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Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Figwort (Snapdragon) family, Scrophulariaceae
The figwort, a Eurasian plant, is not well known in America, so this family is often referred to as the snapdragon family. On the basis of recent DNA studies, many plants previously classified as Scrophulariaceae have been reassigned to other families. This is confusing for those who grew up with the older classifications. Despite these changes, those plants formerly in the snapdragon family do have common characteristics: flowers that mostly have five petals joined for much of their length, a “lip” formed by prominent lower petals, and four anthers (although some genera, notably Penstemon, have a sterile fifth stamen). The family, as originally classified, is large and included approximately 5,100 species spread throughout the world. Its members have little economic importance other than as ornamentals (Digitalis purpurea is an exception; not only is it a popular garden plant, but the leaves are the source of digitalis, a potent and useful cardiac stimulant). In order to simplify present day taxonomic matters insofar as possible, we have elected to leave plants previously classified as Scrophulariaceae under that heading, and include the newer—now generally accepted—classifications as subheadings. For our plants, these include:

(1) Orobanchaceae, the broomrape family includes: paintbrushes (Castilleja), broomrapes (Orobanche), owl-clovers (Orthocarpus), and louseworts (Pedicularis).

(2) Phrymaceae (lop-seed family) includes the monkeyflowers (Mimulus spp.)

(3) Plantaginaceae * (plantain family) includes Penstemon, Collinsia, Veronica, Synthyris (kitten-tails), Chionophila (snowlovers), Limosella (mudworts), and Linaria (toadflaxes).

(4) Scrophulariaceae: Only one local plant, Verbascum thapsus (the common, Eurasian roadside mullein) is in this family as it is now is classified.

* Note: Some botanists believe that various genera, including Veronica and Synthiris  in the Plantaginaceae family should be moved to yet another new family, the Veronicaceae.

Orobanchaceae, Broomrape family

Western naked broomrape, Orobanche uniflora L. var. occidentalis R. L. Taylor & MacBryde (left, right) is a non-chlorophyllaceous plant that grows throughout North America. It is a parasite whose modified root system invades the roots of neighboring plants—in Idaho that means sagebrush. Lack of chlorophyll results in a yellowish-brown to purple coloration (the latter more noticeable at higher elevations, right).The plant’s relationship to other hemi-parasitic Scrophulariaceae (Castilleja, Orthocarpus, Pedicularis, etc.) has long been noted; these genera are now  also in the broomrape family. The “rape” in “broomrape” was derived from a Latin word, rapum, meaning “knob” referring to lumps that form on the roots of brooms (shrubs in the pea family), caused by a European broomrape. Orobanche, in turn, was derived from two Greek words and means, approximately, “vetch-strangler.”

Indian Paintbrushes, Castilleja spp.:  Castilleja species were named for Domingo Castilleja, (1744-1793), an early Spanish botanist. Only one species is common in  the eastern United States, but there are about 250 species in the West, about forty in the Pacific Northwest and of these a dozen or more occur in our mountains. Classification can be difficult. Look closely among the colorful terminal bracts and you’ll see a slim yellow flower made up of a four-spiked calyx from which five petals protrude (right). While hard to make out, the two lower petals form a characteristic "lip"; there are two tiny lateral ones; and then an overhanging beaklike fifth petal known as a “galea,”

Scarlet paintbrush, Castilleja miniata, Douglas ex Hook. ( left, righ) is the most common paintbrush in Idaho, growing at all elevations to well above tree-line. The red bracts (upper leaves) each have two small lateral projections—an identifying feature. David Douglas first collected the plant in Oregon’s Blue Mountains.

Wavy-leaf Indian paintbrush, Castilleja applegatei Fern. (left, right) might easily be confused with the scarlet paintbrush ,shown above. This far less common plant may be distinguished by its crisped (or wavy-edged) leaves. The wavy-leaf paintbrush grows, as one or another variety, in all of the western states save Washington. Several varieties are recognized--we are uncertain which one this is.

Yellow paintbrush, Castilleja flava S. Watson (left) is characterized by its bright yellow bracts. These typically have two long lower lobes and three short terminal lobes. The yellow paintbrush occurs from foothills to fairly high in the mountains of the southern and south-central parts of the state. It is also found in bordering parts of adjacent states to the east and south.

