What Blooms in Wildfire Burns?

RkPkwy_Burn_PeriMont_vw4_8.2.18_1_s_Q1_5x3-180Forest fires can appear devastating at first, but for the most part nature has its systems for resilience. Depending on how hot the fire was and what plants were present both above and below ground and nearby, vegetation will return in its own due course. In some cases, plants sprout that have not been noticed in years, and indeed are triggered to flower after the heat of the moment. Others take advantage of the open ground and fly in with fresh seeds. Still others have stored seed until the magic moment. Wildlife also takes advantage of the changes.

Lodgepole PinePinus contorta – is a fire-adapted species. While the thin-barked trees are killed, thick “serotinous” cones have held seeds for years.PinuCont_FrSerCU_MWRd_32212_1.jpgTheir cones have thick scales with spine tips which protect the seeds inside from mauraders and weather for years.  When a fire comes through, the resin that has sealed the scales shut melts, and cone scales open wide, releasing winged seeds upon the wind. The delicate embryos fall onto newly exposed soil, which may be enhanced by ash, and quickly germinate. Ash often contains recycled nutrients and retains warmth which helps the seeds grow.  Seeds germinate quickly, giving them a headstart among competing plants.  Pines in fact need sun to grow well. A truly fire adapated species!


Mountain MallowIlliamna rivularis – often appears in great numbers after a burn.  Affected by extreme heat, their thick seed coats crack, enabling seeds to imbibe water and sprout. These seeds may have lain buried for decades in the soil waiting for such a moment. BTNF_PalmCanTr_Burn_IlliRivu_7_7.13.18_Q2_5x3_180Due to a prescribed burn south of Hoback, the slopes along the trail up Palmer Creek are now covered with 4-5’ flowering Mountain Mallow plants (photo above taken 7.13.18). Soon fruits, which look like peeled hairy tangerines, will split to release seeds for the next generation decades in the future (photo below).IlliRivu_frsSt_LeiLk_91213_2aCrpsmNote: In mountain mallow the seedbank is in the soil, in lodgepole pine, the seedbank is in the air.

Another plant that responds uniquely to fire is SnowbrushCeonothus velutinus. Hikers can see a profusion of Snowbrush along String Lake (below) and on the way to Taggart Lake in Teton National Park.TNP17_StrLkTr_CeonVelu_CU_WyHab_6.30.17_2_5x3_180This evergreen, resinous, sprawling shrub will shoot up new branches from old roots after a light fire. After heavy burns, it can also sprout from “Rip-van-Winkle” seeds.CeonVelu_fllfCU__StrLk_71105_2_3x1_180

Flowers blooming almost a century ago produced seeds that have been lying in wait until heat and sun stimulated them to germinate. CeonVelu_frLvs_BTTr_82013_1_5x3_180

Others report a profusion of White SpiraeaSpiraea betulifolia – blooming (photo below) within the 34,000-acre area of the Cliff Creek Fire, also of 2016.  This appears to be another species is “released” after a fire.SpirBetu_fllf_20LkRd_71113_1a_5x3_180.jpg

The results of the 20,000+ acre Berry Fire are visible from the Rockefeller Memorial Parkway (photo below) and Grassy Lake Road. The 2016 fire burned fast and hot in some areas forming a mosaic of impact.RkPkwy_Burn_PeriMont_8.2.18_5a_s_Q2_5x3_180Notably, in some areas it burned through lodgepole stands that were recolonizing from a fire only a few years before. Ecologists and foresters are concerned that this unusual short “return” interval will be the pattern of future fires in this era of climate disruption.

PinegrassCalamagrostis rubescens – is a tufted, long-leaved grass that rarely blooms. While a common groundcover in the shade of a forest, it usually goes unnoticed by hikers because it is “just a grass.” However, with the stimulus of fire and sun, 2-3’ stalks of delicate flowers shoot up and flourish (photo below). TNP17_Burn_CalaRube_8.17.17_2_Q2_5x3_180 Deep fibrous roots of Pinegrass are important for holding soils, especially when soils are vulnerable to erosion after fires. Plants are blooming in profusion near the parkway.

RkPkwy_Burn_For_flwMix_Epil_Cala_8.2.18_1_s_Q2_5x3_250FireweedEpilobium/Chamerion angustifolia – is well known for showing up after fires. In the insulating soil, rhizomatous (underground creeping) stems growing 4-6” deep may have survived the above-ground heat to sprout again. Even one surviving plant can shed 1000s of seeds that can catch upon the wind, land, and germinate quickly on exposed ground. (Photo above shows both Fireweed and Pinegrass.)

Other plants flowering among blackend trunks include several members of the Aster Family which have deep roots and seeds dispersed by wind.RkPkwy_Burn_ArniXdive_8.2.18_2_s_Q2_crp_%x3_180Cheerful patches of Broadleaf ArnicaArnica latifolia – and a strange hybrid, likely Arnica X diversifolia – a cross between Heartleaf and Broadleaf arnica, are growing in charred soils (photo above).RkPkwy_Burn_GrsLkRd_SoliMiss_8.2.18_2_s_Q1_5x3_180Large clumps of yellow Missouri GoldenrodSolidago missouriensis – was dense along Grassy Lake Road, brightening the dark scene (photo above).RkPkwy_Burn_GrsLkRd_flwMix_EuryInte_Achi_8.2.18_2_s_Q2_5x3_180A mix of YarrowAchillea millefolium – and Thickstem AsterEurybia integrifolia are common in fields right now, but they are also flourishing in the sun under dead lodgepole pine trees along Grassy Lake Road (photo above).

TNP17_Burn_LupiArge_8.17.17_1_5x3_180Silvery LupineLupinus argenteus – seeds are “scarified” by the heat of fire, enabling  buried seeds to germinate relatively quickly.  As a legume, lupines have a mutually beneficial relationship with bacteria in their root nodules that can “fix” nitrogen. This provides lupines an advantage in colonizing poor soils (photo above). Their heavy seeds pop out of their pea-pod like fruits.RkPkwy_Burn_DracParvi_hab_8.2.18_1_s_Q2_crp_5x3_180A robust member of the Mint Family – DragonheadDracocephalum parviflorum – (photo above) was a new species to this botanist. Apparently it thrives in disturbed soils.RkPkwy_Burn_flwmix_ErigSpec_Peri_Lupi_8.2.18_1_s_Q2_5x3_250Patches of other common meadow flowers have retained a niche as well, including Oregon DaisyErigeron speciosus – (photo above) with its many narrow, lavender ray flowers (ray flowers look like petals). Many perennials have deep storage roots that are often insulated by soils to heat of fire (or the cold of winter.)

It is unclear to this writer how much of the open areas between forest patches of the Berry Fire actually burned, if at all.  (Do you know?) Often meadows don’t provide enough fuel to carry a fire. However, embers often fly across roads, wetlands, and meadow, igniting trees despite the intevening “fire breaks.” In any case, this is what is growing in the meadows.

RkPkwy_Burn_PeriMont_vw1_8.2.18_2_s_Q1_5x3_180Common YampaPerideridia montana – has created a tapestry of white. Upon a walk through the area, one can see that many late-summer flowers which are common elsewhere as here as well: a hidden layer of Sticky GeraniumGeranium viscossimum, blue spires of Tall DelphiniumDelphinium occidentale, yellow sprays of CinquefoilPotentilla spp., orange-yellow Rocky Mountain GolendrodSolidago multiradiata, and spikes of blue Silvery Lupine mix in.

Common grasses include: stiff spikes of TimothyPhleum pratensis (photo below), PhlePrat_fl_2OL_8714_3_5x5_180Mountain BromeBromus carinatus (photo below),BromCari_fl_BTTr_62715_1_5x5_180and elegant spikelets of OniongrassMelica spectabilis (photo below):MeliSpec_flCU_BTTrHd_62215_2Q2_5x5_160(Note all the grasses pictured above are in bloom)

These grasses have dense deep roots or bulbs, as in the aptly named Oniongrass (below).MeliSpec_bulbfl_SkiLktr_62815_1acrpsmGrasses have evolved to sprout from buds at the base of their leaves – an adaptation to both browsing and fire.

As for wildlife, signs of elk are frequent–they enjoy nutritious grasses. Bears will enjoy the storage roots of yampa come spring—or perhaps pocket gophers, which also eat yampa roots. A week ago, a pair of Sandhill Cranes was walking through the downed trunks, feeding on insects. Black-backed and American Three-toed Woodpeckers seek out burned-over forests as long as the bark remains. Using their chisel-like bills, these woodpeckers feast on insects feeding and breeding under peeling, split bark of weakened or dead trees.


Despite the stark appearance, all is not lost after a wildfire.TNP17_Burn_Logs_EpilAngu_8.17.17_1_5x3_180

Much is being researched and understood about fire ecology.  It is facinating to conduct your own observations.  We have a wonderful opportunity to see the variations in progression at the Berry and Cliff Creek Fires, both of which were started by lightning two years ago.

