When it comes to wildflowers, elevation is the key this time of year.
Going to higher elevations in Idaho is “like going back in time, to the spring,” said Lynn Kinter, lead botanist with the Idaho Natural Heritage Program at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.
Wildflower season has mostly run its course in the Boise area — favorites like Foothills lupine and arrowleaf balsamroot were at their best in early June — but wildflower sites above 9,000 feet are just starting to bloom, said Kinter.
She was recently working in the Bear River Range in Southeastern Idaho, an elevation of 9,500 feet, and found penstemon, paintbrush, avalanche lily and milkvetch. While serviceberries are already bearing fruit in the Treasure Valley, in the Bear River Range they’re just flowering. Biscuitroot, with its distinctive starburst of yellow flowers, last seen on Table Rock and other sites near Boise in the spring, is in bloom in Idaho’s high country.
Ann DeBolt, a botanist with the Idaho Botanical Garden, said Sun Valley and the surrounding area (elevation 5,853 feet), has lots to offer when it comes to wildflower viewing. DeBolt recently drove through Stanley and found an array of meadow flowers in bloom, including wyethia (aka mule’s ears), elephant heads, penstemon, cinquefoil, buckwheat and scarlet gilia. “All just stunning,” DeBolt said.
DeBolt’s drive continued through Idaho City, where she spotted sulfur buckwheat and penstemon in bloom. Another recent foray took DeBolt to Murphy in Owyhee County. Purple sage there has bloomed already, but the sage still holds bracts of drying flowers. Townsend’s daisy and buckwheat also remain.
Mores Mountain (21 miles north of Boise past Bogus Basin, elevation 7,260 feet) is a good wildflower destination. Kinter recently spotted penstemon, paintbrush, buckbrush, horsemint (a variety of bee balm), sandwort and wooly sunflower (also known as Oregon sunshine). According to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, blooms will continue here and in the Bogus Basin area into August.
More Idaho spots to see July wildflowers
▪ Scott Mountain Lookout: balsamroot, paintbrush, penstemon, bluebells, onion, buckwheat. Note: part of this road is narrow and without a guardrail and might not be suited for every driver. It's always a good idea to check road conditions before setting out on any of these treks.
▪ Wells Summit, north of Fairfield: balsamroot, lupine, prairiesmoke
▪ Trinity Lakes, Trinity Peak: scarlet gilia, penstemon, larkspur, yarrow
▪ House Mountain: balsamroot, buckwheat, lupine, paintbrush
▪ Bear Valley: camas, mules ears, grounsel, elephant head, shooting start, penstemon, lupine
▪ Snowbank Mountain: lupine, penstemon, phlox, shooting star, bluebells, sandwort
Resources for wildflower identification
▪ Apps (some of them free) are available for Idaho wildflowers, including one focused on wildflowers at Craters of the Moon National Monument.
▪ For those who prefer books to apps (or those who venture to parts of Idaho without cell service) DeBolt recommends “Idaho Mountain Wildflowers: A Photographic Compendium” by Scott Earl and Jane Lundin (from $14 online) and “Northern Rocky Mountain Wildflowers” by Wayne Phillips (from $9 online).
▪ For those who want a more academic approach to wildflowers, DeBolt recommends the online database at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington, burkemuseum.org (click on “Botany + Herbarium” under the “Research + Collections” tab). The database offers many photos of each species, including photos of wildflowers growing in their natural habitats.
Idaho: high and low
Wondering about Idaho elevations? Here are the basics:
Most parts of Idaho (including the Treasure Valley) are in the 2,000 feet above sea level range.
The lowest point in the state, 710 feet above sea level, is in Nez Perce County at the Snake River. The highest point is Borah Peak at 12,662 above sea level.
Wild Idaho rarities
Idaho has more than 400 rare plants, said Lynn Kinter, lead botanist with the Idaho Natural Heritage Program at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “Each is a rare gem.”
Idaho is also home to more than 50 species of wildflowers that grow here and nowhere else in the world.
A few notables: Christ’s paintbrush, a showy yellow flower that only blooms on the summit of Mount Harrison in the upper elevations of the Albion Mountains in Cassia County. It blooms late and is in an area that sometimes has snow until August.
Packard’s milkvetch, from the legume family, grows exclusively near Emmett in a range that measures only 6 miles long and 2 miles wide.
Aase’s (pronounced “ossie’s”) onion, blooms pink in the early spring in sandy sites in the Boise Foothills and near Emmett, Payette and Weiser.
Free wildflower walks with the Sawtooth Botanical Garden
Join the Sawtooth Botanical Garden in Ketchum and the Idaho Native Plant Society for this free summer series. Walks happen rain or shine. Participants should bring good outerwear, sturdy walking shoes, water, sunscreen, a hat and lunch. Some walks are appropriate for children (7 and older), but no dogs allowed.
All trips start at 8:30 a.m. at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, 11 Gimlet Road, 4 miles south of Ketchum. Most, but not all, field trips will return by 1 p.m.. Carpooling from SBG is encouraged.
Here’s the lineup:
▪ July 21-22: Native Idaho Orchids (Friday talk and Saturday field trip) with Lyn Kintner, botanist with the Idaho Natural Heritage Program/Idaho Department of fish and Game.(Note: the Friday talk begins at the garden at 6:30 p.m. Cost: $8 garden members, $10 non-members. The Saturday walk is free).
▪ Aug. 12: Exploring Trail Creek Summit with John Shelly, Idaho Native Plant Society president and retired US Forest Service plant specialist.
▪ Sept. 9: Three Big Trees with John Shelly.