Montana Wildflowers You Should Know About

An image of a purple flower with a bee on it

Did you spend as much time as you could outside last year to avoid dealing with indoor COVID-19 protocols? I know I did. I’m not just talking about parking lot fitness classes and eating takeout on your patio—if you spent extra time hiking, camping, and exploring local parks in 2020, you’re not alone. According to Yellowstone Public Radio, last year was a record-breaking year for Montana State Parks, with over a 30% increase in visitation.

One of best things about living in Montana is that the many types of ecosystems here are home to an incredible amount of wildflowers. Over 2500 species of flowering plants can be found in the state! That’s an overwhelming number, and the purpose of this article is not to help you decide which variety of lupine you encountered on your hike. For that, I’m going to direct you to a botanist. But I think that being able to identify a dozen types of wildflowers is manageable, don’t you? Each flower listed has a short description and a link to its page in the free, state-run Montana Field Guide database if you want more detailed information.

But first, real quick: Please remember to practice leave-no-trace hiking, don’t pick flowers without permission from the landowner, and definitely DO NOT eat things you find in the woods, as many plants have poisonous lookalikes.

  1. Bitterroot, Lewisisa rediviva

An image of a Bitterroot flower
From Pixabay: Wild0ne

This list would be incomplete without including Montana’s state flower.  These unusual-looking wildflowers can be found in either a pale, whitish color (pictured) or a bright pink. Look for these around Western Montana in late spring—they don’t bloom for very long!

Looking for more information on this flower?

  1. Cliff/Cut-Leaved Anemone, Anemone multifida

An image of a Cut-leaved Anemone flower
Author

Keep an eye out for these small, two-toned anemones. They have pale centers with striking pinks or reds with on the edges. True to their name, these Cliff Anemones can sometimes can be found on rocky ledges. They are members of the Buttercup family and a relative to the Pasqueflower listed below.

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  1. Few-Flowered Shooting Star, Dodecatheon pulchellum

An image of a Shooting Star Flower
Author

The unusual shape might make Shooting Stars my favorite Montana wildflower. These tiny plants are around a foot tall and grow in multiple different ecosystems, ranging from valleys to alpine meadows.

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  1. Paintbrush, genus castilleja

From Pixabay: MrsBrown

If you already have some background in plant identification, your first reaction might be to call this an “Indian Paintbrush,” but did you know that Montana is home to twenty-two different species of paintbrush? The Wyoming state flower, castilleja linariaefolia (common name: Wyoming Indian Paintbrush), is one of the best known types. That said, recognizing a plant as a “paintbrush” will probably be all you need.

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  1. Lupine, genus Lupinus

An image of a Lupine flower
Author

Remember the beginning of the article when I mentioned different types of Lupine? There are over 200 species of Lupine worldwide, and seventeen species have entries in the Montana Field Guide. The page for Silvery Lupine, which is found all over the state, is linked below.

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  1. Pasqueflower, Anemone patens

An image of a Pasqueflower
Author

You might hear this plant referred to as a “Prairie Crocus.” A close relative to this gorgeous purple blossom, the American Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla hirsutissima) is the state flower of South Dakota. The “pasque” in the name may be a reference to their early spring appearance.

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  1. Jacob’s-ladder, Polemonium pulcherrimum

A picture of a Jacob's Ladder flower
Author

Aren’t these squat purple flowers cute?  Depending on what you use to identify this plant, you may be scared away from getting too close!  Another common name for this plant is “skunk leaf.” These plants are common throughout the western United States and grow at higher elevations.

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  1. Pricklypear, genus Opuntia

An image of a prickly pear cactus flower
From Pixabay: happy2be

Montana has both Plains and Brittle Pricklypear. These short cactuses can be painful to accidentally step on, but aren’t the yellow flowers beautiful?

Note: While the image above is an example of a Pricklypear blossom, the I am unable to determine if it is from from a species of Pricklypear that grows in Montana. There are around a hundred species within the genus Opuntia.

