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Yosemite Wildflower Trails (1975) by Dana C. Morgenson


In late April, while springtime is yet evident in the foothills of the Sierra, its forerunners are to be seen in Yosemite Valley. Although most of the flowers come somewhat later, April sets the tone of the happy season with the greening of the meadows and the bursting of leaf buds on the shrubs and broad-leaved trees. As Mary Tresidder writes so picturesquely: “Two of the delightful components of the early spring landscape are the delicate chartreuse-to-light-green tassels of the big-leaf maple, and the somewhat more russet tassels and unfolding ochre and scarlet leaves of the Kellogg black oak. The whip-like crimson stems of the creek dogwood, or red-osier dogwood, found in moist places, are another highlight of the picture, as its leaves begin to uncurl.”

May is the month of full-blown springtime in the Valley, the time of tumultuous water in the famous falls and in the Merced River, the month when all growing things —grasses, ferns, flowers, shrubs, trees—literally gleam with the radiance of new growth. The full moon of May, shining on the peak volume of Yosemite Falls which pours over the Valley’s rim in clouds of misty spray, produces that rarest of spectral images, a lunar rainbow at the foot of the Lower Fall. This month sees the start of the Valley’s flowering season which then continues, in a succession of different blooming species, until August, even while spring continues its upward course toward the summit peaks.

One of the very first springtime blossoms is that perennial favorite, the violet. Preferring the filtered shade of the forest, there are three species of yellow violets in Yosemite. Perhaps the most commonly seen one is called simply the Mountain Violet (Viola purpurea). The yellow blossoms have purplish markings on the backs of the upper two petals and purple stripes on the lower three petals. The stems are 2 to 6
Cow Parsnip, Azalea in Yosemite Valley meadow

Cow Parsnip, Azalea in Yosemite Valley meadow, Heracleum lanatum
[click to enlarge]
Cow Parsnip, Azalea in Yosemite Valley meadow,
Heracleum lanatum
inches high, above a rosette of deep green, wedge-shaped leaves. It begins to bloom in the latter half of April and is commonly found in well-drained flats or slopes where the humus of centuries of leaves has enriched the soil. Near Happy Isles and along the trail to Inspiration Point are two typical locations. The dainty little Purple Violet (Viola adunca) may be found in the grass at the edge of meadows (Bridalveil Meadow, for instance), while Yosemite’s only White Violet (Viola macloskeyi) prefers the more moist, tall-grass meadow locations such as in Leidig Meadow.

The one flower most usually identified with the image of springtime in the memory of Yosemite’s visitors is the Mountain Dogwood (Cornus nuttallii). In years of early-arriving springs, the first of the large, white blossoms appear toward the end of April, but the month of May is the period which normally belongs to the dogwood, in all its glory, year in and year out. One can confidently expect to find these delicate blooms at their best in May, just as the peak of Yosemite’s waterfalls can also be enjoyed in that favored month. Dogwood prefers damp places, so look for it near the Merced River’s banks or along tributary streams. The area near Fern Spring, at Happy Isles and along Tenaya Creek below Mirror Lake are typical locations.

A strange flower is the dogwood. The flower actually consists of the small center button—a tight head of many tiny florets which turn lemon-yellow in bloom and produce a cluster of bright red seeds in September, a favorite food for robins and other birds. What appear to be large white petals are instead showy bracts surrounding the flower cluster. The effect, however, when the dogwood trees are in full bloom, is of gigantic snowflakes drifting through the contrasting dark green of the coniferous forest, a picture of rare beauty which will be ever associated with the memory of springtime in Yosemite. Dogwood is properly classified as a tree, yet its blossoms are always included in any listing of Yosemite’s most popular blooms.

