Blue flax, white phlox and occasional bright red Indian paintbrush are in bloom, providing nature’s red, white and blue celebration ahead of the Fourth of July. While the dump of snow earlier in the week made it feel more like winter than late spring for a couple days, heading into the weekend the weather looks downright delightful, although a bit breezy. With flowers really taking off, now is a great time to enjoy a leisurely hike in search of wildflowers.
Jennifer Thompson, small acreage outreach coordinator at the University of Wyoming Extension, offers a few tips on identifying Wyoming wildflowers, as well as a few suggestions on routes to take. She admits that hiking with a botanist as a guide is a great way to learn to identify plants. However, this year such organized outings aren’t available. Still, there are other ways to learn to identify a few of the more common wildflowers.
The Barnyards and Backyards website (uwyo.edu/barnbackyard) has a photo guide of plants found on the prairie east of town. It offers photographs of 36 plant species observed during an organized plant and geology hike of the area that was held a couple years ago.
“This is the area known as the ‘Schoolyard’ that takes off from the corner of 45th and East Crow Drive,” Thompson said. “It has great variety as you hike on up the canyon.”
Plants to be found include fleabane, alpine clover, stoneseed and star lily. Photographs of all of these are on the website. One you want to avoid stepping on without sturdy shoes, the mountain ball cactus, has lovely pink blooms this time of year in spite of its prickly surface.
While this route has the benefit of leaving right from the edge of town, if you have more time and want to hike a little longer, drive east to the Happy Jack Recreation Area. The best thing about this maze of trails is the myriad of options. A person can just take off and opt for a long route or a short one. A path that Thompson recommends is the Haunted Forest Trail. To find it and other great routes in the maze of options, download a map from the University of Wyoming Outdoor Program website (uwyo.edu/rec/outdoor-program).
One species you might spot is the penstemon, or beardtongue. These showy flowers range in color from almost neon purple to a light baby blue. Indian paintbrush and phlox are also likely along these mid-elevation trails.
For a day-long outing, head west to the Medicine Bow Mountains. Prairie plants are abloom at the lower elevations with pussytoes, wild onion and wallflower. Plan for numerous stops when driving up the mountain on Highway 130. Along the way you’ll go through montane, sub-alpine and even alpine ecosystems.
There’s still a good bit of snow at Libby Flats but, once it’s clear or mostly melted, that area offers an amazing array of low-lying or cushion plants. Note the krummholz pine trees. These stunted trees indicate the predominant direction of the wind. They have normal growth on the leeward, or sheltered side of the tree, while the side into the wind is twisted and deformed.
The Barnyards and Backyards website has a wildflower guide specifically for Libby Flats. Marsh marigolds and glacier lilies pop up early along the snow’s edge, and are a sure sign that spring has come to the high country. Plan to look for those plants early in the season, as the snow recedes.
Another general on-line plant identification site that Thompson really likes is provided by the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory of Gothic, Colo. For novice plant enthusiasts, this site is particularly user-friendly with the plant photographs grouped by flower color. Just click on the color of choice and dozens of options appear.
If you prefer to carry a guidebook with you, one that Thompson finds excellent, especially for novice plant enthusiasts, is “Wildflowers of Wyoming” by Diantha States and Jack States. It is also color-coded so the user can scan through the photographs based on flower color.
The Barnyards and Backyards program typically provides workshops on numerous topics ranging from raising livestock, composting, insect identification and landscaping. Due to Covid-19 concerns, such workshops have gone on-line. Viewers can join “live” via Zoom during the presentation offered by a guest speaker or, if that is not convenient, a recording of the presentation is also available on the website. One such workshop, presented live yesterday, offers tips on native plants to grow in gardens. Wyoming’s native plants in the wild often are completely compatible with a more civilized garden setting. For more information on wildflowers in your garden, check the website for the presentation.