Kinnickinnick, or bearberry, which grows throughout the forests of the West, often goes unnoticed because it is not a showy plant. It is one of my favorites because each spring, when the arrival of warm weather seems utterly improbable, kinnickinnick’s bright red berries and tiny evergreen leaves are the first to emerge from under the snow. Its resilience always reassures me the earth will come back to life.
Originally, kinnickinnick was a trading term eastern tribes gave to all plants that could be smoked. The term moved westward with the settlers and soon became the name for this little member of the Heath Family, whose leaves and bark can be smoked.
Kinnickinnick’s berries, which stay on the plant through the winter, are edible but not very palatable. Regardless, tribes mixed the berries into soups or ground them up and moistened them with bear grease or salmon oil. They also popped them like popcorn. Dried berries were used in rattles.
The scientific name for kinnickinnick is Arctostaphylos urva-ursi. The leaves, which are referred to medicinally as “urva ursi”, are used in teas and tinctures to heal the urinary tract of infections and to ease arthritis.
In the wild, it’s an important colonizer species in compromised soils. So for those of you who want a hardy, native ground cover, kinnickinnick is your friend! It takes abuse well, is easy to transplant, and it spreads readily. And beyond all that, kinnickinnick is just a fun word to say!
Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, is one of my favorite flowers because it is tough and the deer don’t seem to like it. Its shallow roots make transplanting easy and it tolerates some neglect in the process. It is drought resistant and spreads by shallow rhizomes, so it fills my flower garden even when I forget to water it!
Yarrow is in the Composite Family, not the Parsley Family as some might guess, so please learn to identify it correctly before using it. To the untrained eye, some poisonous plants can be mistaken for yarrow.
With a magnifying glass you can see that the flowers in each flower head consist of a bunch of teenier flowers, which are, in fact, a conglomeration of the Composite Family’s signature ray and disk flowers.
Yarrow offers a wide array of medicinal properties and it’s helpful to keep some of them in mind no matter where you are. Yarrow’s most significant property is its blood-clotting ability. It has been used to staunch bleeding for thousands of years, earning it the name herbal militaris in ancient Greek times, and soldier’s woundwort during the Civil War. Its additional antiseptic and numbing properties help with just about any wound. You can use it on bee stings or yellow jacket bites or to stop nosebleeds. It’s aromatic fragrance acts as an insecticide and fumigant.
Yarrow also improves circulation of peripheral blood vessels so yarrow tea is helpful for certain types of headaches. It lowers blood pressure, breaks fevers, and helps reduce menstrual bleeding. It can cause miscarriages so pregnant women should avoid it, but tea taken after delivering your baby helps reduce bleeding.
Do your own yarrow research. You’ll be surprised at how much healing such a “common” plant can provide.
It’s a good beargrass year. The slopes on either side of Hwy 83 are filled with their tall, crazy looking flowers. It’s worth taking a drive or hiking up a trail to witness how beautifully their white blooms decorate our forest-covered mountains.
Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) is in the Lily Family. Each stalk has hundreds of flower buds, which start blooming from the bottom of the stalk and bloom upwards to the top. Blooming patches of beargrass light the forest up as if they were torches. The fun thing is you can enjoy their display from early June into July by going up to higher elevations.
It takes years for one clump of beargrass to store up enough energy to create a blooming stalk. Once it blooms the clump dies back but the energy stored in its tissues is passed on to an adjacent clump. Colonies of beargrass bloom every 3 to 7 years, sometimes all the plants in the colony bloom at same time.
Bears eat the tender leaf shoots in early spring, but by summer those leaves get tough with sharp edges and the only ones brave enough to eat them are mountain goats. Rodents, elk, and bighorn sheep eat the flowers and seedpods and pollinators frequent the flowers. The large leafy clumps provide great overstory habitat for rodents, and grizzly bears sometimes use their leaves in their winter dens.
Beargrass leaves are an important weaving material for Native Americans. Native people used fire to revitalize landscapes and beargrass benefited from this practice. It is quite fire hardy. The new shoots, which sprouted up quickly after a fire, were sought after for weaving.
The purple flower currently blooming in the flat lands is camas. As you drive along Hwy 200 through Potomac you can see several purple-tinged fields off to the north. The purple is the camas flowers.
Camas, Camassia quamash, is in the Lily Family. The root of purple camas was a main food source for Native people on the western side of the Rockies up into British Columbia. It was a highly prized trading commodity, especially with tribes who lived where camas did not grow. The bulbs could be eaten raw but were usually roasted in a pit from one to three days, which turned their starches into fructose making the bulbs sweet.
A word of caution: There are two kinds of camas – purple and death camas – and they grow in the same habitats. Death camas contains strychnine and will kill you if eaten. You can only distinguish between the two plants when they are in bloom – death camas has creamy white flowers and edible camas is purple. So please don’t dig any up. It’s absolutely not worth the risk.
Camas was cultivated by Native tribes. Families “managed” the same camas fields for generations. The bulbs were harvested with digging sticks, the land burned with low-intensity fires, and death camas weeded out. Under this intensive care the camas prairies thrived.
But when white settlers moved West and began plowing under camas prairies, it robbed tribes of a major source of sustenance and presented a real threat to their survival. The whites' destruction of camas prairies on Nez Perce lands in northeastern Oregon and the US government's efforts to move the Nez Perce away from their lands onto a small reservation in Idaho led to the Nez Perce War.
I didn’t fully appreciate how incredible our balsamroot bloom was until Juan and I took my mother to the Bison Range. Mom was a flower gardener and had lived back East her whole life so we weren’t sure how she’d respond to the drier habitat balsamroot prefers.
The flowers were at their peak, as they are right now in the Seeley Swan, and from the Bison Range vista point Mom looked out at the endless, overlapping hillsides cloaked in yellow blooms, interlaced with the purples, whites, and pinks from other wildflowers.
That night she thanked me, telling me the balsamroot were far more beautiful and moving than any horticultural garden. “I have never seen anything like it before,” she said smiling. “The earth made all those flowers with no help from human hands.”
Arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) is a member of the Composite Family (Asteraceae) and the entire plant is edible. The name comes from its arrow-shaped leaves and the balsam smell of its taproot.
Balsamroot is a very important year-round food source for all classes of wildlife and domestic livestock and is being used to help restore landscapes and improve grazing lands.
Native Americans ate all parts of Balsamroot and also used it medicinally in a variety of ways because of its antibacterial properties. The seeds are plentiful, but only remain viable for five to six years, unlike some native grass and forb (flower) seeds, which can still germinate after being in the ground a couple of centuries!
Balsamroot sprouts each spring from its deep taproot, which can grow to be four inches thick and eight feet deep. Once the plant dies down, it’s brittle leaves litter the landscape. They are combustible and will carry a low fire, but balsamroot survives fire quite well because of its large taproot and actually benefits from low-intensity fires.
The girth of each plant gets wider over the years as it adds whorls of new leaves every growing season. If you examine a hillside of balsamroot you’ll see some are quite small but others can be two feet across at the base. Those are the “old growth” balsamroot and they can be up to 60 years old!
I couldn’t agree more with Mom. We are indeed, blessed each spring to be surrounded by such vibrant color and life!
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.