by Terry Terrell
Sometimes visitors ask park staff what are the most common wildflowers in the park? To answer this we will use the definition of "wildflower" that most visitors would use - those plants that have reasonably large, showy flowers. We won't include grasses (101 species known from the park) and sedges (66 species known from the park) because they have very tiny flowers that most visitors don't identify as "wildflowers" although grasses and sedges are clearly flowering plants.
While we don't have data on the commonness as measured by the numbers of individuals, we do know which families are the most common based on number of species. They are the composite or sunflower, figwort or snapdragon, and mustard families. The composites (Asteraceae) alone, at 155 species known from the park, account for about 15% of the more than 1000 flowering plant species in the park. This plant family is highly adaptable and grows from montane ecosystems at the lowest boundaries of the park to the top of the tundra. One of the most well-loved members of the composites is the alpine sunflower or old-man-of-the-mountain (Hymenoxys grandiflora) that lives in the tundra, may take 70 years to flower, but flowers only once then dies.
The figwort family (Scrophulariaceae) has 41 species known from the park. Some of its representatives such as little pink elephants, penstemons, and narrowleaf paintbrush are among the wildflowers most appreciated by visitors for their bright colors and interesting blooms that grace wetlands, meadows, and dry hillsides, respectively. One signature characteristic of the figwort family is the irregular shape of their flowers.
The mustards (Brassicaceae) are represented by 37 species and are distributed from montane to tundra ecosystems. While they tend to bloom across a very wide blooming season - mountain candytuft can be found in bloom as early as March while western wallflowers blooms well into August - most are spring bloomers.
While Rocky Mountain National Park has been in existence for over 90 years, it has attracted many avid wildflower fans, and botanists have conducted extensive surveys, it is important to realize that we still don't know all the plants that live in the park. New species are still being added to the list almost every year as we do more research in the park.