As you wander through Yosemite National Park, you can expect to see a great diversity of wildflowers; to date about 1,450 species have been found in the park. Below are some of the more frequently seen flowers. No matter where you go in the park, different species of lupines, paintbrushes, and other genera are likely to be found. (View a list of
Yosemite's plant species
This flower has a large number of species represented in Yosemite, from the lowest to the highest elevations. About 100 species exist in western North America with 63 species known in California and close to half of these in Yosemite. When you see a monkeyflower, lightly touch the tip of its stigma and notice its two lips slowly close. This traps any pollen brought to the flower by an insect and prevents self-pollination as the pollinator leaves the flower.
With opposite or whorled leaves, penstemons have a tubular shape with two lips: the upper lip two-lobed and the lower three-lobed. Find more than 250 species, primarily in western North America. Those of the scentless red or magenta variety, such as Mountain Pride, are pollinated by hummingbirds, which lack a sense of smell. Their long tubular flowers allow hummingbirds access but exclude many insects.
In order to feed themselves, a variety of plants in Yosemite are parasitic on soil fungi or other plant matter. The snow plant (Sarcodes genus) is a prime example of a parasitic species for many botanists. The bright red plant, which lacks the green pigment chlorophyll required to synthesize sugars in sunlight, feeds on soil fungi. Another example is paintbrush (Castilleja genus), which is partially parasitic on the roots of other plants. Identify the many species of paintbrush by the petals that fuse into white or yellow tubes extending from clusters of bracts that are typically red. At higher elevations, little elephant’s head (Pedicularis genus) is a root-parasitic herb that flowers in a spike-like raceme, reminding the onlooker of the head of an elephant with its trunk lifted high in the air.
A distinctive look within the primrose family, shooting stars produce a cluster of four to five flowers that nod to erect in an open umbel, subtended by bracts, terminating in a scape. Known as one of the early spring wildflowers in the lower elevations, shooting stars are pollinated by bees that “grab” the anthers of the plant and vibrate their wing muscles at a frequency that shakes the pollen loose. Listen for the high-intensity buzz of the bees at work. Of the 14 shooting star species in western North America, the Jeffrey shooting star is the most common in Yosemite—reaching its peak in wet areas of mid-elevation montane meadows.
Think of the romantic notion: “He loves me, he loves me not,” as a yellow petal is pulled off a daisy-like flower. The broad aster family includes various genera, including groundsels and lessingia. Groundsels (Senecio genus) have large flowers and phyllaries in one row that distinguish them from goldenrod. Sierra butterweed, also a type of Senecio, plays a major role of the meadow wildflower display in Tuolumne Meadows. Sierra lessingia (Lessingia genus), colored purple rather than yellow, grows abundantly along roadsides and on dry, open flats and talus slopes in Yosemite Valley—where it was first discovered.
Meaning “little frog” in Latin, buttercups often inhabit damp areas where frogs might be found. Identify this family by its glossy petals, which contain a layer of starch. Alpine buttercup (Ranunculus genus) is seen in bloom frequently in melting snowbanks in alpine meadows. The broad buttercup family also includes columbine and marigolds. Crimson columbine (Aquilegia genus), with its showy red color and five long-spurred petals, produces large quantities of nectar to attract hummingbirds. Compare crimson columbine, found in the mid-elevation moist woods, to its high-elevation counterpart called alpine columbine—pollinated by hawkmoths, which are attracted to white upright flowers. Marsh marigold (Caltha gensus) adds a splash of yellow to wet areas at mid-elevation, especially along the Glacier Point Road.
About 26 of the 70 species of lupines in California can be found in Yosemite. Harlequin lupine is the only lupine in Yosemite with yellow and pink petals, that sometimes fading purple or blue. Look for this striking lupine with small palmately compound leaves at lower elevations in dry areas near the western park boundary—especially near Hetch Hetchy. Gray’s lupine (named after botanist Asa Gray) is a mid-elevation flower that was first described from specimens collected in Wawona, where it is still common. Brewer’s lupine (named after William Brewer of the California State Geologic Survey) grows at higher elevation.