Exploring the Wildflowers of the Mountain West

Beargrass Wildflowers

Beargrass wildflowers are best recognized for their use as a basket weaving material by Native Americans. The hairy leaves turn from green to white as they dry and are durable and tough. The leaves may also be stained and are soft enough to be woven into waterproof, tight weaves. Eastern prairie tribes also applied the boiled beargrass wildflower roots as a hair tonic and treated problematic sprains.

Beargrass wildflowers are still utilized today for basket weaving. Lately, beargrass wildflowers have become an essential long-lasting green in decorative bouquets.

Beargrass wildflowers can be planted in gardens in well-drained dirt. Don’t over-water and do not use industrial fertilizers. Tree needle mulch and humus will make your beargrass wildflowers feel right at home.

Beargrass wildflowers are one of the most useful herbs in the lily family. Many perennial beargrass wildflowers, also known as squaw grass, Indian basket grass, and soap grass, bloom in three to six-year cycles. The tall flowering stems can be up to five feet tall with many small white flowers. The pointed shape of the flowers makes beargrass easily recognizable.

Beargrass wildflowers are an essential part of the Sierra Nevada ecosystem, the Rocky Mountains, and the Coast ranges. Beargrass wildflowers do well in relatively dry, undisturbed sites. Beargrass wildflowers produce food for at least thirty species of insects, which in turn pollinate and cross-fertilize the grass. Many big animals, including elk and deer, also love beargrass. Pocket gophers and other rodents feast on beargrass wildflowers, and grizzly bears sometimes use beargrass wildflowers for winter nesting material.

Beargrass wildflowers have thin, long leaves with edges stretching from the base. The central stalk has small, leaf-like branches along its length. Beargrass wildflowers are an essential part of the ecology and thrive with yearly burns. Beargrass wildflower rhizomes can withstand fires that clear plant matter from the surface of the soil. Beargrass wildflowers are the first plant to sprout in fire ridden areas.

Bitterroot Wildflowers

Another wildflower, the bitterroot, has been a symbol in Montana for centuries. This plant is fabled for its ability to live for more than a year with no water. The stem of bitterroot wildflowers is so small that the flower seems like sitting on the ground. The leaves also die off when the flower blooms, leaving the impression of a flower emerging directly from the soil. For this reason, bitterroot wildflowers are also known as rockroses.

Bitterroot wildflowers are low-growing perennials with a branched base and fleshy taproots. Bitterroot wildflowers bloom in June and sometimes even in May. Each bitterroot plant has flowers ranging in color from deep pink to white.

The roots of bitterroot wildflowers have been deemed a luxury and could be traded with other Native Indian tribes as well as with trappers and pioneers. Back in the pre-Colombian days, a sack of the prepared roots could be traded for a full-grown horse.

Bitterroot wildflowers were an essential part of the diet of Montana Indians. Many Montana tribes–including the Kalispell, Spokane, Flathead, Nez Perce, and Pend d’Oreille–timed their spring migration with the bitterroot wildflowers blooming. The roots were collected near the modern-day Missoula. After being dried and cleaned, the roots were a light, nutritious snack. The roots were cooked before serving and usually mixed with berries or meat.

Owl-clover Wildflowers

A less known western wildflower is the owl-clover. Owl-clover is a member of the Scrophulariaceae, Orthocarpus (snapdragon family). This family numbers 4000 species globally.

Owl-clover wildflowers grow on low ground in open, dry sites such as Montana meadows. Owl-clover wildflowers also grow in Nebraska, Minnesota, Canada, California, northwestern Mexico, and New Mexico.

Owl-clover wildflowers grow approximately five to seven inches tall. The white, purple, or yellow “petals” are actually bracts encompassing very small, nearly unseen yellow flowers. The leaves vary along the stalk and may have two thin side lobes. The owl-clover wildflowers bloom a few at a time and are on narrow spikes. A single owl-clover wildflower plant may have numerous blooms during a full growing season.

Indian Paintbrush

On the other hand, the Indian paintbrush, on the other hand, is the most recognizable wildflower in the west. Indian paintbrush wildflowers can be red, yellow, or orange. The bright, flowerlike bracts are not exactly a flower but almost wholly conceal hidden small yellow flowers. Indian paintbrush wildflowers are also recognized as prairie-fire and grow in sandy, dry, and moist areas. Indian paintbrush wildflowers can be seen both in open meadows and on mountainsides.

Indian paintbrush wildflowers were selected as the Wyoming state flower in 1917. The name comes from the fact that Native American tribes used the bracts as paintbrushes.

Indian paintbrush wildflower roots are somewhat parasitic on other plant roots. Indian paintbrush wildflowers usually grow around 1-2 feet tall. Indian paintbrush wildflowers can grow in soils with low calcium, high magnesium, and high metal amounts such as nickel and chromium. Although Indian paintbrush wildflowers are safe to eat, they will absorb selenium, and therefore cannot be consumed in large quantities when taken from selenium-rich soils.

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