Note: This is a technical post. Lots of botany/floral info, no biking stuff or funny tangents. So if wildflowers aren’t your thing, you might skip this one and check out Friday’s post if you missed it or check back tomorrow*.
*Or whenever I get around to the next post, which will include biking through clouds and Awesome Wife’s run-in with a bear. Unless I get distracted by another topic.
Tangent: So why do I do posts like this? So that I force myself to identify, learn about and remember what I saw. Seriously, that’s why I do them. If I can make the post entertaining along the way I try to do so, but if not, I just hammer out the post while the images (visual, sonic, olfactory) are still fresh in my mind.
I hesitated to do this post. I’ve been at this project for almost a year and a half and see haven’t blogged about anywhere near all of the wildflowers in the Wasatch. Then we go up to Glacier and a whole mess of other wildflowers are blooming all over the place. How can I cover them all in one post?
Tangent: I really believe you could go up to Glacier for a 3 or 4-day vacation, anytime between July 1 and September 1, and just do wildflowers. No biking, no serious hiking, no birding, no wildlife or waterfalls or glaciers or lakes- just wildflowers, and have an awesome and totally fulfilling vacation. That’s how great they are.
I can’t of course, but I wanted to convey at least a bit of the floral awesome-ness of Northwest Montana, so I’ve picked out a few flowers to highlight in this post. I’ve picked them because either they’re different than anything we’ve looked at here in the Wasatch, or because they have some connection, link to, or relationship with something we’ve looked at or will look at here in Utah.
On our hike up to Avalanche Lake through the Cedar-Hemlock forest we noticed many familiar flowers, but several newbies as well. Probably the most common understory flower was this guy, Foamflower, Tiarella trifoliaya (pic left). It does well in deep, moist shady spots. They’re easy to spot even when not blooming because of their distinctive, toothed maple-like leaves (reminiscent of Rocky Mountain Maple.) The “foam” by the way supposedly comes from their appearance in large numbers across the forest floor (but I didn’t really get it.) It’s sometimes also called Laceflower, which is probably a better name. Though I don’t have a good close-up shot, the 5 stamens extend way past the petals, giving the flowers a distinctly “lacy” look.
When we arrived at the lake the forest opened up by the shoreline, and numbers of less shade-tolerant flowers appeared, including numerous asters and daises similar to those we see back home. But the most unique and remarkable-looking flower is this fellow. It’s Self-Heal, Prunella vulgaris. This is an odd one. The flowers are born in clusters/clumps atop a small stalk. Self-Heal is a member of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae, and so is related to things like Basil, Thyme and Oregano. The flowers have 5 petals which are fused into 2 lips; the top lip is the “hood”, and the bottom lip 3-lobed. Like all members of the Mint Family, the flower cluster looks like a single cluster but is actually 2 separate clusters crowded together.
Self-Heal’s name refers to its medicinal properties. It’s been used to treat everything from rashes to diarrhea to bruises, and clinically demonstrated to possess antiseptic and antibacterial capability.
It looks weird, it’s great medicine, but the thing that initially stymied me about it was its origin. Several sources describe it as a European exotic, while others list it as a North American native. What gives? Prunella includes 7 species, of which vulgaris is the only one found in the New World. Its presence here seems to pre-date European settlement (Native Americans used it medicinally) but by how long is unclear.
Our 2nd day in the park the weather was still foul, but we took our chances and drove up to Logan Pass At 8,000 feet, the pass is just a smidgen below tree-line, and features wildflower-filled meadows interspersed with stands of shrubby conifers and mats of krummholz. Clouds blew in and out, the temp hovered in the low 40’sF. While Awesome Wife and the Trifecta huddled in the visitor’s center I ran around the paths threading the meadows, checking out flowers.
One of the most eye-catching flowers up at the Pass was Explorer’s Gentian, Gentiana calycosa. This flower occurs in Utah as well, though I’ve yet to spot it here. There are over 1,100 species of Gentians worldwide*, occurring on every continent except Antarctica. Most Gentian species in Europe and North America are blue. In other parts of the world red or white-flowered species are more common.
*According to the Gentian Research Project. Other sources gave different/ lesser numbers.
