ROCKY MOUNTAIN WILD FLOWERS
By Gwen & Phil Phillips
Sawtooth Mountains from Galena Summit Overlook, Idaho.
The Rocky Mountains are a chain of
some 60 ranges and land forms that
extend from just north of the Mexican
border in the south virtually to the
Arctic Circle in the north.
The coloured portion of this map
outlines the extent of the chain and its
position within western North America.
Map – American Rock Garden Society
Geologically the Rockies are a young mountain chain, hence the abundance of peaks, as can be
seen in the Sawtooth Mountains illustrated from the Lower Salmon River near Stanley, Idaho.
There are impressive glaciated valleys such as the one leading to the Tyndall Glacier in the Rocky
Mountain National Park, Colorado.
Extensive areas of almost treeless alpine tundra abound, particularly in the Middle Rockies, with
the Beartooth Plateau in Wyoming being a classic example.
In addition, some of these mountain ranges rise sharply from vast arid often sagebrush-covered basins
that almost surround them (as in the Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming). Plants from these lower
elevations (ranging from about six to eight thousand feet) have been included.
This presentation will cover the Southern and
Middle Rockies, both contained within the
coloured portion of this map, with a brief
reference to the Northern Rockies at the end.
The plants illustrated, which were
photographed during three separate visits,
have been merged into a single imaginary trip
travelling from south to north, irrespective of
Plants growing at the lower elevations were
photographed mostly in June and those in the
alpine and sub-alpine zone in July. Of course,
flowering times vary depending on latitude,
location and aspect, with no two seasons
Firstly, we go to the Southern Rockies that
extend from Santa Fe, New Mexico in the
south, to the Medicine Bow Mountains and the
Laramie Range of southern Wyoming in the
north. This area is coloured with the lighter tint
and is clearly marked on the map.
This continuous mountain barrier could only
be crossed through high passes, all over
9,000ft, and some over 11,000ft.
Map – American Rock
This barrier must have presented a formidable obstacle to the early settlers...
…how stage coaches crossed Mosquito Pass at 13,185ft. we do not know, as crossing in a 4 x 4
was quite an experience in itself.
We have selected a much easier location for our starting point – Mt. Evans, which is in the Front
Range of Colorado – as it has a paved road to the summit at 14,265ft. Growing on a slope below the
road at about 10,000ft. were a number of plants of a distinctive Penstemon of the Rocky Mountains.
There are over 250 species of Penstemon in North America, many difficult for the amateur to identify, but
Penstemon whippleanus is most distinctive with its pouting lower lip and its often bright colour.
The highest peaks of the whole chain are here in Colorado, where 50 or more exceed 14,000ft. This
area of alpine tundra is near the summit of Mt. Evans. It was July.
Above the tree line there are extensive areas of alpine tundra, not to be confused with arctic
tundra with its marshes and permafrost. Hurricane force winds will blast these peaks in winter,
often completely removing the snow cover from many windward slopes. This is a natural reason for
the dwarf stature of the tundra plants.
Much of the heavy rain from summer thunder storms will either run off the surface or literally
evaporate into very thin air; therefore, there is relatively little moisture available for many of these
exposed alpine plants.
The surface is granitic rock, sand and gravel that has very little moisture holding ability, meaning
that many of these tundra plants are growing in a cold desert environment. On the left was
Saxifraga chrysantha has tiny thyme-like leaves, which gives rise to the synonym S.
serpyllifolia. It has no arching stolons, unlike…
Saxifraga flagellaris, the whiplash saxifrage growing on the same slope. The flowers are
similar, but this species has prominent stolons and larger foliage. The light is brilliant, the air is
thin and the humidity low, so consequently there is intense solar radiation.
Trifolium nanum & Claytonia megarhiza
Some of these plants are extremely dwarfish; not only does this minimise wind damage, but it is a
degree or so warmer on the surface than even three or four inches above.
The mat-forming, ground-hugging alpine clover, Trifolium nanum has a very extensive, surface
root system capable of absorbing rain from storms before it all evaporates whereas…
…Claytonia megarhiza has a long taproot, up to eight feet long, capable of obtaining moisture
from deep amongst the rocks. It also has fleshy leaves with thick cuticles that restrict moisture loss,
curved so as to channel any surface moisture into the centre of the plant.
The blue cushions in the right hand lower corner are Eritrichium nanum. They are seen here in
a rocky habitat, but later will be seen covering an alpine meadow.
Eritrichium nanum is often referred to in North America as the arctic, alpine forget-me-not , and
in Europe as king of the Alps where it is extremely rare. On Mt. Evans the colour of the flowers vary
from this deep blue to light blue, various shades of mauve to…
…white. The foliage of many alpine, and for that matter desert plants, is covered with soft white or
grey hairs, another adaptation that restricts moisture loss where little is available.
Pikes Peak stands almost isolated at the eastern edge of the Front Range and like Mt. Evans, it is
possible to reach the summit in a saloon car. These granite rocks at about 12,000ft sheltered a fine
dark form of the rare and endemic Telesonix jamesii.