When the dogwood begins to fade, the Western Azalea (Rhododendron occidentale) comes into its prime. As the month of May belongs to the dogwood, so is June the season for azalea. This handsome deciduous shrub is widely spread throughout much of California, but rarely does it achieve a finer impression of vitality and beauty than in the meadows of Yosemite Valley. It thrives in full sunlight and moderately moist, acid soil—thus making it an ideal meadow plant, especially where oak leaves have created rich humus. One of the finest locations for azalea is the El Capitan Meadow where in one area there is an extensive thicket of bushes—3 to 8 feet high. In June, the rich fragrance of their blossoms pervades the meadow, and the brightness of the large flower clusters is the dominant tone in the landscape. The individual flowers are creamy white, with a spot of yellow on the upper portion of the funnelform blossom, which is 1 1/2 to 2 inches long. Unopened buds are strikingly outlined in pink, and often some of this color appears as a faint tinge on the blossom. In late October, the leaves turn to gold, orange or red, creating one of the most prominent tones in the landscape of autumn. Azalea may be found up to 7,000 feet, along the Glacier Point and Tioga Roads in July, but it is seen at its best in the lovely meadows of Yosemite Valley.

The most vividly colorful of the Valley flowers is, without doubt, the Snow Plant (Sarcodes sanguinea). When it begins to emerge through the forest floor in early May, it resembles a large red asparagus stem with many slender red leaves tightly wrapped around. As the plant grows, bell-shaped red flowers appear at the top of the stem in a terminal raceme, the plant thus reaching its final blooming phase in about 3 weeks. The snow plant is of surpassing interest to flower fanciers and photographers at all stages of its development, because of its deeply saturated red tone throughout. It lacks the chlorophyll which gives the familiar green color to most plants, and which is essential to the production of plant food. Hence, it derives its nourishment from decaying organic material under the forest floor and is classified as a saprophyte. Look for this spectacular flower from May to July, first on the floor of Yosemite Valley, later in the Mariposa Grove of Sequoias and along the Glacier Point Road. It prefers areas of deep forest duff, under pines or firs, so it is hidden away from casual viewing. Nevertheless, each spring includes at least a few snow plants (in favorable years, multiple groupings may be found), and the thrill of discovery is more than ample reward for the search. Admire them you may and assuredly will, but there is a heavy fine for picking or otherwise disturbing one of these rare beauties.

Another saprophyte which blooms slightly later than the snow plant is the strange Pinedrop (Pterospora andromedea). In June, you may find it growing (as the name suggests) under the Ponderosa pines. It is said to be parasitic on the fungi that are symbiotically associated with the tree roots. Pinedrops appear as tall wand-like stalks, rust colored, somewhat sticky with small, brown, scale-like leaves. It may grow to a height of 1 to 3 feet flowering from June to August. The flowers hang pendent along the upper portion of the stalk, like small bells, and vary in color from white to red. After flowering, the plant dies, but its warm-toned stalks stand like exclamation points in the forest far into the fall and winter. Its appearance in Yosemite Valley is intermittent and cannot be as precisely pinpointed as with some flowers, yet at least a few of these unusual plants are to be found every year.

April brings one of the early and exceedingly attractive harbingers of spring, the Bleeding Heart (Dicentra formosa), found in moist, shaded areas and along small streams. Near Fern Spring, the river bank oozes with the water from a number of large and small springs, creating an ideal habitat under the filtered shade of tall pines, firs and cedars. The rose-purple flowers grow on stems a foot or more high, nodding gracefully above a cluster of large leaves which are much dissected. The blossoms have four petals which combine to form an elongated heart, with two small spurs at the base. Though seen nowhere in abundance, where conditions are right, it grows up to an elevation of 6,000 feet. Two other interesting members of this genus are found in Yosemite: Golden Ear-Drops (Dicentra chrysantha), a tall stalk with bright yellow flowers seen along the Big Oak Flat Road above the second tunnel, and Steer’s Head (Dicentra uniflora), a tiny white replica of a bleached steer’s skull which appears just after the snow has left the ground from 7,000 to 10,500 feet.

In deep shady woods, rich in humus, look for the handsome large leaves of the Wild Ginger (Asarum hartwegii), which are roughly heart-shaped and a rich, glossy green. Parting these leaves carefully you will find one of the most pleasing of springtime surprises—a little group of brownish-purple faces peering up at you elfishly. These blossoms are found at ground level (actually the plant is stemless) and are well hidden beneath the spreading canopy of leaves. They are little cups, the exterior quite hairy, and with elongated tips at the end of each of the three sepals. (This blossom has no true petals.) The aromatic quality of the leaves and roots is reminiscent of commercial ginger which, however, is a tropical plant. Wild ginger was used as a substitute for the imported type by early settlers. You will be agreeably surprised by its fragrance in addition to its interesting form; rub your fingers briskly across a leaf to enjoy its spicy aroma. A typical place to find wild ginger, in May and June, is along the trail from Mirror Lake to Snow Creek Falls, in Tenaya Canyon.