Side Note: At least one white-flowered species, Alpine Gentian, G. newberryi, occurs here in Utah. It often hybridizes with G. calycosa, and when it does so produces blue flowers.
Gentians flowers are always tubular, with 5 fused* petals and 5 fused sepals**. If you look down inside the tube you can see the 5 stamens and a split, 2-part stigma. Gentians (mainly the roots) has been used for centuries for medicinal purposes in both the Old World and New for a wide range of ailments, but mostly gastro-intestinal things. But in excessive quantities it can cause nausea and vomiting.
*At the base, but not all the way up.
**Almost always. A few species have some number other than 5 sepals, but always between 4 and 7.
Probably the best-known (or at least most bally-hooed) flower in the park is Beargrass, Xerophyllum tenax, (pic right & below, left) which blooms in July and August and is easy to spot/ID. The white flowers are borne in clusters atop large stalks up to 4 feet tall. The blooms are unpredictable; an individual plant blooms only once every 5-7 years. We lucked out and caught this blooming hillside just West of Logan Pass. I also saw large numbers of post-bloomers when biking in Big Mountain Ski Resort later in the week.
Contrary to folklore, bears don’t eat Beargrass, but other animals do. Elk go for the flowers; Mountain Goats eat the leaves/blades. Speaking of blades, when you first see the stalk, you may wonder why it’s called a grass. You have to look down at the base, at the leaves, which look like a big clump of long grass (pic right).
Side Note: The stalk BTW, when not flowering, looks kind of like a Horsetail. We haven’t talked about Horsetails (family = Equisetaceae) before, but they’re considered a “living fossil”, with just a single present-day genus still remaining of a once numerous and diverse family. Back in the Devonian, all sorts horsetails, along with Ferns and Lycophytes, dominated terrestrial vegetation. Horsetails produce spores, not seeds, and reproduce via the same alternating haploid-diploid, gametophyte-sporophyte generation strategy as mosses and ferns. Common Horsetail, Equisetum arvense, is common in the park around streams and by lakes. Here’s one (pic left) we spotted along the shore of Bowman Lake.
What Is Bear”grass” Anyway?
So is Beargrass a “grass”? Not quite, but close. It’s not a member of the grass family, Poaceae, but it is a monocot, so like grass, the leaves/blades grow from the base, not from the tip. It’s actually a member of the Lily family, Liliaceae*, and this becomes apparent if you look closely at the flowers. Each has six petals (monocots have petals almost always in multiples of 3) and examine them carefully you’ll see that 3 of the petals are actually sepals, just like our old friend the Glacier Lily**, and for that matter all Lilies.
*More recently, some botanists have stuck it in a new, closely-related family, Melanthisceae.
**I keep coming back to that flower again and again. It was the very first flower I profiled in this blog, and through sheer dumb luck it was a wonderful choice.
Another common flower both high up and lower down was this tall, green, flowering stalk (pic left). The flowers are 6-petaled (pic below, right), suggesting a monocot, and the leaves look familiar too. The whole thing looks like a almost like a cornstalk. And of course that’s where we’ve seen it- its Green False Hellebore, Veratrum viride, a close relative of the deadly Corn Lily we looked at here in the Wasatch a couple weeks back. GF Hellebore shares all of Corn Lily’s nasty, toxic properties- don’t mess with it. And it looks remarkably like Corn Lily, with the obvious exception of flower color.
Why Would A Flower Be Green?
Green flowers can at first seem a bit of a head-scratcher. Most flowers are brightly colored to attract pollinators, so a green flower seems counterintuitive. Of course with wind-pollinated plants, a green flower makes perfect sense. But Veratrum- both viride and californicum- are agent-pollinated, by bees, moths, flies and butterflies. So why no bright colors?
In fact there are plenty of green, agent-pollinated flowers. Many use scent to attract pollinators. And it may be (conjecture alert) that what appears to be green to us may look quite different to an insect or bird that’s able to see frequencies (UV for example) that we can’t. And some flowers are even pollinated by bats, who only “see” their target ultrasonically.
*Although I think some pollinating bats locate flowers by smell. Didn’t have time to confirm/research for this post.
