The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

South of the Border, "Recreational opportunities in the Sweet Grass Hills"


July 3, 2019

Column No. 20

Columnist's note: With the onset of spring in the Sweet Grass Hills there's a profusion of wildflowers along the roads and in the fields. I've always had an interest in wildflowers and decided to do a column about wildflowers in my adopted home around Whitlash.

I equipped myself with a couple of well-respected wildflower guide books, did some looking on the internet for resources to help me identify wildflowers and hooked up with Bob Thompson, a third generation rancher in the Hills. Bob knows a lot of the wildflowers in the Hills and took me several places to see unique plants.

I'm not an expert, not even a novice, really, in identifying wildflowers. Trying to identify so many plants new to me, I realized just how little I knew about wildflowers. Even my third-generation expert was stumped at times. I liken classifying wildflowers to identifying a human's race or ethnicity by looking at one picture of another human-there are a lot of nuances (hair color, height, skin tone, etc.) that wouldn't easily fit the example photo. The same is true of wildflowers.

Despite all those challenges, I did make some progress and decided to share a few examples of wildflowers that may be familiar to readers. Here's a little of what I learned about wildflowers in the Sweet Grass Hills.

The difference between a wildflower and a weed depends on one's perspective

It's estimated there are 32,000 flowering plants that grow wild in America north of the Rio Grande River. One Montana-based website listed 1700+ native species for our home state. "The Audubon Society's Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Western Region," is a standard reference for wildflowers in our region. The guide notes, "It is not easy to define a wildflower; what one person considers a wildflower may be a weed to another."

I saw this in practice when my rancher friend would refer to any wildflower we encountered as a "noxious weed." Despite the fact Montana has a "legal" list of about 40 noxious weeds (weeds needing to be eradicated) my friend said, "When wildflowers begin to take hold, it usually means we have overgrazed the natural grasses. In my opinion that makes the flowers noxious and undesirable." The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources defines weeds as "...plants growing where they are not wanted." That's pretty much in sync with my rancher friends view of weeds.

A little about some common wildflowers

In early spring the "yellow pea" adds some color to the greening roadsides and pastures. In the Hills some call it "sweet pea," it also goes by Golden Pea, Buck Pea and False Lupine. A local ranch lady told me, "They are poisonous." Poisonous or not most guide books agree, "They are inedible by grazing animals."

Prairie Smoke is another native flower familiar in both the Hills and the Milk River Valley. The flower gets its name from the 'hairs' it produces from the bloom that give the appearance of smoke rising from a field. The 'hairs' also inspired the popular name of "old man's whiskers." Prairie Smoke is considered endangered in some areas in the U.S. and protected (not in the Hills I should add). Native Americans used the plant to treat wounds and sore throats.

Dandelions, interestingly, are also wildflowers (or weeds). They are native to Europe and Asia and were brought by settlers in the mid-1600's to the U.S. for medicinal purposes and as a food source. Obviously the dandelion flourished in the new world and continues to do so. Lupine and Shooting Stars are also found in both Blaine County and the Hills as are several other wildflowers/weeds.

And the Wild Sticky Geranium, possibly unique to the Hills

One wildflower that appears to be unique to the Sweet Grass Hills is the Wild Sticky Geranium. My source at the USDA office in Chinook could not find anyone who was familiar with the plant. In the Hills it blooms in mid-June, after the Lupine, Yellow Pea and Prairie Smoke. The Wild Geranium has a rose-colored bloom and tends to be concentrated in small patches.

The Wild Geranium had/has a number of medicinal uses among varied groups of indigenous peoples. The roots contain large amounts of tannin, a bitter tasting substance. A poultice made from the pounded roots of the plant was used to treat burns and hemorrhoids. The leaves and roots were used to treat sore throats, hemorrhages, gonorrhea and cholera. It was also used as an anti-diarrhea treatment. Today the plant is marketed as an anti-inflammatory and anti-hemorrhaging treatment and sold in herbal stores and online.

Want to learn more?

Here are a few resources, and there are many, that you might find useful to learn about wildflowers and identify them: "The National Audubon Field Guide to North American Wildflowers: Western Edition" has a very user-friendly way to identify flowers using bloom type and color. There's additional commentary about habitat, flower and leaf types and how the plant was/is used.

There are many websites about wildflowers. These are maintained both by individuals and organizations. I especially liked It's a huge data base with all sorts of ways to identify wildflowers including a Google map with the probabilities you will find a specific flower in a specific part of the world. maintains a large list of wildflowers and images identified by state. The site takes a few minutes to figure out but is helpful for identifying flowers in specific states with about 170 flowers listed for Montana. Both the Montana Department of Agriculture and the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department have websites with wildflower information. There are additional sites that have a lot of information but require fees or group memberships to access the sites- a web search will come up with many sources of information.

One final site, that I found quite interesting, is is maintained by a couple of well-educated people (science and information technology) who provide ways to be more self-reliant-"...doing what you can, where you are, with what you have."

Enjoy some time finding, identifying and learning about Montana's bountiful numbers of wildflowers-or if you prefer, weeds.


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