Flower Splendor

Have Fun Getting to Know Local Wildflowers

Each summer and fall in the Colorado Rockies, our wildflower neighbors appear and shower us with delight. Many special varieties also offer other clues about their surroundings — the altitude on a hiking trail, the right timing for eager trout to take a dry fly, when to expect young falcons to fledge or great horned owl eggs to hatch, when coyote pups begin to play outside their dens, where to watch for grazing wildlife or when winter will finally relax its grip. As we become familiar with wildflowers, we discover other secrets of mountain life.

Many wildflowers and plants in the area share a name (and often a physical resemblance!) with animals, humans, fantastical beings or magical objects. Learning about this makes observing flower splendor all the more fun! Consider paintbrush, bull thistle, king’s crown, steershead, fairy slipper … even the prolific dandelion! Identifying particular flowers by names isn’t necessary to appreciate their beauty and it’s not always easy; many species appear similar upon first glance. But here is an artistic (not scientific or botanical) introduction to a variety of Rocky Mountain flowers with unique names, including basic descriptions and colorful sketches to help you recognize and remember them.

Enjoy! And remember, it’s a good idea to carry along a more detailed field guide to provide you with information and photos as you explore local wildflowers.




old man of the mountain wildflower

original illustrations by Sandy Ferguson Fuller.

(Composite family)

Also “alpine sunflower.” Sturdy, large (2-3 inch) yellow heads and matching (not darker) centers; narrow leaves; gray and “woolly” stems, not smooth. Flourish above timberline on dry, exposed ridges. Unlike sunflower cousins, never turn to follow the sunlight. Always facing east, these wildflowers offer a steadfast compass.


indian paintbrush wildflower

(Figwort family)

The “bracts” on this plant are usually mistaken for brilliant flowers, resembling brushes dipped in red, yellow, fuchsia, coral, white or other paint hues. But the “flowers” are actually dense green spikes atop the stems, occasionally tinged with color. Paintbrush rely on roots of neighboring plants to survive.


harbelle wildflowers

(Bluebell family)

Violet-blue, delicate bell-shaped flowers dangle from slender stems. It’s easy to imagine the bells tingling sweet melodies into thin
mountain air, as high as 10,000 feet, from June to September. The same flower adorns the Scottish Highlands and is known there as “Scotch bluebell.”


foxtail wildflowers

(Grass family)

A type of barley, also “ticklegrass,” this variety waves tawny golden “awns” in the breeze and its flower head mimics a fox’s tail. Attractive and benign at first glance, but beware of this sly, cunning fox plant … the awns mature into brittle barbs and can penetrate
eyes, ears, gums, noses and paws of roaming sheep, deer, elk and dogs, causing infection, blindness or even death.


elephant trunk wildflowers

(Figwort family)

Tiny pink or reddish-purple elephant heads with trunks distinguish this flowering spiked “fern,” fun to spot from about 5,000 feet to
above timberline. Nothing like it! Also called “elephantella” or “elephant head.” Elk nibble on it from late June to early August, usually near moist locales like beaver ponds or open spaces.



(Lily family)

Tiny white flowers form large, soft conical clusters on slender grassy stems, 2-3 feet tall. Usually grows in patches. When beargrass
flowers, young mountain bluebirds are fledging. Plants alternate blooming every five to seven years. Mountain goats thrive on these stalks during winter months.


common cattail

(Cattail family)

A brown sausage-shape cluster with flat, strap-like leaves which can be used for decoration and weaving. These wildflowers are a favorite lunch to munch in marsh areas for muskrats, geese and elk.


rocky mountain bee plant

(Caper family)

A multi-branched, leafy plant with numerous pink flowers which develop seed pods while blooming. Also known as “stinkweed” with some yellow varieties.


goat cabbage

(Arum family)

Yellow, partially rolled flower buds which appear in marshes at first sign of spring. Cabbage blooms as the bald eagle begins nesting. It offers a favorite picnic treat for bears.


fairy slipper

(Orchid family)

Displaying shades of pink to magenta with a single broad leaf, this rare, delicate, early-blooming Colorado orchid appears late May through June. Also named “calypso.” Found in wet coniferous forests or near decayed logs.



