Montana Wildflowers

Montana's Ecosystems

Montana has a rich flora which belongs to several different ecosystems. The wildflowers make up one the largest groups of the species. The wide variety of wildflowers found here is because the state covers areas belonging to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Northwest more humid region, as well as the drier Great Plains and the Intermountain areas in between. Montana has several different ecosystems. Western Montana is mountainous and has many lakes and streams. The eastern part of Montana is to a large extent vast grassland, and in some places is quite arid. Within the mountainous regions lie many sub-ecosystems. Montana ecosystems can be grouped together in four categories. The four categories of habitat discussed are Prairie Grassland, Scrub and Semiarid to Desert, Slough and Wetlands, and Mountain Woods.

Explorer's GentianPrairie Grasslands are often used for livestock grazing. Many different grasses cover the steppes, plains, and gently rolling hills. These areas are open and windy, with harsh winters. On the average, they receive 12 and 16 inches of rain annually. Some cities located near or on Prairie Grasslands are Great Falls, Havre, Billings and Miles City. On the Great Plains of Montana, there are single mountains and small mountain chains, which have separate ecosystems of their own. There are also patches of scrub between areas of grassland. Some of the common wildflowers found on the Prairie Grasslands include mullein, butter and eggs, oyster plant, lupine, prairie coneflower, bitterroot, arrowleaf balsamroot and indian paintbrushes.

Scrub and Semiarid to Desert conditions cover large areas of mostly Eastern Montana. Great, eroded badlands in Makoshika State Park near Glendive, show us 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. In all ecosystems, different species depend on each other in some way. Overgrazing has caused some areas to change from grassland to scrub. Sage, rabbitbrush, and some other plants like to live in overgrazed areas, taking over grass habitat. In the Scrub and Semiarid to Desert areas we usually find sage, shrubby cinquefoil, prickly pear cactus, snakeweed and rabbitbrush among other plants.

Small White Violet
Sloughs, Wetlands and Marshes usually have abundant wildlife. 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. It is easy to see a pattern here, which is usually called the food chain. In any case, it is important to understand how each member of an ecosystem has its own important job to do. If even one member of this ecosystem were missing, the system would change. In Wetlands we can find moisture-loving plants like sedges, monkeyflowers, Rocky Mountain iris, monk's hood, cow parsnip, cattail and mints.

The Mountain Woods and 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, fungi favor the decaying vegetation that makes up the humus. Bacteria are important because they cause the decay that makes the soil so rich. Many plants have a special relationship with fungi. The greatest numbers of different plant species can usually be seen at the edges of the forest tree line, or along waterways. The forests of Montana have a great variety of wildflowers. Some of them include calypso orchid, bear grass, Oregon grape, shooting star, sticky geranium and harebells.

Plant Habitats by Elevation Zone

Shooting StarThe Plains Zone generally lies at elevations between 4500 and 6000 feet. Some botanists refer to this area as the Desert-steppe zone as well. It includes the wetland corridors along the major rivers and their tributaries, as well as the treeless, arid to semi-arid river bench country of the lower river basins. The wetland corridors are typically cottonwood-dominated woodlands. Three species of cottonwoods occur – the narrowleaf cottonwood (Populus angustifolia), with linear-lanceolate shaped leaves, is found at the higher elevation reaches of the water drainages; the eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides), with broader, triangular-shaped leaves, occurs along the lower reaches of the streams and rivers; and the lance-leaf cottonwood (Populus x acuminata), which is a hybrid possessing mixed characteristics of the above two species, has lance-shaped leaves, and occurs where the ranges of the narrowleaf and eastern cottonwoods overlap. On the benches and plains adjacent to the river corridors, native vegetation consists primarily of shrub communities dominated by rabbitbrush, snakeweed and winterfat, together with ample coverage of grasses.

The Foothills Zone includes most of the landscape between 5000 and 6000 feet, and is dominated by junipers and sage brush. This zone provides good winter shelter for mule deer, but due to the scarce understory, is lacking in valuable browse and forage plants. There are usually occurring several grasses in this zone too. Near the upper end of this zone, and transitioning into the montane zone, pine trees and scattered aspens form open brushy woodlands. The wildflowers in the foothills bloom mainly in the late spring and early summer. We can find bitterroot, the state flower of Montana, yellowbells, cushion phlox, pasqueflower, several milkvetches, biscuitroots and sagebrush buttercup.