The warm days of late May and June—early summer—bring out carpets of Pussy Paws (Calyptridium umbellatum) across the open, gravelly, sun-drenched flats in portions of Yosemite Valley. They are often seen, for instance, along the incoming South Side Drive near the start of the Four-Mile Trail. In spite of its common occurrence this little blossom never ceases to merit admiration from Park visitors for its rosettes of pink to white flower heads rising from a circle of bright green leaves. The heads, usually 1 to 2 inches across, are made up of innumerable tiny flowers crowded together, giving a total effect of softness which has been likened to the upturned paw of a kitten. The flower stems varying from 2 to 10 inches long, rise from the basal leaves to hold the blooms somewhat erect during the warmth of daytime but generally return to a prone position with the cool of evening. Pussy paws are hardy little plants and can be found growing all the way to tree line, wherever soil and sun are suitable.

With the advent of summer’s warm days, the maturing of the Valley meadows brings a climax of flowering. One of summer’s favorites, which decorates the meadows in subtle tones of rose and silver-gray, is the Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa). Its tall stalks, 2 to 4 feet high, hold large sprays of blossoms, individually small but forming umbels (clusters of flowers with all the divisional stems arising from one point) 4 to 6 inches across. The long leaves, covered with woolly hairs, produce an interesting effect in themselves and add a soft shade of green which omplements the rose-purple of the flowers. In autumn, these leaves turn a bright yellow, while each flower stalk is conspicuous for the large woolly pods which finally split and release their myriads of seeds—each seed equipped with a mass of silken fibres which enable it to drift across the landscape on the gentlest breeze. The handsome Monarch butterfly is especially attracted to this milkweed, its caterpillars feeding on the leaves and absorbing a bitter poison which makes them unattractive to birds. You will find this showy flower in masses in Yosemite’s meadows in June and July, especially in the Ahwahnee Meadow.

At about the same time, another common but very conspicuous plant comes into bloom. Preferring moist areas of meadows, the Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) grows in a profusion of creamy white blossoms on tall, coarse stalks with deeply toothed large leaves up to 12 inches across. The blossom consists of a broad, flat umbel which in turn is made up of 15 to 30 smaller umbels of tiny blooms. The whole effect is of a large design in lace work. Although the entire plant is big and coarse, a grouping of these showy members of the carrot family in a grassy meadow, with the background of Yosemite’s cliffs and waterfalls, is a memory to cherish. It is prominent in the Valley meadows in June (often especially lush in Cook’s and Sentinel Meadows) and may be found in moist locations up to 8,000 feet later in the summer.

From late May until the early frosts of autumn, a frequently seen flower in wet areas of meadows and along stream banks is the little Sneezeweed (Helenium bigelovii). Sunflower yellow, it grows on slender stems 1 to 2 feet high, its flower head a tight grouping of minute yellow-brown florets surrounded by 13 to 30 bright golden rays which droop slightly to form a fringe. The resemblance to our common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is marked, yet the little sneezeweed has an erect and vivacious quality which instantly sets it apart. A large display is usually seen in Cook’s Meadow in June, and it can also be found during the summer months along the Merced River below Happy Isles. Don’t be alarmed by the common name of this charming flower; few persons if any have been known to develop allergic reactions in its presence. The name was derived from its early use by pioneers, who are said to have dried the flower, powdered it and used it to produce sneezing in an attempt to relieve the congestion of head colds.

Occasionally found in Yosemite Valley in July is a delicate little flower in the wintergreen family, called Pipsissewa, or Prince’s Pine (Chimaphila umbellata var. occidentalis). Its bright green, waxy, elongated and toothed leaves clothe a stalk 6 to 12 inches high, from which arises a flower stem bearing from 3 to 7 small pink blossoms about the size of a nickel. They too have a waxy quality which causes them to gleam in the forest shadows. Pipsissewa flourishes in dry areas in the shady forests and is most likely to be found among the talus slopes at the base of Yosemite’s cliffs. A colony of this distinctive little plant gives the impression of a miniature forest, while its neat, well-groomed appearance imparts to it something of a regal character. No wonder that Mary Tresidder, who admired this flower so much, chose it as her floral pseudonym one summer (each of her friends similarly selecting a flower name), calling herself “Princess Pipsissewa.”

