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Western Wildflower Lore

√ Updated: September 14, 2010


Introduction to Western Wildflowers
Beargrass Wildflowers: The Basket Plant
Bitterroot Wildflowers: The Resurrection Flower
Owl-clover Wildflowers: A Western Favorite
Indian Paintbrush Wildflowers: Wyoming State Flower
Snowberry Wildflowers: Poisonous Beauty
Yucca Flower: State Flower of New Mexico


Introduction to Western Wildflowers

Wildflowers have always captured the imagination and symbolized both beauty and freedom. Wildflowers have been depicted in art for millennia. Wildflower paintings often appeal to both men and women, whereas garden flowers are often the realm of women. Keep this in mind when choosing paintings for your home or office! (Photo below by Jim_Sneddon, Wikimedia Commons)

Wildflower LoreIn addition, images of local wildflowers help to give a sense of purpose and belonging. For example, studies have shown that immigrants adapt more quickly to new surroundings if they have a garden or place where plants and flowers native to their place of origin are growing.

The information below will give you a better understanding of the properties and uses of western wildflowers. Many of these flowers have been important to native peoples and have fascinating uses and histories. Wildflowers can add both beauty and meaning to your decor.

Beargrass Wildflowers: The Basket Plant

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 3-7 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. (Photo below courtesy of the National Park Service, Wiki8media Commons)

WIldflower Lore Beargrass PlantBeargrass 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 40 species of insects, who 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.

Wildflower BeargrassBeargrass wildflowers are best known for its 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. (Photo by AlexAH, Wikimedia Commons)

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 a tree needle mulch will make your beargrass wildflowers feel right at home.

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Bitterroot Wildflowers:
The Resurrection Flower


The bitterroot wildflowers have been a Montana icon 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 are 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.

Wildflower SymbolsThe 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. (Photo by moonrhythm, Wikimedia Commons)

Bitterroot wildflowers are low-growing perennials with fleshy taproots and a branched base.  Bitterroot wildflowers blooms in May and June. Each bitterroot wildflower plant has a single flower ranging in color from white to a deep pink or rose.

The root 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.

Flathead indiansBitterroot 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 wildflowers. 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. (Photo from National Archives, Wikimedia Commons)

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Owl-clover Wildflowers: A Western Favorite

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." (Photo below by Calibas, Wikimedia Commons)

Owl Clover WildflowerOwl-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.

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Indian Paintbrush Wildflowers:
Wyoming State Flower

Indian Paint Brush WildflowerIndian 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. (Photo by Cachophony, Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Indian PaintbrushThe 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.

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All About Snowberry Wildflowers

Wildflower LoreWestern 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. (Photo by Walter Siegmund, Wikimedia Commons)

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.

WildflowersSnowberry 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.

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Yucca Flower: State Flower of New Mexico

WIldflower LoreYucca 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 Caribbean Islands. Yucca wildflowers are pollinated by a specific moth. In the absence of this moth, yucca wildflowers must be hand pollinated to survive. (Photo by Ciar, Wikimedia Commons)

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.

More Information on Wildflowers

For more information on wildflowers, see the following recommended books:
Newcomb's Wildflower Guide
National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers--E: Eastern Region
A Field Guide to Wildflowers : Northeastern and North-Central North America
Hedgemaids & Fairy Candles: The Lives and Lore of North American Wildflowers

More Information on Flower Symbolism

For more on flower symbolism, see our recommended books from Amazon below :
Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants and Trees
The Language of Flowers: Symbols And Myths
The Language of Flowers
The Meaning of Flowers
Forget-Me-Not: A Floral Treasury Sentiments and Plant Lore from the Language of Flowers

Flower Bouquet Order Bouquets and Flowers
The extensive FloristOne catalog features flowers for every occasion and an extensive network of florists that allows for same day delivery to nearly all of the United States and Canada. Send a classic gift with special meaning for a birthday, baby's birth, holiday, sympathy, graduation or other special occasion. Nothing else communicates your sentiments quite as well as flowers. See our selection of bouquets and flowers here or go directly to the FloristOne website to see all flowers available.

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