Take a Walk Among the Wildflowers in Our National Parks
While you may think of blooming flowers as a strictly springtime occurrence, the rich diversity of more than 400 national parks across the country protected and preserved by the National Park Service means you can enjoy them all year long. Wildflowers dot the landscapes of our treasured lands and cultural sites in a stunning variety of shapes and colors, providing feeding grounds for important pollinators like bees and birds. Take a virtual walk through the wildflowers in our national parks and discover the ecosystems and stories they illuminate.
Rosy spirea (spirea splendens) is a shrub in the Rose family that can grow two to seven feet tall, featuring small fragrant pink flowers with long stamens – the pollen-producing reproductive organ of a flower – giving the blooms a fuzzy appearance. These beautiful flowers can be used to stabilize or restore streambanks, shorelines, and wetlands like those found in Mount Rainier National Park and provides good cover for birds and small mammals, as well as nectar for hummingbirds, butterflies, or other pollinator insects.
Bitterroot (lewisia rediviva) is the state flower of Montana but can be found in many western states in the United States, including along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. It was along this trail that the Lewis and Clark Expedition encountered the flower, something Meriwether Lewis documented in his journal in 1805: it “became perfectly soft by boiling but had a very bitter taste.” Many Native American tribes, including the Shoshone who were the Expedition’s hosts in 1805, enjoyed the taste of the boiled root and considered it an important food source.
Dotted gayfeather (liatris punctata) is part of the sunflower family, and can grow over two feet tall, with roots extending up to 16 feet underground. Blooms of small pink-purple flowers at the end of long spikes can be enjoyed from late summer well into October, with the flower heads blooming from the top downward. Sheep, deer, and antelope may forage for dotted gayfeather like that seen at Theodore Roosevelt National Park or Bandelier National Monument.
Tall tickseed (coreopsis tripteris) is a tall, slender wildflower with yellow daisy-like blooms that grows four to eight feet fall in prairies, dry open woods, and along roadsides or railroad tracks, as it thrives in poor soil that is rocky or sandy. These blooms, favorites of pollinators and birds who love the flower’s seeds, can be enjoyed mid-summer into late fall in much of eastern and central North America, including Herbert Hoover National Historic Site.
Leadplant (amorpha canescens) is a hardy plant that likes dry, prairie-like conditions, like those at Pipestone National Monument and along the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, where it blooms during the summer months. A small, dense shrub, leadplants feature tiny, purple flowers grouped together on spikes. A floral food resource for pollinating insects and a tasty snack for cattle, sheep, horses, elk, and deer, this robust shrub can be used to restore prairie ecosystems and assist in erosion control.
Swamp rose mallow
Swamp rose mallow (hibiscus moscheutos) is also known as hardy hibiscus. Native to wet spots and border areas like marshes, swamps, floodplains, and riverbanks, the swamp rose mallow blooms can be seen in a variety of parks, including Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and Assateague Island National Seashore. And while the blooming of the swamp rose mallow plant can last from July to September, the large blooms of these flowers, with their overlapping pale petals, only lasts one to two days.
Dark throat shooting star
Dark throat shooting star (dodecatheon pulchellum) is a member of the primrose family whose early spring blooms attract pollinators like bumble bees to its unique blossoms. With five magenta petals that sweep backwards and 5 stamens that join downwards to create a "beak," or pointed tip, this blossom is like fireworks in flower form. The dark throat shooting star grows along streambanks, waterfalls, and wet meadows in the western part of North America, and blooms late spring to early summer at parks like Glacier National Park and Cedar Breaks National Monument.
Bird of paradise
Bird of paradise shrub (caesalpinia gilliesii) is a large ornamental legume that can be found in desert environments in the southwestern United States, including Petroglyph National Monument. These shrubs and their distinctive blossoms flower in the spring and can grow up to 10 feet tall. A welcome flower for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, the bird of paradise shrub originated in Argentina and Uruguay.
Tundra milkvetch (astragalus umbellatus) is a member of the pea family. Growing in alpine heath tundra, snowbeds, and meadows like those in Denali National Park & Preserve, the tundra milkvetch has large clusters of small yellow flowers that grow in an umbellate cluster – a close grouping of many short flower stalks that spread from one center.
Prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus (opuntia polyacantha) may seem like a hazardous plant, but actually provides quite the refuge for smaller animals and beetles. The cactus produces a sweet, apple or pear-like red fruit, guarded from larger grazing animals like deer by the plant’s long spines. However, rodents can munch on the cactus’ green pads – a rich water source – around those spines and often burrow under the plant for protection. Native to dry grasslands and badlands, prickly pear cactus can be found in Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve, Zion National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Colorado National Monument.
Closed bottle gentian
Closed bottle gentian (gentiana andrewsii) features distinct closed clusters of flowers, not the usual open blooms we’re used to seeing. However, that doesn’t deter strong bees, who can force the cluster open in order to pollinate the plant. Gentians were named after Gentius, the King of Illyria around 500 B.C.E., who found the plant useful in treating his sick troops. Closed bottle gentians can be seen blooming in late summer well into October in the northeastern half of North America, including Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Turk’s-cap lilies (lilium superbum) are some of the largest and characteristic lilies native to the eastern United States, where it can be spotted along Blue Ridge Parkway and in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With petals that curve back to the flower’s stem, these blooms can be seen in early to mid-summer with up to 40 flowers on a single plant in wet meadows and woods and can reach up to six feet in height.
California poppies (eschscholzia californica) are small yellow poppies that can be found on coastal bluffs, dune flats, grassy hills, and rocky ridges in California. The state flower of California, this bright bloom can be seen from February to November in parks like Pinnacles National Park – a floral representation of the “fields of gold” western-bound travelers sought during the gold rush. The flower’s Latin name eschscholzia comes from Adelbert von Chamisso, a French explorer and naturalist who visited the California area in the early nineteenth century – von Chamisso named it after his shipmate J.F. Eschscholtz, a Russian naturalist.
Nootka lupine (lupinus nootkatensis) have tall flowering stems that can grow up to three feet tall. Part of the pea family, the plant’s roots were cooked and eaten by Native American populations in Alaska and are now enjoyed by passing bees and grizzly bears who love to munch on the Nootka lupine’s protein-rich roots. Found along sunny highways, on hillsides, and in high grassy valleys, these blooms can be seen in May and June at Kenai Fjords National Park.
The rich diversity of these blooms and others found in national parks across the country speak to the range of landscapes, stories, and ecosystems protected by the National Park Service. When you visit a national park and spy a blooming wildflower, make sure to only take photos by bringing your camera to the level of the flower – picking wildflowers can disrupt natural ecosystems – without straying from designated paths.
Do you have a favorite wildflower you’ve spotted in a national park? Comment below or add a picture to our Share Your Park photo gallery.