Wildflowers of the Sierras and Where to See Them

The Sier­ra Neva­da Moun­tains offer rich wildlife habi­tat, wild pub­lic lands, and a diverse array of plant life—some of the most stun­ning of which are its abun­dant and var­ied wild­flow­ers. From the redun­dant to the rarely seen, the Sier­ras con­tain some tru­ly beau­ti­ful, col­or­ful and odd­ly shaped foliage.

Here are some of the highlights:

woolly mule's earsWooly Mule’s Ear (Wyethia mol­lis )
Look­ing an awful lot like a sun­flower sit­ting atop large, fuzzy leaves, wooly mule’s ear is one of the most abun­dant wild­flow­ers in the Tahoe area. In fact, it has even earned the col­lo­qui­al name “Tahoe toi­let paper” due to its acces­si­bil­i­ty through­out the region and its soft, ample leaves, which can serve a hygien­ic func­tion in a pinch. How­ev­er, don’t con­fuse it with the equal­ly abun­dant arrow-leaved bal­sam­root, which is also abun­dant in the Tahoe area but sports upside-down heart-shaped leaves, as opposed to the oblong leaves of the wooly mule’s ear.


Crest LupineCrest Lupine
There are a large num­ber of sim­i­lar look­ing lupines in the Sier­ras, includ­ing Gray’s, Brewer’s, Tahoe, and Torrey’s, just to name a few. The easy way to tell a lupine is its palmate leaf struc­ture and pur­ple Plan­tag­i­naceae struc­ture (like a clus­ter of small snap­drag­ons), and you can dif­fer­en­ti­ate the crest lupine based on the hard, tooth-like struc­ture at the back of each flower, which will also help you remem­ber the name, giv­en its sim­i­lar­i­ty to a cer­tain tooth­paste brand.


Com­mon­ly referred to as ground smoke, these tiny, four-petaled flow­ers grow all over the place, though you would hard­ly ever notice them. The tiny white flow­ers sit atop a del­i­cate frame of stems, sim­i­lar to baby’s breath. Despite their unas­sum­ing appear­ance and diminu­tive size, they are actu­al­ly in the prim­rose family.


alpine lilyAlpine Lily (Lil­i­um parvum )
One of the most beau­ti­ful wild­flow­ers dom­i­nat­ing the Sier­ras and its foothills is the Alpine lily. This bell-shaped flower is also called the Sier­ra tiger lily due to its orange col­or and spots. While it looks like it has six petals, it real­ly only has three, and the oth­er three petals are actu­al­ly its sepals.

On the oth­er end of the scale, the last two flow­ers are rare, but if you hap­pen to spot one, do remem­ber that their place on this plan­et is ten­u­ous and frag­ile. Nev­er pick any of the fol­low­ing flow­ers, and be aware that wild­flow­ers are fick­le and can­not be grown in cap­tiv­i­ty, so don’t even think about try­ing to steal them and grow them in your own gar­den. It will not work, and you will just be killing one of a hand­ful of these spe­cial beauties.

steer's headSteer’s Head (Dicen­tra uni­flo­ra )
An appro­pri­ate­ly named flower, Steer’s Head often grows in wet, shad­ed patch­es. Its shape close­ly resem­bles that of a steer’s head all in white, and if you spot this del­i­cate flower, be care­ful not to tram­ple or oth­er­wise dam­age even a sin­gle flower, as they are uncom­mon and should be pro­tect­ed at all cost.


Bolandra californicaSier­ra Bolan­dra (Bolan­dra cal­i­for­ni­ca )
Native to the High Sier­ras, this unas­sum­ing small plant grows in shade along the water and often out of gran­ite, and is even rar­er than the steer’s head. Its urn-shaped flower is most­ly green, which close­ly match­es its stem col­or, with just a hint of pur­ple, while the upside-down bell of the petals pro­tects its repro­duc­tive parts. If you see this flower, give it a wide birth and ensure pets do not tram­ple or pee on it.