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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Lily Family, Liliaceae

The lily family, before being split into newly recognized families, consisted of almost 300 genera and 5,000 species. It has always been considered a taxonomic catch-all famil made up of many diverse genera with a few common characteristics. While most have bulbs or “corms” (thick bulb-like stems) that divide below ground, some spread by rhizomes (creeping underground stems). All have the parallel-veined leaves, characteristic of monocotyledonous plants in general. Most also are perennial, herbaceous (non-woody) plants whose flowers have three sepals and three petals (often modified into six identical “tepals”). Despite these common features, there is good reason—based on morphologic and molecular differences—to divide the Liliaceae into a number of smaller families.  For convenience, we have retained the older classification here, and indicated the new families as they are now generally accepted. For our plants, these include:
Agavaceae (Agave family), Camassia
Alliaceae (Onion family), Allium
(Mariposa lily family) Calochortus
(Lily family) Clintonia, Prosartes (formerly Disporum), Erythronium, Fritillaria, Lloydia, and Streptopus
(Bunchflower family), Trillium, Stenanthium, Veratrum, Xerophyllum, Toxicoscordion and Anticlea (the last two genera were until recently assigned to Zigadenus)
(Butcher’s broom family), Maianthemum
(Cluster lily family), Triteleia

Agavaceae family,  Agavaceae

Common camas, Camassia quamash (Pursh) Greene (left, center, right) The Indian word quamash is the source of both generic and species names for this plant; it also supplied the common name, anglicized as “camas.” Camas flowers are large with six identical tepals and bright yellow parenthesis-shaped anthers. Flower color ranges considerably from one area to another, from almost white, to shades of blue, to the blue-gray color shown here, to purple. Meriwether Lewis gathered a specimen on the Weippe Prairie, in June of 1806, while waiting to cross the Lolo Trail on the expedition's return journey, noting that masses of blooming plants resembled water.The illustration shows a “lake” on Camas Prairie near Fairfield. (The yellow plants are a species of Lomatium.)

Onion family, Alliaceae

Short-styled onion, Allium brevistylum S. Watson (left, right) is a tall plant whose flowers are borne in a loose umbel. The flowers do not open widely and the short style, from which the plant takes its names, can’t be seen easily, as it can with many other onions. The plant’s stems are much longer than its leaves. It prefers streambanks and other moist locations, growing to treeline and higher. At lower altitudes the leaves are bright green; at alpine elevations they take on a reddish hue.

Brandegee's onion. Allium brandegeei S. Watson (left, right), grows on gravelly hillsides at all elevations, appearing soon after the snowmelt. Often there are so many as to almost turn the ground white with  their flowers. Each flower has six tepals and each tepal has a dark rib, usually more obvious on the outer side. The flowers, usually white, are occasionally pink. The species name refers to Townshend Stith Brandegee (1843-1925), an American civil engineer, botanist and plant collector, who collected the plant in the Elk Mountains of Colorado.

Hooker’s (also taper-tip) onion , Allium acuminatum Hook. (left, right) grows to moderately high elevations, blooming on dry ground after other flowers have gone by. Its pink to purple flowers are borne in a loose umbel atop a long, thin, leafless stem. Its wispy, inconspicuous leaves have dried up by the time the flowers appear. Hooker’s onion was collected by Archibald Menzies, ship’s surgeon and botanist of the Vancouver Expedition, on today’s Vancouver Island in the 1790s and later classified by William Jackson Hooker, professor of botany in Glasgow. “Acuminate” means “ to taper to a sharp point,” from the shape of the tepals.

Allium simillimum L. F. Hend. (left, right). The deep pink onion on the left was photographed on a mountain trail immediately north of the Sun Valley resort. We identified it as Allium aase, a similar species shown below. Several botanists have since examined dry specimens and believe that it is a form of Allium simillimum, a (usually) white-flowered plant. Since, we have seen other Allium simillimum in varying shades of  pink growing in the Wood River drainage (right).  The name simillimum, from the Latin, means “similiar to,” possibly to another species of wild onion. There seems to be no established common name for the plant.

Aase's onion, Allium aaseae Ownbey was formerly considered a rare plant found only in the Boise foothills. Since, populations have been found as far west as Weiser. These purple-flowered plants prefer south facing sand banks where they are sometimes found in fairly large numbers. It is still considered a sensitive species and steps have been taken to protect the plant, understandably, for it is one of the most attractive of our wild onions. The plant was named for botanist Hannah Aase of the University of Washington. (Thanks to Mike Mancuso for showing me the ones pictured here.)

Chive, Allium schoenoprasum L. (left). Our wild plant appears identical to the garden chive--as it should; it is the same species. The plant is easily identified—most everyone knows what chives looks like. Even lacking its light purple flower head, the typical appearance of its hollow leaves and its taste should clinch its identification. The species name, schoenoprasum, is derived from two Greek words meaning “rush” and “leek.”

Tolmie’s onion, Allium tolmiei Baker (right) is an attractive, although not a common plant found in the western part of north-central Idaho. It grows on dry, gravelly ground and may be identified by its pink flowerheads and its notably wide, flat, sickle-shaped leaves. These are quite long compared to the short-stemmed flowerheads. William Frazer Tolmie (1812-1886) was a surgeon with the Hudson’s Bay Company who was given a plant collection that included this onion. Tolmie sent the collection to William Jackson Hooker in England. Subsequently Tolmie’s name was attached to the plant.

Geyer’s onion, Allium geyeri S. Watson (left, right) is a common Rocky Mountain onion that grows, often in large numbers, along mountain streams and in moist meadows, sometimes in company with the short-style onion shown above. A tall white-flowered onion, the bulbils, when present, make identication easy. The species name honors Charles A. Geyer (1809-1853), a German botanist and plant-hunter who was hired to collect plants in the western United States in 1843.

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