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:
Nonnative plant species: 225.
There are several vegetation communities in Yellowstone: higher- and lower-elevation forests and the understory vegetation associated with them, sagebrush-steppe, wetlands, and hydrothermal.
This shrubby community is found in the northern range of Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone’s wetlands include lakes, rivers, ponds, streams, seeps, marshes, fens, wet meadows, forested wetlands, and hydrothermal pools.
Hydrothermal Plant Communities
Fascinating and unique plant communities have developed in the expanses of thermally heated ground.
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.
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.
Ross’s bentgrass grows only in the geyser basins in the Firehole River drainage and at Shoshone Geyser Basin.
Yellowstone sand verbena occurs along the shore of Yellowstone Lake.
Yellowstone Sulphur Flower
Yellowstone sulphur flower is only found in the Firehole River drainage.
Vegetation and Resources Management staff inventory, monitor, manage, and conduct research on the vast array of plant communities in Yellowstone.
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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
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Last updated: August 17, 2017