Features of the Flora of Mount Rainier National Park
NPS Logo


The lower part of the third zone or the first meadows reached are usually moist and covered with tall grasses and sedges. The sedges are more abundant and can be recognized by their triangular stems and coarse appearance. In the early part of the season these grassy places are covered with a minute form of a swamp violet. This grows so near the ground that it is often overlooked.

The shooting star, Dodecatheon jeffreyi (fig. 15), is one of the most conspicuous. It has a rosette of oblanceolate leaves and peculiar shaped flowers, resembling those of the cyclamen, which is a near relative.

FIG. 15.—Shooting star (Dodecatheon jeffreyi). Color of flower, pink; height of plant, 6 to 10 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by Asahel Curtis.

The purple aster, Eucephalus ledophyllus (fig. 16), is frequently found here. It has tall leafy stems, leaves pubescent on the under side. The ray flowers are pinkish purple. It grows so abundantly that in favored localities the ground is covered with the plants with head touching head, swaying in unison to the least breath of wind.

FIG. 16.—Purple aster (Eucephalus ledophyllus). Color of flower, pinkish purple; height of plant, 1 to 2 feet; blooms July to September. Photograph by Asahel Curtis.

Here, also, grows the elephant's trunk, Pedicularis groenlandica surrecta. It has pinnately parted leaves, coiled beak, and dull purple flowers. The peculiar resemblance of its beak to the trunk of an elephant gives it its popular name. The chief interest in this plant lies in its oddness and not in the brilliancy of its color, like those just mentioned. The cotton grass, Eriophorum polystachyon, grows abundantly here, with its long slender stalk, bearing a white cotton-like tuft on the summit. Sometimes this plant seems to take complete control of small areas, but more often grows mixed with other plants. The rosy spiraea, Spiraea densiflora, is a well-known little shrub bearing dense clusters of small red flowers on numerous short slender stems. In similar situations in the Olympic Mountains the Douglas spiraea of the lowlands grows with the above, but this combination has not been seen here. Salix commutata, the common alpine willow, grows abundantly in these low meadows and bogs, and is in bloom about the 1st of July. There are few plants in bloom on the mountain before that time, unless the season should be unusually early. Leptarrhena, Saxifraga, Mitella, and Erythronium are some of the other genera composing the spring crop. Later the grass of Parnassus, Parnassia fimbriata, a beautiful plant with reniform leaves and white fringed petals adorn these moist areas, coming up here and there among the asters, erigerons, and arnicas about the latter part of August in time to salute the last visitors of the season.

Above these moist meadows are more extensive grassy areas with better soil and well drained. Here are found the real natural flower gardens of the mountain, surpassing perhaps in beauty of color, number of species, and luxuriance of growth any other alpine region of the world.

On passing through a dense cluster of alpine trees and emerging for the first time into one of these "gardens" one of the most noted of the botanical visitors to the park last summer stopped and repeated the word "wonderful! wonderful! wonderful!" This was the verdict of a man whose long and successful life has been devoted to botanical research not only in his own fatherland but in nearly every country of the world. He stood until his companions were nearly out of sight, hastening on to reach the hotel in time for lunch, but he breathed in the fragrance of the flowers and scanned the delightful vista before him unmindful of mere bodily wants.

A satisfactory description of a natural flower bed has not come to the writer's observation nor does he expect to write one now. If by means of this article more people shall be brought in touch with the mountain and its wonderful flora he will be satisfied. These flower beds must be seen and their fragrance inhaled before a full comprehension of them can be realized. The more one sees them, the more does he realize their infinite beauty and the full significance of the spiritual lessons which these floral emblems teach.

By numerous photographs and brief descriptions some idea of these natural flower beds may be obtained. In the early spring the white mountain deertongue, Erythronium montanum (fig. 17), is by far the most abundant and conspicuous, thrusting its leaves and flowers up through the snow. Avalanche lily, adder's-tongue and dog's-tooth violet are other popular names for this plant. It has two lanceolate leaves with sinuous edges without dark blotches and several flowers in the form of a raceme.

