocket gophers. 

The leaves are indeed linear as the botanical name implies – actually long lobes of divided leaves. The white flower clusters are barely an inch across and likely pollinated by tiny flies or gnats.  Turkey Peas are very small members of the Carrot/Parsley Family – Apiaceae.  Several more members of this family will be emerging this spring.  They can be tricky to ID, especially as the fruits are often the definitive key feature. Patience required.

Sagebrush and Utah ButtercupsRanunuculus glaberrimus and R. jovis – are adding sunny sparkles to flats and slopes. 

Sagebrush Buttercups have simple leaves

while Utah Buttercups have 3-lobed leaves. The flowers are typically 5 petaled, but some have none.

The glossy look of buttercup flowers is a result of morphology and physics of the petals. See: Glossiness of Buttercups

 Spring BeautiesClaytonia lanceolata – are just unfurling their opposite leaves and expanding their white flowers—5 petals with 5 delicate pink anthers. 

Also, a challenge to discover, but definitely worth the effort, are Steer’s HeadsDicentra uniflora. Look for the bluish, roundish leaflets and then for the expanding flowers only an inch or so off the often-pebbly ground. Their flowers epitomize the West!

The plants go from flower to seed within 3 weeks and the leaves soon disappear – they are termed “spring ephemerals” for their brief spring appearance. Research indicates that it may take 10 years from seed to the first flower.  The plants are also host plants for the larvae caterpillars of the Clodius Parnassian Butterfly – Parnassius clodius

A lot of cool info for such tiny plants. Tread carefully!

YellowbellsFritillaria pudica – are still scant.  In the Lily Family, the yellow flowers bear 6 yellow “tepals” held about 6” above ground.

Flying low where the spring sun is warming the soil and the wind is reduced, pollinators such as flies and bees search for early nectar and pollen as seen inside this flower.

Once a flower is fertilized, researchers say it’s petal color will change from yellow to an orange, signaling pollinators not to waste time visiting it: go to nearby flowers instead. This adaptation helps other members of the local yellowbell population to be fruitful. See if you can observe this change: carefully look inside for withered anthers and growing ovaries. I haven’t quite seen it myself.

Here and there, such as in South Park Feed Ground and near the park rotary, Cous BiscuitrootsLomatium cous – are sprouting. Look for the dissected, deep green, mostly smooth leaves with reddish petioles and fists (umbels) of tiny sharp-yellow flowers.

At the base of each flower cluster or “umbel” are broad, rounded involucral bracts – a key ID species for this member of Carrot/Parsley Family.

Biscuitroots have swollen tubers which have been eaten raw or dried and pounded into flour that was used to make biscuits.  Fruits will be flat and split.

Also, in the Carrot/Parsley Family – Turpentine Spring ParsleyCymopteris terebinthus – has finely dissected leaves with a tangy fragrance when crushed. The flowers are also yellow and arranged in umbels (think of the spokes of umbrellas), but here the involucel bracts are elongated and pointed. 

These plants will form quite large mounds of fine leaves and many winged fruits. Fruits are usually needed for definitive ID of members of the Parsley Family (Apiaceae). They are termed “schizocarps”–split fruits. Turpentine Spring Parsley tends to grow in shaley soils.

Dry rocky slopes and knolls, such as found in the hills on the east side of the Jackson Hole, feature special species:

One of the earliest and most common flowering plants are Hood’s PhloxPhlox hoodii.  Related to garden phlox, Hood’s Phlox have small white-to-bluish flowers on very compact plants. Leaves are tiny, sharp, opposite, with “cobwebby” hairs. 

The tubular, fragrant flowers are furled in bud.  When the flowers unfold, a bee or fly which  is attracted by scent then color lands on the flared petals and then inserts its proboscis down into the tube for nectar, picking up or dropping off pollen grains during its visit.

Overall, the plants are smaller than the later-blooming Multiflora Phlox.

One of the smallest blooming wildflowers are Low PussytoesAntennaria dimorpha. Indeed, the mat-forming plants are less than an inch or two tall. 

Get down to look for the flower heads: Individual flowers are termed “disc” flowers and are arranged in composite heads. Male flowers produce pollen. Most of the plants I have been seeing so far are male. (photo below)

Female flowers produce delicate white stigmas surrounded by pappus hairs to catch pollen picked up by wind from any male plants nearby.

Like other pussytoes, plants are dioecious: male and female flowers are on separate plants. More species of pussytoes will be blooming soon.

Members of the Mustard Family (Brassicaceae) are often the earliest to bloom.  Twinpods and Bladderpods (formerly Lesquerella) are now all in the genus Physaria. Generally, the genus sports silvery, stiff, often spade-shaped leaves. Precise ID features include hairs(!) and fruits; and with fruits in hand, you may still need to count the number of seeds to know the species for sure.

