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Updated: November 9, 2021

Montana's Flowering Plants

Bitterroot Flower
Bitterroot Flower

With all of the wondrous things to see in Montana, it might be easy to overlook the flowers that cover the land below the Big Sky. While it would be difficult to tell you about all of the plants that live and grow in Montana because there are thousands of them, the flowering plants are some of the most beautiful and distinctive.

Montana has a variety of ecosystems. Western Montana is mountainous and full of lakes and streams. The other two-thirds of Montana is vast grassland and in some places is quite arid. The following are the major ecosystems found in Montana and some of the flowering plants characteristic to them. Montana ecosystems are grouped together here in four categories: Prairie grasslands, semiarid regions to deserts, wetlands, and mountain forests.

The best way to enjoy wildflowers and other species listed here is to find and identify them. You can collect these plants by taking pictures of them instead of picking them. When a flower is picked it does not have the chance to make seeds, and some species will not flower again for a number of years.

Prairie Grasslands

Flower or the Lupine
Flower or the Lupine

Prairie grasslands are frequently used to graze livestock. Buffalo grass, blue grama grass and many others cover the steppes, plains, and gently rolling hills. These areas are open and windy, with harsh winters. On the average they receive 12 to 16 inches of rain annually.

  • Mullein: This plant takes two years to bloom. It is easy to recognize because the leaves, which grow out from the center of the plant in a circular formation, they are wide, round, and soft. The little hairs on mullein make it feel like velvet. Mullein likes to grow beside roads, railroad tracks, and other places where the earth has been dug up. Mature plants have a long stalk growing right out of the middle of the plant. At the top of the stalk, yellow flowers bloom. Eventually they become seedpods. The stalk can get up to seven feet tall.
  • Butter and Eggs: Butter and eggs may be found growing along Montana highways as well as in fields. It looks like a snapdragon, but the blossoms are consistently bright yellow with dark yellow middles. Leaves grow on both sides of the stalk. The leaves are round but taper to a point.
  • Oyster Plant:This plant grows 15 to 30 inches high. The yellow flower resembles a dandylion. The long, thick taproot is edible, and when boiled it tastes something like an oyster. After it blooms out, the seed head reopens to look amazingly like a giant dandylion. This plant is also called Salsify.
  • Lupine: There are several species of lupine. In Montana most of them are blue, purple, or pink. Soil content plays a role in what color they are. Also know as Blue Bonnet, these lovely plants are toxic to livestock. The leaves look like hands with eight fingers.
  • Prairie Coneflower: This member of the sunflower family loves to grow beside roads. It has yellow petals, much like a sunflower, but the big, brown center of the flower sticks up as a long cone. It blooms from July to December.
  • Bitterroot: Native Americans had a number of uses for Bitteroot. It has lovely flowers, which often bloom before the leaf comes up. Since they are low to the ground many people simply do not notice them. These plants like sunny areas and they bloom in late June. The Bitteroot is Montana's state flower.
  • Indian Paintbrush: This plant is very noticeable, because the tiny, yellow flowers peek out from bright red bracts. It takes part of its nourishment from other plants. Some of its roots grow into the roots of other plants. Since it needs the other plants in its habitat in order for it to survive, Indian paintbrush does not do well in gardens.
  • Arrowleaf Balsalm Root: This member of the sunflower family loves sunshine and wide-open places. It has big green leaves which are shaped like arrowheads. The yellow flower resembles sunflower, but the middle of the flower is also yellow. Native Americans in some areas used the root for medicine.
  • Nootka Rose: Also called wild rose, this rose has five pink petals, a yellow center, and thorns. In the fall it grows red berries called rose hips, and some people make jelly or wine from them.