Unfortunately the flowers were only just opening, 10 days later this plant would have been
covered with a mass of crimson-purple flowers and the plant would have achieved ‘star status.’
Many of these western plants bear the name of early pioneers.
Telesonix jamesii was named for Edwin James, a surgeon-naturalist,
who made the first recorded ascent of Pikes Peak in 1820.
Growing below these giant rocks and boulders, in a mixture of sand and gravel, were a few plants
that we have named…
…without any degree of certainty, Tetraneuris acaulis var. Caespitosa. Its soft grey-green
tomentose leaves contrasted with the dark green of the invading Dryas octopetala. Many of the
species found on Pikes Peak we had photographed on Mt. Evans, so we therefore move on to…
…the adjacent Park Range and Mt. Bross, another 14,000ft Colorado peak obscured by one of those
thunderstorms that disturb many afternoons in July and August.
South Park as viewed from just below the tree line on the lower slopes of Mt. Bross.
Just above the tree line at about 12,000ft on the windswept, treeless slopes were shrubs of
Dasiphora fruticosa, the shrubby cinquefoil previously known as Potentilla fruticosa.
This very common montane and alpine shrub of the northern hemisphere is almost prostrate at this
altitude. These plants have been called subsp. floribunda in view of the many large flowers.
These slopes support many small and dwarf plants such as Calochortus gunnisonii, seen in the
Calochortus gunnisonii is usually found at lower elevations where
it will grow to 3ft. or more; these are a little more than 12 inches tall.
Even the dwarfed Calochortus plants were visible from a distance…
…whereas some species were not, as they blended with the grasses and sedges. This matforming plant, named (we hope correctly) as Oxytropis podocarpa, certainly did not advertise
itself, but rather blended with the surrounding ground cover.
Climbing higher, and stark evidence of the past is only too evident. Mt. Bross was once the centre
of intense silver mining activity, so these slopes are covered with old workings and tailings,
which are now gradually being re-colonised by tundra plants. On the lower slope are several
…Physaria alpina. This Colorado endemic is restricted to a few mountain tops in the Mosquito Range
(part of the Park Range) and the Gunnison Basin.
Blending with the stony habitat were many cushions of Phlox condensata. Cushion plants
are natural pioneers of habitats at high elevations such as this where there is little competition
from stronger growing plants.
Phlox condensata is a common high elevation cushion often found above 10,000ft. in Colorado.
Perhaps we have given
the impression that these mountain slopes are all dry and well drained, which is certainly not the
On leeward slopes, or where obstacles or depressions allow snow to accumulate, the plants will enjoy a
protective covering of winter snow. When this melts, the soil becomes wet and sometimes very soggy,
which results in different plant associations, sometimes referred to as snow bed communities.
Ranunculus adoneus, the snow buttercup, is a
well-known snowbed species.
Some plants undergo significant development whilst under the snow
and then flower literally within hours of, or sometimes before,
snowmelt. These had pushed through the snow before it melted.
When the well drained screes are full of colour these plants are often just beginning to emerge, so their
growing season can be even shorter than for the plants on the open tundra. Ranunculus adoneus is a
species of both the alpine and sub-alpine zones. We had now descended to about 8,000ft. and …
… paintbrushes flowered across the range. ‘Paintbrush’ is the common name for species of the genus
Castilleja. There are over 200 species in the west, thus forming a significant part of the flora.
Whilst there is little difficulty in recognising the
genus, the species can present no end of problems.
This is probably Castilleja integra.
The flowers (or rather the corolla tubes) of the paintbrushes are insignificant
when compared with the colourful leaf-like bracts that surround them.
There is a great variation in the colour of the bracts between species, whereas the flower colour
does not seem to vary from this greenish tone with the stigma usually protruding. All species are
hemiparasitic on the roots of grasses and other plants.This is probably Castilleja sulphurea.
Heading for the Rocky Mountain National Park we photographed a few plants in the
lush montane zone meadows – between 8 &10,000ft. Aquilegia coerulea…
Aquilegia coerulea is a robust species with large conspicuous flowers that does
well in cultivation.
Aquilegia formosa - Wyoming
Two very attractive widespread
species of the American West that
are native in the Southern Rockies.
A. flavescens - Wyoming
Horseshoe Park, in Rocky Mountain National Park which is at the northern end of the Front
Range, and a fine stand of Oxytropis sericea.
A number of Oxytropis species carry the common name locoweed or crazyweed. These plants are
toxic to livestock, especially horses, attacking their nervous system when eaten.
Oxytropis sericea, as the specific epithet suggests is the silky locoweed. Slight colour variations occur
within a colony.
Plants of Calochortus gunnisonii were illustrated earlier from the tundra of Mt. Bross where they
were dwarfed by elevation to about a foot. In this lush meadow of the R.M.N.P. at about 8,500ft…
…they can be seen growing to their normal height. ‘Calochortus’ is derived from the Greek meaning
‘beautiful grass,’ and ‘gunnisonii’ was named for a military engineer, Captain Gunnison, who was
massacred by local Native Americans whilst leading an expedition over the Rockies in 1856.