Frances Clark, Wilson, WY

Meadow Flowers: Obvious Favorites of the Sun

BTNF_Munger_vwFl_7.4.18_3_q2_5x3_180smWith summer strong, flowers are blooming everywhere in and around Jackson Hole. Here are a favorite dozen (plus!) wildflowers seen on hikes this past week: around Phelps Lake and up Munger Mountain (above); the start of the Ski Lake Trail; just south of Teton Pass; and the north end of Grand Teton National Park.  Lower elevations fade first while upper elevations are just emerging.

As always, it is fascinating to observe flower shapes and color and to discover which pollinators come to visit. Much is still unknown about how flowers work. Also, much of the action occurs underground.  Enjoy your investigations.

Sticky Geraniums (Geranium viscosissimum) are abundant both in full sun and under the shade of aspen trees. Their wide-open pink to magenta flowers attract pollinators of various sizes. Nectar guides—dark lines—lead into the center of the flower to the reward of both nectar and pollen. Male pollen is offered first by 10 anthers, and as the flower matures, five female stigmas are then exposed to gather pollen from insect visitors.  This way it is not fertilized by itself, which can cause inbreeding depression.


Wide open flowers invite a variety of pollinators.  Here the male anthers are ready before the femail stigmas which lie in the very center of the flower.

One-flowered Little Sunflowers (Helianthella uniflora) form masses of cheerful yellow on hillsides.


About 2-2.5’ tall, each of its many stems sports more or less opposite leaves with three strong veins. The stems are topped off with at least one 2”-wide flower head.


Here the Little Sunflowers are flourishing high on Munger Mountain July 4.

Its more robust relative Five-veined Little Sunflower (Helianthella quinquenervis) stands taller and glares right at you.


Note the number of pollinators and the individual small flowers beginning to bloom!  As composites, sunflowers have many tiny flowers that unfurl in a spiral, starting on the outside.  These many flowers form a “head”.


The large lower leaves have 5 distinct nerves (quinque = 5 and nervis = nerves) and plants usually have only one big 3-4” flower head per stem.

Both of these sunflowers are relatively small compared to cultivated sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) produced for oil and seed. Note, a sunflower head has many tiny flowers that bloom in a spiral sequence. Each flower will produce a fruit with a single seed—think about unshelled sunflower seeds—the shell or husk is the fruit, with a nutritious seed inside. Birds will flock to the seeds when ripe.

Fernleaf Lovage (Ligusticum filicinum) or osha is just coming into flower in some places. Individual tiny flowers are held out in umbels—structures similar to ribs of an umbrella. Umbels are a distinctive feature of the Parsley or former Umbelliferae Family.


Lovage leaves are finely dissected, similarly to its relative—carrot or Queen’s Anne’s lace.


Below the frilly skirts of leaves grows a dense collection of pungent roots that Native Americans have used for centuries for medicinal purposes.

Giant Hyssop (Agastache urticifolia) is one of the few members of the fragrant mint family in Jackson Hole.


Like all mints, the 2-4’ stems of Giant Hyssop are square, the scented leaves are opposite, and the flowers “bilabiate” or “irregular” e.g. flowers have two similar halves—like our faces.

Long anthers stick out, distributing pollen on the heads of hovering hummingbirds or on bodies of pushy bees which use the lower petals as platforms.  Upon visits to other hyssop flowers, these pollinators distribute pollen to female parts which form seeds.

While several of the flowers listed below have faded in southern, lower reaches of Jackson Hole, they are blooming abundantly up near Oxbow Bend and at higher elevations.


Many flowers that bloomed around Antelope Flats a few weeks ago are now blooming at higher elevations or more northern reaches of the park.

Sulphur Buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum) forms “clouds” of flowers above mats of ½” oval leaves.


At this time of year, 1’ stems shoot up forming clouds of fluffy creamy white to yellow to rose flowers. They float low over the hillside or sageflats.  At the base of the “inflorescence” is a whorl or collar of oval leaves.

Sulphur Buckwheat flowers provide valuable nectar to pollinators, such as Parnassian Butterflies. Dr. Diane Debinski of Montana State University is investigating the relation of this species and Clodius Parnassian butterflies (Parnassius clodius) near Pacific Creek to determine impacts of climate change on insect populations.


I think this is a Clodius Parnassian butterfly which is being studied.  The species nectars on Sulphur Buckwheat flowers.

Towering up between sulphur flowers, wands of Scarlet Gilia (Ipomopsis aggregata) wave in the wind.

IpomAggr_flst_AntFl_6.19.17_1_crp_3x5_240The 1-2” red trumpet flowers attract hummingbirds, which are able to hover and extend their long tongues into the deep tube to lap up (not sip) nectar. A bird’s head may be doused in pollen on one visit. On the next stop, it is poked with a sticky stigma that will collect the pollen to make seeds. Pinkish flowers later in the season attract long-tongued sphinx moths, which provide a similar pollination service.

Lupines are another common flower of both sage flats and mountain slopes.

Silky Lupine - Lupinus sericeus

Silky lupine (Lupinus sericeus), which grows in sunny locations, has hairs on the backside of the “banner” of the pea-like flowers and very hairy palmate leaves. The hairs help protect plants from intense sun and wind of open sites.

In the Pea or Legume Family, lupines can “fix nitrogen”, enabling plants to grow in poor soils. Bacteria are harbored in nodules formed by the roots. In return for the plant’s protection and some food, bacteria convert nitrogen (NH2) from the air (soil has air pockets) into a form that plants can use (NH3). For centuries, farmers have grown clovers and alfalfa—also legumes–to provide this same soil enriching function.

Some hillsides along the Ski Lake Trail or under aspens at Munger Mountain are dominated by spires of yellow Fernleaf Lousewort (Pedicularis bracteosa). PediBrac_flhab_TetPsS_7.3.18_1b_Q2_5x3_180sm.jpgThese laterally flattened, irregular flowers require bumblebees to pollinate them. Bumblebees are strong and smart enough to land on the lower lip of the flowers and push and prod their way into the throat to find nectar. In so doing, the bee gets a bunch of pollen on its body. At another flower, it distributes pollen to the stigma protruding from the top of the upper lip.


Flowers of louseworts are designed to fit specialized pollinators. Here you can see the stigma poised to tap pollen off the back of a visiting bee.

Fernleaf Louseworts are hemiparasites—they get extra nutrients and even chemical defenses from “host” plants. Roots of louseworts can attach to Arrowleaf Groundsel (see below) and Engelmann Spruce for these added benefits.

Another “free-loader” or hemi-parasite is Scarlet Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata).   The plants attach underground “haustoria” to a variety of different species. Scarlet paintbrushes, and other paintbrush species, are blooming at different elevations in Jackson Hole.


Cinquefoils (Potentilla spp.) appear pretty much everywhere. Research indicates that the yellow- to cream-colored, 5-petalled flowers of tall cinquefoils (Potentilla arguta/glandulosa) attract dozens of different types of pollinators, which is a good evolutionary trait for success. Different insects may or may not be abundant in different years.


Sticky Cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta) is one of the most commonly seen species at this time. For precise ID, 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.  In fact, taxonomists are lumping two look-alike species and now calling the genus Drymocallis. Definitely plant geek talk, you can ignore.

By being a generalist, cinquefoils are always likely to have some pollinators visit in any given year. Note: there are several different look-alike cinquefoils.

Stickseed (Hackelia micrantha) is abundant now at higher elevations, such as Teton Pass.


The blue flowers of stickseed look like fragments of heavenly blue sky.


However, the fruits will not be so delightful—they have devilish fruits with barbs that will attach to your socks. You will be their unwilling disperser to new lands in a few weeks.

A few other tall meadow flowers are seen along Moose-Wilson Road and will soon bloom up higher:


A mix of tall flowers along Moose-Wilson Road where there is plenty of moistsure and sun.

Tall Larkspurs (Delphinium occidentale) are unravelling their deep- to pale-blue stalks of flowers.


Tall Larkspur has trumpet-shaped flowers that require bee pollinators to push deeply into them to receiive their rewards.

Several tall groundsels (Senecio spp.) will soon add bouquets of yellow blossoms. Typically, flower heads all have several yellow ray (petal-like) flowers surrounded by a pallisade fence of even-sized green bracts—often with black tips. The leaves are helpful identifiers to species:


Butterweed Groundsel (Senecio serra) has oblong serrated or toothed leaves. Plants grow to 4-6’ tall.


Thickleaf Groundsel (Senecio crassulus) has somewhat fleshy or succulent, smooth leaves that clasp the stem. Plants  are around 12’ tall.


Arrowleaf Groundsel (Senecio triangularis) are found in wet areas—seeps and stream edges. Leaves are distinctly arrow-shaped and sharply toothed. They grow to 2-3’ tall.

Can you guess what this is?



A flower bud of Cow Parsnip (Heracleum spondylium)! Cow Parsnip has the largest flower cluster (umbel) of any member of the Parsley Family in the west.


Cow Parsnip  (Heracleum spondylium) grows in moist meadows and ravines where there is enough water to supply the very large leaves on 4-6’ plants.

Of course there are many more flowers to see.  However, this “botanist’s dozen” is a good beginning to your explorations. Soon we will add postings for flowers growing in the forest, wetlands, and in just plain odd places.

