Longer days, warmer temperatures, and puffy white clouds mean that spring is finally here in the high desert. As the season progresses, so do our local wildflowers moving from tiny, early bloomers to larger, bolder blooms. The high desert is alive with color in May and June, so soak in this brief season of green, gold, purple and white with these native species.
Arrowleaf balsamroot, Balsamorhiza sagittata. It's hard to talk about wildflowers in the high desert without mentioning one of the most common and showy wildflowers in the mountain West: the arrowleaf balsamroot. They light up our hillsides each spring with sunny, yellow faces that bring to mind sunflowers. Arrowleaf balsamroot is in fact in the sunflower family, and it grows in clumps on open hillsides or grasslands and have large widely triangular leaves that have heart-shaped bases. Their yellow flowers are 2½ -4 inches wide on 1-3-foot stems and are typically in bloom in May and June. The genus Balsamorhiza includes 13 species scattered throughout the West, and they can be confused with species in the mule's ears, or Wyethia, family. Arrowleaf balsamroot provides food for native wildlife like deer and elk, nectar for native pollinators and offers seeds for birds and other small animals. Indigenous communities use balsamroot for a wide variety of medicinal and edible purposes.
Lupine, Lupinus family. Pair purple lupine with yellow balsamroot and you have quite the composition. Lupine are also iconic flowers in the mountain West, and the genus includes more than 220 species worldwide and 20+ species in Oregon alone! Identifying them can be challenging as they often hybridize, and actual plant characteristics won't match up to your key. But it's this diversity, though, that makes them fun to explore. In Central Oregon we have everything from tiny desert lupines to tall, streamside ones with enormous blooms. Lupines have large, palm-shaped leaves, come in colors from purple to pink to yellow and white, and usually start blooming in May. Bigleaf lupine (Lupinus polyphyllus) is one of our showy native lupines. It prefers moist locations, so look near those streams and wet meadows for its bold, tall purple bloom.
Brown's peony, Paeonia brownii. From the common lupine and balsamroot, to the commonly found, but very unusual-looking, Brown's peony! It's easy to walk right by this small plant and not notice its incredibly cool flower. It's low growing (10-20 inches tall) with lacy leaves and is usually found in sagebrush and ponderosa pine habitat. Its distinctive brown to maroon flower, often with green to yellowish edges, droops downward and is almost hidden underneath the plant. Each flower has 60-100 pollen-producing stamens that, when fertilized by insects will produce large, fleshy fruits that hang from the center of the flower. These fruits are harvested by rodents who in turn cache the seeds and help disperse the plant. Brown's peony is one of only two peonies native to western North America and blooms May through June.
Bitterroot, Lewisia rediviva. Look for these showstoppers in the sagebrush flats of the high desert! Though widespread, it can be easy to miss its short bloom season. Bitterroot have a green rosette of small, fleshy succulent-like leaves. Flowers are a vibrant deep rose, pink or sometimes white, up to 2" wide. Be sure to look down as you search for this beauty since bitterroot blooms very close to the ground. Bitterroot is named for Merriwether Lewis, who collected the first specimens for western science in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana in 1806. Rediviva is Latin for the plant's amazing ability to come back to life after being dug up, dried and stored—which it did back in 1806. Bitterroot is culturally significant for many Native tribes in the West, and usually blooms in May.
White Bog Orchid, Platanthera dilatata. This delicate, white stunner is always a treat to find. Bog orchids, as their name suggests, like to grow in wet places near streams, springs, wetlands and bogs. Their white flowers grow on single spikey stems 6-36 inches tall. These orchids have one longer petal that creates a sac-like spur on the flower. The spurs have glands that secrete a nectar and a strong, often described as spicy, sweet scent to attract pollinators. The shape and size of the spur is adapted to fit the tongue length of the butterflies and months that pollinate it. White bog orchids bloom from May to August.
As always, take photos, not flowers and be sure to stay on the trail so you don't tread on those delicate blooms. Learn more about the wildflowers of Central Oregon on a free, guided hike: deschuteslandtrust.org/hikes