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:
Wooly 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.
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 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 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.
Sierra 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.