A study of many of these plant names can easily bring to life vivid pictures of the Wild West.
The flower colour, as you can see, varies from white to purple.
Returning to the alpine zone and in the lower right-hand corner, is a boulder field at approximately
11,500ft. in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
The habitat of the tiny Aquilegia saximontana is seen in the centre foreground between two rocks.
Aquilegia saximontana is endemic in boulder fields in the Front Range of Colorado.
Over the course of time, the larger boulders are broken into smaller rocks creating fellfields. They
are then further reduced in size and where conditions are favourable, the stronger growing grasses
and sedges will crowd out the early colonisers, forming alpine meadows. The habitat of…
…the small bulbous plant then called Lloydia serotina var. serotina where it was growing in
This plant is named for Edward Llwyd (Lloyd), a Welshman who discovered this species in Snowdonia,
Wales around 1688. Although Lloydia serotina may often be found growing in very large numbers, there
are fewer than 100 bulbs to be found in Wales. Re-classified recently as Gagea serotina.
A typical fellfield with a view of the Continental Divide, which separates the watershed that
drains into the Pacific Ocean from those river systems that drain into the Atlantic Ocean. The
foreground is the habitat of the next two species.
Minuartia obtusiloba is the most common of the Rocky Mountain sandworts. Plants at this
elevation are virtually all perennial and many are dwarf shrubs, often taking years to reach maturity
like this plant or…
…this one. Note how woody this small plant is. It is probably more than 50 years old, as they
grow very slowly and the growing season is so short.
Primula angustifolia is common in the alpine zone of Colorado and occasionally in New Mexico.
There is almost a complete absence of annuals on the tundra of these Rocky Mountains, as the
season is too short and the conditions unfavourable for an annual to complete a life cycle.
Although Primula angustifolia is tough enough to flourish in these harsh conditions of strong
winds, high rate of evaporation, and intense solar radiation, the alpine tundra as an ecosystem is
fragile, very fragile -- when destroyed, it may take many decades to regenerate.
But it is certainly worth waiting for the climax meadow vegetation of the Southern and Middle
Rockies. There is no finer sight than to see these high alpine meadows covered with flowering
plants of Tetraneuris grandiflora.
This conspicuous species of the tundra and alpine meadows is common in both the Southern and
Middle Rockies. The flowers can be so large when compared with the size of the plant that theyto
often obscure the foliage…
...but when viewed from behind we can see another instance of
the dense covering of hairs on some of these alpine plants.
Travelling from the Front Range of
Colorado to the Medicine Bow
Mountains of southern Wyoming (no.
26 on the map and still within the
Southern Rockies) enabled us to
photograph cushion and mat-forming
plants in semi-arid habitats at lower
elevations before climbing back into
the alpine zone.
Map – American Rock
Twin Butte Lake, west of Laramie with elevation a little over 7,000ft. The Medicine Bow Mountains
are visible on the horizon. Although not obvious from the picture, this area was covered with
cushion and mat-forming plants.
Eriogonum acaule was one. This local endemic is restricted to south-western Wyoming and the
extreme north-west of Colorado.
The densely white, tomentose leaves sheath the entire stems, giving these rare plants a pleasant
soft feel to touch.
There were also many plants of a phlox species with similar looking foliage, which when not in
flower could be confusing. It is…
...Phlox hoodii subsp. muscoides, the musk phlox.
Many Phlox species are not easy to identify, but happily Phlox hoodii subsp. muscoides does not
present this problem – presumably “muscoides” refers to the moss-like texture of the foliage.
This picture of Sphaeromeria capitata illustrates how mat-forming plants can often, with
age, die from the centre, often resulting in a number of smaller plants.
With the common name rock tansy, Sphaeromeria capitata is restricted to parts of Wyoming and
a single county in each of Colorado, Idaho and Montana.
The Snowy Range is at the northern end of the Medicine Bow Mts; this is the Snowy Range Road
which we travelled through Centennial and over the Snowy Range Pass. In a damp ditch by the
…were a few plants of Dodecatheon pulchellum, a
widespread species of western North America usually
found in damp, and sometimes very wet, habitats .
These are unusual looking flowers with strongly reflexed petals exposing the staminal tube, which gives
rise to the common name - shooting star. Variation within the species Dodecatheon pulchellum is
substantial, this is almost certainly var . pulchellum, the most widespread and common variant.
Slightly darker flowers within the same small colony. This species may often be found growing in
Here we are closer to the foothills with the Snowy Range still some way off. A mass of colour, 1983 was
a very good year – two years later it was dry and brown at the same time of the year, hardly a flower in
This is Oxytropis lambertii, the purple milk-vetch (or purple locoweed). Leafless flower stems arising
from the crown of the plant are one of the characteristics of the genus Oxytropis.
Into the foothills, a woodland habitat and the delightful fairy slipper orchid, Calypso bulbosa.
