Thanks to the historic winter of 2018-2019, the wildflowers in Utah's Wasatch Mountains are bound to be impressive this summer. With help from the Cottonwood Canyons Foundation, we've compiled a handy guide of 10 common wildflowers in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. It is so rewarding to identify species as you navigate the many trails around the canyons. With a few helpful reminders and these 10 species to get you started, you'll be wildflower hunting in no time.
The Cottonwood Canyons Foundation (CCF) provides thoughtful stewardship, environmental restoration, weed control, and educational programming to one of the most highly-visited national forests in the nation. Striving to achieve a balance between ecological preservation and encouraging people to get out and enjoy nature in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons is the mission of CCF. As a fundraiser, CCF has just released the 2nd edition of their Cottonwood Canyons Wildflower Guide, with nearly 200 flowers, excellent photos, and a great introduction to the natural history and ecology of the area. The guide is essential for any hiker, biker, or mountain lover and all proceeds support the initiatives of this non-profit organization.
Note that CCF will also be hosting their 22nd annual Wasatch Wildflower Festival in July. This free event showcases the amazing wildflowers of Solitude, Brighton, Snowbird, and Alta with guided hikes, interpretive guides, family activities, and kid's art stations.
Now, on to the good stuff. Here are 10 common wildflowers you can identify in Big or Little Cottonwood Canyons.
How many can you find? HINT: Here are some great places to start.
1. Heartleaf Arnica, Leopard’s Bane
Arnica cordifolia (Native)
Height: Less than 12 inches tall
Elevation: 5,000 - 11,000 feet
Habitat: Understory of spruces, fir, and aspen
The heart-shaped leaves are sharply toothed along the edges and can be easily identified in the Wasatch in early summer. The leaves and stems are slightly hairy. The yellow flowers are approximately two inches in diameter and often confused with those of sunflowers (Helianthus) and balsamroots (Balsamorhiza). Heartleaf Arnica will bloom May through July in open woods, under the canopies of spruce and fir trees or near aspen groves. You may also arnica located in the foothills of the Salt Lake Valley. Cordifolia is Latin for “heart-leaf.” The medicinal properties of this plant are quite useful and it can be taken orally or topically as a salve to reduce infection and bruising.
2. Fireweed, Great Willow Herb, Blooming Sally, Willoweed
Chamerion angustifolium (Native)
Height: 2-4 feet tall
Elevation: 5,000 - 11,900 feet
Habitat: Shrub, aspen and willow communities, sunny meadows
Long, delicate stems burst forth with electric pink one-inch blooms in the heat of summer. The lower flowers bloom first in sequence, culminating with blooms at the top of the plant, which can grow up to seven feet in height. As summer passes, the petals drop away and in August or September, long, cylindrical pods on the plant release seeds attached to silky strands of down. A single plant can produce over 80,000 seeds! The delicate down was often used by native peoples as fiber for weaving or padding. This plant is often the first to flourish in areas that have been burned by fire, hence the common name, Fireweed. This plant thrives in sunny, open meadows, woods, hills, along streams, roadsides, and the edges of forest or habitats that have been disrupted. The young leaves and shoots can be consumed and boiled. The Fireweed is a preferred forage food for grizzly bears, elk, and deer.
3. White Bog Orchid, Bog Candle, Scent Bottle, Fringed Orchid
Plantanthera dilatata (Native)
Height: Less than one foot
Elevation: 6,400 - 10,500
Habitat: Wet, boggy habitat near springs, seeps, streams, or bogs
Though difficult to find, this beautiful and delicate flower grows in high mountain meadows in clusters of 20 or more. They will typically be found in wet, boggy environments or near streams or springs. Sometimes the stems may be 12-inches or higher, but the beautiful white blossoms are quite small and densely located close to the central stem. The leaves are bright green and flowers will be observed in June, July, and early August, depending on the elevation. The scent of this flower is strong and pleasant, with hints of cloves, vanilla, and orange.
4. Sego Lily, Mariposa Lily, Star Tulip, Butterfly Tulip
Calochortus nuttallii (Native)
Height: Up to 1.5 feet tall
Elevation: 3,300 - 10,000 feet
Habitat: Sagebrush and aspen communities, foothills, rocky slopes, dry open plains, hillsides
This is Utah’s state flower and you’ll find it blooming in June and early July. This bloom is easily identifiable with three smooth, white petals and patches of yellow and maroon at the base. The flower resembles the shape and height of a spring tulip. This plant will grow up to 1.5 feet in height and features a few thin, blade-like leaves. Its starchy bulb prevented many pioneers from succumbing to starvation in the late 1800s. The name Sego is of Shoshone origin.