Among the shrubs in bloom in Yosemite Valley during May and June, one in particular is certain to provoke questions by visitors whose interests run to matters botanical. Its bright maroon-red blossoms, sprinkled liberally among the large green leaves identify the Spice Bush or Sweet Shrub (Calycanthus occidentalis). This shrub may be quite large, growing to heights of 6 to 8 feet, with a generally rounded profile The conspicuous red flowers form no great masses, but are borne at frequent intervals along the branches; they are succeeded by equally noticeable beige-colored seed pods about an inch long, resembling thimbles. Spice bush is so called because of the pleasant aroma of the twig ends when bruised or crushed. The flowers, however, have a distinctly unpleasant odor and seem to be in direct contradiction to its common name. You will find this shrub growing intermittently along the Merced River, more commonly below the level of Yosemite Valley. A large individual occurs at the road intersection near Curry Village. It has also been used quite effectively in the natural landscaping at Yosemite Lodge and The Ahwahnee Hotel.

In June, when the meadow grasses begin to mature, look for the rich blue-violet of Harvest Brodiaea (Brodiaea elegans). Its slender stems, up to 16 inches high, hold at their apex richly toned flowers with funnel-like tubes, the lavender petals recurved at their tips like lilies. It is a gracefully formed plant which does indeed give an elegant appearance, as the scientific name suggests. There are usually several of these handsome flowers on each stem, but the plant does not create large masses of color. The long, thin leaves normally die about the time the flowers appear, so that these beautiful blossoms seem to be a part of the grassy covering of the meadows. They are often seen in the meadow near the Devil’s Elbow beach, intermingled with the rose-purple of godetia. This brodiaea was a favored food of the Indians, who dug the bulbs and cooked them in earthen ovens.

Another little meadow flower of midsummer, an attractive member of the gentian family, can be found in sunny, grassy flats on the Valley floor. This is the Canchalagua (Centaurium venustum ssp. abramsii), a showy little blossom in spite of its rather short stems (4 to 12 inches high). Its rose-magenta flowers have five-pointed petals surrounding a white throat with red spots, the whole being less than an inch across. These small blossoms are best seen and most appreciated at close range, but they also create mass effects of great color intensity under favorable conditions. The western end of El Capitan Meadow and the grassy expanse of shoreline to the north of Mirror Lake are two good places to look for them.

Walk out into almost any of the meadows of Yosemite Valley in July, and you are likely to encounter the tall stalks of St. John’s Wort (Hypericum formosum var. scouleri). It has erect stems up to two feet high, surmounted by clusters of bright yellow flowers about an inch across, with many stamens which give to the blossom a bristly appearance. The rather short leaves are paired and are black-dotted along the margins. From midsummer on there are many yellow flowers which come into bloom and, at some distance, St. John’s Wort seems rather undistinguished—neither more nor less interesting than the rest. However, at close range, its intricate structure and brightly lacquered color make it one of the more attractive of summer’s offerings. You will be glad to have made its acquaintance.

In the same meadowy areas, and at about the same time, expect to find another yellow flower, a very familiar one to many people. The Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta var. pulcherrima) is typically a plant of the eastern United States and was probably brought west by early settlers who brewed it to make a medicinal tea. It has readily adapted itself to the western mountains and is quite commonly found in Yosemite’s meadows, where it blooms profusely throughout the summer months and into early autumn. Long, golden rays surround a central disc of deep brown, creating a flower 2 to 3 inches across on erect stems 2 to 4 feet high. Its leaves, 2 to 4 inches long, are covered with a sheen of fine silvery hairs. For many visitors to Yosemite, this meeting with an old friend from back home adds pleasure to their Park experience.