FIG. 17—Deer tongue (Erythronium montanum). Color of flower, white; height of plant, 7 to 15 inChes; blooms July and August. Photograph by Asahel Curtis.

Suksdorf's buttercup, Ranunculus suksdorfii (fig. 18), is an almost constant companion of the deertongue. Though not as successful in making its way through the snow, it is in bloom near the snowbank soon after the snow has melted from it. This is the only buttercup occurring with the mountain deertongue so there can be no confusion, though it is often confused with Potentilla flabellifolia (fig. 19), which belongs to the rose family. The latter can be identified by its small bracts between the sepals while the sepals of the buttercup are rolled back and fall off early. The potentilla is also larger than the buttercup and does not bloom so near the snow.

FIG. 18.—Suksdorf's buttercup (Ranunculus suksdorfii). Color of flower, yellow; height of plant, 5 to 12 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

FIG. 19.—Potentilla flabellifolia. Color of flower, yellow; height of plant, 8 to 16 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

The western anemone or Pulsatilla occidentalis (figs. 20 and 21) is also ready to put forth its blossoms with the buttercup. This is the only anemone found near the snow. It has large lavender flowers with leaves still in the bud until the floral organs drop off. Then the finely dissected leaves unfold and the plumelike heads develop, showing the feathery appendages of the seeds. It is greatly admired both in flower and fruit.

FIG. 20——Western anemone in fruit (Pulsatilla occidentalis). Color of flower, lavender; height of plant, 10 to 18 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

FIG. 21.—Western anemone in flower (Pulsatilla occidentalis). Color of flower, lavender; height of plant, 10 to 18 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

After these hardy pioneers have held undisputed sway for a week or two the other plants spring forth in rapid succession transforming the bare ground and the site of the dust-covered snow bank into a veritable flower bed. The season is short. Everything moves rapidly. As the weeks come and go so does the succession of plants come and go, changing as by magic; in flower one week and in seed the next. The most conspicuous of the later plants is the valerian, Valeriana sitchensis (fig. 22). This is also wrongly called the mountain heliotrope, on account of its small pinkish white flowers in cymes, resembling the common garden heliotrope though having no relationship. It is a tall plant with a strong characteristic odor; the leaves are pinnate, the upper leaflet being by far the largest. It is usually one of the tallest plants in these flower beds in the neighborhood of 5,500 feet and grows abundantly, beginning to bloom in the early part of July. It continues to bloom until the middle of August or the first of September.

FIG. 22.—Valerian (Valeriana sitchensis). Color of plant, pinkish white to white; height of plant, 1-1/2 to 4 feet; blooms in July and August. Photograph by Asahel Curtis.

Mertensia laevigata (fig. 23) is another plant between 2 and 3 feet high with raceme of blue-purple flowers and thin ovate leaves. The Arctic lupine, Lupinus subalpinus (fig. 24), grows with the above though it is not so tall, but is really more conspicuous because of its many radiate flower stalks with long racemes of pealike purple flowers and palmately compound leaves. Polemonium pulchellum (fig. 25) is another handsome plant with pinnate leaves and blue flowers in cymulose clusters. Cusick's speedwell, Veronica cusickii, is a small plant about 3 to 6 inches high with opposite ovate leaves and raceme of blue-violet flowers. It is a very abundant plant at an altitude of about 5,000 to 6,000 feet on all sides of the mountain. What it lacks in size it makes up in abundance and does much underneath the mertensias, lupines, and polemoniums to render prominent the blue color in the flower beds. The Indian paint brush, Castilleia oreopola, attracts more attention, perhaps, than any other plant of its size on the mountain, because of its bright red or purplish red color and radiate clusters. These red clusters appear in well-balanced groups throughout these extensive flower beds, harmonizing with the blue, the white, and the yellow of other plants. Painted cup is another popular name for it. These common names are applied to any species of Castilleia in this vicinity. The red heather forms dense patches with its long shrubby stems usually leaning over to one side with its red bell-shape flowers.