GF Hellebore, BTW, occurs in both Western and Eastern North America, unlike Corn Lily, which is found only in the West.
In the afternoon we descended from Logan Pass over to the East slope of the park, where we hiked along St. Mary Lake (pic left). The flower mix here was different but just as beautiful as the West side. One of the most common flowers was Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia. Harebell is a member of the Bellflower Family, Campanulaceae, which we haven’t looked at previously. The flowers have 5 united petals and hang downwards, sort of like giant Bluebells* (Mertensia ciliata.) Confusingly, the leaves look like tufts of grass (like Beargrass, above) but Campanula is neither a grass nor even a monocot. It’s a dicot, and if you break off a leaf/blade tip, milky-white sap will ooze out.
*Confusingly, Harebell is called Bluebell in the UK.
Here’s something else interesting about Harebell. It has a wide distribution, occurring across North America and Europe, but across that distribution seems to be diverging into different polyploid races. On continental Europe Harebell is chromosomally diploid, with 34 chromosomes, but in Britain and Ireland populations are generally either tetraploid (68 chromosomes) or hexaploid (102 chromosomes.) In Norway, both diploid and tetraploid populations exist.
Longtime readers may recall a similar story I told over a year ago, about Creosote here in the American Southwest, and its diploid, tetraploid and hexaploid races across the Chihuahuan, Sonoran and Mojave deserts respectively. Both might possibly be examples of regional polyploid populations at an early stage of possible future speciation.
Side Note: Frustratingly, I was unable to determine the ploidy of North American Harebell populations in time for this post. I know the research has been done and that the chromosome numbers are known… Just can’t find a free-online copy of the paper…
Also on the East side we saw plenty of Lupines (pic left). Lupines are of course common here in the Wasatch, though I haven’t blogged all that much about them, probably because, with 600+ species, they can be tough to tell apart. But as you get to know Lupines, some subtle differences start to become apparent.
The Lupines on our hike along St. Mary Lake looked just like Silver Lupine, Lupinus argenteus, a common Lupine in Utah (pic right). But if you check out the backside of the banner* on the each flower, you’ll notice a difference: while the back of the Silver Lupine banner is smooth, the banner-backside of these Lupines were covered with fine hairs, identifying them as Silky Lupine, Lupinus sericeus.
Tangent: While I’m talking about Lupines, here’s something fairly important you should know, particularly if you have kids and take them out in the backcountry. Lupines are somewhat poisonous and can actually kill livestock. But the nasty part is that their pea-pods (pic right, taken Friday AM up above Jeremy Ranch) , which are starting to look “ripe” now here in the Wasatch, look like the kind of pea-pods you eat buy at the supermarket, and supposedly there have been instances of kids getting poisoned by eating them.
OK, one more flower, then I’m calling it a post. High and low in and around Glacier was this unimposing yellow flower, Canada Goldenrod, Solidago canadensis. Goldenrod is a member of Asteraceae, the Sunflower family, and so is related to a whole bunch of flowers we’ve looked at in this blog, including Dandelions, Balsamroots and Sunflowers, though it’s far less impressive than any of them. So why include it in this post? Because in addition to being super-common in Northwest Montana, there are 2 real interesting things about it.
First, it’s an exotic weed. Not here in the US- but across Eurasia. That’s right- over the last year+ I’ve blogged about countless weeds and exotics that have made their way from Eurasia to, and thrived in, North America, from Dandelions to Musk Thistle to Field Bindweed to Chicory to Spotted Knapweed. But Canada Goldenrod is North America’s revenge. It’s a common and widespread roadside and meadow weed across Europe, and is a huge problem in China, where it’s been blamed for the extinctions of several native plants.
Second, it’s also native to Utah, and when I returned home and over the weekend started riding the old familiar trails that I’d been away from for much of the past 3 weeks, I saw that it had blossomed during my travels, almost following me home as it were, and is now blooming all over the place between 6,000 and 8,000 feet. And in fact it’s just one of a whole slew of late-summer-blooming yellow Wasatch wildflowers, about which I’ll blog in the coming week.
Next Up: Riding Through Clouds, and Awesome Wife Meets a Bear