Wildflower season: Big winter snow means big summer bloomsBy Kelsey Dayton — June 10, 2014
I have vivid childhood memories of searching for wildflowers. I believed that where there lived fields of flowers, there lived colonies of fairies. I searched paths and trails, and when I spotted a flower, it was like finding hidden treasure.
In Wyoming, wildfowers aren’t hard to find, but there is still something magical about stumbling across a swath of electric colors. This year, it won’t take much stumbling.
Winter’s hefty snowpack means a fabulous year for wildflowers, said Heidi Anderson, botanist and wetland ecologist in Yellowstone National Park. Not only will blooms be abundant, this may be the year to see some native annuals that only bloom in wet years.
Snow also means the flowers will bloom later. Anderson spotted steer’s head by May 5 in 2013, but by May 18 this year, they weren’t fully blooming in the same areas. Glacier lily, yellow bells, sage buttercup, nineleaf biscuitroot, tiny trumpet, shooting stars and more are already in bloom. That means that wildflower season will last all summer – if you know where to look.
Where to see flowers in Yellowstone depends on what you want to see, Anderson said. The easiest place to find steer’s head is at Old Faithful. Turkey pea, while abundant outside the park, is found within the boundaries only on the West Entrance road. Yellowstone’s floral diversity is due to the thermal areas, which allow several suites of plants that thrive only near thermal
Flowers are also blooming later in Grand Teton National Park, said spokeswoman Jackie Skaggs. The yellow bells and spring beauties should begin carpeting the valley floor toward the end of June. As the snow melts, the flowers will create stellar photo ops as they settle around the base of the Tetons, she said. Looking for forget-me-nots and other delicate yet hardy flowers that bloom at 10,000 feet? You’ll have to wait until August.
Grand Teton is known for its flowers. People started calling in May, asking about which flowers were blooming, Skaggs said. They thought staff was joking when told there was still snow in the park.
What makes the area’s wildflowers so special is the diversity of species concentrated in a single area, said Mike Nicklas, a Grand Teton ranger. Including flowering trees, there are more than 1,100 flower species documented in the park. You can even find an occasional cactus.
The ecological recipe – soil, moisture and sunlight – allow a diverse array of flowers to thrive, Nicklas said. The flowers form something like a patchwork quilt. Each square is a community where the plants thrive in specific conditions, so a wetland area will support different flowers than a wooded area. It’s not uncommon to find 20 different species of flowers in a community and 40 in an area where two communities meet.
“You feel like Julie Andrews in the move ‘Sound of Music,’” Nicklas said.
The snowpack means that flowers will likely arrive 10 days to two weeks later than usual. In the park, they start at the south end of the valley and come in like a ripple across the land. The valley’s north end is always about two weeks behind.
Skaggs is already planning summer outings looking for orchids, those “rare little treasures” she sometimes finds in boggy areas. “There’s just that little touch of magic when you get to see a fairy slipper,” she said.
It’s almost as good as seeing a fairy.
Wyoming wildflowers in Yellowstone, where to look:
* Camas flowers are always beautiful and especially abundant in the Lake area. They have a short blooming window of about two weeks in mid-July.
* Dunraven Road always provides nice wildflower viewing opportunities and this year should be spectacular.
* Showy penstemons bloom in mid-June in the Gardiner and Mammoth area of the park. The road between the two areas is home to evening primrose, an aromatic large white flower that blooms in the evening. Another white-blossomed evening bloomer, the blazing star, is also found in the area in late August.
* If you love calypsos, look on the Beaver Pond trail and around Slough Creek. If you find them, make sure to bend down; Orchids have a wonderful smell.
* Check out the Upper Mammoth Terraces if you’re headed to the park soon. Larkspur, buttercups and biscuitroot are blooming now.
* Visit the Yellowstone Herbarium http://www.nps.gov/yell/naturescience/herbarium.htm at theHeritage and Research Center and see the park’s 12,000-specimen plant collection.
Appointments are recommended, but people can also drop-in.
— Heidi Anderson, botanist and wetland ecologist in Yellowstone National Park
Wyoming wildflowers in Grand Teton, where to look:
* Antelope Flats Road is easily accessible and flowers are blooming now. Arrowleaf balsamroot, which looks like a smaller sunflower, fills the fields, and the Tetons in the background make it the perfect place for photos.
* Coming out of the canyon to Fox Creek Divide in early August, look for a sea of flowers to the Death Canyon headwall.
* Lake Solitude’s meadows are perfect wildflower habitat. Visit in late July or early August.
* Look for a carpet of lupine near a seasonal pond along the Pilgrim Creek Road – an access road to the Bridger-Teton National Forest boundary that lies just west of the Pilgrim Creek bridge on Hwy 89/287. They should be in full display the end of June.
* Near Colter Bay at the Jackson Lake overlook, a meadow is often covered with white wyethia and blue camas. This could be one of those years where that meadow is at its finest.
* Looking for a wildflower guide? Check out “Plants of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks” by Richard Shaw.
— Jackie Skaggs, spokeswoman Grand Teton National Park— “Peaks to Plains” is a blog focusing on Wyoming’s outdoors and communities. Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide and the Casper Star Tribune. Contact Kelsey at email@example.com. Follow her on twitter: @Kelsey_Dayton
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