FIG. 23.—Mertensia laevigata. Color of flower, blue to pinkish blue; height of plant, 2 feet; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

FIG. 24.—Arctic lupine (Lupinus subalpinus). Color of flower, bluish purple; height of plant, 10 to 18 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

FIG. 25.—Polemonium pulchellum. Color of flower, pale blue; height of plant, 8 to 12 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

Along the numerous streams may ho found Lewis's monkey flower with its rose-red two-lipped corolla. Here, likewise, may be seen the rosy spiraea which continues up from the lower moist meadows. The spiraea and the monkey flower are always associated with moisture, while the Indian paint brush and red heather are not. These rills can often be traced in the distance by the bright rose-red flowers of Lewis's monkey flower and by the bright yellow of the alpine monkey flower (fig. 26), which loves the same habitat. Both grow in dense masses and often cover the ground to the exclusion of other plants. The yellow fireweed, Epilobium luteum, flourishes best along the streams in the lower meadows. It may be known by its creamy yellow flowers and ovate to lanceolate opposite leaves on a rather tall stem.

FIG. 26.—Monkey flower (Mimulus alpinus). Color of flower, yellow; height of plant, 1 to 1-1/2 feet; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

The mountain dock, Polygonum bistortoides (fig. 27), may be known by its lanceolate radical leaves and rather long, slender stem, bearing an oblong spike of small white flowers. This plant is very abundant and is easily swayed about by the wind, thus trying the patience of the flower photographer. It is nearly always associated with the valerian and the asters. There are several plants of the parsley family which may be recognized by their umbels of white or purplish-white flowers. The "wild parsnip," Ligusticum purpureum, has finely dissected leaves and small whitish purple flowers. The mountain ash, with its shrubby stem and large, flat flower clusters, often lends variety to the grassy slopes studded with numerous herbaceous plants. The mountain currant, Ribes acerifolium, also adds variety, especially near streams or in the shade of groups of trees, though its small green flowers are not conspicuous. The wild hellebore, Veratrum viride (see cover), forms dense clumps anywhere throughout these variegated slopes. Its tall herbaceous stem, rising 4 or 5 feet high, bears drooping panicles of greenish-white flowers and very broad strongly veined and creased leaves. It is always a plant of marked interest to the tourist, not only on account of its color but on account of its size and peculiar robust mode of growth among plants so slender and highly colored.

FIG. 27.—Mountain dock (Polygonum bistortoides). Color of flower, white; height of plant, 1 to 2 feet; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H Barnes.

A large number of plants contribute the yellow color to those flower beds. The mountain dandelion, Agoseris alpestris, is a plant closely resembling the common dandelion. The potentilla, Potentilla flabellifolia, is a common buttercup-like plant already referred to. There are two or three species of arnicas, which may be known by their opposite cordate or ovate leaves and rather large heads of yellow flowers. One species, Arnica parryi, has its heads entirely rayless and usually solitary. It therefore takes little part in the color scheme. Senecio triangularis may be known by its rather tall stem, small heads, and triangular dentate leaves. It requires plenty of moisture and is found near streams and springs. It ranges from Longmire Springs to the "Camp of the Clouds."

The pentstemons, epilobiums, asters, erigerons, claytonias, etc., contribute pink and purple in ever varying shades, making the harmony complete.