Semiarid Regions to Deserts

Prickly Pear
Prickly Pear
Great, eroded badlands in Makoshika State Park near Glendive provide a perfect example of near desert conditions. Thousands of years of soil erosion carved out the rocky expanse, exposing poor soil and rock. There are also areas of Montana which are considered semiarid. Most are very dry due to climate, soil condition, and annual rainfall. Even though such places look desolate, there are many species of insects, birds, and small animals that thrive in them. Over grazing has caused some areas to change from grassland to scrub. Sage, rabbitbrush, and some other plants like to live in overgrazed areas.

  • Sage: Sage is a member of the wormwood family. It is a short branching bush with silvery-green leaves; the leaves have a pungent odor. In the spring it has yellow flowers. It grows in poor, dry soils where many other plants will not.
  • Shrubby Cinquefoil: The flowers of this leafy shrub have five petals and are about a 1/2-inch wide. In addition to growing in a variety of Montana ecosystems, many people buy them at greenhouses and plant them in their yards. They are sold as Potentilla, the first half of their scientific name.
  • Prickly Pear Cactus: These cacti are found in many arid prairie ranges throughout Montana. In June or July, the cacti flower for about a week, and then develop fruit in late summer. Some people gather the fruits to make into jelly. The flowers may be light green or yellow. There are four species of cacti in Montana.
  • Snakeweed: This is a scratchy looking, round bush with many small yellow flowers. It is a poisonous plant, and was once used as a snake bite remedy. Snakeweed grows in desert areas and overgrazed prairie. You can see them growing next to Sagebrush.
  • Plains Yucca: Plains Yucca like dry, harsh habitat. They have long narrow gray green leaves, which are stiff. The leaves grow out from the center of the plant, which makes it full and round. Flowers grow out of a stalk that grows out of the middle of the plant. The stalk can get about two or three feet tall with white flowers.
  • Evening Primrose: The small gray-green leaves of this plant are stark in contrast to the big beautiful flowers it grows, which look like they are made from white tissue paper. The flowers remain closed during the day, but begin to open in the evening. They bloom all night and close again as the sun comes up.
  • Rabbitbrush: Yellows flowers and silvery green stems and leaves, make short work out of identifying this short shrub. Navajo people in the Southwest used the flower heads to make clothing dye.


Rocky Mountain Lilye
Rocky Mountain Lily

There is abundant wildlife in wetlands. Aquatic plants thrive in wetlands, fish and birds like to hide in them and eat them. Insects and frogs lay their eggs in them. The fish, frogs, and birds eat the insects; cranes eat fish and frogs. Eagles and ospreys eat fish. Small songbirds nest in the cattails and spread the seeds from the berries and other vegetation that they eat. More plants spring up in the wetland. More animals make their homes there. It is easy to see a pattern here. Some people call this the food chain.

  • Sedge: Sedges have edges! The way you can tell if a plant is sedge is to examine the stem. If it has three sides like a triangle, it's a sedge! They like to live in marshy areas, like headwaters and swamps.
  • Lewis Monkeyflower: These flowers love very wet, high altitude habitat. The flowers range from fuchsia to red. Although their position on the stock is different, the shape of these flowers is similar to the snapdragon.
  • Iris: Marshy fields are the best places for Iris to grow, especially along small streams and the banks of ponds. They are about one and a half feet tall, usually with a light blue flower. Flowers may range in color from white to violet.
  • Monks Hood: Used in modern heart medication, Monkshood is toxic to humans and livestock. The European variety is also called Wolf's Bane. This unique flower likes damp, wooded areas near streams.
  • Cowparsnip: This big plant is hard to miss. At first glance, the large white flower cluster on top looks like a big Queen Anne's Lace. The leaves are broad, up to 16 inches. The cluster of flowers grows in an umbrella formation, called an umbel. The umbel may be as much as a foot wide. Native Americans peeled the leaf stalks and main stalks of this plant in the spring, while it was still tender enough to eat. Some people who eat it get a skin rash, so don't try it. More importantly, it is a member of the carrot family and some members of the carrot family are deadly poisonous. If you eat something that you think is cowparsnip, and it turns out to be another member of the carrot family, the mistake could cost you your life.
  • Clematis: This clingy vine grows up through choke cherry trees and other trees and bushes that may be found along mountain streams. In the fall, it has fluffy seeds, like a curly version of dandy lion.
  • Arrowhead: Some Native Americans relied on this plant as a food source. Arrowheads were called "Duck Potato" by early Euro-American settlers, and "Wapato" by Natives. This plant grows in the water, and the leaves rise out of the water. It is an aquatic plant with starchy tuber roots, much like potatoes. It may have white flowers about three inches above the waterline, sometime between July and September. It is easy to recognize, because the leaves are shaped like arrowheads.
  • Skunk Cabbage: Always found in swampy places, skunk cabbage has huge leaves, which grow in bunches. The 'flower' is made up of two parts, and is called a bract. In fact, the bract has a yellow hood, and the actual flowers, which are tiny, grow on the stalk of the bract. Skunk cabbage is named for the ugly smell of its sap. The flowers smell so much, they draw flies, and the flies pollinate the plant. Some Native Americans supplemented their winter diet by baking and eating the main stalk, which grows underground.

