Saturday, January 19, 2008

Wildflowers of the West

Beargrass wildflowers are best known for their use by Native Americans as a basket weaving material. The fibrous leaves turn from green to white as they dry and are tough and durable. The leaves may also be dyed and are flexible enough to be woven into tight, waterproof weaves. Eastern prairie tribes also used the boiled roots of beargrass wildflowers as a hair tonic and to treat sprains. Beargrass wildflowers are still used today for basket weaving. More recently, beargrass wildflowers have become an important long lasting green in floral bouquets. Many national forests are now issuing permits for the harvesting of beargrass wildflowers for commercial use. Beargrass wildflowers can be grown in gardens in well-drained soils. Don t over-water and do not use commercial fertilizers. Humus and tree needle mulch will make your beargrass wildflowers feel right at home. Beargrass wildflowers are an evergreen herb in the lily family. Colonies of the perennial beargrass wildflower, also known as squaw grass, soap grass and Indian basket grass, bloom in three to seven year cycles. The tall flowering stalks can be up to six feet tall with numerous small white flowers. The conical shape of the flowers makes beargrass wildflowers easily recognizable. Beargrass wildflowers are an important part of the ecosystem in the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada and Coast ranges. Beargrass wildflowers do well in fairly dry, cool sites. Beargrass wildflowers provide food for at least forty species of insects, which in turn pollinate the grass. Many big game animals including deer and elk also favor beargrass wildflower. Pocket gophers and other rodents feed on beargrass wildflowers and grizzly bears sometimes use beargrass wildflowers for winter nesting material for their dens. Beargrass wildflowers have long, thin leaves with toothed edges extending from the base. The central stalk has short, leaf-like extensions along its length. Beargrass wildflowers are an important part of fire ecology and thrive with periodic burns. Beargrass wildflower rhizomes survive fires that clear plant matter from the surface of the ground. Beargrass wildflowers are often the first plant to sprout in burned areas. Another easily recognizable wildflower, the bitterroot, has been an icon in its native state of Montana for centuries. Also know as the resurrection flower, the plant is legendary for its ability to live for more than a year without water. The stem of bitterroot wildflowers is so short that the flower seems almost to sit on the ground. In addition, the leaves die off when the flower blooms, leaving the appearance of a flower emerging directly from the soil. For this reason, bitterroot wildflowers are also called rockroses. Meriwether Lewis collected bitterroot wildflowers on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. The bitterroot wildflower became Montana s state flower by popular vote in 1895. Bitterroot wildflowers have lent their name to a mountain range, a river and the famous Bitterroot Valley. Each year a two-day annual bitterroot wildflowers festival takes place in this valley to celebrate the versatile bitterroot plant. Bitterroot wildflowers are low-growing perennials with fleshy taproots and a branched base. Bitterroot wildflowers blooms in May and June. Each biterroot wildflower plant has a single flower ranging in color from white to a deep pink or rose. The roots of bitterroot wildflowers were considered a luxury and could be traded with other Indian tribes as well as with pioneers and trappers. A sack of the valuable prepared roots could be traded for a horse. Bitterroot wildflowers were an important part of the diet of Montana Indians. Many Montana tribes--including the Flathead, Spokane, Nez Perce, Kalispell and Pend d Oreille--timed their spring migration with the blooming of bitterroot wldflowers. The roots were gathered near what is now Missoula. After being cleaned and dried, the roots were a nutritious, lightweight snack. The roots were cooked before eating and usually mixed with meat or berries. Cakes of the cooked root could be carried and eaten while traveling. A less familiar western wildflower is the owl-clover. Owl-clover wildflowers are a member of the snapdragon family (scrophulariaceae, Orthocarpus). This family numbers 4500 species around the world. The name Orthocarpus is from the Greek orthos, straight, and karpos, fruit. Owl-clover wildflowers are closely related to the Indian paintbrushes. The origin of the common name is obscure, though owl-clover wildflowers do somewhat resemble the head and feathers of an owl. Owl-clover wildflowers are not directly related to other types of clover. Owl-clover wildflowers grow on low ground in dry, open sites such as meadows in most parts of Montana. Owl-clover wildflowers also grow in Canada, Minnesota, California, Nebraska, New Mexico and northwestern Mexico. Owl-clover wildflowers are winter annuals six to eight inches tall. The yellow, white or purple