Have fun!

Frances Clark, Teton Plants

P.S.  We try very hard to be accurate.  If you see an error, please let us know so that we can correct our mistakes at tetonplants@gmail.org .  Thank you!

Spring Emerging – April 2018

Our first flowers are finally revealing themselves as the snow melts along road verges, fields, sage flats, and open forests on the valley floor.

Many early wildflowers are “spring ephemerals”: they flower before there is competition for light by larger plants and then disappear, leaves and all, within a few weeks. They have adapted to this niche of opportunity.  Often just a few inches high, they are best observed on one’s belly – belly botany.


A few sturdy woody plants are also blooming. At this time of year they count on wind for pollination, as insects are few. We often overlook their flowers because they don’t have showy petals: wind cannot see.TNP16_MWRd_AlnusSalix_Spr_1_5x3_180

Spring ephemerals emerge from underground storage units: tubers, bulbs, and rhizomes. Stored starch fuels new shoots to stretch above ground into the light where they can then form leaves for photosynthesis, making new food. They will quickly flower and then store fresh starch reserves underground for the next year. The leaves disappear from the surface—leaving only fruits to release seeds.

The growth pattern of our wild spring ephemerals is similar to our cultivated bulb plants, such as snowdrops, crocus, and daffodils whose foliage will fade by the end of spring. If you let them die back naturally in your garden instead of “tidying them up”, the leaves will make enough food to form new bulbs for a show next year.


The flowers of Turkey PeasOrogenia linearifolia – are tiny: 10-12 or more blossoms will fit on your thumbnail. The plants are barely an inch or two high and hard to detect among old twigs, leaves, and stones. The name Turkey Pea likely comes from their tiny bulbs.



Turkey peas are miniature members of the Parsley Family or umbellifers. The two parted stigma is maroon and surrounded by 5 white petals and maroon anthers. We observed flies and less frequently honey bees pollinating them.

Utah and Sage Buttercups are spreading their bright yellow petals–they gleam! Both species look very much the same; however,

Utah Buttercup – R. jovis has 3-parted leaves and fleshy, tuberous roots. So far I have seen these frequently under cottownwoods and in rough fields.


Sage buttercup – R. glaberrimus – tends to have undivided leaves at least the first ones at the base.  Stem leaves may lobed.  The roots are cylindrical, not pudgy. As the name implies, it is more often found in sagebrush habitats.


Honey bees are a pollinator to this Utah Buttercup.  Note Turkey peas in lower right. (Photo by Mary Lohuis 4.20.18.)


Bending down low you can catch a whiff of their sweet fragrance 1-2’ off the ground. The sun warms the soil and wafts the scent to low-cruising pollinators—flies, bees, honeybees. They pick up the scent, then the color. The slight change in color in the inner part of petals is a change in the UV reflectance of “bee yellow”: the inner part is a contrasting bull’s-eye to the pollinator.

Spring BeautyClaytonia lanceolata – is beginning to appear. Two opposite leaves expand and 1 to several flowers will slowly stand up in between.   White to pinkish peals are striped pink, drawing in pollinators to open saucers of flowers serving nectar.


YellowbellsFritillaria pudica – have been sighted! The 6 yellow tepals (3 sepals and 3 petals) dangle down forming a bell. Pollinators key into the changing of color at the base of the flower: green then reddish—indicating different stages of fertility.


By all appearances Steer’s-heads – Dicentra uniflora – are the quintessential western spring flower with their distinctly bovine design.  The flowers serve to attract bees that can navigate the complex flowers to reach the nectar reward at the base. Bluish leaves are divided several times into rounded lobes and are toxic. Dicentra seeds are dispersed by ants.


The Bleeding Heart (Fumatory) Family includes our ornamental bleeding hearts – Dicentra spectabilis – and our local species Golden Corydalis – Corydalis aurea – which can be seen along Game Creek in late April.


Woody plants – With the lengthening of the days, buds begin to exude a hormone, auxin, which then spreads down woody stems stimulating cell division of the cambium—the stem tissue that encircles the stem just below the bark.  New vessels (xylem) enable water and nutrients from the roots to reach newly expanding shoots and flowers.

Typically, early spring shrubs and trees are wind pollinated. There is plenty of wind and relatively few insects about. Plants colonize open areas where there is little interference by leaves or trunks for pollen to blow from male to female flowers of the same species.

Most flowers are either male or female and come out at slightly different times or are on separate plants altogether to assure cross-fertilization—a mixing of genotypes.

AldersAlnus incana – are dangling their 2-3” long male catkins over the wetlands along Moose-Wilson Road and elsewhere. If you can get up close without getting your feet wet, you can look for the deep-maroon 1/4″ female catkins nearby on the same branch. They have scarlet stigmas which capture the pollen. You can also find last year’s tough 1” woody female “cones”. Male catkins wither away after they have released their pollen.



AspensPopulus tremuloides – Fuzzy, silvery catkins are emerging on some trees but not others, depending on the clone. Male and female flowers are on separate trees and separate clones.  Below female catkins extend their maroon stigmas to catch the wind-dispersed pollen.

12b. PopTrem_fmFl_MosCrk_42814_3b_crp_5x3_180sm

Closely related to aspens, Cottonwood – Populus spp. – buds are bursting. Cottonwoods also have male and female plants. One can smell the distinctive odor of the balsam “oil”. The oil is popularly used as a salve and for aromatherapy.  In the photo below, male catkins are just emerging–note red anthers, also the sticky, fragrant sap on the bud scales.


Pussy WillowsSalix spp. – Since childhood, many of us have loved pussy willows for their silky soft catkins. There are dozens of different types of pussy willows in Jackson Hole, with catkins ranging in size from ½-3” and the leaves of different sizes, shapes and textures. ID to species is very difficult, but the genus Salix is easy to determine. Buds have one covering or scale. Watch as this cap is pushed off as the catkins expand.

While I used to think willows were wind pollinated, in fact many willows are insect pollinated. The tiny scales hidden in the silvery hairs of the upright catkins have nectar glands at their base. UV light and perhaps the shiny catkin hairs attract bees and flies to this reward.  Vistors then carry pollen to a separate female plant. Look for anthers in the males  catkins (shown below) and stigmas in the females to know which gender the shrub is.


Yellow willow stems are obvious in spring. Carotenoids produce yellow and orange hues (the same pigment that colors our carrots!).  These pigments help trap certain wavelengths to aid photosysntheis while at the same time protecting cells from harmful rays.  Willows are taking advantage of the bright unshadowed light for a jump start to growth in spring.


April is a wonderfully subtle time of year when a few blooms count for much pleasure. I hope you can venture outside and enjoy it!

Frances Clark, Wilson, WY


As always, we appreciate any corrections.  Please email tetonplants@gmail.com



Get High for Wildflowers

Hike high for the reward of fields of flowers.  BTNF_Rendv_Subalp_Mead_flwmix_8116_N_3_Q2_5x3Wildflowers 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.BTNF_TetPsS_DrySlp_7.28.16_5_5x3North 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.BTNF_SkiLktrUp_CastSulp_LupiArge_7.27.16_2a_fixsm Areas of recently melted snow and streams coming down the north side of Rendezvous Mountain still have Mountain Bluebells and Fernleaf Lovage.BTNF_Rendv_vwCrk_FlwMix_8116_2_Q2_5x3Jackson 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!


Western ConeflowerRudbeckia occidentale – is one of many composites which attract a range of pollinators.  Here the tiny disk flowers attract bee pollinators. It flowers from bottom to top. The bracts form a green whorl around the base.

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 DaisiesErigeron 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 DaisyErigeron 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.

Erigeron speciosum

Like other fleabanes, the large blue Oregon Fleabane has many petals (actually ray flowers) and many thin bracts arranged like a palisade fence protecting the many flowers of the head.


Oregon Daisy or Fleabane has many blue or lavender ray flowers and a large center of yellow disk flowers.

Subalpine DaisyErigeron 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.


Single heads with broad blue ray flowers are typical of Subalpine Daisy – Erigeron peregrinus.

Another look-alike, Alpine Leafy-bract AsterSymphiotrichum 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.


In Alpine Leafy-bract Aster the bracts are loose, leaf-like shingles encircling the head.

Thickstem AsterEurybia 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.


The stems of Thickstem Aster are not only thick, but also sticky.

Englemann (Chaffy) AsterEucephalus 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.


Engelmann Aster stands tall on single stems with a few white flowers at the top. They can form large colonies in some areas.


The shingled or “imbricate” bracts of Englemann Chaffy Aster – Eucephalus spp. – help separate it from Erigerons or fleabane daisies.  The rounded bracts are in several rows that overlap.

Nuttall AsterEucephalus 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.


Nuttall AsterEucephalus elegans –  has truly elegant bracts.

A third species Blue-leaf AsterEucephalus glaucus – has distinctly bluish leaves and grows in 1-2’ tall sprawling, rhizomatous patches. Flowers are light lavender.


Blue-leaf Aster has a ghostly appearance.

Spiny-bracted Aster/Hoary Tansy AsterMachaeranthera 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.


