LET’S BE CLEAR: Wildflowers don’t come in cans or seed packets. True wildflowers are … well — wild; they are a signature of time and place beyond the gardener’s hand.
Poetic? Perhaps. But practically speaking — and nature is nothing if not practical — what does that even mean?
I put the question to Daniel Mount, professional gardener, designer, writer and my go-to guy for Washington wildflowers. Mount, who is both poetic and practical, has been tracking wild blooms for years and leads regional wildflower hikes throughout the growing season. “Wildflowers are categorized by ecotope,” he began. That’s when I knew I was outside the familiar, tame boundaries and well-worn vocabulary of my cultivated plot.
An ecotope is the smallest classification of an ecological habitat made up of similar soil conditions and plant communities. (I looked it up.) In other words, the humus-rich duff of the forest floor in Western Washington is home to different plants than those that thrive in the relatively lean soil of a rocky alpine slope.
Yes, but what about the flowers?
“There are more than 65 species of lupine native to Pacific Northwest alpine and subalpine meadows, as well as desert conditions east of the Cascades,” Mount says. Common camas (Camassia quamash), another iconic Washington wildflower, is a native perennial that blooms in damp midspring with starry spires of lavender blue before going dormant as dry conditions take over in summer. Quantities of this plant were once so abundant that Lewis and Clark described meadows that looked like “fine clear water.” Can you imagine?
Native forest wildflowers include western trillium (Trillium ovatum), fragrant fringecup (Tellima grandiflora) and red-flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum). Farther afield, in desert conditions east of the Cascades, you’ll find sagebrush violet (Viola trinervata), various buckwheats (Eriogonum sp.) and even a native prickly pear cactus (Opuntia fragilis) that also can be found on the islands here on the “wet” side.
With a basic understanding of different wildflower habitats and a few target flowers in mind, Mount maintains that there’s no better way to explore Washington wildflowers than to get out into the mountains, meadows, shoreline and deserts to see for ourselves. Immersion in the awe and wonder of nature’s wild display grounds us in the here and now — a welcome reprieve from domesticated tending that so often focuses on a future return. (Note to self: I need to get the last of my tomatoes into the ground now that the soil has warmed, and remember to net the ripening strawberries from the watchful crows. Etc., etc., etc.)
Wildflower-viewing season extends from early spring in the lowlands throughout summer at higher elevations. Peak bloom time at any given location varies from year to year depending on weather and precipitation patterns. For more information, connect with Mount at mountgardens.com, and check out regional resources, such as Washington Trails Association (wta.org) and Washington Native Plant Society (wnps.org), using a keyword search for “ wildflowers.” You also can follow popular social media hashtags to get real-time updates and tips on where to find the latest and greatest bloom show. It’s a colorful moving target well worth seeking out.