The tree groups among these flower beds are composed largely of the alpine fir, alpine hemlock, Alaska cedar, and the white-barked pine, Pinus albicaulis. This pine is rare on the south side, but is common on the north and east sides of the mountain. The same is true of an alpine form of the tideland spruce. These trees are peculiar in that their trunks rise up like spires while their short branches are bent downward by the weight of the snow. In the fierce struggle for existence their wood has been strengthened to a remarkable degree as compared with wood of trees at sea level. Many of the shorter trees remain buried for months in snowdrifts 15 to 20 feet in depth. It is not strange that such trees should have a gnarled and distorted appearance even at an altitude of 5,500 feet. Between this altitude and 6,500 feet there is a marked change to smaller plants, steeper slopes and poorer soil, but no diminution in color. In fact, the color scheme is intensified, and many of the most beautiful flower beds are found about 6,000 feet or a little above.

Phlox diffusa (fig. 28) is here arrayed in large masses of lavender flowers changing to white as they become older. The painted cups here vary from red to crimson and sometimes even to purple. There are three or four different species of them in these flower beds. Castilleia miniata is known by its entire lanceolate leaves. The other species are similar to each other and are known only to botanists. Cusick's speedwell which, in the second zone was said to be partially hidden under the larger plants, is seen to better advantage here and often forms beautiful blue patches to the exclusion of other plants.

FIG. 28.—Mountain phlox (Phlox diffusa). Color of flower, lavender to white; height of plant, 1 to 4 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

The blue gentian, Gentiana calycosa (fig. 29), with its large funnel-form flowers and opposite sessile ovate leaves, grows here in moist places. It is one of the most admired of the blue flowers found on the mountain. It is not strange that it attracted the trained eye of Dr. Tolmie, the first botanist to visit the mountain. It was named from specimens collected by him near the Puyallup Glacier in 1837. It is abundant at the end of the trail leading into Van Trump Park and along the lower meadows on the glacier trail leading into Paradise Valley. It may be found from the lower meadows to timber line. It blooms rather late, and may be found in October with its large, beautiful blue flowers up through a foot of snow, being held upright by small branches of the rosy spiraea or other shrubs common to wet places. Several species of the aster family are also seen in this sorry plight. Many of the weaker plants, such as the speedwell, are buried several times under the snow before it becomes continuous for the winter. After the temporary snows melt off, these plants soon straighten up and continue on as though they never had been buried.

FIG. 29.—Blue gentian (Gentiana calycosa). Color of flower, blue; height of plant, 10 to 18 inches; blooms August and September. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

The framework of these plants which grow late is so well preserved in the following spring after the winter snows thaw that the old plant is sometimes mistaken for the new. Here we find the principle of cold storage applied in a natural way. In this area there is a gradual transition to plants of a higher altitude. Many of the conspicuous plants from the area below are also found here though in a more depauperated condition, hence there is a general blending together of the high and low altitude trees. This transition area is, perhaps, the most interesting, because of the great variety of plants and the infinite combinations found under different conditions of soil, moisture, and light.

The white and yellow deer-tongues, the arctic lupines; the valerians, and the polemoniums are abundant in the lower part of this region though not in the upper near 6,500 feet. Lupinus volcanicus is a characteristic timber-line plant all around the mountain. It differs from the plant in the lower meadows by its greater pubescence, coarser and shorter stems.

The white heather, Cassiope mertensiana (fig. 30), is one of the most attractive plants in the heather group. It is known by its bell-shaped, drooping flowers and rather short stems with small imbricated leaves. The red heather, Phyllodoce empetriformis (figs. 31 and 32), which is much more robust, often grows with it. It extends from 3,200 feet to timber line. The yellow heather, Phyllodoce glanduliflora (fig. 33), is common, though less conspicuous than its relative with its greenish yellow flowers. Its range is limited to the vicinity of timber line.