But for now, just enjoy the cheerful color of the 4 yellow petals and the plant’s ability to grow on rocky, dry, infertile ground. If you have a 10x handlens, you may enjoy the fancy star-shaped hairs.

Also emerging are members of the Pea Family, Woollypod MilkvetchAstragalus purshii.  The fuzzy, pinnately compound leaves are unfurling on rocky south-facing slopes near Kelly Warm Springs.

The pea-like flowers have white to cream banners and wings and purple-tipped keels. Fruits will be very hairy, short tough pods with sharp tips—hence “woollypod” milkvetch. Many fruits from last year are still lying about. 

A special find is Common TownsendiaTownsendia leptotes – These perennials in the Aster Family are slow growing with 1” flower heads surrounded by many tiered, pointed bracts.  The pubescent leaves are elongate and a bit fleshy. Growing close to the ground, plants tend to tuck in among small rocks.

The photo of the tap root was taken of a plant that was uprooted for some reason—did an elk take a nibble and spit it out?  Note the root extends deeply to reach scarce water.

Don’t be fooled:

A common rockcress – Boechera or Arabis sp. – can fool you and insects by looking like they have bright yellow flowers. The leaves of rockcress can host a yellow fungus Puccinia monoica.

Fungal spores land on a young mustard and invade the host’s tissue. Spores begin to grow using the nutrients from the plant thereby, sterilizing it so the mustard does not bloom. Instead, the fungus stimulates the formation of “pseudo-flowers”: mutated leaves that look like and even smell like flowers. This  alliance of plant and fungus produces a sticky nectar-like substance and yellowish pigments that reflect UV light to further attract pollinators. These pseudo-flowers have hundreds of small cup-like “spermatagonia” which contain the sex cells of the fungus.

Insects alight on these appealing pseudo-flowers and collect fungal sperm instead of pollen, and they carry it on to the next plant with the fungus, thus facilitating sexual reproduction of the fungus, not the plant! There is another stage of the rust’s life cycle: hyphae develop producing “aecia”, which produce spores. The spores then fly on the wind to infect nearby grasses – the “alternate host”.  After two more lifecycle stages–“uredia” and “telia” — on grasses, the fungus produces spores that infect the mustards again. Truly a complicated process all starting with the bright yellow pseudo-flowers.   See: https://www.indefenseofplants.com/blog/tag/Boechera

Uninfected  rockcressBoechera sp. – may be blooming nearby, sporting bluish – not yellow – 4-petaled flowers. The 3-4” plants shown here were frequent up around Kelly Warm Springs. 

The one in the photo has been keyed out in Dorn to B. exilis; however, there is much dispute, and scant herbaria specimens to confirm this species’ identity…botanist’s dancing on the head of a pin and mustards are tough to ID.

Don’t overlook the flowering trees:

AspensPopulus tremuloides – are blooming!

This wind pollinated species has male flowers on one plant, and females on another. Flowers are arranged in “catkins”: many Individual flowers with either anthers or stigmas are subtended by protective forked bracts edged with many hairs. The overall effect is trees festooned with fuzzy gray dangles. Male catkins tend to be longer and hang down, releasing their masses of pollen upon the wind from purple anthers.

Female catkins tend to be stiffer and slightly splayed outward, their bright red stigmas are ready to receive by pure chance any pollen grains. (two photos below)

The exhausted male catkins fall to the ground (and on your lawn) after they run out of pollen. Pick one up and take a closer look and see if you can find the old anthers held in little cups.

Amazing details!

Female catkins hold on. A month from now we will see who won the wind lottery. Leaves will emerge after the flowers have done their thing so as not to block the free flow of pollen. More on how aspens grow here

The new growth of Aspen’s larger relatives – Cottonwoods –  Populus spp. – is just popping. Cottonwoods also have male and female trees with a similar arrangement of flowers in catkins. Extraordinary what comes out of a simple brown bud.

Much more to come!  This is just a tease and a taste of wonderful botanical adventures before us.

Frances Clark

Teton Plants, Wilson, WY

P.S.  We always appreciate your corrections or queries.  Let us know at tetonplants@gmail.com – but note our response may be slow as we may be out in the field looking for flowers!

2 thoughts on “Spring has finally come again as have the flowers!

  1. Beautiful photographs. Very helpful information in helping to identify plants too. Thankyou for the effort, enjoy your hunts!

  2. Thanks for this! We have quite a few of these here in the Big Horns, always nice to see what you have blooming over there!



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