petals are actually bracts surrounding very small, nearly hidden yellow flowers. The leaves alternate along the stalk and may have two narrow side lobes. The owl-clover wildflowers are on narrow spikes and bloom a few at a time. A single owl-clover wildflower plant may have dozens of blooms during a full growing season. Owl-clover wildflowers are a partial parasite that relies on the root system of other plants. Owl-clover wildflowers are mentioned in the journal of Meriweather Lewis on July 2, 1806. Owl-clover wildflowers were later fully described in 1818 by the the English botanist Thomas Nuttall during explorations of what is now North Dakota. The Indian paintbrush, on the other hand, is probably the most recognizable western wildflower. Indian paintbrush wildflowers can be orange, red or yellow. The bright, flowerlike bracts are not the true flower, but almost completely conceal inconspicuous small yellow flowers. Indian paintbrush wildflowers are also known as prairie-fire and grow in dry, sandy areas as well as moist areas. Indian paintbrush wildflowers can be found both on mountainsides and in open meadows. Indian paintbrush wildflowers were adopted as the Wyoming state flower in 1917. The name comes from the fact that some Native American tribes used the bracts as paintbrushes. The roots of Indian paintbrush wildflowers are partially parasitic on other plant roots. Indian paintbrush wildflowers usually grow from 1-2 feet tall. Indian paintbrush wildflowers have the ability to grow in soils with high magnesium, low calcium and high amounts of metals such as chromium and nickel. Although Indian paintbrush wildflowers are edible, they will absorb selenium, and therefore cannot be eaten in large amounts when taken from selenium-rich soils. The Chippewa Indians used Indian paintbrush wildflowers to treat rheumatism and as a hair rinse. Both of these uses of Indian paintbrush wildflowers stem from the high selenium content in some paintbrush plants. Another fascinating western wildflower is the snowberry. Western snowberry wildflowers are part of the honeysuckle family. Snowberry wildflower shrubs grows up to 3 in height and spreads through rhizomes, forming colonies of fruit-bearing plants. Snowberry wildflowers are white to light pink at the end of twigs and upper leaf axils. The common snowberry is a popular shrub in gardens due to its decorative white fruit. Snowberry wildflowers are an important source of winter food for birds including quail, pheasant and grouse. Snowberry wildflowers are a famine food for humans due to their bitterness and the presence of saponins in the berries. Saponins, a substance also found in many beans, can be destroyed by cooking. Snowberry wildflowers have extensive root systems are can be used to stabilize soils on banks and slopes. Snowberry wildflowers grow in open prairies and along streams and lakes in Montana, Washington, Utah, New Mexico, Minnesota and Canada. Saponins are quite toxic to some animals such as fish. Native Americans put large quantities of snowberries in streams and lakes as a fishing technique to stupefy or kill fish. An infusion of the roots from snowberry wildflowers has also been used for inflamed or weak eyes and to aid in convalescence after childbirth. The branches of the snowberry wildflower bush can be made into brooms. The bush is also very tolerant of trimming and can be grown as a medium to tall hedge. A very unique western wildflower is the yucca flower. Yucca wildflowers are one of forty different species that inhabit the southwestern United States and Mexico. Some non-desert species also live in the southeastern United States and in the Carribean Islands. Yucca wildflowers are pollinated by a specific moth. In the absence of this moth, yucca wildflowers must be hand pollinated to survive. Yucca wildflowers are in the lily family as indicated by their cream-colored, bell-shaped flowers. Yucca wildflowers are actually trunkless shrubs also related to the cassava or tapioca family. Yucca wildflower leaves contain strong fibers that can be used to make ropes. Yucca wildflower roots contain a natural red dye used for baskets. A tea from the yucca wildflower buds has been used to treat diabetes and rheumatism. The buds can be eaten like bananas. Yucca wildflowers can be cooked and ground for candy, called colache. The yucca wildflower is the state flower of New Mexico. The study of western wildflowers is fascinating due to their many different uses and their adaptability to harsh climates. Among the jagged Rocky Mountains, western wildflowers add a touch of delicate beauty. Kathleen Karlsen is a professional artist, writer and design consultant residing in Bozeman, Montana. Kathleen is best known for her contemporary impressionism style and her colorful forest, landscape and flower paintings. Kathleen s original art and fine art gifts can be seen at For an extensive article about flower symbolism see To see a selection of Kathleen s flower paintings, please visit

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