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  1. Yellow Pond-lily, Nuphar polysepalum

An image of a yellow water lily
Author

Montana has so many beautiful lakes and ponds, I had to add an aquatic plant to the list! The Yellow Pond-lily has large, heart-shaped leaves and grows in shallow, slow-moving water.

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  1. Sticky Geranium, Geranium viscosissimum

An image of a Sticky Geranium flower
Author

The star-shaped purple flowers on this slightly furry plant can be hard to miss! Find it in the western half of the state.

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  1. White Mule’s Ears, Wyethia helianthoides

An image of White Mules Ears flowers
Author

Do the long, oval petals of this flower look like mule ears to you? This member of the sunflower family grows primarily in Southwest Montana.

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  1. Wood’s Rose – Rosa woodsia

An image of a rose
Author

Montana is home to a couple types of wild rose, but the Wood’s Rose is a common one found all over the state. If you’ve been out hiking in the fall, you might recognize the red fruit produced by a rose plant, which are called “rosehips”.

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  1. Bonus Flower: Musk Thistle

Would you believe that the beautiful flower pictured in the header is actually a noxious weed? Carduus nutans, or Musk Thistle, was introduced to North America in the 1800s. It is now commonly found on roadsides throughout the United States.  Musk Thistles can grow up to six feet tall!

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If you just can’t get enough of Montana’s wildflowers, below are some of my favorite resources. Remember that while these can be fun to use, always check with a professional if you need to identify a specific plant for a special use. Additionally, while I’ve tried to make all this information as accurate as possible, please let me know if you notice an error.

Digital and Free

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  • Wildflowers of Montana by Donald Anthony Schiemann
  • 265 Images of Northern Rocky Mountain Wildflowers by A. Scott Earle & Jane Lundin
  • Montana Trees & Wildflowers Pocket Naturalist Guide by Kavanagh & Leung

Camping Without the Crowds

By: Breanna Harmer

Choosing the correct time of year is crucial.

Think a little outside of peak season when camping.

I’m personally a fan of mid-May and September.

Two Medicine, Glacier National Park in September

Consider backpacking. Yes, it is a bit more work but it is also 100% worth it.

Waking up to a backcountry sunrise is an unbeatable feeling.

I would highly recommend the Grand Tetons in August, especially if you’re a fan of wildflowers. It is still chilly so pack your warm gear!

Get your backcountry permit early! It is surprising how quickly these go and there are limited sites. If you’re unlucky and don’t get a permit you might be forced to find a different hike or abandon your backcountry plans altogether.

Check out apps like AllTrails

We went backpacking in the Mission Mountain Wilderness on the 4th of July and it was one of the best ideas we’ve had. There weren’t many people, the weather was perfect, and we were away from the National Park chaos.

Holidays like Memorial Day, 4th of July and Labor Day are major camping holidays. Opt-out of the beer and think whiskey and backpacking. Look for trails that are more under the radar. There might be some like-minded people like you on the trail but far less then if you were to try to claim your stake on Seeley Lake or Flathead.

Be flexible! If a site seems too busy, don’t be afraid to look for a different one. Some of my favorite camping sites have been found after leaving a less exciting one behind.

Checking a map for a water source is a good way of finding a good site. Chances are that if it’s near a river or lake that it’ll come with a view as well.

Avoid geotagging on social media. If you like a site because there weren’t many people there, don’t expose it.

This might be controversial but I really do believe every little bit helps in preserving the things we love. It’s one thing to tell a few friends but if you have 1,000 followers on Instagram, you could possibly be telling around 1,000 people about this newfound gem. Mum’s the word

Don’t worry, he wasn’t caught. Just an expert fence climber!

I also think part of the joy of camping comes from discovering new spots on your own. It has become too easy to look everything up, it’ll mean more to you if you find it yourself.