This tiny plant is often hidden in the debris and deep shade of the forest floor and is therefore
frequently overlooked. Even in this more open situation they were not easy to see.
In this closer image it is possible to see that this
species only has a solitary basal leaf…
…but to see that these are the flowers of Calypso bulbosa var. americana it was necessary to
be close enough to see the yellow hairs on the lips. This variety is found along the Rockies Chain at
moderate elevations; var. Occidentalis, which has white hairs on the lip, is a plant of the Far West.
Appearing shortly after snow melt in the montane and sub-alpine zones were carpets of
The genus Erythronium is well represented in North America, the majority native in the Far West.
Erythronium grandiflorum on the other hand, is one of the few species found in the Rocky Mountains.
This flower is known in North America as the glacier lily as Erythronium is in the lily family. The
colour of the anthers varies within the species from yellow to…
Mirror Lake near the Snowy Range Scenic Byway. What superb scenery for photography;
unfortunately the mosquitoes appeared to be as large as blackbirds!!
Caltha leptosepala, the Rocky Mountain or white marsh marigold, is another species that
appears shortly after the snow has melted.
Caltha leptosepala is widespread and is found in the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to Alaska.
Even very close scrutiny of this picture might fail to disclose hundreds of flowering plants of
Pulsatilla patens that blend perfectly with this habitat...
…but the closer picture leaves no doubt. The range of this species extends to the Arctic Circle and
eastwards to the Great Lakes. It is sometimes referred to as the Jewel of the Plains, where it will
flower much earlier; these were flowering at 10,000ft. in July.
The flowers are surrounded by finely cut leaves that are covered by a dense layer of silky hairs. The
colour of the outer surface of the sepals can vary from this delicate violet to…
… a deep purple. There can be little argument over the beauty of these flowers , but possibly little
agreement over their accepted generic name. We have always used Pulsatilla patens, but
Anemone patens now seems to be accepted by some authorities.
The Snowy Range is at the northern end of the Medicine Bow Mountains in southern Wyoming.
Virtually on the pass in mid July, the snow had recently melted but the vegetation of the meadow
had yet to show life.
Mid July - but another year. Either the snow cover was much lighter or the season much earlier (no two
seasons are alike). Geum rossii was beginning to show its yellow flowers; a couple of weeks...
…later, and they were in full flower. This widespread alpine meadow plant often becomes dominant,
crowding out less strongly growing plants.
This is Geum rossii var. turbinatum, found in the southern half of the species range, i.e. western
The Snowy Range Pass at 10,847ft; the cliffs might be another thousand feet higher.
Alpine tundra, and as described earlier, some of these alpine ecosystems are extremely fragile;
once destroyed they may take many decades to regenerate.
This spot may take much longer ------ it is now a car park!!
Phlox pulvinata was common on the Pass. The foliage in the bottom left hand corner is not that of the
Silene acaulis was also common on the tundra. Cushion plants may be the early colonisers of bare
or disturbed ground, but the lichens were there much earlier. Together with the elements, they have
broken down rock surfaces, preparing habitats for the higher plants that evolved later.
This closer picture illustrates the length of the pedicels which suggests that this is a plant often named
S. acaulis var. subacaulescens.
A view of Libby Flats from the Pass shows another of those summer thunderstorms. At the
subalpine tree line, normally tall trees are unable to grow to their natural height; they become
stunted and form islands of tangled shrub-like growth. This association is known as
The few erect stems that are able to survive often develop into "flag" or "banner" trees. The
shoots on the windward side have been ice blasted and killed during the winter, leaving those on
the sheltered side to grow – after a fashion.
Trollius laxus subsp. albiflorus and Caltha leptosepala.
Descending on the western side, water that began as a mere trickle from the melting snow
becomes a torrent, spilling over to provide wet habitats for these moisture loving plants.
Here is the plant we have named Trollius laxus subsp. albiflorus.
The Bighorn Mountains in the northwest of the Middle Rockies were the next
high elevation objective.
Rather than cross the Wyoming Basin
from the Medicine Bow Mountains (No.
26) by the shortest route, we have
selected to illustrate lower elevation
plants from the areas immediately
surrounding the Uinta Mountains, and
those adjacent to the southern end of the
Wind River Range. Both of those areas
are within the Middle Rockies.
Firstly the area around the Uinta
Map – American Rock
A view from above Yampa River Canyon in the Dinosaur National Monument of north-western
Colorado, which gives its name to the next plant…
...the mat-forming Penstemon yampaensis, growing amongst dwarf shrubs in this semi-arid
habitat. Hardly worth a second glance from this distance, but …
… on closer inspection it is certainly worth a picture. Penstemon species are not usually considered to
be mat or cushion forming plants, but in this area there are species that do just that. It is a local and
rare endemic, being restricted to north-eastern Utah and extreme north-western Colorado.