5. Indian Paintbrush, Wyoming Paintbrush, Paintbrush, Painted Cup, Wyoming Painted Cup
Castilleja linariaefolia (Native)
Height: Up to 2 feet tall
Elevation: 3,700 - 10,300 feet
Habitat: Sagebrush and aspen communities, rocky slopes, meadows
A popular and well-recognized wildflower, the Indian paintbrush can be found in a range of colors from electric red, to pink, to orange. The individual flowers are actually inconspicuous, and it is the colorful bracts (specialized or modified leaves) that attract your attention. The bracts can be tinged with yellow or green. Expect to find them from the foothills to the high mountains in dry to moist soil from the lowest valleys to above 10,000 feet. The paintbrush blooms in June, July, and early August. The Indian Paintbrush is actually semi-parasitic, producing only a portion of its required nutrients. Its roots will grow in the soil until they make contact with a neighboring plant, then penetrating the neighbor’s root tissue, the plant will steal the nutrients it requires. This flower is the state flower of Wyoming.
6. Elephanthead, Little Red Elephant, Elephant Flower, Fernleaf, Elephant’s Head
Pedicularis groenlandica (Native)
Height: Up to 2 feet high
Elevation: 7,400 - 11,900 feet
Habitat: Wet soils, bogs, seeps and springs in spruce, fir, and alpine tundra communities
Delicate, magenta pink or purple flowers distinctly resemble the shape of an elephant’s face and trunk. Stems are singular though often clustered together, varying in height. Leaves resemble those of a fern with teeth. The Elephanthead blooms late June through early August. You'll find this specimen growing in wet, boggy areas, around beaver ponds, meadows, or along streams and lake shores. This unique flower occurs at higher elevations from 7,400 feet to above timberline. The name Pendicularis derives from the Latin word for louse. There was an old superstition that eating these plants increased lice on cattle.
7. White Colorado Columbine, Rocky Mountain Columbine
Aquilegia spp. (Native)
Height: 1-3 feet tall
Elevation: 5,500 - 12,000 feet
Habitat: Understory of aspen and mountain shrub communities
Look for this fetching and delicate bloom in cool, damp areas in July and early August. Blooms can vary from white, blue, to coral red, and yellow as their color is determined by the acidity of the soil. Pale blue or yellow hues indicate a basic PH while darker colors indicate more acidic soils. The bloom is suspended above fern-like foliage below. Look for 5 wing-shaped sepals and 5 tube-shaped petals. Butterflies and hummingbirds are often found near these flowers. Look for them in open woods and valleys as well as moist alpine and subalpine meadows.
8. Silvery Lupine
Lupinus argenteus (Native)
Height: 1-3 feet tall
Elevation: 3,500 - 11,300 feet
Habitat: Mountain shrub and aspen communities
The Silvery Lupine is a highly variable species found in many hues across the Rocky Mountains. Meadow and forest floors may be thickly carpeted with this wildflower. In Utah, you will find lupine growing at lower and middle elevations. A taller species of lupine is a popular garden flower. The leaves consist of narrow leaflets with 5-9 blades with blue to purple flowers occupying the top ⅓ of the stem. The roots of this plant host nitrogen-fixing bacteria that enrich the soil, though the plant itself is poisonous.
9. Western Yarrow, Milfoil Yarrow, Soldier's Woundwort
Achillea millefolium (Native)
Height: 3-18 inches
Elevation: 3,500 - 12,300 feet
Habitat: Common in most alpine ecosystems
The genus name of this plant is a tribute to Greek war hero, Achilles, who supposedly used yarrow to tend to his wounded soldiers following a battle. The plant contains properties that help staunch blood flow. Look for long, alternating leaves with a lacy appearance on this tall plant. Flowers are bunched into dense, flat heads composed of very small blooms. Flowers are typically white but can vary from yellow to pink.
10. Western Bluebell, Sagebrush Bluebell
Achillea millefolium (Native)
Height: Less than 1 foot tall
Elevation: 5,200 - 10,800 feet
Habitat: Sagebrush or pinyon and juniper communities
Look for the vibrant blue hues of the Western Bluebell on open slopes, spring-moist meadows, woodlands, open forest and alpine habitats. The plant blooms in dense clusters with blue or purple trumpet-shaped flowers. Though it needs moist soil to thrive, the Western Bluebell can often be found in dry areas, this is because they complete the bulk of their growing season during the spring snowmelt and runoff before the dryer summer months arrive. Find this specimen above 5,000 feet in elevation.
Want to learn more? The Cottonwood Canyons Foundation has recently published an updated wildflower guide book for the Cottonwood Canyons. With big pictures, tons of info about the natural history of the area, and nearly 200 species to identify, this guide is ideal for nature-lovers, hikers, and anyone who spends time in the Wasatch. The purchase of this guide supports the mission, programming, and educational outreach of the CCF. CLICK HERE to purchase Wildflowers of the Cottonwood Canyons.