The color of summer: Wildflowers on public lands

7/5/2017

Wildflowers adorn public lands across the country in a rainbow of color. Blooming at different times, hundreds of unique plants amaze nature lovers from early spring to late fall. Sometimes opening in massive displays, wildflowers can fill meadows, surround lakes and stretch across mountainsides as far as the eye can see. In purples, reds, blues and yellows, these wildflowers are a true natural wonder. 

Check out some of our favorite wildflowers and the public lands they brighten.

Beargrass

White beargrass flowers grow on the side of a mountain with a gorgeous mountain valley opening up in the background.
Beargrass growing in Glacier National Park in Montana. Photo by Tim Rains, National Park Service.

Don’t let the name fool you -- Beargrass is not a grass at all, but rather part of the flowering herb family. Beargrass can grow up to 5 feet in height and contains a cluster of small, white rosettes at the top of its stalk. Each of these rosettes will bloom only once. Bears do not eat it, but they do use it as denning material. The plant is commonly found in Glacier National Park, Montana, but can also be found in subalpine meadows and coastal mountains throughout the Pacific Northwest and northern Rockies. 

Rhododendron

Large pink flowers blossom from a green shrub on the side of a mountain under a sunset sky.
Rhododendrons blooming along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. Photo by J. Smilanic (www.sharetheexperience.org).

In June and early July, people travel from great distances to see the rhododendrons blooming in the Appalachian Mountains. Found along stream valleys and on mountain slopes, these shrubs grow in thickets dense enough to hide deer. With rolling green mountains in the background, brilliant blooms of bright pink flowers are favorite subjects of nature photographers and artists. Due to variations in temperature, elevation and soil conditions, rhododendrons can flower at different times in different locations, so enthusiasts spend the season “chasing the bloom.” Join them along the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina. If you’re on the west coast, mid-May to early-June is the best time to see these lovely native flowers at Redwood National and State Parks in California.

Cahaba lily

Large white flowers with spiky petals bloom in clumps in the shallow waters of a wide river.
Cahaba lilies at Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. Photo by Keith Boseman (www.sharetheexperience.org).

The Cahaba lily is an aquatic flowering plant, which grows only in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. A type of spiderlily belonging to the amaryllis family, the Cahaba lily is noted for the striking beauty of its 3-inch-wide white flowers. The lily requires a very specialized habitat -- swift-flowing water over rocks and lots of sun -- which restricts it to only a few places. Cahaba lilies bloom from mid-May to mid-June (or Mother’s Day to Father’s Day). The best and largest populations are located at Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama.

Fireweed

Bright pink flowers grow in a massive display of color at the base of a small mountain ridge.
Fireweed at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska. Photo by National Park Service.

Fireweed is known as a pioneer plant -- one that can move in and take root very quickly after a disturbance such as fire. Each of its seeds has a tuft of cottony fibers, which allows it to be widely dispersed by the wind. This ability to colonize also makes it quite prominent along roadsides and trails. It often forms large, colorful patches since it can spread by underground stems as well as by seeds. Fireweed is widely distributed throughout the western states and extends north into Alaska where it comes in as glaciers recede. Look for its pink flowers at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska.

Colorado blue columbine

Small clumps of light blue flowers are scattered across a wide, green mountain valley.
Colorado blue columbine growing at Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Also known as Rocky Mountain columbine, Colorado blue columbine grows more than a mile above sea level and offers gorgeous displays of ornate, pale blue flowers. The outer parts of the flower, called sepals, often differ in shade from the five central petals. These perennials bloom in early summer along mountain streams and damp meadows. You’ll see them when you stop to catch your breath at Handies Peak Wilderness Study Area and Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Summer poppy

Yellow flowers carpet the desert floor to the edge of a narrow, shallow canyon on a bright, sunny day.
Summer poppy at Gila Lower Box Canyon Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico. Photo by Mike Howard, Bureau of Land Management.

