To many, early summer is the prettiest time of year to visit this corner of Montana. It’s the time of year when the high peaks are still capped with snow, the rivers are flowing full and wildflowers blanket the spaces between the two. There are hundreds of kinds of wildflowers that call our mountains home; these are just some of the crowd favorites:
Found in alpine and subalpine forests, the Glacier Lily is one of the first wildflowers to bloom locally. The season’s first traces of this beautiful yellow flower can be spotted as soon as the snow starts to recede; it’s a true sign that summer has arrived in Bozeman, Big Sky and Yellowstone. Although the Glacier Lily is more commonly observed in the late spring and early summer months, it can also be found well into the late summer on high alpine ridges, where snow takes longer to melt.
- Alpine and Subalpine forests
- Suggested trails: Fairy Lake area, Middle Cottonwood Creek
- April – June
- About 8-12 inches tall
- 1-3 bright yellow flowers per plant
- Lemon yellow petals take on a star like shape and white stamens point towards the ground
- Each plant has two wavy basal leaves
- Also known as “Avalanche Lily” and “Dogtooth Fawn Lily.”
- An edible flower, has a lightly sweet and bitter flavor when eaten raw.
- Grizzly bears rely on the bulbs of the Glacier Lily as an early spring food source.
There are several Native American stories that describe how this common wildflower got its name. Regardless of who’s right, in the end, everybody agrees on the fact that this plant actually looks like a paintbrush saturated in red pigment. Its radiant color makes this flower a favorite for hovering hummingbirds, who coincidentally also have an advantage over insects and other birds when it comes to harvesting its sweet nectar, as it doesn’t have a stable place for perching.
- Alpine and Subalpine forests
- Local trails: Mount Blackmore, Beehive Basin
- July – September
- 8-32 Inches tall.
- Paintbrush-like appearance with dense, bushy red leaves and petals on top of a slender stem.
- Primarily red, but also can be found in pink, violet, orange, yellow and even white.
- Also known as “Prairie Fire,” “Butterfly Weed,” “Painted Cup,” “Scarlet Paintbrush,” and “Painted Lady.”
- The bright red portion of the plant that are usually recognized as petals are in-fact bracts, a type of leaf. The flower’s actual petals are red as well, but are much less conspicuous.
A very adaptable wildflower, the Arrowleaf Balsamroot can be found at nearly any elevation, all summer long in Montana. This flower has large, arrow-shaped petals that can span up to six inches wide. As such, it is easily recognizable as a member of the sunflower family, especially when a mature specimen is present.
- Everywhere! Low-elevation prairies, to mountain foothills, to high slopes and ridges.
- Prefers dry open areas and often grows alongside sagebrush and Ponderosa Pine.
- Local Trails: “M” Trail, North Cottonwood, Mount Ellis
- 12-24 inches tall
- Big yellow petals
- Grows in clusters, can often fill entire fields.
- Native Americans used the plant for food and medicine. Young leaves and shoots could be peeled and cooked. The seeds were dried and roasted. As a medicine, the plant was used as a salve to alleviate burns, wounds and cuts.
- A favorite food of deer, elk and bighorn sheep.
The Silky Lupine is one of Montana’s most prolific wildflowers and, conveniently, it’s also one of our prettiest. This flower has a slender profile made up of tiny blue and purple flowers that stagger one another as they climb the mid- and top-portions of the plant’s stem. Finding a field dominated by this species isn’t uncommon. And it isn’t soon forgettable.
- Everywhere. Low-elevation prairies to mountain foothills to high slopes and ridges.
- Local Trails: Brackett Creek, Sypes Canyon
- May – August
- 8-32 Inches tall
- Numerous small flowers in shades of blue and purple
- Dense, palm-like leaves
- Lupines are members of the pea family
- Lupine comes from lupus, the latin word for wolf. There are several origin stories for this name.
Rocky Mountain Iris
With striking purple leaves framed by deep yellow and orange veins, it’s hard to miss a Rocky Mountain Iris. These Montana natives do very well in riparian areas during the early summer months, but their window for flowering is a short one. The color of its flowers range from a pale lilac color to a dark-blue violet.
- Low, damp meadows near rivers, streams, ponds and open woodlands
- Local Trails: South Cottonwood Trail, Bear Canyon
- 12-30 inches tall
- 1-4 flowers per stem
- Long, slender purple petals with yellow-orange veins.
- Like many native Montana flowers, specimens of the Rocky Mountain Iris were collected by Meriwether Lewis in 1906.
- Though its flowering window is short, the Rocky Mountain Iris is known as one of the most drought resistant native irises, as it only needs moisture in the spring to survive.
Montana’s state flower, the Bitterroot, is arguably one of the prettiest, most intricate wildflowers one can see. This flower grows very low to the ground, but its bright pink petals make it very visible and distinguishable from long distances. Unlike the other flowers on the list, the Bitterroot sheds its leaves prior to blossoming.
- Sagebrush plains, lower mountains, gravelly and rocky places.
- Local Trails: Lewis and Clark Caverns Trail System, Chestnut Mountain Trail
- May – June
- Typically bright pink, but flowers can range from deep pink to nearly white
- Flowers are about 2 inches across.
- Single flower per stem
- Grow low to the ground
- The Bitterroot is Montana’s State Flower
- In a nod to Meriwether Lewis, the Bitteroot’s Genus was named “Lewisia”