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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Borage Family (Forget-me-not Family): Boraginaceae  

The Borage family’s name was derived from an attractive, blue-flowered European plant, Borago officinalis, found in the United States only as an imported ornamental. Its name comes from the Latin burra, meaning a “rough garment” or “coat,” referring to the plant’s hairy leaves and stem. As borage is unfamiliar to most Americans, “forget-me-not” is often used as the family common name. There are about 2000 species in the family; ninety or so are found in the American Northwest. Many look so much alike that identification of individual plants can be difficult, depending more on seed (“nutlet”) characteristics than on plant appearance. Family characteristics include: alternate bristly leaves and loose clumps of flowers borne on a stem that in some species seems to unroll (i.e., they’re “scorpioid”) as the flowers open from below upward. The flowers—typically blue, but sometimes white, pink or yellow—are radially symmetrical. Five petals (occasionally four) are joined at the base to form a tube. The petals then flare out into saucer-shaped (“salverform”) flowers. The ovary is four-parted; each part forms one nutlet or seed. In some species the nutlets have barbed spines that stick to the fur of passing animals explaining why “stickseed” is a common name for several members of the family. Most of the Boraginaceae are herbaceous (i.e., non-woody). Some are used as ornamental plants,the family’s chief economic importance, these include species of Myosotis (forget-me-not), Heliotropium (heliotropes), and Mertensia (bluebells), etc.
The small flowered (or false) forget-me-not, Hackelia micrantha (Eastw.) J. L. Gentry (left), was named for Czech botanist Joseph Hackel (1783-1869). The plants are often encountered by hikers, for their forked seeds cling tenaciously to shoelaces, stockings ,or any other clothing that comes in contact with the fruiting plants. Hackelias are stout-stemmed, spring and summer blooming plants one to two feet high with furry, lanceolate leaves. They grow at least as high as tree-line. Loose clumps of small bright blue (occasionally white or pink), saucer-shaped flowers with a white or yellowish eye and little raised folds in the center of the petals help to identify them.

The spreading stickseed, Hackelia patens (Nutt.) I. M. Johnst. (right), is also known as white candle, spreading false-forget-me-not,  and  by other local common names. The plant may at first glance be taken for an albino form of  a blue stickseed. On comparison, however, the leaves are different, the foliage and stems are usually more hairy and the blue-marked white flowers are larger than those of the common small-flowered blue stickseed. Despite the difference in color, this plant's flowers are so similar to those of similar Boraginaceae, that one will easily identify it as a stickseed. The plant's range is restricted to Idaho and to the four states that border on the south and east.

Davis's stickweed, Hackelia davisii Cronq. (left, right) is a rare plant, found only in central Idaho. It blooms later in the summer than the hackelias shown above. The plant is moderately high (12"-18") with dark green foliage and small bright blue flowers. "Clasping" leaves  (the base of the leaves parlly surrounds the stem) help to identify it  Its flowers are similar to those of other  false forget-me-nots, although quite small. Ray J. Davis  (1895-1984}was Professor of Botany at Idaho State University and the author of Flora of Idaho (1952).

Asian forget-me-not, Myosotis asiatica (Vesterg.) Schischk. & Serg. (left). The Asian forget-me-not is a circumboreal plant that prefers moist subalpine and alpine meadows. It grows in our Northwest, south to Colorado, and north to Alaska. Its small, five-petaled, bright blue flowers, similar to those of other forget-me-nots, and wide lanceolate leaves identify the plant. Myosotis was derived from two Greek words meaning “mouse-ear,” used in the past for a now unknown plant. Plants in this genus are considered to be the true forget-me-nots.

Arctic alpine forget-me-not, Eritrichium nanum (Villars) Schrader (right). This forget-me-not is a striking little alpine plant whose blue blossoms stand out vividly against drab mountain tundra. The plants form matted “cushions” made up of tiny, tightly clustered leaves topped with small, bright blue flowers. This lovely little plant was photographed above treeline in our White Cloud Range. It grows in the Rocky Mountains as far south as New Mexico, in Alaska, and in mountain ranges of Europe and Asia.

The Columbia puccoon, or gromwell Lithospermum ruderale, Douglas ex Lehm. (left) is a moderately tall (1½ to 2 feet) plant. Its stem and prominently ribbed leaves appear grayish green from their coating of fine hairs. The nutlets (seeds) are bony hard, reflected in the name, Lithospermum, from the Greek, meaning "stone-seed." The name, ruderale, means “waste-place” or “dump” in Latin, for it often grows in disturbed areas. The Indians gave the name “puccoon” to a related plant, Lithospermum canescens, native to the eastern United States. Captain John Smith wrote about this in 1612: “Pocones is a small roote that groweth in the mountaines, which being dryed and beate in powder turneth red” and used by the Indians to paint their skin. Is this the origin of the term “redskin,” a term first used in print in 1699? The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives four other citations that support this conjecture. The roots of our puccoon contain a yellow dyeused by western Indians. Lithospermum seeds were used medicinally to treat bladder stones in the belief that “like cures like.”

The Common Amsinckia or Fiddleneck, Amsinckia menziesii, (Lehm.) A. Nelson & J. F. Macbr. (right). The common,  or small-flowered fiddleneck is a widely distributed native weed that grows to subalpine elevations.  As with many Boraginaceae it has bristly stems, leaves, and flower parts. Yellow flowers bloom on an unrolling stem (a “helicoid” or “scorpioid cyme”) explaining the name “fiddleneck.” The plants sometimes grow in such numbers as to turn fields yellow. As they are stiffly bristled, livestock avoid the plants, so they are known as troublesome weeds. German botanist Johann Georg Christian Lehmann (1792–1860), bestowed the generic name Amsinckia to honor William Amsinck, a 19th c. benefactor of the Hamburg Botanical Garden, . Lewis and Clark collected the plant on the Columbia in 1806, although Archibald Menzies, (1754-1842), surgeon and botanist with the Vancouver Expedition (1791-1795), had found it earlier, explaining its species name.

Slender popcorn-flower, Plagiobothrys tenellus (Nutt. ex Hook.) A. Gray (left). Several genera in the borage family are made up of very small plants. This plant’s flowers are only about an eighth of an inch in diameter and the plant may stand no more than three inches high. Meriwether Lewis  collected this plant at The Dalles, in present day Oregon, on April 17, 1806. Frederick Pursh overlooked Lewis’s specimen when he classified the expedition’s flora; others found and described it decades later. The name Plagiobothrys, from two Greek words. means “obliquely pitted” referring to the appearance of the plant’s nutlet. The name, tenellus, is Latin for “slender.”

Waterton Lakes cryptantha, Cryptantha sobolifera Payson (right). The genus Cryptantha includes about forty species found west of the Mississippi River of which about fifteen occur in Idaho; most grow at lower elevations. The one shown here (also known as the alpine cryptantha, or alpine cat’s eye) is an alpine plant. Only 1" to 5" high, its leaves and stems are notably bristly. Tiny, clustered, five-petaled white flowers are borne on a relatively long stem that arises from a basal gathering of lanceolate leaves. The plant supposedly is found only in Idaho, Montana, Nevada and mountains of Oregon and California, so one wonders how it came by its common name, since Waterton Lakes National Park is in Canada (contiguous to Glacier National Park). The name, sobolifera, from the Latin, means “sobole-bearing” ( a “sobole” is a shoot, or sucker that grows at the base of a plant). Cryptantha is a taxonomically confusing genus; this plant has had several species names including Cryptantha hypsophila and Cryptantha nubigena (the latter is now relegated to a species  found only in California).

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