Spiny AsterMachaeranthera canescens – grows sparsely along the trail south of Teton Pass.


The bracts around this violet head point outward and are sharp, giving Spiny Aster its name.

A Few Yellow Composites

Thickstem GroundselSenecio 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.


Thickstem Groundsel varies in height depending on underlying moisture.  Leaves are sessile to clasping the stem and toothed.


Groundsels have a single row of even-sized bracts surrounding the flower heads, often with black tips. This is Thick-leaved Groundsel.  Note the disk flowers are in full bloom.  You can see the  female stigmas arching outward.

Low GoldenrodSolidago 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.


Low Goldenrod has about 13 tiny yellow ray flowers per head. Flowers heads are clustered together.


The lower leaves of Low Goldenrod have stiff hairs on their petioles, which is very helpful in identification.

Paintbrush Complex

BTNF_SkiLktr_Cast_flwrmix_7.27.16_1_5x3Q2Paintbrushes 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.


Paintbrush flowers have a colorful bract (shown to right) under each flower. Each flower (center) has a colorful calyx tube which is lobed. It surrounds the galea = tube of fused petals. The stigma and anthers are protected inside. Here the stigma sticks out from the top of the green and red galea.

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 PaintbrushCastilleja 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.


The state flower Wyoming PaintbrushCastilleja liniariifolia – is found on dry slopes at all altitudes. It has a lean appearance to the plant, leaves, and flowers.  They obtain up to 40% of their carbon from their host plant Big Sagebrush – Artemesia tridentata.

Scarlet PaintbrushCastilleja 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.


Scarlet Paintbrushes come in a range of colors. Most are tall and often branching.


Tricky to ID due to hybridization and genetic polyploidy, this photo of Scarlet PaintbrushCastilleja miniata – shows the bracts with sharp pointed lobes as well as a relatively sharply lobed, fused calyx. The green galea protrudes revealing the stigma.  Research has shown that all  parts of the plant and flower except the galea and nectar have poisonous alkaloids when connected to its host Lupine –  Lupinus argenteus.  The alkaloids deter herbivory.

Alpine or Rosy PaintbrushCastilleja 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.


Rosy Paintbrush – Castilleja rhexifolia – has relatively broad bracts, often hairy, and the lobes of the calyx are blunt. They are host plants for an elegant looking plume moth – Amblytidia pica  – look it up!

Sulphur PaintbrushCastilleja 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.


Sulphur Paintbrush is similar in flower form to C. rhexifolia with wider bracts and rounded lobes.  It grows at high elevations as well. They can hybridize.


Sulphur Paintbrush can have many stems. It is a hemiparasite on Tall Larkspur – Delphinium occidentale – and Lupine.

Hosts Plants of Paintbrushes


Silvery Lupine – Lupine argenteus var. depressus – above Ski Lake serves as a host plant to a hybrid paintbrush.

LupineLupinus 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.


Tall Larkspur – Delphinium occidentale – is a host plant for Sulphur Paintbrush.

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 BeakPedicularis 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.


Parrot’s Beak has evolved to fit their pollinators perfectly:  Bumblebees  This coiled flower is designed to wrap around the bee and tag the pollen on its back.  Looks a bit like an elephant trunk!


Parrot’s Beak has linear, finely toothed leaves. At high elevations leaves can be reddish.  Pedicularis racemosa  has been discovered to be an alternate host to white pine blister rust, a non-native fungus devastating 5-needled pines such as White-bark and Limber pines.  Parrot’s Beak is a hemiparasite on lupines.

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.


White-coiled Lousewort is a higher elevation species with leaves mostly near the base.


Leaves of White-coiled Lousewort are pinnately divided or lobed.

A Few More Subalpine Specialties


Splashes of lavender purple on subalpine meadow hillsides are likely Western SweetvetchHedysarum occidentale. Look for the pea-like flowers, and later dangling flattened pea pods or loments.


Related to phlox, Nuttall’s Gilia – Leptosiphon nutallii – forms soft mounds on rocky slopes. The leaves are almost needle-like and form whorls on the stem. Flowers are fading on Teton Pass but still flowering on Rendezvous Mountain.

Found often in shade or meadows where snow melts late at high elevations, Mountain Bog GentianGentiana 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.


Mountain Bog Gentians appear out of rocks and shady moist crevices in subalpine zones.


Mountain Bog Gentian has spots and lines to lure insects deep inside.

Many other flowers are blooming high.  Go in search! Let us know what you find at tetonplants@gmail.com.

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.



Jackson Hole Flowers in Early June

With unseasonably high temperatures this past week, spring flowers are developing fruits and summer flowers are blooming strong throughout the southern end of Jackson Hole. These same species will have encores over the next week or so in the northern valley and into Yellowstone National Park.

Here are some of the most common and obvious wildflowers blooming in sagebrush dominated flats and hillsides.  We hope you will enjoy learning some plant names and how flowers are designed to attract pollinators. Enjoy the amazing diversity and beauty of plants.


Yellow composites:

Arrow-leaf BalsamrootBalsamorhiza sagittata – is the big showy “composite” seen on hillsides and sageflats right now.  The large flower heads illustrate the typical features of the Aster or Sunflower Family.  This is one of the largest flower families in the word with 1000s of intriguing variations which have evolved for success.


A cross-section of a Arrow-leaf Balsamroot flower head.

Around the outside of the so-called flower head, bright yellow “petals” are actually individual “ray” flowers with five fused petals flattened to one side. The “disc” flowers in the center are tiny flowers with 5 connected yellowish petals forming a flared tube.  Above each, a dark column of anthers wraps around an emerging stigma which arches into two parts, ready to capture pollen from visiting pollinators. (Note the outer disc flowers are in full bloom, the inner are still in bud.)  Hairy, silvery bracts surround the flat platform or “receptacle” holding the many individual flowers. (If this is too much information, just have fun looking closely!)

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Arrow-leaf Balsamroot has one flower head on each 1.5’ stem. The large leaves are arrow-shaped with silvery hairs and arise from the base of the plant.

Don’t confuse Balsamroot with the soon-to-flower Mule’s EarsWyethia amplexicaulis.


Mule’s Ears have large, deep yellow flowers with smooth bracts, and 12-18″ oval, deep green leaves which can grow along the stems. They grow in heavier soils than Balsamroot.

Western GroundselSenecio integerrimus – has several yellow flower heads with both ray and disc flowers on single stems. The plants usually grow to 8-12”.   SeneInte_habfl_RKO_5.28.16_2_3x5


In Groundsels, bracts are all the same length – like a palisade fence – and are black tipped.


Along with these other features, cobwebby hairs on leaves and stem provide definitive ID of Western Groundsel.

At first glance, three other composites look like Common DandelionsTaraxacum officinale. They grow about 6-8” (or more) tall and have showy yellow heads with only ray or “ligulate” flowers. Look closely at bracts, number of flower heads, and the location and shape of leaves.

The fruits are very helpful in understanding why the taxonomists separate these genera. However, we have to wait until they ripen.  Practice by looking at dandelion fluff and fruits.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)

Common Dandelion has all “ligulate” or “ray” flowers. Notice the leaves are all at the base (basal).


Note the two rows of bracts in Dandelions: bracts of the outer row fold down, those of the inner row are upright. Bracts are very helpful clues in ID of look-alike composite flowers.

False DandelionAgoseris glauca – also has only one head per plant. The bracts are variable. Leaves are all at the base or “basal.” Three varieties with different leaves and hairiness to the bracts are a challenge to botanists.


Mountain DandelionAgoseris glauca – looks very much like a dandelion, but look closely….


Mountain Dandelions have tidy, upward pointing bracts around each flower head. Some bracts can be hairy or smooth, depending on variety. Leaves vary, too.

Nodding Microseris Microseris nutans – is very similar to the above, but again look closely: there is often more than one flower per stem or plant and buds typically nod. Leaves are mostly basal, but one or two may attach to the stem, as well.


 Observe how  Nodding Microseris differs from the other species. Note the nodding buds.

Coming into bloom are several species of HawksbeardCrepis sp.


HawksbeardsCrepis sp. – are robust plants found in sageflats. The leaves bunch at the base but also grow up the branching 8-16” stems. The leaves are often sword shaped and variably pinnately toothed, lobed, or dissected.


In Hawksbeards, the number of flower heads varies, as does the number of individual ray flowers per head. Some species have stiff hairs,which can be black. All these features are used for ID the 3-4 species common in Jackson Hole.

Don’t miss the blues:

Low or Nuttall’s LarkspurDelphinium nuttallianum – has been blooming for a while. It attracts queen bumble bees, solitary bees, and in some places hummingbirds as pollinators.


Nuttall’s Larkspur is still blooming strong.


Larkspur flowers are intriguing: 5 deep blue-purple sepals flare out at the sides. The upper sepal forms a long tube behind called a “spur.” Four petals are designed to guide the pollinator into the center of the plant. The two white upper petals are stiff and sport blue “nectar guides.” Each of these petals extends back into the sepal spur and holds nectar as a reward for savvy pollinators. The lower two hairy blue petals flop down, shielding the anthers while also providing landing pads for insect pollinators.

At the right time, anthers shed pollen upon pushy pollinators. The pollinators, after a drink of nectar, fly off to a similar flower and with luck (for the plant) knocks the transported pollen onto the three receptive stigmas. Pollination and, hopefully, the formation of seeds has begun!

Mountain BluebellsMertensia viridis/oblongifolia – often grow on grassy slopes and amidst sage plants. Pollinators – bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds – are attracted at first to the curved bunch of pink and blue flowers.


Pollinators zero in on individual blue flowers, where they hang or hover while reaching down 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!

Long-leaved PhloxPhlox longifolia – grows taller and looser than earlier blooming white phloxes which are mat forming, such as Hood’s and Many-flowered Phloxes.


Flowers of Long-leaved Phlox range in color from white to pink to bluish. The are often 4-6″ tall with 1″ leaves.


A beguiling fragrance attracts small flies, bee flies, and butterflies to the bluish to pinkish 5-petaled flowers. Only the insects with just the right length mouthparts can reach down the long tube to nectar deep within. Coincidentally, the flower is pollinated.

Other dashes of color:

Prairie SmokeGeum triflorum – is a member of the Rose Family. The leaves are about 4-6” long, and are “pinnately” (like a feather) dissected–looking “fern-like (although ferns are a whole different order of plants). Leaves cluster plentifully at the base of the spreading plants.


Prairie Smoke has many divided leaves and stalks dangling three flowers (hence the botanical name “triflorum“).


Five fused maroon sepals (with extra bracteoles) surround the pale yellow petals of Prairie Smoke. Together they protect many anthers and pistils inside.


After pollination, each of many pistils mature into feathery fruits, to fly off in the breezes. The heads look like a “bad hair day.” Many fruits together provide the “prairie smoke” effect.

Puccoon, Stoneseed, GromwellLithospermum ruderale – is a robust plant in the Borage Family.


Flowers of StoneseedLithospermum ruderale – are held in the axils of the 1-3″ linear leaves on 1-2′ stems.


The pale yellow flowers have a delicate lemon-like fragrance, worth bending down for a  sniff. They attract bumblebees, hawkmoths, solitary bees, and flies.


Later, flowers will form white fruits with very tough seeds inside…hence the botanical name, which translates into “stone seed.”  The seeds are readily predated by deer mice.

Many peoples have used this plant for a variety of medicinal purposes, a reason why it has so many common names.

Three particularly abundant species:

Wyeth Biscuit RootLomatium ambiguum – with its wide spreading “umbels” of tiny bright yellow flowers is still growing in abundance at the Sawmill Pond Overlook and along the inner park road.


Wyeth Biscuit RootLomatium ambiguum – grows along dry, disturbed road sides in the park.

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The tiny bright yellow flowers are in umbels (think umbrellas) typical of the Parsley Family. The leaves are dissected into at least 9 segments of various lengths and width. Note the swollen leaf bases.


The tuber-like roots were eaten by Native Americans and are sought after by rodents and bears.

It is easy at first to confuse Wyeth Biscuit Root with its more obscure relative. Nine-leaf Spring Parsley – Lomatium simplex var. simplex – has pale yellow flowers and leaves dissected into 9 long, thin segments of equal width and length.


Note the grayish 9-parted leaves and the pale yellow flowers (which will spread into wider umbels) on Nine-leaf Spring Parsley.

Western ValerianValeriana occidentalis – appears in almost every habitat – grassy hillsides, near wetlands, and sage flats.  While some promote Valerian as a sleep aide, it contains very toxic chemicals.  Plants develop such chemicals for defense.  Always research carefully any “medicinal” herbs.


Note the tiny flowers of  Western Valerian.  In the field, observe how the clusters are held in an “candle-arbor like” arrangement.


Leaves on the stem are opposite and pinnately compound.  Those at the base are usually undivided ovals.

Bright white Field ChickweedCerastium arvense – is found often in disturbed habitats.


Each petal of Field Chickweed is notched at the tip. Can you count the number of anthers and styles in the center?


The sharp-pointed, needle-like leaves are opposite on the 6-8” stems and often have extra leaves in the axils, which help distinguish it from Bering Chickweed – C. beeringianum – of subalpine and alpine habitats.

Many more flowers are in bloom on dry knolls and hillsides and in relatively moist forest edges. And new flowers will continue to bloom in the flats.  We will post additional information soon.

Frances Clark

Wilson, WY – June 10, 2016

P.S.  Of particular note at this moment of writing, is the phenomenal amount of pollen being shed by Lodgepole Pines (and perhaps other conifers.)  The photo taken in the Lamar Valley three days ago is representative of what is happening all around us now.


Pine pollen looks like a fire starting in Yellowstone’s Lamar Valley on June 6, 2016. Expect a big cone year in fall 2017.


In this photo, the stack of male pine “cones”  will soon shed thousands of pollen grains upon the wind and, with lot of luck, pollen will land on separate female cones.  However, pine seeds be ripe until 18 months from now. The green female cone shown here is from last spring’s pollen event.


Teton Pass Blooms – early July 2015

This past week flowers have become spectacular in the mountains.  For instance, the trail south from Teton Pass to Mt Elly (upper part of Black Canyon Trail) in the Bridger-Teton National Forest display an array of flowers thriving between elevation 8,431’ up to 9,275’. Other high elevation routes, such as Ski Lake Trail, have similar species.  With the heavy snow pack, colder temperatures, and late snowmelt, flowers bloom much later in the mountains than in the valley floor at approx. 6400’. And they bloom all at once!

Trail south of Teton Pass is in full bloom in early July.

Trail south of Teton Pass is in full bloom in early July.  Sticky Geranium, Fern-leaf Lovage, Silver Lupine, and Bracted Lousewort are just a few flowers covering the slopes.

Last week one could see plants of early spring – spring beauties, low larkspur, multiflora phlox–with plants that have just finished blooming on the sage flats and aspen groves – balsamroot, hawksbeard, louseworts–with summer bloomers: columbine, Wyoming paintbrush, sweetvetch. Furthermore, the more alkaline, sedimentary soils of mountains south of the granite Tetons provide for some specialties. A walk 1.5 miles south of Teton Pass takes you through montane meadows, spruce-fir forest, subalpine talus and three months of bloom!

The trail south from Teton Pass travels through some limey talus--hot and dry--with interesting plants!

The trail south from Teton Pass travels through some limey talus–hot and dry–with interesting plants!

Specialties of the first part of the trail include several low growing oddities:

Hood's Phlox is still blooming up on Teton Pass!  It was blooming the the valley in early May.  Its fragrance is remarkable.

Multiflora PhloxPhlox multiflora – was still blooming on Teton Pass last week! It was blooming the the valley in early May. Its fragrance is remarkable.

Nuttall's Gilia - Leptosiphon nuttalii - is related to phlox and also to Gilia. They are all in the same family.

Nuttall’s GiliaLeptosiphon nuttalii – is related to phlox and also to Scarlet Gilia (see below). They are in the same family with tubular 5-parted flowers. It forms mounds on dry edges of forests or rocky areas, both south of the pass and on the way to Ski Lake.

Nuttall's Gilia forms soft mounds on rocky slopes.  The leaves are almost needle-like and form whorls on the stem.

The flowers of Nuttall’s Gilia remind one at first of Phlox, but the leaves appear needle-like and whorled. (Actually they are deeply dissected opposite leaves.)  Nuttall’s Gilia – Letosiphon nuttalii – is frequent on the Teton Pass Trail and on the way to Ski Lake.

One of the smallest and oddest plant is the Opine Stonecrop - Sedum debile.  Unlike the Lanceleaved Stonecrop, the succelent leaves are rounded and opposite.  The flowers however are similar.  The fleshy leaves of succulents are designed to hold water through droughts.

One of the smallest (maybe 2-3″ high) and oddest plants is Opine Stonecrop – Sedum debile. Unlike its cousin Lanceleaved Stonecrop – Sedum lanceolatum, the succulent leaves are rounded and opposite and have a rosy color. The 5-parted yellow flowers are similar. The fleshy leaves of succulents are designed to hold water through droughts. Often, they can start new plants from the leaves — some of us may remember propagating Jade Plants (a popular houseplant) the same way.

Another specialty of the limestone talus, this very delicate Nuttall Sandwort - Minuartia nuttallii - forms low mounds on dry sites.

Another specialty of the limestone talus, delicate Nuttall SandwortMinuartia nuttallii – forms very low mounds on dry sites.  It may look a bit similar to the Nuttall’s Gilia, but the single neeedle-like leaves are opposite and the 5 white petals are separate, not fused into a tube.  Nor are they as fragrant.

Rocky Mountain Groundsel - Packera (Senecio) streptanthifolia - is highly variable in its size and shape of lower and upper leaves.  It is frequent orange composite in meadows and canyons at this time.  While it may be 18" tall in some places, here the tough growing conditions support only l6-8" plants.

Rocky Mountain GroundselPackera (Senecio) streptanthifolia – is highly variable in its size and shape of lower and upper leaves. It is a frequent orange composite in meadows and canyons . While it may be 18″ tall in some places, here the tough growing conditions support only 6-8″ plants. Note the leaves are somewhat succulent, a good adaptation to dry situations.(Note: this could possibly be P. cana–correction welcome.)

Scarlet Gilia - Ipomopsis aggregata - is another adaptable plant.  Found in sage flats or mixed into mountain meadow it raise its slender 2-3' stems above many surrounding flowers.  The red, sturdy, trumpet shaped flowers are perfectly designed to attract hummingbirds for pollination.

Scarlet GiliaIpomopsis aggregata – is another adaptable plant in dry sites. It is still blooming in sage flats in the valley, as well as now in high mountain meadows.   It raises its  sturdy, elegant, 2-3′ stems above many surrounding plants. Note the finely dissected leaves.  The red, trumpet-shaped flowers are perfectly designed to attract hummingbirds for pollination.

Also tall and red--here orange red, is the state flower Wyoming Paintbrush - Castilleja liniariifolia.  The flowers are oddly structured.  The red color comes from bracts below each flower and red sepals. Sepals are usually green.  And here the petals are actually green.  Note the yellow-green tube of petals protrudes well beyond the rest of the flower parts.  Like scarlet gilia, it is pollinated by hummingbirds.

Slightly similar to Scarlet Gilia with tall slender stems and finely divided leaves, the state flower Wyoming PaintbrushCastilleja liniariifolia – holds out a cluster of red-orange flowers (color ranges widely). Look closely: the flowers of all paintbrushes are oddly structured. Typically, the color comes from leaf-like bracts below each flower.  (Here you can see the 3-4 lobed bracts holding the flower above) .  The sepals,  which are usually green, are also orange-red. They are fused at their base and then split into 4 sharp teeth.  In this species, there are 4 pointed teeth and a deep split down the front of the tube. The petals form a yellow-green tube which leans well beyond the rest of the flower parts. The pistil, with its sticky knob at the end, protrudes out the end, ready to receive pollen.  The most red Wyoming Paintbrushes are pollinated by hummingbirds, other shades typically by bees.

At the south end of the trail, Indian Paintbrush creates a remarkable display remeniscent of an Impressionist painting.

At the south end of the trail, Wyoming Paintbrush – Castilleja liniariifolia – and companions create a remarkable display reminiscent of an Impressionist painting.  Other flowers include yellow Rocky Mountain Goldenrod, Sulphur Buckwheat; blue Harebells and a  small Penstemon; and deep purple Silky Phacelia, to name a few.

In locations where snow accumulates to greater depth and melts slowly, a taller more profuse collection of species grow.

Some parts of the trail collect more snow and consequentlyl have a greater profusion of flowers.

Some parts of the trail collect more snow and consequently have a greater profusion of flowers.

At least three cinquefoils are common on our trails right now.  All have five yellow-hued petals that form wide platforms for a variety of pollinators to land upon.  Rewards of nectar are hidden in the center.  In this species: Potentilla gracilis there is an extra daub of orange at the base--part of the signal for pollinators.

Three cinquefoils – Potentilla arguta, P. glandulosa, P. gracilis – are common on our trails right now. All have five yellow-hued petals that form wide platforms for a variety of pollinators to land upon. Rewards of nectar are hidden in the center. In this species: Showy CinquefoilPotentilla gracilis – there is an extra daub of orange at the base of each petal–to help guide pollinators.

On the other hand, many louseworts have evolved to fit their pollinators perfectly.  Bumblebees often visit, get pollen on their backs, comb it off and stow it into sacs on their hind legs. However, they can't reach the crevice between head and thorax.  The stigma of the lousewort, however, curls perfectly to reach remaining pollen, and fertilization occurs.  Pretty neat!  This coiled flower is Pedicularis racemosa.  Looks a bit like an elephant trunk!

On the other hand, some flowers have evolved to fit specific pollinators perfectly. In louseworts – Pedicularis spp., bumblebees are key pollinators.  They seek both nectar and pollen. When they visit a flower, the bee squeezes in at an angle created by the petals, the bee gets pollen on its hairy back. A pair of its 6 legs has combs to groom off the pollen and stow it into baskets on its hind legs. However, the bee can’t reach the crevice between head and thorax, leaving some pollen behind. The stigma of the lousewort, however, curls perfectly to reach this remaining pollen, and fertilization occurs. Pretty neat! This coiled flower belongs to Parrot’s Beak – Pedicularis racemosa. However, it looks a more like an elephant trunk!

Splashes of lavender purple on meadow hillsides are likely Western Sweetvetch - Hedysarum occidentale.  Look for the pea-like flowers, and later flattened pea pods.

Splashes of lavender purple on meadow hillsides are likely Western SweetvetchHedysarum occidentale. Look for the pea-like flowers and, later, flattened pea pods.  The 12″ leaves are pinnately divided with raised veins.

Here are the pea-like flowers of Western Sweetvetch.

Here are the pea-like flowers of Western Sweetvetch – Hedysarum occidentale.  The Pea Family was historically called the Legume Family (Legumosae Family – now Fabaceae).  Members of the Pea Family have nodules in their roots that harbor bacteria.  These bacteria can absorb nitrogen from the air in the soil and convert it to a form easily used by the plant.  Legumes, therefore, can grow in many poor soils, and have for centuries been cultivated to “add fertilizer” to fields.

A common plant that looks like for-get-me not is Stickseed - Hackelia micrantha.  There are 2-3 species, but this one is a native blue perennial growing 2-3' tall.

A common plant that looks like For-get-me-not – Myosotis sp. –  is Stickseed –  There are 2-3 species in Teton County, but Meadow Stickseed –  Hackelia micrantha  – is a native, blue perennial growing 2-3′ tall.

Look closely at the barbs on these fruits.  You can see why they are called stickseed - Hackelia sp.

Look closely at the barbs on these fruits. You can see why they are called StickseedHackelia sp.

A few more favorites can be seen in mountain meadows right now.

Colorado Columbine - Aquilegia coerulea - is a favorite.  Elegant  flowers have 5 flaring white petal-like sepals, 5 tubular petals that form 2”-long spurs trailing out the back, and many yellow anthers.  Leaves are delicately dissected into 9 parts.  These 6-24” plants are pollinated by moths and hummingbirds which have mouth parts that can reach the nectar way back in the flower spurs.

Colorado ColumbineAquilegia coerulea – is a favorite. Elegant flowers have 5 flaring white petal-like sepals, 5 tubular petals that form 2”-long spurs trailing out the back, and many yellow anthers. Leaves are delicately dissected into 9 parts. These 6-24” plants are pollinated by moths and hummingbirds which have mouth parts that can reach the nectar way back in the flower spurs.

Scarlet Paintbrush - Castileja miniata - grows in high meadows.  The reddish bracts and sepals are highly variable in  color.  The petals are fused and hidden inside until they finally extend out to pollinator. Leaves are simple.

Scarlet PaintbrushCastilleja miniata – grows in high meadows. The reddish bracts and sepals are highly variable in color. The greenish petals are fused and hidden inside until they finally extend out to a pollinator. Leaves are simple.

Sulphur Indian Paintbrush - Castilleja sulphurea – is similar in design to C. miniata (see above); however, the bracts are yellow instead of red.  Stems 8-22” often branched. Subalpine to Alpine.

Sulphur PaintbrushCastilleja sulphurea – is similar in design to Scarlet Paintbrush – C. miniata (see above); however, the bracts and sepals are yellow instead of red. Stems 8-22” often branched. Subalpine to Alpine.

A truly elegant plant which stands up tall to 2-3 feet in crowds of flowers or alone on trail edges.  Stems are trimmed with coils of royal purple flowers, each with elongate, gold tipped anthers.  The leaves swirling around the base of the stem are neatly lobed.

Silky PhaceliaPhacelia sericea – is truly an elegant plant which stands up tall to 2-3 feet in crowds of flowers or alone on trail edges. Stems are trimmed with coils of royal purple flowers, each with elongate, gold tipped anthers. The leaves swirling around the base of the stem are neatly lobed.

Continue to hike higher to see the flowers.  Your effort will be generously rewarded with bouquets strewn at your feet.  Enjoy!

Trail south of Teton Pass is in full bloom in early July.

Looking north mid-way along the trail south of Teton Pass.

Frances Clark, botanist

Wilson, WY

July 6, 2015

Late August blooms still coming in the Tetons

A_BTNF_TabMt_3VwFlBowl_81614_1Q1fixwebOne is continually surprised by how many new plants are coming into bloom: in high meadows, along wetlands, sage flats, and roadside edges.   Many of them are “composites” or members of the aster, daisy, or sunflower family: Asteraceae.  Many are yellow, others- mostly “asters”- are blue, and some you may not know are in bloom at all: sagebrushes.  A few other unrelated odd species pop up as well, such as elegant gentians and inelegant broomrape.  Below are a few wildflowers that you might notice on your hikes and drives around the valley.  Plus a quiz plant!

Yellow Composites:

Western ConeflowerRudbeckia occidentalis – The purplish brown cone-shaped receptacle never looks quite in bloom until you notice the bees working them over.

Western Coneflower - tiny flowers attract bee pollinators.

