Plants

Whitebark pine cluster perched on the wind-swept summit of Mount Washburn
More than 1,300 plant taxa occur in Yellowstone National Park. The whitebark pine, found in high elevations in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, is an important native species in decline.

NPS/RG Johnsson

 

The plant, or vegetation, communities of Yellowstone National Park include overlapping combinations of species typical of the Rocky Mountains as well as of the Great Plains to the east and the Intermountain region to the west. The exact vegetation community present in any area of the park reflects the consequences of the underlying geology, ongoing climate change, substrates and soils, and disturbances created by fire, floods, landslides, blowdowns, insect infestations, and the arrival of nonnative plants.

Today, the roughly 1,386 native taxa in the park represent the species able to either persist in the area or recolonize after glaciers, lava flows, and other major disturbances. Yellowstone is home to three endemic plant species, at least two of which depend on the unusual habitat created by the park’s thermal features. Most vegetation management in the park is focused on minimizing human-caused impacts on their native plant communities to the extent feasible.

 

Number in Yellowstone

Native plant taxa: more than 1,000:

  • Hundreds of wildflowers.
  • Trees: nine conifers (lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, Engelmann spruce, white spruce, subalpine fir, Douglas-fir, Rocky Mountain juniper, common juniper, limber pine) and some deciduous species, including quaking aspen and cottonwood.
  • Shrubs: include common juniper, sagebrush (many species), Rocky Mountain maple.
  • Three endemic species (found only in Yellowstone): Ross's bentgrass, Yellowstone sand verbena, Yellowstone sulfur wild buckwheat.

Nonnative plant species: 225.

Characteristics

  • Vegetation in Yellowstone is typical of the Rocky Mountains.
  • Elements of the Great Plains and Great Basin floras mix with Rocky Mountain vegetation in the vicinity of Gardiner and Stephen's Creek.
  • Hydrothermal areas support unique plant communities and rare species.

Management Issues

  • Controlling nonnative species, which threaten native species, especially near developed areas; some are spreading into the backcountry.
  • Park partners are monitoring whitebark pine and forest insect pests.
  • Biologists survey areas for sensitive or rare vegetation before disturbance such as constructing a new facility.
  • Park managers are restoring areas of disturbance.
 
Map of Yellowstone showing the different major vegetation communities.
There are several vegetation communities in Yellowstone: higher- and lower-elevation forests and the understory vegetation associated with them, sagebrush-steppe, wetlands, and hydrothermal.

NPS/Yellowstone Spatial Analysis Center

 
 

Vegetation Communities

There are several vegetation communities in Yellowstone: higher- and lower-elevation forests and the understory vegetation associated with them, sagebrush-steppe, wetlands, and hydrothermal.

 
Lodgepole pine forest growing near the road.

Forests

Forests cover about 80% of Yellowstone National Park.

Close-up view of sagebrush in Lamar Valley.

Sagebrush-steppe

This shrubby community is found in the northern range of Yellowstone National Park.

Wetlands growing along the edge of a lake, with mountains visible in the background.

Wetlands

Yellowstone’s wetlands include lakes, rivers, ponds, streams, seeps, marshes, fens, wet meadows, forested wetlands, and hydrothermal pools.

Grasses growing and dead trees standing in a watery meadow.

Hydrothermal Plant Communities

Fascinating and unique plant communities have developed in the expanses of thermally heated ground.

 

Wildflowers

Wildflowers such as lupine and arnica often grow under the forest canopy, but the most conspicuous wildflower displays occur in open meadows and sagebrush-steppe. The appearance of beauties, glacier lilies, and steer’s head announce spring in the park. Soon colors splash the slopes, especially on the northern range—yellow from arrowleaf balsamroot, white from phlox, reds and oranges from paintbrush, and blue from penstemon and lupine. Goldenrod and asters indicate the coming of fall.

 
Purple wildflowers in bloom.

Wildflowers

Wildflowers can grow under the forest canopy, but the most conspicuous displays occur in open meadows and sagebrush-steppe.

 

Rare Plants

The Greater Yellowstone region has few endemic plant species, or species that occur only in Yellowstone and nowhere else in the world. Endemic species occur in unusual or specialized habitats such as hydrothermal areas. Within Yellowstone, only three endemic species occur: Ross’s bentgrass (Agrostis rossiae), Yellowstone sand verbena (Abronia ammophila), and Yellowstone sulfur wild buckwheat (Eriogonum umbellatum var. cladophorum).

Several other unusual species live in the Greater Yellowstone Area: warm springs spike rush, which grows in warm water; and Tweedy’s rush, sometimes the only vascular plant growing in acidic hydrothermal areas.

 
Close-up view of the leaves and seeds of Ross's bentgrass

Ross's Bentgrass

Ross’s bentgrass grows only in the geyser basins in the Firehole River drainage and at Shoshone Geyser Basin.

The white flowers of Yellowstone sand verbena grow in a ball shape.

Rare Plants

Yellowstone sand verbena occurs along the shore of Yellowstone Lake.

Pale green stems and bright yellow flowers of the Yellowstone Sulphur Flower.

Yellowstone Sulphur Flower

Yellowstone sulphur flower is only found in the Firehole River drainage.

 

Managing Plants

Vegetation and Resources Management staff inventory, monitor, manage, and conduct research on the vast array of plant communities in Yellowstone.

 
A crew of three sprays invasive plants in a meadow.

Invasive Plants

Invasive plants can displace native plant species, change vegetation communities, affect fire frequency, impact wildlife.

Restored field of plants protected by a wildlife fence.

Restoring Native Plants

Park managers are restoring native vegetation to this area, following recommendations of arid land restoration specialists.

Close-up view of green gentian flowers.

Herbarium

The herbarium specimens document the presence of plants in the park over time and the history of plant collecting in the park.

Alpine scene showing trees, grasses, and distant mountains.

Vegetation & Resources Management Branch

Park employees who inventory, monitor, manage, and research the vast array of plant communities in the park.

Photo of a bull elk bugling

Nature

Discover the wonder of Yellowstone's geothermal features and our role in the conservation of wildlife.

 

Resources

Craighead, J.J. et al. 1963. A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers from Northern Arizona and New Mexico to British Colombia. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Cronquist et al. (ongoing, currently 6 volumes) Intermountain Flora. New York Botanical Garden.

Despain, D. 1990. Yellowstone Vegetation: Consequences of Environment and History in a Natural Setting. Boulder: Roberts Rinehart.

Dorn, B. 2001. Vascular Plants of Wyoming. 3rd edition.

Elliot, C.R. and M.M. Hektner. 2000. Wetland Resources of Yellowstone National Park. YNP: Wyoming. Out of print, available at https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/upload/wetlandresouces-2.pdf

Hitchcock and Cronquist. 1974. Flora of the Pacific Northwest. Seattle: UWashington Press.

Hitchcock et al. Vascular Plants of the Northwest (5 volumes). Seattle: UWashington Press.

Kershaw et al. 1998. Plants of the Rocky Mountains. Lone Pine Publishing.

Preston, R.J. 1968. Rocky Mountain Trees: A Handbook of the Native Species with Plates and Distribution Maps. New York: Dover.

Romme, W.H. and . Knight. 1982. Landscape diversity: The concept applied to Yellowstone National Park. Bioscience. 32:8.

Shaw, R.J. 1964. Trees and Flowering Shrubs of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Salt Lake City: Wheelwright Press.

Shaw, R.J. 1992. Wildflowers of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Salt Lake City: Wheelwright Press.

Last updated: August 17, 2017

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Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 168
Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168

Phone:

(307) 344-7381

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