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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Waterleaf Family, Hydrophyllaceae  

Hydrophyllum in Latin, the word from which this family’s name was derived, means “water-leaf.”  The original waterleaf was a European plant represented in antiquity by an “ornament used in sculptured capitals, supposed to be a conventionalized representation of the leaf of some aquatic plant” (OED). Linnaeus appropriated the name Hydrophyllum and applied it to our plant probably without realizing that Hydrophyllaceae are found only in the New World. It is a relatively small family made up of 15 genera and about 300 species. Its members are in many ways similar to those in the Borage (Forget-me-not) family—so much so that some taxonomists lump the two families together as Boraginaceae. Hydrophyllaceae are found throughout the American West and are strongly represented in the Northwest. Several have been cultivated as ornamental garden varieties (primarily species of Phacelia), the family’s only economic importance. Typically, flowers of the waterleaf family have five sepals and five petals that are united at their base to form small bell- or saucer-shaped flowers. These may be solitary or form clusters (including fiddle-head shaped “helicoid cymes”).

Dwarf hesperochiron, Hesperochiron pumilus, (Douglas ex Griseb.) Porter (left). The dwarf hesperochiron is a pretty little plant, with white, loosely clustered, veined flowers. The plants bloom in the spring on ground still moist from the snow-melt, often in the company of spring-beauties (Claytonia spp.). Hesperochiron is derived from hesperius (“western”), and Chiron, the name of a mythological centaur; possibly the name was that of a similar plant in antiquity. The species name, pumilus means “dwarf” in Latin.

Ballhead waterleaf, Hydrophyllum capitatum Douglas ex Benth. (right). The ballhead waterleaf is an early spring blooming plant found along seasonal freshets or on slopes still moist from the snowmelt. Attractive, round, frizzy, purple flowerheads up to two inches in diameter soon appear, partially hidden by the plant's bright green, incised leaves. The small flowers have five sepals, five petals, and five projecting anthers. Typically purple, the flowers may range to white at subalpine elevations.

Phacelia is a genus made up of about 150 species, It is well represented in our mountains where several of our phacelias are quite showy.

Purple-fringe Phacelia sericea (Graham) A. Gray (left, right). The purple-fringe is one of our more spectacular alpine flowers. It blooms in early to mid-summer on the banks of high mountain lakes and in moist open areas on ridges, where nearby snow-banks and cornices are still melting. The species name, sericea, means “silky” for the hairs on the foliage. Two varieties are recognized; ours is var. sericea. A larger variety, Phacelia sericea var. ciliosa Rydb., also grows in Idaho at lower elevations.

Varied-leaf phacelia, Phacelia heterophylla (left).  Phacelia, from the Greek phakelos, means “bundle,” for the clustered flowers that are seen in this genus. Varied-leaf phacelias are tall and the flowers are white-petaled (left). A very similar plant, Phacelia hastata Douglas ex Lehm.  with purplish flowers is shown on the right. The species name hastata means “spear-shaped” for the plant’s (inconstant) pointed basal leaves with small lateral lobes. Confusingly the same leaves also occur on the varied leaf plant as shown in the image on the left. Tightly coiled helicoid cymes are prominent in both.. Fine hairs give these phacelias'  leaves a silvery hue, more noticeably in the hastata (right and beelow). Lewis and Clark returned with a specimen of the Phacelia heterphylla, collected on June 7, 1806, while camped on the Clearwater River near today's Kamiah.

Silverleaf phacelia, Phacelia hastata Douglas ex Lehm. var. alpina (Rydb.) Cronquist  (left, right). The alpine plant shown here is considered by some to be a form of the plant shown above right, whereas others consider it to be a variety; or even a separate species (Phacelia alpina (Rydb.) Cronquist ). The alpine plants are prostrate and their leaves are leathery, furrier, and more deeply ribbed, suggesting that at least  a varietal classification is justified.

Because of the similarity of these two phacelia species, hastata and heterophylla, some botanists consider them varieties of a single species..

Thread-leaf phacelia, Phacelia linearis (Pursh) Holz. (left). The thread-leaf phacelia bears showy, pink to light-purple flowers. Typically it is found in foothills and at lower elevations in the late spring to early-summer. It is a plant that favors dry surroundings where its narrow rather hairy leaves conserve moisture. The leaves, while narrow, hardly seem narrow enough to deserve the name “thread-leaf.” Meriwether Lewis collected this plant, then new to science, on the expedition’s return trip, at today’s The Dalles, Oregon, on April 17, 1806.

Idaho phacelia, Phacelia idahoensis L.E. Hend. (left). The Idaho phacelia is a tall plant whose purple flowers are borne on a spike-like stem. As with other phacelias, the flowers are on coiled stemlets that are responsible for an alternate common name, "scorpion-weeds" for plants in this genus. Phacelia idahoensis grows only in the central counties of Idaho (this plant was photographed in Custer County, west of Stanley). The ending -ensis used with a species name has the meaning of “originating in.”

Franklin’s phacelia, Phacelia franklinii (R. Br.) A. Gray (left). The five-petaled, light purple flowers of Franklin’s phacelia bloom in a scorpioid cyme as with many other plants in the waterleaf family. Its leaves are pinnate with blunt lobes. The plants may have only a single stem, but more commonly there is a central stem with several smaller ones surrounding it to form a clump. The species namehonors Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), an ill-fated Arctic explorer who died while searching for a Northwest Passage. John Richardson (1787-1865), a physician-naturalist with Franklin’s first expedition, collected this plant in northern Saskatchewan in 1820 and named it for the expedition’s leader.

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