Wild for Wildflowers

5/5/2022

From early spring to late fall, nature puts on a spectacular show with public lands. Wildflowers come in all shapes, sizes, and colors and grow in unusual places. You can see them in mountain meadows and along forest edges, but these colorful displays can surprise you in salt marshes and across desert plains.

To help you change your doomscrolling to bloomscrolling, here are a few of our favorite wildflowers and the public lands where you can find them.

Desert lily

Short purple flowers and tall white flowers grow out of a sandy plain under a sunset sky.
Desert lilies under a California sunset. Photo by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management.

Do you hear the buzzing of spring? The desert lily’s sweet fragrance attracts many types of bees and colorful butterflies. The flower can be found in southeastern California and western Arizona. It grows from a bulb deep within the ground, with a thick stem of one to four feet tall. The leaves have wavy edges and are greenish-gray in color. Its large flowers are cream-colored and funnel-shaped and appear in clusters that can be up to a foot long. See stunning displays of these desert beauties at the Bureau of Land Management’s Mojave Trails National Monument in California.

Arrowleaf balsamroot 

Yellow flowers cover a field with a rugged mountain range behind it.
A field of arrowleaf balsamroot blooms under a sunbeam-streaked sky at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Photo by Anand Soundarajan (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Arrowleaf balsamroot is found throughout the Rocky Mountain region, growing at elevations between 4,000 and 8,000 feet. Thick on hillsides or flatlands, this sunny blossom is sure to brighten your hike. The wedge-shaped leaves are greenish-silver in color and are covered with a sheen of felt-like hairs. The plant is like a sunflower, in that it springs from a single stalk with a many-petaled bloom at the tip. See them with spectacular mountain backdrops at North Cascades National Park in Washington and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Silky phacelia

Two tall purple flowers grow above tall grass with a mountain lake in the background.
Silky phacelia lends a vibrant purple splash to a Glacier National Park hillside. Photo by Jessica Loewecke (www.sharetheexperience.org).

Silky phacelia grows in western states above 7,000 feet where temperatures are cool enough to promote the seedlings’ germination. These delicate purple flowers are a joy to see when hiking or biking. The flowers stem from a woody base and the tiny blossoms are arranged in clusters that are often coiled like a scorpion’s tail. Silky phacelia has a sweet smell and is popular with bees. Spot their purple brilliance along hillsides at Glacier National Park in Montana and Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness in Idaho.

Joe-pye weed 

Tall pink flowers grow next to a wide river on a misty day.
Joe-pye weed at Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in West Virginia. Photo by Gerri Wilson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Joe-pye weed has a bright pink, fuzzy blossom. It's a flower that has become popular in gardens across the United States. It grows natively in most states except the Deep South and dry Southwest. Its flowers are pinkish and grow in domed or flat clusters at the top of a tall woody stem. The plant is quite hardy, blooming when many other plants are finished and vibrantly lasting until the first hard frost of the season. The plant was named after a Native American healer who was said to use it to cure illnesses. Look for it in wet areas in Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge and Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area.

Dollarjoint prickly pear

Bright yellow flowers grow from the top of a large spiky cactus.
Dollarjoint prickly pear cacti at Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Hannah Schwalbe, National Park Service.

These sunny flowers are nice to look at but don’t touch the spines! Dollarjoint prickly pear cacti grow in paddle-like formations with long, sharp spikes pointing out. You can see them while hiking in the desert or near-desert regions of the United States on public lands like Joshua Tree National Park in California and Saguaro National Park in Arizona. They thrive in rocky crevasses and sandy soil. The plants can conserve precious water inside of their thickly husked paddles, enabling them to survive on very little moisture. 

Gumbo lily 

A clump of white flowers grow along a rocky sloping hill.
Gumbo lily at Badlands National Park. Photo by National Park Service.

Like most lilies, the gumbo lily — also called evening primrose — is a fragrant flower. It can be found in the western United States, growing low to the ground in dry or sandy soils on buttes or exposed hillsides at places like Badlands National Park in South Dakota and Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Each large, white flower has four heart-shaped petals and eight yellow stamens. The plant rises from lateral roots, which makes it easy for it to spread over chalky hillsides. The blossoms appear throughout the hot summer months, opening in the late afternoon and closing the next morning. So, enjoy the show while it lasts. 

Cardinal flower 

A small green and white hummingbird flies next to a tall red flower.
A hummingbird feasts on the nectar of this cardinal flower at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania. Photo by Bill Buchanan, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The cardinal flower grows in marshes, stream banks and low forests from New York to Arkansas. Its super-bright red, tubular flowers attract hummingbirds that drink the flower’s sweet nectar. The flower branches from a one to six-foot-long stem. It is generally in bloom from June to October. The plant prefers the shade and damp to full sun and drier conditions. Buffalo National River in Arkansas and John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge in Pennsylvania are good places to spot these splashes of red color. 

Lewis’s monkeyflower

A clump of purple flowers grow from a bush on a hilltop with a large snow covered mountain behind it.
Monkey flower overlooks a valley in North Cascades National Park in Washington. Photo by Deby Dixon, National Park Service.

When Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery across the continent from 1804 through 1806, they encountered plants and animals yet to be identified by science. One of these discoveries was a lovely plant that blooms with bright pink and purple flowers. Bearing the name of one of the explorers, Lewis’s monkeyflower grows in bunches along mountain stream banks in the northwest United States. The vivid pink blossom resembles a weak grin, hence their Latin name “mimulus lewisii.” Mimulus comes from the Latin word for mime. We hope the plant makes you grin when you see it at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington and on — of course — Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in Idaho.

Saltmarsh mallow 

A large bee crawls into a wide pink flower.
A carpenter bee on saltmarsh mallow at Everglades National Park in Florida. Photo by A. Tintori, National Park Service.

Found along the Atlantic and Gulf coast from Maryland to Florida to Texas, the saltmarsh mallow is a hibiscus-like flower that is very tolerant of salt water. When these large flowers bloom (from May to October), they attract bees, butterflies and other insects.  The plant grows in many-branched formations that can be up to four feet wide. They can reach a height of five feet. Beyond its ornamental use, the saltmarsh mallow is planted as a buffer between saltwater areas and agricultural fields. Due to its high oil content, it is also an excellent candidate to be used for biodiesel. Unfortunately, the plant does not taste like marshmallows. Butterflies and hummingbirds appreciate this lovely flower at Everglades National Park in Florida and Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina.

Prairie smoke 

Tall green plants are topped with wispy reddish flowers.
Prairie smoke clusters under a bluebird sky on the open prairie. Photo by Rick Bohn, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Prairie smoke, so named for its tendrilled resemblance to actual smoke, is a fascinating flower. An early-season bloomer, it begins to flower in April and drifts away in June. The plant prefers open prairie or hillsides and can be found growing among bluebells, lupine and other assorted wildflowers. It is unique because of its fuzzy, many-stalked blossom structure. Its blooms are generally red, but can also come in shades of pink, reddish-purple or even brown. Prairie smoke is most prevalent on midwestern prairies at places like Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge in North Dakota.

Some are pretty and some are prickly, but all wildflowers are wonderful in their own way. Preservation of these treasured plants is important for local habitats and for future generations to enjoy the many types of beautiful flowers. So, remember to keep on designated park trails and respect natural spaces by leaving them as you found them. See you out there!

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