Life Zones: Hudsonian – Sub-Alpine

In the Zone

The Sub-Alpine Zone goes from the Montane to Timberline. The pitches are often steep. Soil and moisture conditions are important because the snows of winter stay late in the summer, especially on north-facing slopes. Frost is episodic in this zone, showing up some mornings as early as mid-summer. The race to ripen seeds, before winter comes, is intense. The seeds, when produced and scattered, face special problems with germination and survival. The seeds are sought as food for rodents, insects and birds. Plants need to find light around the stands of trees, which are largely Englemen Spruce, Limber Pine, and Alpine Fir. Some thick forest stands exist, but the main pattern is small compact tree groups with open patches of bunch-grass between.


Common Cow Parsnip

This member of the Parsley family grows to over five feet tall and is seen everywhere along roads and streams. With its bright white umbrella-like flowers, it is easily spotted along the way.


Columbia Lily

This member of the Lily family is spectacular. When blooming, it reminds me of a sultan’s cap. Its smooth stems are branched, supporting from two to twenty-two flower buds. These lilies grow to up to three feet in height.



In the drier regions along roadsides, you will find harebell. They are lovely blue flowers in the Bellflower family. The deep-blue blossoms, drooping on their hair-like stems, have such perfect shape and simple grace. The harebell is very widely spread globally and has been identified in Scotland, Northern Europe and Asia, as well as over much of North America.


This showy plant from the Lily family is the official flower of Glacier National Park. The stems are quite sturdy and leafy and arise from a dense clump of basal leaves. The leaves have been used by some Native American tribes to weave their baskets. The magnificent head of white flowers has a rather unpleasant odor, which may be a means of attracting a pollinating agent like the fly.


With their quaint, smiling faces, this member of the Figwort family is one of our most endearing wild flowers. It prefers “wet feet” as it flourishes on grassy stream banks. The stems are one to two feet tall with the leaves appearing opposite each other.

Meriwether Lewis cataloged this flower in his Journal. His version was bright pink/purple and not yellow or blue. The flower with this color scheme is now called Mimulus Lewisii.


Dwarf Larkspur

A member of the Delphinium family this delicate purple flower seems to thrive in the partial shade of the Sub-Alpine. It comes in light blue and white as well. It is a hikers friend, indicating that it is not all shade and gloom on the trail. Larkspur is there to put a smile on your face.

False Solomon’s Seal

This member of the Lily family looks almost like corn growing close to the ground. It is a common plant of the Western woodlands and it has been revered by Native Americans for the medicinal uses of its leaves (as a poultice) and berries (for indigestion). The leaves are also flavorful when cooked: some people say it tastes like asparagus.

Western Wallflower

The Mustard family is legion. Fields of them add a yellow note to many Western hillsides. They range from weedy poor relations to handsome rich cousins, like the Wallflower, despite its name suggesting a colorless personality.


A member of the Heath family, Salal has white flowers with a pinkish cast. They are urn shaped and hang like pendants in a row along a zig-zag stem. It has dark glossy green leaves and varies in height from several inches to several feet above the forest floor. In areas where it thrives, salal can make up a large part of the understory.


This plant in the Heath family is a shrub with woody red bark, and it grows to eight feet tall. Many of the shrubs stay between three and five feet, as they form a dense thicket under Ponderosa Pines and other forests. The flowers are pinkish and bell-shaped. The fruit is a smooth, dark-brown berry.


These flowers come in a wide variety of colors, as they include the popular rock garden flower, Sedum. The flowers face skyward and are grouped into clusters. Some specimen grow from 2″ to 8″ tall. The tiny succulent leaves store water, which helps the plant withstand dry spells.


Throughout North America, this plant of the Snapdragon family has made itself a familiar inhabitant. The bright yellow flower is often seen on roadsides and culverts.A native of Europe, it is worth of cultivation if it can be kept in control. The flower has other names as well: Common Toadflax, Flaxweed, Greater Jacob’s Ladder, Ramsted and Wild Snapdragon.

Mule’s Ears

The bright green, shiny leaves of this plant are long, and in general have the shape of a mule’s ears. While the bright yellow heads of this composite are very similar to the sunflower, it is easily separated because of the smooth stems which grow to only one or two feet tall.

Meadow Salsify

This interesting flower is known by several names: Wild Oyster Plant, Western Goat’s Beard, Johnnie-Go-To-Bed-At-Noon, Salsify and Tragopogon dubius. This member of the Sunflower family has been naturalized from Europe and is now quite common in the West. It has a smooth, stout stem about two feet tall and handsome, yellow flowers about two inches across. The roots grow like carrots and are deliciously edible. They look like dandelions from the bloom to the globe-like seed displays. The flower opens early in the morning and closes at mid-day.

As the flower matures and goes to seed, it has a conspicuous head. Each seed is equipped with its own parachute of silky fibers.

Wild Buckwheat

These little spreading outcroppings grow close to the ground and help reduce erosion. The yearly accumulation of leaves adds humus to the soil. The flower head is a dense cluster of white (or yellow). The flowers are important to the honey bee, and the ripened seeds are diligently horded by the chipmonks.

Showy Fleabane

These light purple flowers prefer shady places with rick, moist soil. They are in the Aster family and become conspicuous in high altitude aspen groves as the season advances. Fleabane grow with a profusion unique to this shade loving plant. They may even linger past the initial frost to catch the first snowfall.