Mountain Forests

Ponderosa Pine
Ponderosa Pine

The forests of Montana contain mostly conifers, which are evergreens, like pine and spruce trees. Several species of conifers grow in Montana forests. On the forest floor, bacteria are important because they cause the decay that makes the soil so rich. The greatest numbers of different plant species can usually be seen at the edges of the forest tree line or along waterways.

  • Calypso Orchid: This flower is also known as a Fairy Slipper. These delicate beauties look like fairy ballerinas might wear them to dance to a spring aria. They are small, lovely, and pink. Each little 'slipper' has a white face with tiny purple spots and a crown of pink petals above. Each plant has only one round leaf about the size of a quarter that tapers to a slight point. They are difficult to find, and prefer damp, shady stream areas. Orchids like to live where there is lots of decaying vegetation and water. Many orchids have to use a friendly fungus to get enough water and nutrients from the soil. Pollination is also a problem for many orchids. Plants rely on pollination to make seeds.
  • Mountain Lady's Slipper: Of all the orchids that grow in Montana, only a few are truly lovely. Mountain Lady's slippers are truly lovely. The “slipper” is either yellow or white, and the crown of petals above is a deep subdued purple. The petals that make up the crown are slightly twisted; they hang down like ribbons. These orchids prefer more sunlight and less water than their Calypso cousins do. They are rare and should not be picked or dug up. Both of these plants prefer high altitudes.
  • Bear Grass: Leaves grow at the bottom of the flower stalk, which can get as tall as five feet. From a distance, the whole thing looks like a giant Q-tip swab. The many tiny white flowers that grow densely up the stalk cause this effect. Native Americans made baskets out of this plant and baked the rootstock for food.
  • Oregon Grape: Did you ever notice a small plant that looks like holly? Well, in Montana, that plant is Oregon grape. In the spring, the Oregon grape has yellow flowers, which turn to small purple berries when they fruit in the fall. Some people make them into jelly. When he leaves change color in autumn they turn a beautiful, bright red.
  • Shooting Star: Damp mountain meadows are the favorite home of shooting stars. The purplish-pink flowers are rocket-shaped, and droop downward from stems that may be anywhere from 3 inches to 12 inches tall. Leaves are long and narrow.
  • Sticky Geranium: Crane's bill is another name for the sticky geranium, so called because of the points that stick out from flower and fruit. Deer, elk, and moose like to eat the tender leaves and flowers of this plant. Flowers may range in color from white to lavender, but most are pink.
  • Hare Bells: Blue Bell is another name for these little darlings. They grow in patches, and prefer high altitude meadows. They hang from thin stalks, about 4 inches tall. There are interesting stories about a Scottish species.
  • Rocky Mountain Lily: This lovely lily blooms sometime between June and August. Once it was common to find them in groves of aspens. They are harder to find now because of grazing cattle and people picking the flowers.

Updated: November 9, 2021

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