FIG. 30.—White heather (Cassiope mertensiana). Color of flower, white; height of plant, 6 to 10 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

FIG. 31. Red heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis). Color of flower, red; height of plant, 10 to 18 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

FIG. 32.—Red heather (Phyllodoce empetriformius). Color of flower, red; height of plant, 10 to 18 inches; blooms July to August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

FIG. 33.—Yellow heather (Phyllodoce glanduliflora). Color of flower, yellowish white; height of plant, 6 to 10 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

Common in the same locality are two short, dainty pentstemons, Pentstemon procerus and Pentstemon confertus. The former has beautiful blue flowers, while the latter has a delicate creamy yellow color. At this altitude they are about 3 inches in height, while in the lower zone they are much larger. Several dainty species of the genus Pedicularis are scattered here and there among the heather. Gilia nuttallii is often called phlox on account of its large white phloxlike flowers, and palmately 3 to 7 parted leaves. This is rare in Paradise Valley though common on the west side of the mountain. It blooms during the early part of July. It is quite ornamental like its relative the phlox, which often is associated with it. The rills are adorned with the alpine minulus as below. The epilobiums are abundant, covering the ground with their small pink flowers.

Two cud weeds, Antennaria media and Antennaria lanata, are easily known by their white wooly appearance and rather short stems. The latter is larger with denser heads and narrower leaves than the former. These plants are related to the Swiss edelweiss. They do not have the star-like heads of the Swiss plant. The dog violet, Viola retroscabra, and the early violet, Viola sempervirens, are found in this zone all around the mountain. They are never seen in great abundance anywhere. The dog violet has bluish-violet flowers and ovate leaves while the other is yellow with round cordate leaves. The former is more abundant than the latter. The pink family has several representatives such as Suksdorf's silene (fig. 34), two or three arenarias, or sandworts. These plants, like the violets, give variety by their somewhat equal distribution over the grassy slopes.

FIG. 34.—Suksdorf's silene (Silene suksdorfii). Color of flower, pinkish white; height of plant, 1 to 6 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

The saxifrage family in this zone takes to the rocks to avoid competition. Many of these grow in large mats, and cover the bare rocks and soil with a beautiful carpet of small white flowers. Saxifraga tolmiei (fig. 35) is the most noted and the most common on the rocky areas below timber line. Many tourists stop and pay homage to this little plant, not only on account of its beauty but also because of its apparently inhospitable environment. Saxifraga caespitosa grows more on moist crags and in still denser and more globular masses than the former. It is also a larger and coarser plant. Saxifraga branchialis (fig. 36) has a larger flower stalk and grows in drier places, often embedded on moss-covered rocks. Along the streams there are several other species, which grow here and there with reniform leaves and small white flowers.

FIG. 35.—Tolmie's saxifraga (Saxafraga tolmiei). Color of flower, white; height of plant, 3 to 4 inches; blooms July and August. Photograph by Asahel Curtis.

FIG. 36.—Saxifraga bronchialis. Color of flower; height of plant, 3 to 7 inches; blooms July to August. Photograph by A. H. Barnes.

The spring beauty, Claytonia lanceolata, is common on the dry grassy slopes, and may be known by its low stemless habit, pink flowers, and lanceolate leaves from a tuberous root which was used by the Indians for food. The Indian basket grass occurs in several of the meadows up in this area. In the upper part of Paradise Valley, on the ridge west of Sluiskin Falls, there is a large field of it near timber line. These plants are found in full bloom long after those below have gone to seed. This plant furnishes an excellent example of what altitude does for a plant. It extends from 2,750 feet, at Longmire Springs, to timber line, about 7,000 feet.

The Alaska spiraea, Lutkea pectinata, forms clusters often excluding other plants. Its creeping habit enables it to form heather-like mats. It has short shrubby stems 4 to 6 inches high, bearing a dense raceme of small white flowers; leaves twice or thrice palmately three cleft. These mats of sharply cleft bright green leaves are very noticeable even where the plant is not in bloom. In and among these mats of Alaska spiraea and heather grows a small form of the pale laurel not more than 2 to 4 inches high. It may be known by its saucer shaped pink flowers, with pouches for the stamens, and by its ovate to lanceolate leaves, dark green above and whitish beneath.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 15-May-2007