Still within the Dinosaur National Monument, but growing on an otherwise bare slope, is the
conspicuous Stanleya pinnata var. Integrifolia. The plants within this genus are often referred to
by the common name ‘princes plume’ for obvious reasons; what is not so obvious is that they are…
…within the Brassica Family of plants. If the strongly exerted stamens are ignored it is
possible to identify the four petals.
Another typical habitat in these semi-arid areas and a solitary plant of Ephedra viridis.
This bright yellowish-green shrub contrasts nicely with the dull greens of the surrounding
conifers and sagebrush. Early settlers of the American West used this plant in a brew, hence the
common name, Mormon Tea. This plant is from an ancient family being related to the conifers.
The leaves are so tiny that they are unable to
support the plant through photosynthesis;
instead, the chlorophyll in the stems
performs this function. Ephedra is a
gymnosperm; that is, it does not have true
flowers but instead produces spores in conelike structures.
The Ephedra and the elegant Stanleya were easy to see from a distance. Others, like the next
species, are far less obvious. There are two plants in the immediate foreground.
They are Townsendia incana, the Easter daisy.
Of the six or seven species of Townsendia native in this area, this is the most common.
Townsendia incana often forms attractive tight cushions with bright conspicuous daisy flowers
and soft grey-green hairy foliage. The same may be said…
…for Townsendia leptotes, which was photographed in the Lost River Range in the Northern
Rockies at a slightly higher elevation. This genus is "notoriously difficult" because some species
share many similar characteristics which are also often variable.
Typical sagebrush covered range with Phlox longifolia, one of the very many species of Phlox to
be found in North America. With one exception, all Phlox species are North American endemics.
Phlox longifolia is common and widespread in western North America. As the name implies,
the leaves are rather long for a Phlox species.
The silver-grey foliage of the sagebrush brightened by another species of paintbrush…
…which we have named as Castilleja angustifolia. As stated earlier, precise
identification can be difficult; but the leaves look about right for this species.
Cushion or mat-forming species are often the first plants to colonise disturbed ground, and this
seldom used track was an ideal habitat for Astragalus spatulatus. Once it becomes established…
…Astragalus spatulatus can form very large colonies, as seen here with a backdrop of
A vivid illustration of the bright purple flowers. Unfortunately it is not possible to see the shape of
the leaves which with the specific name ‘spatulatus’ should be…
…linear and simple, not divided as they are in most related species. The colour of the flowers can be
purple through pink to white.
Leaving the Uinta Mts., the next area of
lower elevation species was to the south
and south-east of the Wind River Range.
This can best be illustrated on the next
Map – American Rock
X indicates the south-eastern point of the Wind River Range, and a magnified section that follows will
Starting at South Pass, the plants illustrated were growing in habitats around the south-eastern corner
of the Wind River Range extending as far north as Lander.
The Great Divide Basin provided a relatively easy route across the Rockies for the early settlers, many
of them using South Pass, thus avoiding all the high peaks. Both the Oregon and the California Trails
crossed this Basin, passing through South Pass.
South Pass within sight of the Wind River Range. Quiet and peaceful today, but in the early 19th
century it was a busy highway with covered wagons, miners, stage coaches, and the pony express.
And before the white man, it had thousands upon thousands of
migrating animals and the Native Americans moving from one pasture to another.
Red Canyon, a few miles north of South Pass, and amongst the sagebrush, Calochortus nuttallii,
a beautiful and variable Rockies species.
Calochortus nuttallii, named for Thomas Nuttall, a well-known and respected English-American
botanist who worked in this area in the early 1800's. He crossed South Pass in 1834 on his way to the
…others where the crescent is scarcely visible.
Another of those afternoon storms. This area, which is quite close to Atlantic City, Wyoming was
covered with Lewisia rediviva plants, but unfortunately most were over. We were here at
approximately the same date two years later and they were all in bud. No two seasons are alike.
Here is one that was left, but it is an unsatisfactory picture
as the leaves are not visible.
The leaves are visible on this plant of Lewisia rediviva from a completely different habitat. The
genus Lewisia was named for Capt. Meriwether Lewis who, together with William Clark, led the first
organised scientific expedition from the Mississippi across the Rockies to the west coast in 1804 - 6.
Slightly higher but still within sight of the Wind River Range, a common spreading Phlox of the
We have named this as Phlox hoodii, often called the carpet or spiny phlox, depending on the
subspecies into which these plants fit.
Not having retained a specimen, we are unable to decide the subspecific identity.
From the Wind River Range, our travels took
us to the Bighorn Mountains of northern
Wyoming, followed by the Beartooth Plateau
(no. 21) and then the Teton Range (no. 22).
Although the Bighorns have at least three peaks over 13,000ft., we shall only illustrate plants from
that area of the range that resembles an undulating limestone plateau, with an elevation around
10,000ft. This is approximately the tree line at this latitude, which drops about 500ft every 100 miles
travelled to the north. The Phlox growing in the pasture…
In summer this area is grazed by cattle and many thousands of sheep, replacing the large herds of
wild animals that, until the arrival of the white man, were found grazing here in the summer. This
has not prevented a rare columbine finding suitable habitats on the limestone of Hunt Mountain
Aquilegia jonesii was growing both in the open pasture, amongst the limestone cobbles, and in
the rubble created by the road grader.
Aquilegia jonesii is found in isolated colonies on, or close to, the Continental Divide from here
to southern Alberta. Even if small in stature, this sub-alpine cushion forming plant is spectacular
with relatively large flowers…
…and tiny densely crowded glaucous leaves. Named for Marcus Jones -- a botanist, Latin teacher
in a girls school, and a mining engineer in the1870's!!
A limestone outcrop overlooking Hunt Mountain Road, and on the ledge a plant that appeared to be
…and closer inspection confirmed this to be so, with many more plants amongst the rocks below.
But why was Primula parryi, a moisture-loving plant, growing on what appeared to be a dry
rocky outcrop? The answer was that…
…the outcrop was not dry as this plant was growing out of a cushion of water soaked moss.
Melting snow above was feeding seeping water into the habitat of all the plants on the ledge and
amongst the rocks below.
Primula parryi was named in honour of Charles Parry, another English-American naturalist who
accompanied the early settlers and miners into this region . Very many new species were named for
the ‘King of Colorado Botany’ who probably did more than any single person at that time to make
known the flora of these Rocky Mountains.
In this picture, these plants of Geum triflorum unfortunately merge with the surrounding
From this angle it is possible to identify the finely cut, parsley-like leaves and the almost
leafless red stems.
The petals are almost obscured by the sepals, giving the flowers a dull appearance; it is not
Photo – Prairie Moon Nursery
…the flowers are in seed that the plants of Geum triflorum become impressive. The feathery plumes
attached to the seeds give rise to the common names ‘old man’s whiskers’ and ‘prairie smoke.’
Frasera speciosa is a common native of mountain meadows in western U.S.A. These plants, in
an exposed habitat at approximately 10,000ft., have only grown to about two feet.
In a more favourable position some 4,000ft lower by the Snake River in the Teton National Park,
Frasera Speciosa has reached its normal height, living up to its common name ‘monument
Frasera speciosa is monocarpic and may take several years, some say 20 or 30, before flowering
and then dying. A conspicuous plant...
…but the few plants of Townsendia parryi scattered amongst the limestone near the Bighorn
Medicine Wheel were not easy to spot. There are two plants with their solitary flower heads to the
immediate left of the rocks at the bottom centre of the picture.
John Kirk Townsend, an eminent ornithologist and botanist, crossed South Pass with Charles
Parry in the mid 1830s on an expedition to the Columbia River. They were also united in this
species – Townsendia parryi.
Many of the species illustrated from the Southern Rockies are also plants of the Middle Rockies. These
will not be repeated except for Eritrichium nanum – this mass was too spectacular to omit.
It has been said that these are a deeper blue when compared with the Colorado specimens, but our
cameras do not agree!!
A view from the western slope of the Bighorns looking over the arid Bighorn Basin towards the
The Beartooth Plateau is a tableland some 30 miles across that lies east of the Absaroka Range
along the Wyoming – Montana border. The road that crosses the Pass at slightly under 11,000ft. is said
to traverse more alpine tundra than any other road in North America.
In addition, the Plateau is intersected by glaciated valleys. Beartooth Peak, from which the Plateau
is named, can be seen on the skyline.
The majority of plants of Polemonium viscosum we have seen were in alpine meadows and, although
dwarf, were upright in stance. These on the scree were prostrate, forming mats or cushions.
Polemonium viscosum is a high alpine, hence one of its common names, sky pilot. The
flowers are said to be sweet-scented when opening, followed later by the scent of a skunk, hence
another common name ‘skunk polemonium’!!
Draba incerta, growing on a windswept and bitterly cold ledge, looking towards Yellowstone
Although this species is known as the Yellowstone draba (the northeast entrance to Yellowstone
is less than 30 miles away), its range extends into Alaska and into the Yukon Territory. Draba
incerta has an upright habit, whereas…
Draba ventosa, the Wind River draba, growing some two or three hundred yards away, has a
compact cushion-forming habit, with soft tomentose foliage and almost sessile flowers . Its range
also extends far wider than the specific epithet suggests.
Scattered across the tundra were many plants of Pedicularis oederi, with a further view of
glaciated valleys and the Beartooth Peak on the skyline to the right.
A number of these high alpines of the Southern and Middle Rockies are circumpolar species, but
some may be found as low as sea level within the Arctic Circle.
Pedicularis oederi is known as the crimson-tipped lousewort because the upper lip of the yellow
flowers have red to brown tips. The louseworts are root-parasites – note the colour of the leaves.
What a spectacular location for the habitat of Douglasia montana growing amongst the rocky
alpine tundra in the foreground.
This cushion-forming species is native in a relatively small area of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and
extreme southern Alberta.
Douglasia was named for David Douglas, Scottish explorer and botanist as well as another very
early plant collector, who was responsible for bringing many new plants into cultivation.
Douglasia montana is often referred to as the Rocky Mountain dwarf-primrose.