Western Coneflower – tiny flowers attract bee pollinators.

Looking closely, you may see a row or two of tiny “disc” flowers with pollen being pushed up.  They start blooming at the base and gradually continue row by row up to the tip.  These 5’ plants with large 6-8”, rough, oval leaves are found in moist meadows.

Curly Cup GumweedGrindelia squarrosa – A relative newcomer to Jackson Hole from its surrounding native range, it has now migrated in along dry roadside edges, mostly in the south end of the valley.   GrinSqu_fllv_NER_81714_2crpWebLook carefully at the bases of each head to see the distinctive bracts curling back from the center.

The curly sticky bracts give the plant its name: Curly Cup Gumweed.

The curly resinous bracts give the plant its name: Curly Cup Gumweed.

These one-of-a kind heads are very resinous: sticky and pungent.  The 1”  leaves are toothed, and often clasp the stems.  Sage grouse chicks 5-8 weeks old relish gumweed in Montana, and maybe here as well?

Showy GoldeneyeViguiria multiflora – Also found along roadsides and trails in the sun to partial shade, these cheerful 1-3’ high plants catch your eye.  Flowers are borne loosely atop wiry stems.


Showy Goldeneye catches attention along roadsides and trails with its cheerful flowers and tidy opposite leaves.

The 2”-3” long, neat, oval leaves with pinnate veins are held opposite each other.  The flower heads are surrounded by tidy rounded bracts, and you may notice the 8-10, broad, petal-like ray flowers are slightly darker toward the center.  In bee vision, this slight change in hue creates a bull’s-eye pattern.  Pollinators have a perfect landing pad from which to gather nectar and honey.

Parry's or Rayless Arnica is the odd-ball of the popular Arnica genus.  It has no sunny ray flowers, only disc flowers.

Parry’s or Rayless Arnica is the odd-ball of the popular Arnica genus. It has no sunny ray flowers, only disc flowers.

Parry’s/Rayless ArnicaArnica parryi – This odd-ball arnica grows 1-2’ tall on the edges of high meadows and coniferous forests.  Unlike its sunflower-like cousins, this species has rusty yellow flower heads with disc flowers only bunched together in 1” heads.  However, the bracts beneath are all the same size;  the leaves, although small, are opposite each other in 2-4 pairs on the stem; and the seeds will have fluffy parachutes (pappus)—all typical of Arnica.  This plant is sticky hairy.

Several yellow composite shrubs brighten sageflats.  This is Rabbitbrush.

Several yellow composite shrubs brighten sageflats. This is Rubber Rabbitbrush – Chrysothamnus nauseosus.

Three sunny composite shrubs: Three shrubs add yellow splashes and swaths of color along roadsides, sage flats, and disturbed, dry habitats. Their genus names have been debated for years as the scientists sort out who is related to whom.  Each species has several varieties, further indicating a range of often confusing characteristics.

Rubber RabbitbrushEricameria/Chrysothamnus nauseosa – This 3-4-foot shrub adds panache to the grey-green hues of sagebrush habitats.  The broad, rounded crown is colored by many narrow flower-heads clustered  together on the ends of upright woody branches.  The very narrow long leaves (1/8” wide to 4+” long) stick out from a grayish, furry stems (tomentose).  The twigs have a milky latex sap which gives it its name.

Rabbitbrush has felt-like gray hairs on the stem and long, flattish leaves, as well as bright yellow flowers.

Rubber Rabbitbrush has dense felt-like gray hairs on the stem and long, flattish leaves, as well as bright yellow flowers. Look for butterflies nectaring on these profuse flower heads.

Douglas RabbitbrushChrysothamnus visidiflorus – Similar at first glance to Rubber Rabbitbrush and sometimes placed in the same genus, this shrub differs in being generally shorter 1-2’ shrubs; green, not gray, hairy young stems; and 2-3” oblong, usually twisted leaves which are a bit sticky (viscid).

Douglas Rabbitbrush has bunches of yellow flowers at the ends of brittle, greenish stems.

Douglas Rabbitbrush has bunches of yellow flowers at the ends of brittle, greenish stems.

The leaves of Douglas Rabbitbrush are usually twisted, and the stems are not densely gray hairy.

The leaves of Douglas Rabbitbrush are usually twisted, and the stems are hairy, but not felt-like.

Hairy Golden AsterHeterotheca/Haplopappus/Chrysopsis villosa – The lowest growing of the three late-summer blooming shrubs, this somewhat woody species grows  6-12 ” in dry disturbed sites and road edges, often with blue Pacific aster.  The leaves are hairy and slightly wavy, only about ½-1” long.  The ½” flowers are a soft yellow.  This genus remains a muddle taxonomically.HaplVilp_habfl_TNPrd_81514_3Q2crpweb

The genus for Golden Aster has been in dispute.  Two rows of pappus hairs is one clue.  Yikes!

The genus for Hairy Golden Aster has been in dispute. Two rows of pappus hairs is one clue. Yikes!

Blue to White Aster-like flowers:  Taxonomically Aster is no longer Aster as scientists around the world have shared and refined their knowledge of this confusing group of plants.  The Europeans claim the old Aster name.  Our genus “Aster” is split now into several new groups with hard to spell and pronounce names.  Below are the common names (still aster) listed with the new botanical names.  Differences are based on growing habit, flower-head bracts, obscure pappus hairs, and invisible DNA.  Luckily, some kinds are quite easy to tell apart once you look. Pollinators of aster flowers are typically bees and butterflies.

Thickstem AsterEurybia integrifolia – Common in meadows, these 1.5-2’ plants have thick, often purplish-red stems coated with sticky hairs. Stems branch mostly near the top, holding out deep-violet flower clusters.  Each flower-head has loose, leaf-like bracts that are also very sticky.  The glandular hairs form a gluey forest that deters small insects from creeping up the stems to lay their eggs in the larder of fattening seeds.  The oval leaves clasp the upper stem, the lower leaves can be petioled.

The stems of Thickstem aster are not only thick, but also sticky.  A forest of glandular hairs deter crawling insects from laying eggs in the developing seeds.

The stems of Thickstem Aster are not only thick, but also sticky. A forest of glandular hairs deters crawling insects from laying eggs in the developing seeds heads.

Chaffy AstersEucephalus sp. The three Wyoming species of Chaffy Aster typically sport a few upright stems which are trimmed bottom to top with many alternating, oval to elongate leaves. The plants branch like candle-arbors near the top where a few sparse flowers are arrayed.  Flower-heads have relatively few (6-12) showy ray flowers.  The receptacle is elongate, covered with 3 rows of broad, dry (chaffy), triangular bracts arranged like shingles on a roof.  These three species are often found growing among one another.

Nuttall AsterEucephalus elegans (Aster pereglans) –This species is the shortest and most elegant of the three, averaging 1-1.5’ or so.  The flower-heads display 5-7 violet-purple ray flowers.  The tightly arranged bracts are hairy, especially around the edges, and are often traced with purple. The oblong 2” leaves are neatly arranged up the stem.

Flowers of Nuttall's Aster exhibit fine features of the genus: the broad bracts in several rows, and a few ray flowers.

Flowers of Nuttall’s Aster exhibit fine features of the genus: the broad bracts in several rows and only a few ray flowers.


The leaves of Nuttall’s Aster, as with other members of the genus, alternate up the whole stem, gradually becoming smaller.

Engelmann’s AsterEucephalus engelmannii –This  aster stands up to 3-5’ tall and tends to lean out from the shade of forest edges or above other robust meadow plants.  The large bright white, slightly ragged flower-heads cluster near the tips of the sparse branches. The straight stems are covered with many 3-4” oblong leaves.

Engelmann's Aster is the largest of the three chaffy asters.

Engelmann’s Aster is the largest of the three chaffy asters.

For comparison:  Engelmann's Aster left, Nuttall's Aster right.

For comparison: Engelmann’s Aster left, Nuttall’s Aster right.

Blue-leaf AsterEucephalus glaucus – Look for colonies of 1-2’ stems covered with gray-blue leaves. The flowers are white to pale lavender and the bracts are pale, smooth, and thin-textured. The overall appearance is rather ghostly.  It lurks in relatively dry and high, often sunny, locations.

Blue-leaf Aster has a ghostly appearance on rocky high elevations.

Blue-leaf Aster has a ghostly appearance on rocky high elevations.

American Asters – Symphyotricum spp. – There are several truly aster-like asters that now have an impossible botanical name: Symphyotrichum (Sim-fee-o-trick-em).  In case you really want to know, here are three (out of about 7) common showy species:


Pacific Aster is the most common aster: it tolerates a wide range of conditions and ranges greatly in height, but it always has lots of flowers!

Pacific AsterSymphyotrichum ascendens –One of the most common and tolerant asters, Pacific aster  started blooming a few weeks ago and continues to do so along roadsides: from 6” where it may have been mowed or grazed, to 2+ feet where there is extra moisture.  The light blue flower-heads grow along much of the stem.  The bracts on the underside are shorter at the base and longer on the inside (ascending).  The leaves are elongate and if you look closely, the venation is elongate too—these characteristics help us know it for sure.

