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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Purslane Family, Portulacaceae ,

The purslane family (28 genera, 440 species) gets its name from an Old World potherb, Portulaca oleracea. Pliny, in his Natural History (1st century A.D.), named the plant porcil-aka, a word with no known meaning that, in time, became portulaca. Then, because it sounded like “porcelain,” the plant’s common name in England became “purslane,” a word in use since the fourteenth century. The purslane, the only European member of the family, is still grown there as a potherb. Introduced to America, it has spread throughout the United States as a fleshy-leaved, garden weed (not illustrated). Family features include: large roots (used by Indians as food); fleshy leaves (edible in some species); showy flowers (some are cultivated as ornamental plants, the family’s only commercial importance); four to many petals; and, in most, two sepals (a distinguishing feature).

Lewisias (bitterroots)

Common bitter-root, Lewisia rediviva Pursh (left, right). Frederick Pursh recognized this plant as a new genus, naming it for Meriwether Lewis who obtained it at “Traveler’s Rest” near today’s Missoula, Montana (July 1, 1806). Pursh named the species rediviva, meaning “return to life,” because one of Lewis’s specimens bloomed when planted after the expedition’s return. The bitter-root’s striking, many-petaled flowers appear on gravelly ground in late spring. In Blaine and Camas counties (and south to Nevada) the flowers are white; farther north they are varying shades of pink. Indians prized the roots, but white-men found them unpalatable, explaining the plant’s common name.

Alpine bitter-root, Lewisia pygmaea (A. Gray) B. L. Robins (left, right). The pink-flowered alpine, or pygmy bitter-root (var. pygmaea) grows on bare ground, from the montane zone to well above tree-line. The plants are tiny—those pictured here were about 1/4'' in diameter, and no part extends more than an inch above ground level. It is difficult to see how the plant survives, subjected to harsh winds and freezing temperatures, but microclimate is everything. There is little wind at ground level, and rocky tundra, warmed by the sun, radiates warmth. So long as the plant hugs the ground, it survives. The white form on the right is occasionally seen in Idaho. It appears to be var. nevadensis (A. Gray) B. L. Robins.

Claytonias and montias (springbeauties and candyflowers)

Species of Montia (candyflowers) and Claytonia (springbeauties) are so closely related that many have been cross-classified between the two genera over the years. Consensus now favors the classification used here. The top four plants were collected by Meriwether Lewis in the spring of 1806, on the Columbia and Clearwater rivers. The name Claytonia honors Virginia botanist John Clayton (1694-1773) who collected the eastern springbeauty Claytonia virginica.

Siberian springbeauty,Claytonia sibirica L. (left) is a common streamside plant, characterized by broad leaves and loose clusters of dainty, small, white flowers.

Lanceleaf springbeauty, Claytonia lanceolata Pall. ex Pursh (right) bears small white- petaled flowers, with pink veins and anthers. Some years, for reasons that are obscure, some of the flower petals have many veins and appear pink, as in our illustration. The plant is common throughout the West, blooming soon after snowmelt on open ground. Lanceolate leaves give the plant its species name.

Miner’s lettuce, Claytonia perfoliata Donn ex.Willd. (left) is unusual because its stems pierce two opposing conjoined leaves. Its flowers are similar to other white-flowered claytonias. The plant is best known for its use as a salad green in the early days of the West, hence its common name.

Heartleaf springbeauty, Claytonia cordifolia S. Watson (right) prefers deeply shaded, moist forests. The name, cordifolia, describes the plant’s wide, heart-shaped leaves. Its small white flowers are similar to those of other springbeauties shown here.

Streambank springbeauty, Claytonia parviflora Dougl. ex Hook is a reclusive plant found in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific coastal states, favoring moist woods and quiet streambanks. Its small flowers are sometimes tinged with pink. It is the least common of the plants in this group.

Chamisso’s candyflower, Montia chamissoi (Ledeb. ex Spreng.) Greene is usually classified as a species of Montia (candyflowers) rather than as a Claytonia (springbeauties). While all spring-beauties prefer moist, or recently moist, soil, this plant grows in the water of spring puddles and freshets. It is named for the German botanist who discovered the plant.

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