(Bleeding Heart family)

Tiny, tiny white or pink flowers, growing in bunches, closely resemble a steer with horns, often pointed upside-down. In sagebrush
areas or plateaus. Ironically contains poisonous alkaloids harmful to cattle, but herds avoid its bitter flavoring.


wakerobn wildflowers

(Lily family)

Distinguished by three broad leaves cupping a single flower with three white petals which gradually turn pink. Just like robins, these
hardy plants are harbingers of spring. Found in damp woods and valleys, in partial shade up to 7,000 feet.



(Buttercup family)

A hoodlike cap or helmet is formed by the indigo sepals, reminiscent of medieval monks. Reaching 2-5 feet on slender stalks with leaves largest at stem base. Appears late June to early August in wet meadows and along streams.


mules ears

(Composite family)

A flowering orange-yellow head similar to sunflowers, with numerous long, smooth, shiny (vs. hairy) leaves. Heads often touch together. Heralds the hatching of sage-grouse chicks or young ravens leaving their nest.


kings crown wildflowers

(Stonecrop family)

A high-altitude jewel of rich, regal red, found clustered near rocky outcroppings in open meadows or some moist areas. As many as 50 small flowers may form a colony, with thick, succulent leaves trimmed in red. Rules summer-long.


queen annes lace

(Umbellifer family)

Hardy, vigorous and sometimes considered an invasive species, but also nurturing to some animals and beneficial insects, like adult bees. Butterflies also adorn the Queen’s garment. The “living lace” is spun with thousands of tiny white flowers grouped in flat umbrella clusters. Also called “wild carrot.”



(Lily family)

A small yellow lily, cupped with one pair of shiny leaves. Also called “glacier lily.” A few nodding flowers may grow on the same naked stem. This one climbs the mountain in tune with the changing seasons! At 7,000 feet, it appears as mule deer begin to fawn. Later in July, at 9,000 feet, it pops out when ptarmigan are nesting.


miners candle wildflowers

(Borage family)

Stretching to 3 feet or more (!), the coned stem hosts small, petal flowers (look like white forget-me-nots) and long protruding leaves which give it an ominous “spiky” look. Flourishes June to August in mountain meadows, mostly in drier, sunny areas.



(St. Johnswort family)

Yellow 3/4-inch flowers with protruding stamens supported by stiff, erect woody rootstock 1-5 feet tall. Alternating single leaves with
colorless or black spots. A Colorado native species.


bull thistle

(Composite family)

Aptly named, feisty and stubborn like a bull, this persistent thistle variety has large heads of purple flowers, sharp spines covered with stiff hairs, leaves up to 8 inches long, and deep roots. A biennial, 2-5 feet tall. Hiding beneath the flower are silky seedlings which spread quickly. Don’t let it invade and consume your home lawn or garden! But this “thistledown” provides excellent tinder for
starting campfires in the wild.


dandelion wildflowers

(Composite family)

Three native species roam the high Colorado mountains, but many variations homestead here, too. Bright, yellow ray-flower heads atop hollow, milky stems turn our outdoors to gold every spring. Often regarded as nature’s pests, but also benefactors, dandelions provide roots for delicious salads, healing tonics, flowers for wine and succulent foraging for Canada geese, grouse, elk, deer, bear and porcupine.


So, enjoy your sojourns among the wildflowers this summer and try to get to know as many as possible. Remember not to pick or tread upon these flowers … they wilt quickly and their fragile beauty soon fades and dies. Hopefully you will be lucky to view the splendor of a field of Colorado columbine, the state flower, and to greet a patch of tiny bright blue forget-me-nots at your feet. The memories will be yours for keeps.