The leaf of Pacific Aster has elongate venation and is a key to identification.

The leaf of Pacific Aster has elongate venation: a key to identification.

Another key to ID of Pacific Aster are the bracts:  the lower ones are definitely shorter the the upper ones.

Another key to ID of Pacific Aster are the bracts: the lower ones are definitely shorter the the upper ones.

Bracted AsterSymphyotrichum eatonii – Found on stream edges with wet feet, this 2-4’ aster can at first be confused with Leafy Aster (below) as the blue flower heads have leafy bracts.  However, the leaves of Bracted Aster are narrow and long ( >7x longer than wide), and the habitat is definitely wet.  Flowers cover much of the plant and the stem is usually slightly hairy all over.

Bracted Aster is found along streamsides and wet meadows.  Note the long leaves and many flowers along the stem.

Bracted Aster is found along streamsides and wet meadows. Note the long leaves and many flowers along the stem.

Bracted Aster also has leafy bracts, which can be confused with the species below: Leafy Aster.  ID depends on several clues.

Bracted Aster also has leafy bracts, which can be confused with the species below: Leafy Aster. ID depends on several clues.

Leafy AsterSymphyotrichum foliaceum – Just coming into bloom in moist meadows, near streams, and high elevations, this aster has broad oval leaves that often clasp the stem and several blue flower-heads with many ray flowers, which together create quite a show.  Looking under the flower-head you can see the leaf-like bracts that give it its name.  There are several varieties with different details of leaves, bracts, etc., but just “Leafy Aster” is fine.

Bracted Aster usually has leaf-like bracts and long broad leaves.

Leafy Aster usually has leaf-like bracts and long broad leaves.

Sagebrush Artemisia spp.  –  Many people don’t realize that our common sagebrushes are wind pollinated members of the Aster family: they don’t have showy flowers but rather produce pollen in tiny composite heads with no ray flowers and only a few disc flowers.

This Low Sage plant is in full bloom - not showy as it is wind pollinated

This Low Sagebrush plant is in full bloom at Lupine Meadows.  It is not showy as it is wind pollinated.

Low SagebrushArtemisia arbuscula –  A 1’ shrub that dominates Lupine Meadows in the park is now in bloom: 6-8” narrow stalks with tiny flower heads, each with about a dozen disc flowers, wave like wands and shed pollen to the wind—magic that any pollen meets a stigma surface to initiate seed formation.  Its 1/4-1/2″  leaves have 3 lobes–like Big Sagebrush – held close to tough woody stems.

The composite flowers of Low Sagebrush are tiny.

The composite flowers of Low Sagebrush are tiny.

Soon our Mountain Big Sagebrush – Artimesia tridentata var. vaseyana — will wave about pollen too.

In full flower: Mountain Big Sagebrush

In full flower: Mountain Big Sagebrush.  You can see the curved stigmas of the flowers, ready to catch the falling pollen.

And other special plants:

Naked BroomrapeOrobanche uniflora – Rare to find, this peculiar plant has no chlorophyll but rather depends on its roots to connect it to other living plants for food.  Saxifrages, sunflowers, and goldenrods are often its “host” plants.

This weird rare plant, broomrape, does not have chlorophyll, it connects to other host plants for food.

This weird rare plant, Broomrape, does not have chlorophyll, it connects to other host plants for food.

Mountain Bog Gentian –Gentiana calycosa. – These deep blue, 6-8” plants with egg-shaped, opposite leaves unfurl their pleated petals to attract late flying pollinators such as bumble bees. Look for it blooming at high elevations .

Mountain Bog Gentian graces high elevations with its pleated, speckled blue flowers.

Mountain Bog Gentian graces high elevations with its unfurling, speckled, blue flowers.

What is this?What is this?*

Quiz plant*:  This is the flower of a tall plant that is considered the harbinger of autumn.  It colonizes abundantly after  ____, a behavior that gives it its name. Answer below.

Enjoy hiking higher to see more showy blooms or looking closely with a hand lens at many wind pollinated plants.  And don’t forget to look for fruits: berries, pods, capsules, etc. Fall is coming!

Lupines, groundsels, Indian paintbrush are now blooming over 9000'.

Lupines, groundsels, Indian paintbrush are now blooming over 9000′.

Frances Clark, Wilson, WY

*Quiz answer: Fireweed – Chamerion/Epilobium angustifolium – The 8 anthers open sequentially releasing pollen. Pollen grains are linked by microscopic hairs which become entangled in the hairs of its bee pollinators.  These same micro-strings attach readily to the 4-parted stigma which has little bumps. In each flower, the anthers develop first, then the 4-lobed stigma expands, to avoid self-pollination.  The plants bloom from bottom to top.

Conservation Notes: Thistles in Teton County

Those of us in the Wyoming Native Plant Society are interested not only in natives, but invasives, for they can be destructive, as we know. However, it seems that many people believe that any thistle is by definition a weed. Not so. We have both native thistles and noxious weeds here, and this post intended to help everyone know the difference.

Plant keys and guides help identify thistles with technical details, but a broad-brush way to tell the so-called good from bad thistles involves things you can see immediately. All the species of native thistles are covered in white hairs that give them a gray or silvery appearance. Elk thistle (Cirsium scariosum) is distinguished by having a single leafy stem 3 feet tall and a cluster of pale flowers near the top.

Elk thistle, showing growth habit of one main stem and flower cluster at top.

Elk thistle, Cirsium scariosum, showing growth habit of one main stem and flower cluster at top.

Flowerhead of the elk thistle, Cirsium scariosum.

Flowerhead of the elk thistle, Cirsium scariosum.

Our other mid-elevation native species, Teton thistle (Cirsium subniveum), is also grayish in appearance, but it has branches coming off the main stem, each with one to several showy flowers that range from pale to a more intense violet. They are usually around 2-3 feet tall. If you look at the base of the leaves, especially at the lower part of the stem, they are strongly decurrent, as if pasted to the stem for as much as an inch.

Teton (Jackson Hole) thistle, Cirsium subniveum.

Teton (Jackson Hole) thistle, Cirsium subniveum.

Tweedy’s thistle (Cirsium tweedyii or C. eatonii), an alpine species, is similar in appearance to Teton thistle, and also has branches and decurrent stem leaves, but is only seen above around 9,000 feet. Look for it above Tower 3 on the Rendezvous Mountain road.

Tweedy’s thistle, Cirsium tweedyii.

Tweedy’s thistle, Cirsium tweedyii or C. eatonii.

These native thistle species are found with other forbs and grasses and rarely dominate. In newly disturbed sites, where their airborne seeds can take hold, they can be pioneer species, but as other plants colonize the disturbance, they take their place as an occasional plant among the wide variety of natives. Deer and elk favor the young growth and flowers, and pollinators of all kinds visit the many disk flowers. Seeds are eaten by birds and small rodents.

The most common non-native thistles do not appear gray or silvery. The plants have hairs, but they still look mostly dark green. Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense) grows in clumps, has narrow stems and leaves, and clusters of small purple flowers. Usually found in moist places, it can reach 3 feet. This patch, in a recently vacated sheep grazing allotment, is the only green thing left after the sheep have left in fall. A few years later, mountain brome and bluebell are becoming lush and keeping the thistle contained.

Canada thistle flowers, Cirsium arvense.

Canada thistle flowers, Cirsium arvense.

Canada thistle flowers, Cirsium arvense

Canada thistle flowers, Cirsium arvense

Musk thistle (Carduus nutans) is the largest of the weeds, with flowering stems reaching 6 – 8 feet. It has a thick-leaved, robust base and a stout stem that branches near the top. Its deep-magenta flowers can be more than an inch wide.

Musk thistle, Carduus nutans.

Musk thistle, Carduus nutans.

Bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is less widespread, and more silvery looking, than other weedy thistles. It is branching, kind of like Teton thistle, but the habit is more upright and it has stiff bristly stem leaves that are not decurrent. The calyx is tall and vase-shaped, whereas the calyx of the Teton thistle appears more rounded.

Bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare.

Bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare.

The photo below shows a patch of bull thistle gone to seed – an impressive number of parachute seeds that can take off in the wind and colonize disturbed areas deep into the backcountry.

Bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare, gone to seed.

Bull thistle, Cirsium vulgare, gone to seed.

A few recommended do’s and don’ts for anyone interested in helping reduce these weeds:
• Let Teton County Weed and Pest know if you find an infestation, especially of musk thistle. UTM (GPS) coordinates nice to have if in the backcountry. Weed and Pest will send crews to spray if needed.
• If you see someone pulling native thistles, let them know these aren’t weeds.
• Do pull musk thistle if so inclined (thick gloves recommended!). They have tap roots so they can be pulled. However, if they are in bloom it does no good to leave them lying there. The blooms will mature and go to seed. Before they bloom they can be pulled and left.
• Don’t pull thistles unless you’re sure of the identity.
• Don’t try to pull Canada thistle. It has underground rhizomes and cutting them will only stimulate growth.

TC Weed and Pest (www.tcweed.org) is a good resource for identifying weeds, thistles or otherwise.

Susan Marsh, Jackson, WY