About this time of year I get a short email from an old friend: “we seen ‘em”. That may sound like a bad line out of a grade-B horror flick, but what he’s referring to are gentians a type of wildflower.

Gentians are a poignantly-beautiful blue flower that resembles a Tiffany lamp when back-lit by the sun. We usually don’t see gentians until late-August or early September in meadows at higher elevations such as Paradise at Mount Rainier or Seven Lakes Basin in the Olympics. That’s good news or bad news depending on whether your glass is half-empty or half-full (we’ve already seen them at Summerland this year).

Though the flower is exquisite it heralds not only the end of summer, but another birthday as I cautiously navigate the slippery slope of aging. Hence, I call them “the goodbye flower” as I bid adieu to another all-too-short summer and another rapidly approaching birthday.  Life is short – not just for humans but for wildflowers.

No wonder crowds gather at places like Paradise at Mount Rainier to bear witness to the wildflower displays while they last – and those displays never last long enough. Some celebrate the passing of summer in anticipation of snow-play; others mourn. Most hikers fall somewhere between grief and celebration when shadows lengthen and mountain meadows glitter with frost before the sun rises to melt the frost away.

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Rosy Spirea

Even in early August the rosy spirea was already tinged with rust at Reflection Lakes (Mount Rainier) and on Mount Defiance near Snoqualmie Pass the tiger lilies had faded, replaced by stands of fireweed and yarrow.  Finding wildflowers at their peak is always a bit of gamble – especially years like this one when snow lingers until late July or mid-August (last year many trails at Mount Baker didn’t even melt out).

On Mazama Ridge at Mount Rainier we were not surprised to find avalanche lilies still blooming on slopes where the snow had recently melted mingling with asters, valerian and other mid to late-summer flowers. That was in early August (we didn’t want to look too close then, we were afraid we’d see gentians).

As summer wanes green meadows are tinged with gold; a sure indication that the wildflower season is winding down. That doesn’t mean all the flowers go to seed – some, like Pearly Everlasting, will bloom until the snow falls, (Pearly Everlasting was one of the first flowers to grow back after the eruption of Mount Saint Helens– it isn’t named Pearly Everlasting for nothing).

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We’ve already seen Pearly Everlasting this year – not only in the city but in the mountains. You’ll often see it growing in conjunction with fireweed, another hardy plant that prefers late-summer and early-fall.We saw both at Chinook Pass when we hiked the Naches Peak Loop (August 22), bordering Fryingpan Creek on the trail to Summerland (August 26) and along the Pacific Crest Trail from Crystal Mountain (September 1).

Other flowers we’ve spotted thus far (Mid-August through early September) on the Naches Loop trail and near Summerland include Western Pasque flower, an unusual flower, sort of like a cat with nine lives. In summer when the plant blooms it produces a lovely white flower but as summer ends the flower goes into seed-mode – then it resembles a mop-head. Common names for this flower include Old Man of the Mountains, Mouse On a Stick and Towhead babies.

Some hikers say when the plant is in seed-mode it bears a resemblance to Dr. Seuss. On the Naches Loop we spotted the flower in three different life-stages – some had just blossomed where snow had recently melted, others were mature, others had already adopted the Dr. Seuss look. If you didn’t know how this flower changes its appearance from bloom to seed, you wouldn’t recognize it as the same flower.

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Yarrow

Yarrow is another late-summer bloomer, an early fall flower that grows at sea-level as well as in the mountains. You’ll see designer-versions of the flower in residential gardens but in its natural state its white. It looks similar to valerian but doesn’t smell as sweet. Along the Naches Loop trail the leaves of mountain ash had already begun to transition from green to bronze; its blossoms mostly gone and orange-red berries beginning to appear in their place.

In late August/early September lupine and magenta paintbrush were still going strong mingling with valerian, bistort (another white flower) and other summer flowers at Summerland. In forests bead lily has lost its singular white flower; soon to be replaced with a single, blue berry, if not already. You’ll also see Canadian dogwood (bunchberry) in the forest; it too will lose its four petaled-flowers to be replaced with a red-orange berry.

In West Seattle Himalaya blackberries that clog ditches and strangle abandoned properties are producing berries (not as good for pies as wild blackberries) but certainly tasty in the cereal bowl.

There are too many late-summer, fall flowers to describe in detail but here are a few of our favorites.

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Gentians

Bog Gentian (Gentiana calycosa) – it takes only a few seconds for the petals of this flower to close when it rains – that protects pollen and keeps it from washing away. Notice that the petals are transparent – this allows bees to see in order to access nectar and pollinate the flower. Mount Rainier.

