Beargrass wildflowers are best known for their use by Native Americans as a material for weaving baskets. The fibrous leaves turn from green to white as they dry and are strong and durable. The sheets can also be dyed and are flexible enough to weave into tight, waterproof fabrics. Eastern prairie tribes also used the boiled roots of beargrass wildflowers as a hair tonic and to treat sprains.
Beargrass wildflowers are still used to weave baskets today. More recently, beargrass wildflowers have become an important long-lasting green in flower bouquets. Many national forests are issuing permits to collect beargrass wildflowers for commercial use. Beargrass wildflowers can be grown in gardens in well-drained soil. Don’t over water and don’t use commercial fertilizers. Humus and tree needle mulch will make your beargrass wildflowers feel like home.
Beargrass wildflowers are an evergreen herb in the lily family. Colonies of the perennial wildflower beargrass, also known as squaw grass, soap grass, and Indian basket grass, bloom in cycles of three to seven years. The tall blooming stems 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, Sierra Nevada, and the coast. Beargrass wildflowers do well in fairly dry and cool locations. Beargrass wildflowers provide food for at least forty species of insects, which in turn pollinate the grass. Beargrass wildflowers are also preferred by many large game animals, including deer and elk. Pocket gophers and other rodents feed on beargrass wildflowers and brown bears sometimes use beargrass wildflowers as winter nesting material for their dens.
Beargrass wildflowers have long, thin leaves with serrated edges that extend from the base. The central stem has short leaf-like extensions along its length. Beargrass wildflowers are an important part of fire ecology and thrive on periodic burns. Beargrass wildflower rhizomes survive fires that clean plant matter from the soil surface. Beargrass wildflowers are often the first plant to sprout in burned areas.
Another easily recognizable wildflower, the bitter root, has been an icon in its home state of Montana for centuries. Also known as the resurrection flower, the plant is legendary for its ability to live for more than a year without water. The stem of bitter-root wildflowers is so short that the flower seems to almost sit on the ground. Also, the leaves die when the flower blooms, leaving the appearance of a flower emerging directly from the ground. For this reason, bitter-root wildflowers are also called rockrose. Meriwether Lewis collected bitter-root wildflowers on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition.
The bitter root wildflower became the state flower of Montana by popular vote in 1895. Bitterroot wildflowers have reduced their name to a mountain range, a river, and the famous Bitterroot Valley. Every year, an annual two-day bitterroot wildflower festival is held in this valley to celebrate the versatile bitterroot plant.
Bitter-root wildflowers are low-growing perennials with fleshy main roots and a branching base. Bitter-root wildflowers bloom in May and June. Each biterroot wildflower plant has a single flower that ranges in color from white to deep pink or rose.
The roots of bitter-root wildflowers were considered a luxury and could be traded with other Indian tribes, as well as pioneers and trappers. A sack of the valuable prepared roots could be exchanged for a horse.
Bitter-root wildflowers were an important part of the Montana Indian diet. Many Montana tribes, including the Flathead, Spokane, Nez Perce, Kalispell, and Pend d’Oreille, synchronized their spring migration with the blooming of bitter-root wildflowers. The roots were collected near what is now Missoula. After cleaning and drying, the roots became a nutritious and light snack. The roots were cooked before eating and generally mixed with meat or berries. The baked root cakes can be carried and eaten on the go.
A less familiar western wildflower is the owl-clover. Owl and clover wildflowers are members of the snapdragons family (scrophulariaceae, Orthocarpus). This family has 4500 species worldwide. The name Orthocarpus comes from the Greek orthos, rectum, and karpos, fruit. Owl and clover wildflowers are closely related to Indian brushes. The origin of the common name is obscure, although owl and clover wildflowers look a bit like an owl’s head and feathers. Owl and clover wildflowers are not directly related to other types of clover.
Owl and clover wildflowers grow in low ground in dry, open places, such as meadows in most of Montana. Owl and clover wildflowers also grow in Canada, Minnesota, California, Nebraska, New Mexico, and northwestern Mexico.
Owl and clover wildflowers are winter annuals six to eight inches tall. The yellow, white, or purple “petals” are actually bracts surrounding very small, almost hidden yellow flowers. The leaves alternate along the stem and may have two narrow side lobes. Owl and clover wildflowers have narrow spikes and bloom a few at a time. A single owl clover wildflower plant can bear dozens of flowers during an entire growing season. Owl and clover wildflowers are a partial parasite that depends on the root system of other plants.
The owl and clover wildflowers are mentioned in Meriweather Lewis’s journal on July 2, 1806. The owl and clover wildflowers were later fully described in 1818 by the English botanist Thomas Nuttall during explorations of what is now it’s North Dakota.
The Indian paintbrush, on the other hand, is probably the most recognizable western wildflower. Indian brush wildflowers can be orange, red, or yellow in color. The glossy, flower-like bracts are not the true flower, but they almost completely hide small, inconspicuous yellow flowers. Indian brush wildflowers are also known as prairie fire and grow in dry, sandy areas as well as wet areas. Indian brush wildflowers can be found both on mountain slopes and in open meadows.
Indian brush wildflowers were adopted as a Wyoming state flower in 1917. The name comes from the fact that some Native American tribes used the bracts as brushes.
The roots of Indian brush wildflowers are partially parasitic on other plant roots. Indian brush wildflowers generally grow 1 to 2 feet tall. Indian brush wildflowers have the ability to grow in soils that are high in magnesium, low in calcium, and high in metals such as chromium and nickel. Although Indian brush wildflowers are edible, they will absorb selenium and therefore cannot be eaten in large quantities when taken from selenium rich soils.
The Chippewa Indians used Indian brush wildflowers to treat rheumatism and as a hair rinse. Both uses of Indian brush wildflowers stem from the high selenium content in some brush plants.
Another fascinating western wildflower is the snow berry. Western snowberry wildflowers are part of the honeysuckle family. Snowberry wildflower bushes grow up to 3 ‘tall and spread through rhizomes, forming colonies of fruit plants. Snowberry wildflowers are white to light pink in color at the end of twigs and the axils of the upper leaves. The common blackberry is a popular shrub in gardens because of its decorative white fruit.
Snowberry wildflowers are an important winter food source for birds, including quail, pheasant, and grouse. Snowberry wildflowers are a starvation 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 that can be used to stabilize soils on banks and slopes. Snowberry wildflowers grow in open grasslands 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 place large amounts of snow berries in streams and lakes as a fishing technique to stun or kill fish. An infusion of the roots of snowberry wildflowers has also been used for inflamed or weak eyes and to aid convalescence after childbirth.
The branches of the snowberry wildflower bush can be made into brooms. The shrub is also very tolerant of pruning 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 on the islands of the Caribbean. Yucca wildflowers are pollinated by a specific moth. In the absence of this moth, yucca wildflowers must be hand pollinated to survive.
Yucca wildflowers belong to the lily family, as indicated by their cream-colored, bell-shaped flowers. Yucca wildflowers are actually trunkless shrubs that are also related to the cassava or tapioca family. Yucca wildflower leaves contain strong fibers that can be used to make rope. The roots of wild yucca flowers contain a natural red dye that is used for baskets.
A tea made from the buds of cassava wildflowers has been used to treat diabetes and rheumatism. The buds can be eaten like bananas. Yucca wildflowers can be cooked and ground into a caramel, 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 rugged Rocky Mountains, western wildflowers add a touch of delicate beauty.