The Traveling Naturalist: Solid Gold in the Rockies

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Enjoy one of the West’s best wildflower displays: Hillsides covered in arrowleaf balsamroot. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

By Matt Miller, senior science writer

Introducing The Traveling Naturalist, a new series featuring natural wonders and biological curiosities for the science-inclined wanderer.

The Rocky Mountains in the spring are a botanist’s delight, with many hills, mountain meadows and buttes awash in color. Wildflowers – many of them with interesting natural and human histories – can be easily found on your public lands. Some exist in bright but tiny cluster on alpine peaks while others cover meadows in a palette of seemingly solid color.

My favorite: the flower that paints many foothills bright gold throughout the West, arrowleaf balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata).

The clusters of yellow flowers look like small sunflowers (and indeed, the balsamroot is a member of the sunflower family). Look closely, and you’ll that the “individual” yellow flower is actually a cluster of many flowers.

Arrowleaf balsamroot is commonly found on foothills, the rolling hills in the lower elevations of the Rockies (although they can be found up to 9000 feet). Unlike many foothills flowers, they’re pretty resistant to fire, grazing and weeds—largely due to an eight-foot-long taproot that helps it weather tough times. In many areas, they dot the landscape, although on some hills they can cover large swaths in beautiful flowers.

The plant has a rich association with people in the Rockies:  Native Americans ate it and boiled it as medicine, and it was first described for science by the Lewis and Clark expedition, who collected it in Montana and Washington.

Where

Rocky Mountain foothills shine gold with wildflowers at this time of year. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Rocky Mountain foothills shine gold with wildflowers at this time of year. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC


Many foothills and mountain meadows will contain clusters or large groups of balsamroot. The Nature Conservancy’s Silver Creek Preserve in south-central Idaho is a great place to look (and see other wildflowers, birds, moose and other creatures while you’re at it).

These photographs were taken at Hammer Flat, now part of the Boise River Wildlife Management Area in Boise, Idaho. This area was slated to become a development of 1000 homes until the City of Boise purchased it using funds raised by a citizen levy to protect open space in the city’s foothills. Now anyone can visit to photograph the flowers, properly recognized as one of the city’s icons. It’s a great testament to the power of conservation ballot initiatives and the hard work of local citizen-conservationists like the tireless Anthony Jones.

When

Balsamroot is blooming now in the Boise Foothills, an area of Idaho protected by citizen ballot measure, and open for all to visit and explore. Photo: Matt Milller/TNC

Balsamroot is blooming now in the Boise Foothills, an area of Idaho protected by citizen ballot measure, and open for all to visit and explore. Photo: Matt Milller/TNC

At lower elevations, the hills are glowing yellow right now. But on mountainsides (including many national parks), you can photograph balsamroot — and many other wildflowers — well into July.

Citizen Science

Record when you see flowers blooming for Project Bud Burst, an initiative that is tracking how climate change affects plants.

Record when you see flowers blooming for Project Bud Burst. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Record when you see flowers blooming for Project Bud Burst. Photo: Matt Miller/TNC

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.

 

Matt Miller is a senior science writer for the Conservancy. He writes features and blogs about the conservation research being conducted by the Conservancy’s 550 scientists. Matt previously worked for nearly 11 years as director of communications for the Conservancy’s Idaho program. He has served on the national board of directors of the Outdoor Writers Association of America, and has published widely on conservation, nature and outdoor sports. He has held two Coda fellowships, assisting conservation programs in Colombia and Micronesia. An avid naturalist and outdoorsman, Matt has traveled the world in search of wildlife and stories.



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