Spreading out in a blanket of orange, summer poppy is common to sandy grasslands and slopes in Arizona, California and New Mexico. A deep root system allows the plant to thrive even after seasonal rains have past. The flowers have five petals and their thick, hairy stems can grow up to 3 feet tall. Even though they lack any fragrance, their bright color attracts pollinators from bees to wasps to butterflies. Witness a gorgeous display of them at Gila Lower Box Canyon Wilderness Study Area in New Mexico.

Broadleaf lupine

A small tan deer stands on a sloping hillside covered in colorful flowers.
A deer walking through wildflowers at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. Photo by Steve Redman, National Park Service.

Carpeting hillsides and meadows west of the Rocky Mountains, broadleaf lupine puts on a spectacular purple display in the summer. Found in abundance in meadows and open areas, these delicate flowers have a hairy, branched stem and up to 8 leaflets per leaf. Broadleaf lupine can grow in elevations of up to 5,000 feet. Marvel at a field of broadleaf lupine at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. Even the deer think they’re pretty!

Prairie sunflowers

A large field of yellow flowers runs back to a line of tall, curving sand dunes with tall mountains in the distance.
Prairie sunflowers at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado. Photo by Patrick Myers, National Park Service.

Pollinated by both bees and flies, the prairie sunflower derives its Genus name Helianthus from the Greek words “helios” and “anthos” meaning “sun” and “flower” respectively. This celebrated plant is known for its bright yellow color and breathtaking displays. Sometimes they grow over 4 feet tall. These popular flowers originated in the dry prairies of the western U.S. and often bloom throughout the summer in large numbers, but never in shady areas. You can see fields of them from June to September at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado and at the base of the mountains near Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Milkweed

An orange and black monarch butterfly stands on a milkweed plant with a bundle of small pink flowers.
Monarch butterfly on milkweed at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota. Photo by Tom Koerner, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Who can blame butterflies and hummingbirds for being attracted to the beautiful, bright flowers and sweet nectar of milkweed? Milkweed, found in all but seven western states, grows in the sunny, well-drained soils of prairies, open woods, canyons and hillsides. These flowers are perhaps best known for their relationship with monarch butterflies. Adult females lay their eggs on the underside of milkweed leaves and monarch caterpillars eat only milkweed --without this plant, there would be no monarchs. Recent studies have found even more amazing uses for these plants, including in medicine and insulation. If you live in an area where it thrives, plant some milkweed in your yard. Otherwise, look for it at Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and many other public lands.

Claret cup cactus

On a rocky, desert landscape, a small cactus with spiky knobs and red flowers blooms next to a rock wall.
Claret cup cactus at Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Photo by Neal Herbert, National Park Service.

This strange plant, often referred to as “Hedgehog Cactus” because of its resemblance to the hedgehog, incorporates both the prickly mounds of the cactus and the beauty of its scarlet red flowers. These eye-catching flowers are mainly pollinated by hummingbirds rather than the usual bees and beetles. Look out for the remarkable Claret cup cactus growing on dry desert landscapes in the Southwest like Colorado National Monument in Colorado and Canyonlands National Park in Utah. 

Blazing star

Tall plants with bundles of spiky purple flowers grow in a wide green field.
Blazing star growing at Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin. Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Let the name of this flower speak for itself! With bright purple flowers and hairy pink bracts, blazing star is a spectacular species of wildflower. Typically growing in wet conditions, this vibrant plant can reach a height of 2-4 feet. Find blazing star blooming between late July and September across the central and eastern United States. Public lands like Mississippi National River and Recreation Area in Minnesota and Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin are great places to see these beautiful plants.

Sneezeweed

A close up picture of big yellow flowers.
Sneezeweed blooming at Port Louisa National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Photo by Jessica Bolser, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sneezeweed is a perennial plant in the aster family. Its yellow flowers bloom in late summer to fall, often attracting bees and butterflies. Common sneezeweed can be found in much of the United States, in moist fields, shores and thickets. The plant's stem can reach 5 feet or more in height and branches near the top, resulting in many flowers on each plant. It’s name comes from its use as snuff by Native Americans. Look for it blooming like bright yellow balls at Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge in Wyoming.
 
Learning to identify wildflowers can add to your enjoyment of the outdoors and strengthen your connection to nature. Get out there and see them!