Friday, June 24, 2011

Blossoms beckon

Wildflowers spring up across the valley and beyond

Express Staff Writer

Lupines are common regionally, covering vacant land from Hailey and Ketchum to the Sawtooths. Lupines come in several shades, including yellow and purple, but can be identified by their common blossom and leaf shapes. Photo by David N. Seelig

Gloomy weather seems to have passed for the time being in the Wood River Valley, and fields from Shoshone to Stanley are bursting into bloom in the summer sun.

"It looks like the lupine is starting to hit," said Lisa Huttinger, interim executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Resource Center. Huttinger, a certified master naturalist, said she's noticed blossoms of every variety springing up in the valley.

But for non-plant people, sorting the lupine from the Indian paintbrush and the bluebells from the chiming bells—and even beginning to search for them—can be a daunting task.

Where to go

The best place to look for wildflowers depends entirely on what time of year and what flowers one hopes to see, said Allison Marks, education director for the nonprofit Sawtooth Botanical Garden.

"There's no easy answer," she said.

However, both Marks and Huttinger say it's best to start in the south valley early in the season and follow the wildflowers north as temperatures grow warmer.

"The great thing about the wildflowers in our valley is that you get second chances," Marks said.

Huttinger agreed, saying, "Anything you missed here you should start seeing up north."

They said wildflowers are just starting to peak at Craters of the Moon National Monument, 23 miles east of Carey.

"They are a little delayed out there, so they should be coming on great by now," Huttinger said.

But, Marks said, flower seekers don't need to drive south to see blooms. Marks is leading a Sawtooth Botanical Garden wildflower walk up to Baker Creek, north of Ketchum in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, this week.

She said she plans to revisit the area later this season, when flowers will begin to bloom on the spur roads.

Opportunities abound mid-valley as well, Huttinger said.

"The Greenhorn loop is great for flowers right now," she said. "Out in the sage, there are still chiming bells going and the groundsel is just finishing."

Marks said she would now recommend Greenhorn Gulch, south of Ketchum, and Fox Creek, north of Ketchum.

"Maybe in a week, you can do Taylor Canyon," she said, referring to a trail northeast of Ketchum.

The Proctor Loop above Sun Valley Resort is a popular hike for lupine lovers.

Marks said the lupines would last several weeks in each region, but those looking for bluebells or leopard lilies should move quickly, as those only last two to three weeks.


What's out

Species of blooming wildflowers vary widely based on location and time of the year, but lupines are almost a given. Huttinger said these flowers are now scattered all over the back of Dollar Mountain in Elkhorn.

Lupines come in several varieties, the common ones including a bright purple and a shaded purple and yellow. Huttinger said the lupine can be identified by a hand-shaped leaf and a blossom that appears to have four petals but really has five.

Marks said arrowleaf balsamroot is also beginning to bloom across the valley. This common regional flower has a large yellow blossom that resembles a daisy. It is often confused with mule's ear. Marks said the key to identifying the balsamroot is in its name—it has leaves shaped like an arrowhead, rather than the more oval leaves of the mule's ear.

A beautiful but rarer plant is the elephant's head, a fuchsia bloom that Huttinger said is her favorite of the spring wildflowers.

"It's so unique-looking," she said. "It actually looks like an elephant's head," with an elongated petal near the bottom that resembles a trunk.

This flower tends to grow in boggier areas and in large swaths rather than in small clusters as some flowers do. Huttinger said she found it in several areas in front of the Boulder Mountains.

"We could see it from the road. It was just this huge swath of pink," she said.

Chiming bells are also a common sight on valley trails. Unlike bluebells, the chiming bells' blossoms hang in closer clusters and often include a hint of purple coloring.

Wild viola, clover, scarlet gilia, wild clover and Indian paintbrush are some of the other flowers that dedicated flower chasers are likely to see. Marks said it's also possible to spot Rocky Mountain iris, prairie smoke and larkspur on some trails.

What to read

To learn more, Huttinger said beginners can start with a book called "Plants of the Rocky Mountains," by Linda Kershaw, Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon. Though the plants are arranged by family, which can be confusing for those who don't know the scientific names, Huttinger said the center uses it to teach kids about wildflowers and the color guide in the front makes searching easy.

"If you were looking at a yellow flower, you can search for that easily," she said.

Because the region ranges from desert to steppe to mountains, Marks recommends two books: Idaho Mountain Wildflowers by A. Scott Earle and Sagebrush Country by Ronald Taylor. The former covers the north valley and the Sawtooths, she said, while the latter covers everything from mid-valley south.

"Since we're on the cusp of two biomes, you really need the combination," she said.

Need more guidance?

Huttinger said the ERC is not offering wildflower walks this year, but is working with the Sawtooth Botanical Garden to promote its wildflower walks.

The garden offers guided walks from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Thursday through July. Those interested can meet at the garden and carpool to a new location each week, but registration and a fee of $15 is required for non-members.

Of course, Marks said, there are plenty of wildflowers out for those who just strike out on their own.

"In spring, you're guaranteed to see yellowbells, bluebells, things like that," she said. "Now is the time to look."

Katherine Wutz:

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