Where the wildflowers are

Photo: Neil L. Jennings

Recently my four-year-old daughter and I went for a hike to the Butte, a local favourite here in Kimberley. The Butte is located in the Wycliffe Wildlife Corridor which protects some of the most ecologically significant grasslands in the southern Rocky Mountain Trench. The open grasslands feature wildlife, trees, hoodoo formations and rocky outcrops that are habitat to eight threatened or endangered species, like the American badger, and four rare plant communities.

With a gentle ascent and incredible views of the Purcells, the return on investment on this hike is high. During the spring and summer months, the landscape is peppered with the brilliant colours of wildflowers. One of the first wildflowers to pop is usually the Mertensia longiflora, the harbinger of spring here in the East Kootenay. The mertensia is a perennial herb with drooping bright-blue, bell-shaped flowers which provide a lovely contrast of colour on the still-snowy landscape. When my daughter spotted this little bell-shaped beauty she commented how it was a perfect hiding spot for a fairy; who am I to disagree?

Early spring hikers are rewarded with early blooms like mertensia and Spring Beauties. Photos: Neil L. Jennings

But beyond the oooh’s and ahh’s that wildflowers inspire, they also provide essential ecosystem services (the varied benefits the natural environment and healthy ecosystems provide to humans). Wildflowers attract pollinators such as bees and butterflies, which are responsible for one in every three bites of food we eat. Their root systems extend deep into the soil, storing water and nutrients while holding on to carbon that would otherwise be released into the air. They also provide critical habitat for pollinators, beneficial insects and wildlife, which is important for ecosystem function and pollination. Wildflowers can improve soil health, prevent erosion, and improve water quality. Wildflowers are so much more than just a pretty face.

This spring, we challenge you to get outside and discover the wonder of wildflowers.

Here are some tips to getting to know your local wildflowers a little more intimately:

1. Get up close and personal to wildflowers, but don’t pick them!
It can be very tempting, especially for little people, to pick a beautiful bouquet of wildflowers. Unfortunately, once picked, wildflowers will immediately start to droop and wilt and subsequently, die. As a former park interpreter, I cringed when I would visit folks in their campsites and see a bouquet of wildflowers in a camping mug on the picnic table. We encourage you and your fellow wildflower lovers to practice “leave no trace” principles when out in nature. Remember that bees and other pollinators need these wildflowers to survive.

2. Get to know the names of your local wildflower species
“We’ve got more than 50% of species in decline. And names, good names, well used can help us see and they help us care. We find it hard to love what we cannot give a name to. And what we do not love we will not save.” Robert Macfarlane, author of The Lost Words

When we know the name of the flora and fauna found in our wild backyards, we tend to become more intimately connected to them, and in turn, develop a need to protect them. Some wildflowers have very descriptive names which can help you remember them. Take Mouse Eared Chickweed (Cerastium arvense), for example. The upper part of the leaf of this little white flower resembles a fuzzy little mouse’s ear. Or Elephant’s Head (Pedicularis groenlandica), which upon close examination, has an uncanny resemblance to an elephant’s head, with a curved trunk and flared ears.

Unfortunately, many of the words used to describe the natural wonders of our world are beginning to disappear. In a recent edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary, 40 common words describing nature were dropped. These include bluebells, dandelion, and willow, among others. Help keep these words and others alive for generations to come by learning more about the natural history in your region.

Mouse Eared Chickweed and Elephant’s Head. Photo Credit Neil L. Jennings

3. Pick up a local guide book or download an app
Consider including a wildflower guide as part of your hiking necessities. There are so many options available, but here are some that we recommend:

• Plants of Southern Interior British Columbia and the Inland Northwest by Roberta Parish, Ray Coupé, Dennis Lloyd
One of the most common and reputable guides in this region, this book is a must for amateur and expert wildflower lovers alike. With over 675 species of plants, trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, ferns, mosses and lichens accompanied by concise drawings and colour photographs, this handy guide makes plant identification easy.

• Popular Wildflowers of South-Central British Columbia, by Neil L. Jennings
Neil is an avid wildflower “hunter”, and lucky for me, he is also my father-in-law. He has published several books which help even the most amateur naturalist identify the floral wonders that they encounter. We never leave on a nature adventure without this book in tow.

• British Columbia Trees & Wildflowers – A Folding Pocket Guide to Familiar Plants (Wildlife and Nature Identification) by James Kavanagh
This beautifully illustrated guide highlights more than 140 familiar and unique species of trees, shrubs and wildflowers and also includes an ecoregion map featuring prominent botanical sanctuaries. Laminated for durability, this lightweight, pocket-sized folding guide is an excellent source of portable information.

• B.C. Wildflower App
This app helps you find and identify plants. When you give the app information about a plant, such as its location, flower colour and the time of year, the app will quickly show you which plants match your selections.

Planting wildflowers create habitat for pollinators like birds, bees, and butterflies.

4. Plant native wildflowers in your garden
You don’t have to venture far from home to enjoy the splendour of wildflowers. Rewilding your outdoor space has a ton of environmental benefits, from providing food and shelter for our tiniest pollinators to increasing the biodiversity in your neighbourhood, not to mention the mental and emotional benefits of doing something good for the environment (and being rewarded with beautiful blooms!) Native plants require little to no maintenance. By choosing plants that occur naturally in your area, you are choosing plants that are adapted to survive with little interference. Lawns and the ubiquitous bark-mulched landscapes are notorious for requiring profuse amounts of artificial fertilizers and synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, not to mention constant watering. And unfortunately, the monoculture landscaping techniques so common in our part of the world provide little benefits to supporting biodiversity. Find out which plants are native to your area, talk to local seed distributors, and get planting; the pollinators will thank you.