Still another prominent yellow flower of summer is the Evening Primrose (Oenothera hookeri). As the name implies, it blooms in the evening and fades with the warming sun of the following morning. For a short time in the morning light, its delicate yellow blossoms—2 to 3 inches wide—may be enjoyed to the fullest, a favorite subject for photographers. The stout stems with long, lance-shaped leaves rise 3 to 6 feet high, bearing what seem to be limitless quantities of buds. Only a few open each evening, however, so the lovely primrose contrives to remain a vivid part of summer’s floral displays well into September. To watch the opening of a primrose blossom on a summer evening is a fascinating experience. Within a few minutes the sepals fold back, revealing the gold color beneath. Gradually, the four petals uncurl to form the completed flower—the entire transition from bud to blossom having occurred before your astonished gaze. The flowers emit a perfume which can attract a sphinx moth from several hundred feet away; these graceful creatures are of course an important element in the pollination of the evening primrose. Deer relish the primrose buds for browse and have effectively eliminated the plant from many meadow areas in Yosemite Valley where they once were abundant. However, this handsome flower has been used extensively in the landscaping around The Ahwahnee Hotel and Yosemite Lodge and may be seen there in great numbers.

One of Yosemite’s most commonly seen white flowers throughout much of the Park, and especially in the Valley, is the Yarrow (Achillea lanulosa). In the sunflower family, it has 4 to 6 white petal-like rays surrounding a buff-colored disc of tiny florets. The whole flower is less than a half-inch across, but is arranged with numerous others to form flat-topped terminal clusters of bloom, 2 to 4 inches wide, which at a slight distance appear to be a compound flower-head. The stems are erect, 2 to 3 feet high, and are thickly clothed with leaves. These leaves are one of the more interesting characteristics of the yarrow. They are intricately divided into many finely cut, delicate leaflets which give to the plant another common name: Milfoil or, literally, a “thousand leaves.” Looking somewhat like fern fronds and quite aromatic, these distinctive leaves are readily noticed from early spring until late fall and serve to identify the white yarrow most of the year. Look for it in any of Yosemite Valley’s meadows throughout the summer in rather dry, open areas.

When summer wanes, two flowers become prominent in the meadows and along roadsides in Yosemite Valley. One is lavender in color, one is old gold; as they are sometimes seen in the same area, the contrast is dramatic and very pleasing indeed. The lavender one is Sierra Lessingia (Lessingia leptoclada). Mary Tresidder hacl a beautifully descriptive common name for it: “summer lavender.” Its tiny flowers produce mass effects on dry flats, or sometimes as hedgerows along roadsides, that give the illusion of a thin veil or ground mist of purest color floating across the landscape. At closer range, however, lessingia appears very much like a tiny aster, to which it is distantly related, as both are in the composite or sunflower family. The small flowers are borne at the tips of the branchlets; as the mature plants are a mass of branching and re-branching stems, one gets the impression of a mound of delicate color. Lessingia first appears in late June as a single short stem a few inches high, with a solitary bloom at its tip. Thereafter, the growing and branching occurs steadily, so that by the end of August it will be about 2 feet in height. A very typical location to see it at its best is the southern side of the Ahwahnee Meadow, where it reaches its peak about Labor Day.

The golden-colored blossom is, of course, that well-known harbinger of autumn, Meadow Goldenrod (Solidago canadensis ssp. elongata). Actually, the first blossoms appear in midsummer, but it continues to bloom until the end of September, making lines of gold across the Valley meadows which by that time are also maturing their grasses in warm tones of ochre and orange. Goldenrod is a mass of tiny yellow flower heads in small compact clusters which form spikes of blossoms 3 to 7 inches long. The stems vary from 12 to 40 inches in height, are quite hairy and have many long, sharply notched leaves. As beautiful as this plant is in full bloom, many people are wary of it because it is popularly reputed to be a cause of hay fever. This is rarely true, however, for the sticky grains of pollen are carried by insects and not distributed by the wind. Most of Yosemite’s meadows produce good showings of goldenrod, but there are often exceptional displays in Bridalveil and Stoneman Meadows.

