By Linda Roe
Certified Professional Horticulturist, Wight’s Home & Garden
“You belong among the wildflowers” is a line from an old Tom Petty song I frequently find myself humming on a summer hike. Every gardener needs a day off, and where better to spend it than in nature’s flower garden? All of us enjoy the beauty of a wildflower filled mountain meadow, but gardeners seem to want to know more. We want to know its name, both common and Latin, where it grows, and we want to stop and take a look at the interesting petals or seed heads.
A name can tell us a lot. Most of us know fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), with its tall spikes of magenta pink flowers. It grows in thick stands in open meadows that were recently logged or fire damaged. The nectar from the fireweed flowers makes delicious honey that beekeepers and honey lovers prize. The seed heads are also attractive. You don’t want a trail to take you through a thicket of devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus).
It lives up to its name, the big inflorescence of white flowers sit atop a spiny six foot stem and huge spiny leaves. It is found in wet sites in the woods. Much daintier are twinflowers (Linnaea borealis) growing at your feet. It has two tiny nodding pink bell-like flowers only six inches tall. My daughter’s middle name is taken from the Latin name for this plant.
Some common names are so descriptive that you can match name to flower in seconds. Elephants head plant has flowers that look like trunks and ears of pachyderms growing down the stem (Pedicularis species). Shooting star (Dodecatheon), a member of the primrose family, doesn’t look like a primrose at all. The center of the flower points forward like a beak, its petals flex backward like the tail of a comet. Look for this dainty flower along moist stream banks in early summer. A little more of a stretch are pussytoes (Antennaria), and partridge foot (Luetkea pectinata). You may have to look a little more closely. Many of us have cats, but how many of us have seen a partridge? My favorite is old man of the mountain, named not for the flowers, but for the seed heads. Also known as western pasqueflower (Anemone occidentalis), it is found all over in high mountain meadows.
Once identified, a plant name may also tell us another story. Lewisia and Clarkia were named for the explorers who first described them; Rainier lousewort, Olympic harebell, and Cascade penstemon tell us where they are likely found; and deliciosum at the end of the Latin name will certainly tell you about the flavor of its berries.
Anticipation pushes us upward. A good wildflower hike will take you through many different habitats, from forest to alpine. At some point you are guaranteed to see lupine. There is a species of lupine found in just about any environment, seashore to alpine. Look closely at the petals for subtle color differences while catching their sweet fragrance. As a stream is crossed, red and yellow western columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) catch the eye, along with bright magenta monkey flower (Mimulus) and deep blue larkspur (Delphinium). Now we are switchbacking up the ridge, but the flowers are here, and there’s a photo opportunity at every turn.
Along with lupine, there’s arnica, a member of the daisy tribe, with its bright yellow petals growing on one- to two-foot stems. The plant with showy red feathery flowers is the paintbrush (Castilleja species), found from the Olympics to the Rockies, and is the state flower of Wyoming. Look for the beautiful magenta form, found in abundance on Mt. Rainier. My husband’s favorite flower is bistort (Polygonum), a white bottlebrush-like flower. You will see the stamens sticking out beyond the petals, giving it a fuzzy appearance.
In between the rock crevices you can find two classic, easily recognized flowers: penstemon and creeping phlox which both resemble their garden relatives. Penstemon is a shade of purple or blue; phlox is a light mauve color.
Our hike would not be complete without stopping at a small tarn near snowmelt. Here we find pink or white blooming mountain heather (Phyllodoce), hence the names, Heather Lake, Heather Meadows, Heather Pass.
Of course, there will be plants whose names you don’t know, but that’s part of the fun of a wildflower hike. If you can figure out the plant’s family, it’s easier to narrow down the choices. For example, if it looks like a lily, it could be glacier lily, avalanche lily or Columbia lily. A good field guide will help.
The best guide choices are found at the Park or Forest Service information centers. And the best places for flowers? Hike any trail that goes up into alpine meadows, there are many. (Try wta.org for good info on hikes). Not the hiking type? Drive up to Hurricane Ridge on the Olympic Peninsula or Sunrise Point on Mt. Rainier; the wildflowers are gorgeous even from the parking lot.
Wherever you decide to go, remember that plants grow by the inch but die by the foot, so stay on the trail and take only pictures. Your memory and memory card will be full indeed.