Rocky Mountain paintbrush, Castilleja covilleana L. F. Hend. (leftt) is a localized plant found in central Idaho and, unusually, in adjacent Montana. Within its limited range, it is not uncommon. The plant is not hard to identify, given its elongated, spidery, three lobed leaves and bright red, orange, or occasionally yellow bracts. It is one of our earliest blooming paintbrushes, at home on rocky, sagebrush covered slopes. The plant’s species name honors a prominent botanist, Frederick Vernon Coville (1867-1937), curator of the U.S. National Herbarium and chief botanist of the USDA.

Cusick’s paintbrush, Castilleja cusickii Greenm. (right) is a common montane to alpine plant in Idaho, the surrounding states and British Columbia. The plant’s attractive bright yellow bracts, its preference for the mucky ground of moist meadows, and its tendency to grow in discrete clusters should be sufficient to identify the plant when first seen.

Rosy Indian paintbrush, Castilleja rhexifolia Rydb. (left), may be identified by its dark-red bracts and by lanceolate leaves that lack projecting lobes. While not uncommon, the rosy paintbrush is seen less often than the scarlet paintbrush shown above. .It is usually found in fairly moist situations. The species name, rhexifolia, links the shape of its leaves to those of rhexias, plants found mostly in the southern and eastern states

Castilleja angustifolia (right)

Yakima birdbeak, Cordylanthus capitatum Nutt. ex Benth. (left). While the birdbeaks are also in the broom-rape family, they are not as well known as their showier cousins, the Indian paintbrushs. Nevertheless the birdbeaks will be recognized by their similarity to the latter. The Yakima birdbeak is a moderately tall, rather inconspicuous, straggly plant characterized by overall hairiness and the dark color of its stems, foliage and flowers. The latter resemble those of paintbrushes in that the flowers are surrounded by paintbrush-like bracts. The lowest leaves on the main stem often have two thin lateral lobes in common with many paintbrushes. Our birdbeak  is a mid-elevation foothill and mountain plant that appears in early- to mid-summer on dry ground in sagebrush communities. As with other Orobanchaceae, it is a hemi-parasitic plant. Two species of Cordylanthus grow in Idaho. The one shown here grows in the other three northwestern states and, rarely,  in California.

Thin-leaf owl-clover, Orthocarpus tenuifolius (Pursh) Benth. (left). Owl-clovers (also “owl’s clover”) are closely related to Indian paintbrushes—at one time they were included in the same genus. Most owl-clovers are not particularly attractive, but this one with its delicate yellow and light purple bracts is an exception. It is a montane to alpine plant found in the northern part of Idaho. Meriwether Lewis collected this plant on July 1, 1806, while camped at “Traveler’s Rest” in the Bitterroot Valley near today’s Missoula, Montana. Orthocarpus means “straight fruit,” referring to the shape of the seed capsule; tenuifolia means “thin leaf”—the plant’s common name. The origin of the term “owl-clover” is obscure.

Elephant-head, Pedicularis groenlandica Retz. (left, right). Bizarre little flowers are borne in a tightly packed spike above feather-like leaves. The flowers have a hooded upper petal, (“galea”) with a long projection that resembles an elephant’s head and trunk. A three lobed lower lip forms the face. It is a common montane to alpine plant that grows on moist ground from late spring into the summer. Its appearance is so distinctive that the plant is easily recognized. Louseworts, like other Orobanchaceae are parasites that depend on other plants. Pedicularis is a Latin word meaning “lousy”; in former times it was believed that sheep browsing the European lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica L., were infested with lice from the plant. Meriwether Lewis collected the Greenland lousewort on July 6, 1806, on the Blackfoot River, upstream from today’s Missoula, Montana.

Yellow-flowered bracted lousewort, Pedicularis bracteosa Benth. (left) grows in moist places, at high elevations. The species name, bracteosa, is derived from small toothed leaves (bracts) that are below each flower. The plants have fernlike leaves, common to the genus Pedicularis. Seven varieties of bracted lousewort are recognized.

White sickletop lousewort, Pedicularis racemosa Douglas ex Benth. (right).The sickletop lousewort (also parrot’s beak lousewort) is another Pedicularis species that grows in our high mountain meadows. The plant shown here, var. alba, is white-flowered, common to Idaho, although a pink to purple variety, var. racemosa, grows further to the west. One will have no problem identifying either variety, for the galea (a modified upper petal) is sharply hooked into the sickle shape responsible for its common names. The species name, racemosa, is a description of how the flowers are clustered, botanically as a “raceme.”

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