Charmed by Wildflower Names

At first, I was interested in wildflowers themselves, but recently I have become captivated by their fascinating names. Some are descriptive, like dusty maiden and Indian paintbrush. Others have scientific names, like Hesperochiron californicus or microsteris. Then there are the cool-sounding ones, like puccoon and saxifrage. And the mystifying ones, including lupine and collomia. Just as knowing the names of people makes them more dear, learning the names of wildflowers makes them into familiar friends.

I was so excited to identify my first dusty maiden on the North Fork Trail near Ketchum, Idaho, last week. This sweet trailside find looks exactly like you would imagine with delicate pink flower clusters arising from dusty-colored, grayish green leaves. On the same hike, we also found a patch of horse mint, which has a decidedly unglamorous name. I was happy to learn that this pretty lavender flower is also called lemon bee balm, which sounds much more appealing to me. The flower is quite pretty (nothing horsy about it) and a whole hillside of them is definitely striking.

The name scarlet gilia always makes me think of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. And the funny thing is the flower looks like the floral embodiment of the girl with its slender tubular flowers that flare in showy petals at the ends. However, the origin of the name scarlet gilia was not that romantic. The flower was named after the 18th century Spanish botanist, Felipe Gil ( You might also know scarlet gilia by the names of sky rocket or fairy trumpet. I especially like the idea of fairies blowing little reveilles on these flowers.

My other favorite, both for its name and its looks, is the aptly named firecracker penstemon, which looks like the gilia from a distance, but the tube doesn’t fan out at the end. I was excited to find firecracker penstemon blooming this year on the Canyon Rim Trail above Shoshone Falls. Other penstemon varieties were in abundance on the North Fork Trail: showy penstemon, hotrock penstemon, and a variety of miniature penstemon. Allison, our guide, explained to us that penstemon comes from the Greek penta- meaning five and stemon meaning five stamens. Penstemon are also known as beardtongues because of the golden hairs in the throat of the floral tube.

Since lupinus means of wolves, I wondered how the lavender, pink, and white lupine covering whole mountainsides near Twin Falls and Sun Valley got a name associated with wolves. Ancient lore has it that people thought the lupine plants were wolf-like and robbed nutrients from the soil; in fact, quite the opposite is true, as the lupine adds nitrogen to the soil (

Then there’s puccoon, also known as wayside gromwell. Now, if you ask me, wayside gromwell sounds like something you would want to avoid. Puccoon, on the other hand, has an intriguing ring to it. This flower is easy to miss because the light yellow flowers are partially hidden by a profusion of knife-shaped leaves. On the Third Fork Trail, I walked right by it on the way in but luckily spotted it on the way out.

The ballhead waterleaf has a name that is easy to remember, and it has unforgettable ball-shaped clusters of flowers that have numerous thread-like filaments extending from them. When we hiked the Wahlstrom Hollow trail in the South Hills, these flowers virtually carpeted the trail and I knew I would never forget the name after that.

I’m still hoping to see a smooth-stem blazing star, a parrot’s beak, or a Jacob’s ladder, but in the meantime I will keep asking and looking up names and enjoy the surprising variety of wildflowers and their intriguing names.


About Judy Grigg Hansen
I write poetry and nonfiction, and I am passionate about the people, places, and wildflowers of Idaho and the Northwest.

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