Grand Teton National Park
Alpine (above 10,000 feet)
Above treeline, plants adapt to wind, snow, and lack of soil by growing close to the ground. Alpine plants take advantage of a brief growing season by flowering soon after the snow melts. Some species grow only in the alpine area; others grow tall at lower elevations but are dwarfed in the alpine.
Canyons and Sub-Alpine (7,000 to 10,000 feet)
Between the crags of the Tetons, Ice Age glaciers have carved deep canyons. Today the canyons contain dense conifer forests and open meadows of wildflowers. As elevation increases, wildflowers abound while trees become stunted and eventually shrublike. "Krummholz" (German for "crooked wood") plants are dwarfed forms that are treelike at lower elevations.
Valley (6,400 to 7,000 feet)
Porous valley soils support plants able to tolerate hot and dry conditions. In addition to abundant sagebrush, numerous wildflowers and grasses grow. During June and July, a profusion of color enlivens the valley: the yellow of balsam root, the blue of lupine, and the red of gilia. During August, sunflowers replace balsam root.
Most of the trees in the park are conifers because of the short growing season. Conifers retain their leaves (needles) throughout the year and can produce food (photosynthesize) on warm spring days. Deciduous trees shed their leaves in the fall and must grow new ones each spring before they can photosynthesize. Aspens and cottonwoods have chlorophyll in the bark and therefore can photosynthesize before producing leaves.
Lodgepole pine, the most obvious and abundant conifer in the park and parkway, grows on the lower slopes of the Tetons and on well-drained glacial soils throughout the valley. Needles are two to three inches long, clustered in bundles of two; cones are one to two inches long.
Douglas fir inhabits dry, south- and east-facing slopes, although dense stands of young trees grow on some north-facing slopes. Large diameter trees have coarse, furrowed bark.
Subalpine fir occurs on wetter north-facing valley sites and at higher elevations in the mountains. Smooth bark and spire-like growth form identify subalpine fir. Needles occur singly and feel soft. Cones grow upright on branches.
Engelmann spruce occurs with subalpine fir, especially along creeks in the canyons between Teton peaks. Rough bark and abundant cones hanging down from upper branches identify Engelmann spruce. Cones have papery scales and are 1 and 1/2 inches long.
Blue spruce lines rivers and creeks in the valley. Cones have papery scales and are twice as large as those found on Engelmann spruce. Spruce needles occur singly and are sharp to the touch.
Individual limber pines grow on open, dry valley sites. Needles grow in bundles of five. Cones are four to eight inches long.
Whitebark pine grows above 8,000 feet in the mountains. Needles are in bundles of five. Cones are purple and shorter than those of limber pine.
Aspen grows in stands on level, moist sites and on dry slopes. Aspen bark is smooth and cream-colored. Reproduction is primarily from shoots sprouting from horizontal roots.
Cottonwoods, close relatives of aspens, grow along rivers and creeks in the valley and lower parts of mountain canyons. Bark on mature trees is heavily furrowed. The species that occur in the parklance leaf cottonwood, narrow leaf cottonwood, and balsam poplarhybridize freely, so identification of individual species may be difficult.
Big sagebrush thrives in dry habitats and carpets most of the valley floor. Plants are one to five feet tall; leaves are grayish-green. Tiny yellow flowers bloom in August.
Antelope bitterbrush occurs with sagebrush in the southern half of Jackson Hole. Bitterbrush grows to three feet tall. Cream-colored flowers bloom in June.
Huckleberry grows two to four feet tall in lodgepole pine forests in the valley and mountain canyons. Purple berries are produced in August.
Serviceberry grows to ten feet tall. Showy white flowers bloom in spring, producing purple berries by late summer.
Chokecherry is a large shrub that grows to 20 feet tall. Cylindrical clusters of showy white flowers bloom in spring.
Utah honeysuckle grows in open lodgepole pine forests. Leaves are opposite. Paired cream-colored flowers bloom in early June, producing fused red unpalatable berries.
Mountain ash grows on the lower slopes of the Tetons. This tall shrub has compound leaves. Flat-topped clusters of white flowers bloom in June. In fall bright orange fruit complements vivid red leaves.
Willows occur in moist areas, especially along stream banks. Twenty species are found in the park and parkway.
Snowbrush ceanothus thrives in burned areas. Shiny, leathery green leaves are retained through winter. Clusters of aromatic white flowers bloom in June.
During late spring and summer, colorful wildflowers provide breathtaking displays in various parts of the park. Blooming follows snowmelt, so the show moves upslope as the season progresses.
June in Jackson Hole means flowers in the southern half of the valley. Clumps of yellow arrowleaf balsamroot, a daisy-like flower with arrow-shaped leaves, add vivid splashes of color to the extensive sagebrush flats. Spikes of blue-purple lupines, a member of the pea family, flower along streams in the southern half of Jackson Hole. Later in the summer, other species of lupine, also blue-purple, bloom in open conifer forests.
The meadows along Highway 89-191-287 north of Colter Bay and those near Two Ocean Lake reach peak flowering in July. Look for yellow mountain sunflowers, pink mountain hollyhock, purple lupines, pink sticky geraniums, and purple upland larkspur.
As snow melts in the canyons between the Teton peaks, hikers are treated to meadows with an exquisite mix of colors: yellow columbine, bluebells, red paintbrush, pink daisies, and lavender asters. Along canyon streams, the vegetation is lush, including deep purple monkshood and cow parsnip, with its immense, flat-topped white flower clusters. Canyons with especially magnificent wildflower displays include upper Open, Cascade, and aptly named Paintbrush.
In alpine areas, high up in the Teton Range above where trees can grow, the flowers are diminutive, but worth stooping for. Because of wind, cold temperatures, and the short growing season, alpine flowers tend to grow in ground-hugging cushions. Look for blue alpine forget-me-not, the official flower of Grand Teton National Park and pink moss campion. Alpine plants are well adapted to their environment, but they are extremely vulnerable to human disturbance. Be sure to stay on established trails.
Parts of the park that have burned in recent years offer a spectacular display of wildflowers because of increased sunlight reaching the forest floor and the fertilizer effect of nitrogen-rich ash. At the Taggart Lake area, three miles north of Moose, look for magenta fireweed and yellow heartleaf arnica where a fire burned in 1985. Flowering shrubs that have proliferated since the fire include pink spreading dogbane and snowbrush ceanothus with its sweet-scented blossoms. Wildflowers bloom amid stands of shoulder-high aspens and numerous lodgepole pines that grew after the fire, so hiking the Taggart Lake Trail provides a closeup view of accelerated plant growth as a result of fire. Sections of the Rockfeller Parkway along Highway 89-191-287 burned in 1988 when a number of fires were ignited throughout the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Today look for magenta fireweed, purple asters, yellow groundsel, and pink sticky geranium in a lush carpet of green grasses.
To help you enjoy the flowering plants of Grand Teton National Park, please attend ranger-led hikes (June 5 to September) or consult field guides and other books on display at visitor centers. Please leave wildflowers for others to appreciate; do not pick any vegetation in the park.
Bright pink musk, bull and Canada thistles, pale pink spotted knapweed, and yellow sweet clover, some of the showiest flowers found along roads and trails in the park, are out of place. These plants are exotics that are not native to northwestern Wyoming. Exotic plants can easily become noxious weeds, plants that spread and displace native vegetation. The spread of exotic plants is often a by-product of human activities that cause ground disturbance, such as road and trail construction and grazing of domestic livestock.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication