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.
Bitterroot, Lewisisa rediviva
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!
Cliff/Cut-Leaved Anemone, Anemone multifida
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.
Few-Flowered Shooting Star, Dodecatheon pulchellum
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.
Paintbrush, genus castilleja
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.
Lupine, genus Lupinus
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.
Pasqueflower, Anemone patens
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.
Jacob’s-ladder, Polemonium pulcherrimum
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.
Pricklypear, genus Opuntia
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.
Yellow Pond-lily, Nuphar polysepalum
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.
Sticky Geranium, Geranium viscosissimum
The star-shaped purple flowers on this slightly furry plant can be hard to miss! Find it in the western half of the state.
White Mule’s Ears, Wyethia helianthoides
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.
Wood’s Rose – Rosa woodsia
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”.
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!
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
- 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