On the eastern slopes below the pass, is a very wet area (one might call it a bog); at the bottom centre,
plants of Gentiana algida. More plants are just visible, but many were hidden by the ground cover.
Many of these plants were growing in very wet sphagnum moss. When many of the plants on the dry
slopes have finished flowering, Gentiana algida (the arctic gentian) will be in bloom.
Descending further into the montane zone, the often overlooked Clematis hirsutissima is
camouflaged by the surrounding vegetation.
This shrubby species has an upright habit, and unlike
most other species of Clematis, does not produce vines.
The erect stems are topped by large upside down dark purple flowers that are given a silvery
appearance by the dense covering of fine silvery hairs. This species may be found growing from
the sagebrush desert to the high ponderosa pines.
Descending still further and a small number of Fritillaria pudica were still fresh on this roadside
cutting that had been covered with a snow bank until quite late.
Charming demure bells living up to their specific epithet - Fritillaria pudica.
Still within the Middle Rockies –
from the Beartooth Plateau (no.
21) to the Teton Range (no. 22).
The Teton Range is mainly in north-western Wyoming just south of Yellowstone National Park. The view
of the range from the east is quite dramatic; as there are no foothills, the mountains rise abruptly from
the valley floor. The Grand Teton, at 13,770ft., is some 7,000ft. higher than the surrounding sagebrush.
Amongst the sagebrush was one of the very many species of North American buckwheats...
…the widespread and abundant Eriogonum umbellatum. This western species is exceedingly
variable, forty-one varieties have been suggested relating to plant habit, flower size and colour,
leaf blade shape, hairiness, etc. The colour of the flowers can be a brilliant sulphur yellow.
The abundance of high sharp peaks is evidence of a young mountain range, and of all the mountains
in the Rockies the Teton Range is the youngest. On the right-hand side is the mountain hollyhock.
Iliamna rivularis, a plant of rich moist soils in meadows or on stream banks which under favourable
conditions can grow into fine robust plants; in drier conditions, they will be very small indeed.
Not as flamboyant as our cultivars, but no less attractive.
Oxbow Bend, a backwater left by the Snake River when it cut a new southern channel. More
buckwheat plants and to the right, a few plants of a Geranium species.
We named this plant tentatively as Geranium caespitosum var. fremontii. It would appear that
the identification of Geranium species can present problems; this taxa having undergone eleven
Geranium viscosissimum was also flowering in the Park.
Jenny Lake, Grand Teton National Park. By a trail in this woodland…
…were a number of plants of Corallorhiza maculata, the spotted coralroot orchid. All
species of Corallorhiza are referred to as ‘coralroots,’ which reflects their coral-shaped
Most species of Corallorhiza are leafless, have little or no chlorophyll, and obtain essential
nutrients from mycorrhizal fungi which in turn are parasitic on the roots of other plants.
Corallorhiza striata in Jenny Lake woodland
C. mertensiana photographed in Idaho.
Two further species to be found in the Rockies.
Immediately to the north is Yellowstone National Park with its geothermal spectacle of geysers,
hot springs, etc. In this pasture by the Firehole River were many plants of Platanthera dilatata.
This common and widespread North American orchid can often be found growing in large numbers.
The expanded base of the lips is evident in the right-hand image – hence ‘dilatata’. All authorities
comment on the strong scent of this species, e.g. ‘An intense clove scent distinguishes
Platanthera dilatata from related species across most of its range.’ (Flora of North America)
Just distinguishable in the foreground are plants of Gentianopsis thermalis, with the specific
epithet referring to its preference for growing in warm places -- including close to geysers in
Yellowstone National Park.
In other parts of its range, The Rocky Mountain fringed
gentian grows in wet and marshy meadows and along
stream banks. To illustrate that the petals are fringed…
…it was necessary to zoom into the image. The petals are described as being
slightly scalloped and delicately fringed.
Growing in a similar habitat was the widespread Spiranthes romanzoffiana, an orchid of wet,
marshy and boggy areas.
The delicate waxy white flowers spiral around the stem, typically in three spirals, and as they
have pronounced hoods, the common name of which is hooded lady’s tresses.
As we do not have sufficient material
to deal adequately with the plants of
the Northern Rockies we will
conclude with two locations in Idaho,
a spectacular species from Glacier
National Park, and finally an
impression of the Icefields Parkway
The Craters of the Moon National Monument is a lava field covering 618 square miles that
lies in the south-eastern corner of the Pioneer Range.
This area of lava flows is the result of fissure volcanic eruptions over the past 15,000 years, the
last being 2,000 years ago. It contains 60 lava flows, more than 25 cinder cones and...
…extensive ash-fields. This area of cinder ash illustrates a classic example of how higher plants,
when colonising a most inhospitable habitat, will space themselves when moisture is at a
The two species that had claimed that expanse of ash as their own were the white form of
Lewisia rediviva and Eriogonum ovalifolium var. depressum. In spite of the impression
given by the previous pictures, there are over 350 species of plants growing within the
On the edge of this flow is one, Mentzelia laevicaulis, the smooth-stem blazing star.