In addition to the more noticeable of Yosemite Valley’s wildflowers which are pictured herein and described above, sharp eyes will find many others during the flowering months of May, June and July. Certain to be encountered by anyone who is sincerely interested are such diverse beauties as: the unusual pink and yellow Harlequin Lupine (Lupinus stiversii); the Mariposa Lily, with its cup-shaped flowerhead of gleaming white (Calochortus leichtlinii); the Purple Milkweed (Asclepias cordifolia); the white, waxy blossoms of Syringa or Mock Orange, a fragrant shrub (Philadelphus lewisii ssp. californicus); Blue Penstemon (Penstemon laetus), sometimes remarkably lavender, in dry areas; the pale purple blossoms of the Giant Hyssop (Agastache urticifolia), an aromatic member of the mint family; Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum), a woody plant with masses of small tubular lavender flowers, Chinese Houses (Collinsia tinctoria), erect stalks of white flowers rising in whorls; Elderberry (Sambucus caerulea), a large shrub with flat masses of yellow flowers, maturing to blue berries; Shieldleaf (Streptanthus tortuosus) with tiny purple flowers and conspicuous round yellow leaves.

The wildflower enthusiast will find some blossoming on the floor of Yosemite Valley until the end of August, but the months of May and June are the period of finest displays. By early July, the higher elevations of the Park are becoming free of snow and spring arrives there, providing the proper conditions for a whole new sequence of flowers. Thus the happy season progresses from week to week.

Let’s follow along!

Mountain Violet, Viola purpurea
[click to enlarge]
Mountain Violet,
Viola purpurea
Mountain Dogwood, Cornus nuttallii
[click to enlarge]
Mountain Dogwood,
Cornus nuttallii
Western Azalea, Rhododendron occidentale
[click to enlarge]
Western Azalea,
Rhododendron occidentale
Snow Plant, Sarcodes sanguinea
[click to enlarge]
Snow Plant,
Sarcodes sanguinea
Pinedrops, Pterospora andromedea
[click to enlarge]
Pterospora andromedea
Bleeding Heart, Dicentra formosa
[click to enlarge]
Bleeding Heart,
Dicentra formosa
Wild Ginger, Asarum hartwegii
[click to enlarge]
Wild Ginger,
Asarum hartwegii
Pussy Paws, Calyptridium umbellatum
[click to enlarge]
Pussy Paws,
Calyptridium umbellatum
Showy Milkweed, Asclepias speciosa
[click to enlarge]
Showy Milkweed,
Asclepias speciosa
Cow Parsnip, Heracleum lanatum
[click to enlarge]
Cow Parsnip,
Heracleum lanatum
Sneezeweed, Helenium bigelovii
[click to enlarge]
Helenium bigelovii
Harvest Brodiaea, Brodiaea elegans
[click to enlarge]
Harvest Brodiaea,
Brodiaea elegans
Pipsissewa, Chimaphila umbellata var. occidentalis
[click to enlarge]
Chimaphila umbellata var. occidentalis
St. John’s Wort, Hypericum formosum var. scouleri
[click to enlarge]
St. John’s Wort,
Hypericum formosum var. scouleri
Spice Bush, Calycanthus occidentalis
[click to enlarge]
Spice Bush,
Calycanthus occidentalis
Black-Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta var. pulcherrima
[click to enlarge]
Black-Eyed Susan,
Rudbeckia hirta var. pulcherrima
Canchalagua, Centaurium venustum ssp. abramsii
[click to enlarge]
Centaurium venustum ssp. abramsii
Evening Primrose, Oenothera hookeri
[click to enlarge]
Evening Primrose,
Oenothera hookeri
White Yarrow, Achillea lanulosa
[click to enlarge]
White Yarrow,
Achillea lanulosa
Sierra Lessingia, Lessingia leptoclada
[click to enlarge]
Sierra Lessingia,
Lessingia leptoclada
Meadow Goldenrod, Solidago carradensis ssp. elongata
[click to enlarge]
Meadow Goldenrod,
Solidago carradensis ssp. elongata
Harlequin Lupine, Lupinus stiversii
[click to enlarge]
Harlequin Lupine,
Lupinus stiversii
Syringa or Mock Orange, Philadelphus lewisii ssp. californicus
[click to enlarge]
Syringa or Mock Orange,
Philadelphus lewisii ssp. californicus
Giant Hyssop, Agastache urticifolia
[click to enlarge]
Giant Hyssop,
Agastache urticifolia

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