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Fireweed

Fireweed (Epilobium augustifolium) – this plants seeds are spread easily by wind. Stems grow to 2-9 feet tall with lance-shaped leaves with clusters of purple flowers at the ends of stems. Fireweed grows in disturbed sites – burns, avalanche paths, clearings and roadsides at various elevations. Fireweed, like Pearly Everlasting, was one of the first flowers to return at the mkkjMount Saint Helens eruption in 1980.

 

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea) is of the Sunflower Family. The plant consists of numerous unbranched stems up to 1-4 feet tall with small whitish disk-flowers in dense clusters. It is widespread through lowlands to subalpine regions. It is called Pearly Everlasting due to the pearl-like shape and appearance of the flower. The flower is an attractive addition to dried flower arrangements as it holds its shape and color when it dries.

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Western pasqueflower

Western Pasqueflower (Western anemone) – in some flower guides as Western Pasque Flower – (Anemone occidentalis) – this hairy plant tracks the motion of the sun and always faces the sun. A common name is windflower. After the plant blooms (see photos) the flower matures into a 12 to 24-inch feathery crown some say resembles Dr. Suess. Other common names include Old Man of the Mountains, Towhead babies, Mouse-on-a-stick. The plant belongs to the Buttercup Family.

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Hellebore

Hellebore – False Green Hellebore (Veratrum virida). This flower can grow up to five feet tall and resembles a corn-stalk (its common name is corn lily).  The plant is poisonous when in bloom and goes to seed in the fall (see photos) and insects will begin to eat the leaves. The flower is pollinated by a nocturnal moth. Along the Naches Loop trail the plant had gone to seed (see photo) and its swirled leaves were just beginning to be streaked with gold. In early September most of the hellebore we saw on the Pacific Crest Trail nearCrystalMountain was further along in its seasonal transition. Some field-guides describe this plant as False White Hellebore.

Partridgefoot (Luetkea pectinata) – these are small, white flowers, 4-6 inches tall; are usually found where snow melts last and though related to the Rose Family it’s considered an herbaceous perennial (it is sometimes called Alaska spirea). Its leaves resemble a partridge foot with 4-5 toes, hence its common name. It is named for Count Lutke, a Russian explorer. We’ve seen it at Summerland,GlacierBasin and along the Naches Loop (Mount RainierNational Park).

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Pearly Everlasting and Indian Paintbrush

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) – Indian paintbrush comes in a variety of colors ranging from white to magenta and is found at various elevations. We’ve seen both red and magenta paintbrush at Snowgrass Flats in the South Cascades, Paradise, Summerland and the Naches Loop atMount Rainier. Near Crystal Mountain (September 1) we saw lots of red Indian Paintbrush mixed in with clumps of pearly everlasting near the ski lifts and at higher elevations we also saw magenta paintbrush.

Lewis Monkeyflower – (Mimulus Lewisii) is of the Figwort Family. This deep-pink flower is commonly found near streams in summer and fall. We’ve seen it at Glacier Basin, the Naches Loop, Summerland (Mount Rainier National Park) and Snowgrass Flats in the South Cascades. There is also a yellow monkeyflower (Mimulus tillingii); you will occasionally see them growing together.

Though days grow short and mornings grow chill there’s still plenty of warmth in the sun; it’s just a little slower in getting around to rising. Those flowers will still be around for a while.

Enjoy!

Additional Information: There are several excellent wildflower (field-guides) available; you can also prowl The Internet for information without needing to resort to wearing mittens on cold mornings. Most of my references come from “Wildflowers of Mount Rainier” by Laird R. Blackwell (Lone Pine Publishing).

I also recommend “Best Wildflower Hikes, Washington” (Mountaineer Books) which I co-authored with wildflower expert (Art Kruckeberg) and Craig Romano (photographs by the late Ira Spring). Kruckeberg is the co-founder of the Washington Native Plant Society and is Professor Emeritus of Botany (The University of Washington). He is also the author of “Gardening With Plants of the Pacific Northwest”.

Romano is the author of several hiking guides (Mountaineer Books).  Don’t rule out used bookstores for out-of-print field-guides such as “Wildflowers of Mount Rainier and the Cascades” by Mary A. Fries, published by The Mount Rainier Natural History Association and The Mountaineers – First Edition May, 1970 (photos by Bob and Ira Spring). This book is hard to come by – but it’s a gem.

Note: If you refer to more than one field guide you will often see variations in the spelling of certain wildflowers. Example: partridgefoot – partridge foot.

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