Sierra Wildflowers 101

In July and August, the wildflowers begin to bloom around the Tahoe Basin, first at the lower elevations, but eventually — and most spectacularly — in the high country as the last remnants of snow melts away.

Along rocky trails, across riparian meadows, dotted through wooded groves, Mother Nature paints the landscapes with colorful flora. And while most Tahoe enthusiasts are familiar with the trio of plants that often grow in great abundance together — the purple tapered large leaf lupine, the sunflower-like woolly mule ear and the aptly named giant red paintbrush — there are hundreds more wildflowers to take note of while exploring the Sierra Nevada.

Lisa Berry, an English instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College and wildflower expert who leads guided hikes around Tahoe, understands the joy of discovering and identifying the various species she finds out on the trail.

“In my former days as a rock climber, I kept seeing the same flowers every year on the climbing approaches,” explains Berry. “I just loved them and wanted to learn more about them. So it started with one pocket guide book then I got another then another. I was just fascinated by them. I couldn’t stop learning about them.”

For Berry, truly experiencing the beauty of the Sierra’s wildflowers is about more than taking in the vast meadows, it’s about crouching down to see the intricate details in a smaller flower that you might have normally walked right by.

“I love the small flowers,” says Berry. “If people are willing to take a closer look at some of the smaller flowers, there is so much going on with them. Their colors and patterns are so interesting.”

Sierra Nevada Wildflowers by Karen Weisse and Tahoe’s Spectacular Wildflower Trails by Julie Carville are excellent sources, says Berry, but in the meantime, here are six wildflowers to keep your eye out for while exploring the Sierra. Happy trekking!

Brook Saxifrage

Brook Saxifrage is one of those small flowers that Berry recommends inspecting closer. These minute works of art like to grow along mountain streams and are abundant on the branches of slender, leafless stems. Up close, they are reminiscent of a mandala.


Brook Saxifrage. Photo: Lisa Berry
Brook Saxifrage. Photo: Lisa Berry
Mountain Blue Flax

The flower of the Mountain Blue Flax grows off fibrous stems sporting numerous buds which bloom one at a time. The blue-purple flowers can be found sprouting from a corner of a Tahoe parking lot or along a backcountry trail. The flowers are fleeting, however, as the unfused petals last only a day or two.

Mountain Blue Flax. Photo: Lisa Berry
Elephant’s Head

Dozens of bright pink to purple flowers shaped, as one might imagine, like an elephant’s head adorn this unique Sierra wildflower. Each flower has a long curved beak resembling the trunk of an elephant, and the lateral lobes of the flower make up the ears. The plant can grow anywhere from 4-18 inches and enjoys wet environments.

Elephant Heads. Photo: Lisa Berry
Sierra Primrose

An early bloomer, the Sierra Primrose is often found bursting through moist, rocky cracks from a bed of toothed leaves. The bright yellow center is accented by five hot pink, heart-shaped petals.

Sierra Primrose. Photo: Lisa Berry
White Mariposa Lily

The white mariposa lily grows from a single grass-like stem bearing one to five flowers. Like other members of the lily family, everything comes in threes, including three large white petals with purple blotches, three sepals and six stamens.

Mariposa Lily. Photo: Lisa Berry
Explorer’s Gentian

Berry’s favorite flower to discover on the trail is the Explorer’s Gentian, a five-petaled flower that comes in shades of deep blue to purple. The flower has a funnel-shaped cup, white-to-yellow-green speckles on its petals, and sturdy leaves growing.

Explorer’s Gentian. Photo: Lisa Berry
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