Higher up in elevation, between about 6000 and 7500 feet, the Montane Zone continues. Serviceberry and snowberry begin to add to the shrub community, which still supports sagebrush, pine and aspen stands. Various grasses now start to add to the lower-growing grass and herb layer. At the top of Montane Zone, closed forests of Engelmann Spruce and subalpine fir tend to dominate, with interspersed parks scattered throughout. These parks are valuable summer and fall habitat for the abundant elk herds, and are dominated by native grasses. They also harbor a great diversity of broadleaved forbs, including larkspurs, lupines, vetches, wild geranium, yarrow, pussy toes, sulphur buckwheat, penstemons, cinquefoils, mountain arnica, baneberry and asters.

Mountain-heatherAs elevation increases, temperatures cool and more moisture falls as snow during the long winters; growing seasons get shorter and the Subalpine Zone takes over, and continues up to about 9000 feet. The lower portion of the subalpine zone consists of continuous forest, but in the upper part of this zone the forest thins out. Delightful subalpine meadows graced with wildflowers and glacial lakes often intermingle with stands of firs. Subalpine fir is especially well adapted to the heavy snows and cold temperatures experienced here. Its spire-like shape sheds snow. Common shrubs within this zone include huckleberry, white rhododendron, and pink heather. Herbs include avalanche lily, queen’s cup, beargrass, pyrolas, columbines, alpine paintbrush, American bistort, and elephant head's pedicularis.

Increasing elevation causes even more severe climatic conditions, and we get to the Alpine Zone above about 9000 feet. Trees become fewer, shorter, and more contorted. Trees are dwarfed compared to their cousins living lower down the mountain - a 100-year-old tree may be only three feet tall. Eventually the timber line is reached, beyond which trees do not grow, but a profusion of wildflowers often rewards the eye in a vivid display of insect attracting colors. These small flowering plants dominate the landscape. They huddle together in groups of different species. Plants that form these mats are sometimes called cushion plants. Alpine wildflowers found here include moss campion, Oeder's Lousewort, beautiful paintbrush, alpine sandwort, alpine aster, Ross' avens, arctic gentian and alp lily.

Native plants versus exotic plants

Native plants are plant species that have evolved in an area over long periods of time or occur naturally in a specific region or area. Where particular native plants are found across the landscape is largely a response to climate and the result of adaptation to specific site conditions. Montana native plants are those plants that grew here before the settlement of the Europeans. Large-scale changes to the flora of North America occurred as a result of European settlement and the introduction of exotic plants. However, plant species that are native to other areas of North America may be exotic in Montana and plants native to other areas of Montana may be exotic in a specific area of the state.

Ross' AvensAn exotic species is a plant that was introduced into a particular area by humans, either intentionally or accidentally. They are also called non-natives or alien plants. While some exotics are harmless and may be used to help meet certain landscaping objectives, others pose serious threats to local biological diversity and can become serious pests. Escaped exotics can change the composition of native plant communities, successfully compete for resources, replace native species, reduce plant diversity, contribute to soil erosion and carry exotic insects and diseases. Exotic species can also diminish the availability of food plants for wildlife, and alter the behavior of native pollinators, plant-eating insects and fruit-eating birds. Invasion by exotics is one factor that contributes to the threat of native plant extinctions. Birds, dogs, other animals, people, vehicles and water can transport and spread plant seeds. It's advisable to become familiar with plants that are categorized as noxious weeds by the state of Montana.

Your own wildflower garden?

Having a wildflower garden can be very enjoyable if managed properly. There are several species of Montana wildflowers that would be suitable for this and that would grow well if the right conditions are provided. This web site does not contain gardening information but there are several that do. Having knowledge of a specific species is essential before it should be considered for a wildflower garden, otherwise, most of the time, wildflowers that are planted in gardens, do not grow. The plants need special fungi and bacteria in the soil in order to grow and be healthy. Fungi favor humus on the forest floor. That portion of the soil is formed by the decomposition of animal or vegetable matter. Bacteria are important because they cause the decay that makes the soil rich. Many plants have a special relationship with fungi. The fungi either grows into the roots of a plant, or they form a net around the roots. Once it is established, it grows out like roots and provides the plant with more water than the plant could get on its own. In return, the fungi take nutrients that the plant makes during photosynthesis. Fungi lack the chlorophyll that plants use during photosynthesis. This is an example of the special relationships that go on in an ecosystem. The best way to enjoy wildflowers and plants in general, is to find and identify them, but not picking them. When a flower is picked, it does not have the ability to seed. Some species will not flower again for a number of years. One great way to collect wildflowers is by taking pictures of them.

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