This is sometimes referred to as stick-leaf due to the ease with which the leaves can become attached to
an animal's fur – the surface is covered by numerous small, almost invisible, barbs. Far more obvious
are the five large, yellow floral petals – most other species in the genus have 8 to 10 smaller petals.
The numerous very long filaments and even longer
style are just as conspicuous.
Scattered amongst the sagebrush on this slope were a few flowering plants of Calochortus
macrocarpus living up to its common name, sagebrush mariposa lily.
The image on the left was taken in the Monument and the one on the right elsewhere in Idaho.
The White Cloud Mountains, at about 10,500ft. in Custer Co., Idaho, some twenty miles east of the
Sawtooth Mountains. It was June, the snow had just melted, and at first sight it appeared to be too early
for plants to be in flower.
Closer scrutiny revealed many tiny plants of Primula cusickiana between the tufts of grasses.
Primula cusickiana var. cusickiana is a native of the Great Basin and the Intermountain Region.
The species has been divided, somewhat arbitrarily according to the flora, into four varieties and treated
as isolated endemics, relics from the last Ice Age. Primula cusickiana var. cusickiana is the most
common of the four, but even so it is confined to the small area where Oregon, Nevada and Idaho abut.
There were a few white-flowered plants in the colony.
A small number of Synthyris pinnatifida var. canescens were flowering amongst the primulas.
Another taxa of this area with a very restricted geographic distribution.
It is interesting to compare these slopes in the White Cloud Mountains in June with…
…the same slopes 3 – 4 weeks later, when there were Tetraneuris grandiflora and lupines as far as the
eye could see.
Glacier National Park, near Logan Pass, north-eastern Montana, with Xerophyllun tenax, a
native of the north-western USA and extreme south-western Canada.
Xerophyllun tenax, popularly known as bear grass, was used extensively by the Native
Americans, particularly the leaves for basket work and other crafts.
It tends to flower in five to seven year cycles; after seed has set it dies – it is monocarpic.
Finally a fleeting reference to the Icefields Parkway, a scenic highway in Alberta, Canada that
shadows the shoulder of the Continental Divide in the Northern Rockies, from Lake Louise in Banff
National Park in the south to Jasper some 140 miles to the north.
Lake Louise, Banff National Park, overlooked by the glaciers for which this parkway is renowned. Our
pictures were taken thirty years ago and during the intervening period the glaciers have diminished in
size (some have disappeared completely). Nevertheless, the Icefields Parkway is still an amazing
Not missing an opportunity to photograph a plant, Linnaea borealis growing at the forest edge on
the shore of Lake Louise. This circumboreal species forms loose mats with above-ground stolons…
…from which numerous upright stems grow. The species is evergreen, the bright green leaves forming
a carpet over the moss and detritus of the forest floor. Linnaea borealis was named for Carl Linnaeus,
the Swedish botanist who formalised the modern system of taxonomic classification.
The two flowers, growing on a divided stem give rise to the common name “twinflower”. As these
flowers have relatively long corollas, this plant will be Linnaea borealis subsp. longiflora, found
mainly in the Pacific Northwest.
Bow Lake and the Crowfoot Glacier, Banff National Park; unfortunately the crow seems to be
losing its foot. There was, however, an interesting plant on the small scree on the shore -- bottom
left in the picture.
Dryas drummondii, a mat-forming plant of north-western North America, with leathery leaves,
glossy, dark green on the upper surface and white and densely haired underneath.
The scape is slightly hairy and the calyx densely
covered with dark glandular hairs. The yellow
flowers do not open further than these.
From a species growing on a dry stony bank to one that is happy by water’s edge of streams and
lake shores, also in wet meadows, bogs etc. It is often, as here in Banff National Park, hidden by
the surrounding vegetation. The tiny…
…Lobelia kalmii native in most of Canada and the northern states of the U.S.A., particularly around the
Great Lakes. That was the only time we had seen this species, although it is not considered to be rare.
Chamerion latifolium is a circumboreal species found at both arctic and sub-arctic levels, favouring
sand and gravel river bars and other areas flooded by snowmelt. This is a characteristic habitat on the
Sunwapta River north of the Columbia Icefield, Jasper National Park.
It is much shorter than the lowland species (C. angustifolium) and has narrow leaves. It can cover
large areas under favourable conditions.
I would only add the two common names, ‘dwarf fireweed’ and ‘river beauty,’ and let the large
showy purple to magenta flowers speak for themselves.
Finally the Angel Glacier flowing down the north face of Mt. Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park at
the northern end of the Icefields Parkway. This fine figure, photographed in 1982 has been reduced…
Photo – Kristin Repsher
…to this in 2013; it still melting, possibly to disappear completely in the near future. As the plants
we have illustrated are growing under the same conditions responsible for the melting glaciers,
perhaps this presentation should be entitled: Rocky Mountain Wild Flowers in the early 21 st Century.