A glorious little flower found early in the spring amongst the sage and bunchgrass is the yellow fritillary or yellow bell, Fritillaria pudica. It’s a member of the Lily Family (Liliaceae) and it blooms in the grasslands and ponderosa pine country.
You can tell it’s in the Lily Family because the veins on its leaves all run parallel and its flower parts are in threes - three petals and three sepals. But the sepals, which in most plant families are green, leafy structures that protect the flower in bud stage and cup the flower once it blooms, look exactly like the petals with the same coloration. Botanists call them collectively, tepals.
Yellow bell nods its flower downward, its tepals forming an inverted cup. The entire plant is edible and it was once a main food source for native people. If you’re lucky, you may see the chocolate lily blooming at the same time, but its mottled color, makes it harder to spot. The yellow bell bloom is brief so if flowers make you smile, take a walk in the bunchgrass and see if you can spot some. Happy hunting!
Prairie Star (Lithophragma spp.), is in the Saxifrage Family (Saxifragaceae) and is one of my favorites because of its understatement. There are several different species common in our area . They stand eight to eighteen inches high with leaves low on the plant, so all you notice when you come upon it in the fields is its starlike creamy flowers floating above the earth.
Some species of Prairie Star reproduce by cloning from tiny maroon bulbs that are nestled in the axils of the leaves or branches. These little bulbs will germinate once the original plant falls to the ground.
If you see these leaves while you're hiking, they belong to Prairie Smoke, or what some refer to as Old Man's Whiskers, due to the nature of its seed head. Right now its leaves are coming out all over the hillsides. I'll tell you more about this plant once it starts blooming.
I'd like to be able to recognize all the different stages of the most common plants that grow in our area, but sadly, my brain doesn't completely cooperate. Each year I have to reteach myself. So I make a game of guessing what plant belongs to what leaves or buds as they appear. As the season rolls on and the plants leaf out and bloom and go to seed, I see how accurate my guess was. Challenging oneself to gather more details about the plants broadens the story they tell. It's fun. I highly recommend it. FYI - kids always surpass adults with this memory game so don't be too hard on yourself if you are over 40 and can remember much!
Springbeauty started blooming in the grasslands of the Seeley Swan Valley in early April and its bloom will gradually work its way up in elevation. It is in the Purslane Family (Portulaceae). One of the coolest things about this tiny plant is its ability to move through its life cycle quickly and successfully.
In the fall, when the growing season is done, Springbeauty starts growing from its tiny bulb. Its sprout continues to grow during the winter to just below the soil surface. By doing this it is primed to emerge from the earth as soon as the snow starts melting. When the tiny plant begins growing above ground it burns carbohydrates, which build up heat in its hollow stem, which in turn melts the remaining snow around the growing plant. The stored heat in its "greenhouse" enables springbeauty to photosynthesis, despite the cold air temperatures, allowing it to make an earlier appearance than most flowers. Once the plant has completed its flower and seed cycle it continues storing up carbohydrates in its bulb so that come September, it can start its efficient life cycle once again.
It’s finally spring in the Seeley Swan Valley of Montana, which is where I live. The ground, which just recently seemed brown and lifeless, is beginning to bust forth with flowers!
Wildflowers feel like gifts. No one plants them. No one waters them. They show up and we get to be the recipients of their beauty. Who would think that something so delicate and ephemeral would generate such joy?
Besides its divine beauty, our mountainous country offers the added benefit of hosting a progressive bloom; which means if we yearn for spring in July, we just have to hike uphill to find the delightful faces of the flowers that bloomed on the valley floor in May and June.
The lowlands lose their snow before the forested slopes, so if you need a flower fix right now go walk in the sage and look for one of the earliest blooming flowers in our area, the sagebrush buttercup (Ranunculus glaberrimus). Its tiny yellow blooms are hunkered down close to the ground, so keep your eyes open.
The Buttercup Family (Ranunculaceae) has lots of different flowers in it, many of which are early bloomers and many, at first glance, that don’t seem to be related. Besides the familiar buttercup, some early-blooming members include pasqueflower, larkspur, and sugar bowls.
A few facts: The juices of most buttercup species are mildly toxic and will cause blistering if rubbed on your skin. Mountain tribes used the concentrated juice of the buttercups on arrowheads to help kill their prey. According to Daniel Mathews, author of my favorite natural history book, Rocky Mountain Natural History: Grand Teton to Jasper, larkspurs have been responsible for more cattle deaths than any plant in the West. On the other hand, goldenseal, a member of the Buttercup Family that grows in the eastern US, has well-documented medicinal properties.
One cool thing about snow buttercups, which grow way up high in our mountains, is that they track the sun. Their tracking sensors are in the upper stem, so they’ll still keep following the sun even if their flowers have been broken off. Sun tracking helps warm the flower and improves its chances of being pollinated. Bugs seek out the warmth and bask in the blossom and end up pollinating the flower at the same time. Not a bad exchange!
If you want to learn about the wildflowers firsthand, come on a hike with me in the Seeley Swan Valley. I will share what I know about the plants and landscape.
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