Catching the Wildflower Wave On Utah’s Patchwork Parkway

Wildflower meadow at Cedar Breaks National Monument

Just a stone’s throw away from Utah’s Bryce Canyon, there’s a scenic byway that cuts a 50-mile route across a series of breathtaking plateaus. Known as the Patchwork Parkway, it provides access to the Dixie National Forest and Cedar Breaks National Monument. In July, this stunning wilderness area takes on an added dimension: its meadows and slopes are painted with wildflowers.

Brian Head Peak

The Patchwork Parkway is unique in that it follows ancient Native American routes as it climbs from 6,000 to 10,000 feet, in the process passing from one climatic zone to another. At 9,300 feet it encounters Brian Head, one of the highest-elevated occupied towns in Utah. The focal point of Brian Head is Brian Head Peak, which at 11,307 feet is the center of the Grand Circle of National Parks that includes Zion, Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.

Indian paintbrush on Brian Head Peak

I drove part of the Patchwork Parkway last year but never made it as far as Brian Head Peak let alone experience the wildflowers. So this week, my daughter and I took the car and set out again, picking up the route at a small town called Panguitch. True to its name, the Parkway wove us through a colorful assortment of cultures, villages and climates. At the lower elevations we passed through one-street towns with a single cross street, their one story storefronts simmering in the hot afternoon sun.

Climbing higher, the temperature dropped as we entered the Dixie National Forest. Donning sweatshirts, we pulled off at the turn outs to admire the ever expanding view. But the real surprise came when, crossing the rutted landscape of the Markagunt Plateau, we glimpsed the smooth green face of Brian Head Peak itself, rising like a giant whale out of a sea of wildflowers.

Approach to Brian Head Peak off Patchwork Parkway

It’s hard to imagine how flowers can thrive in such wide open spaces with poor rocky soil and only scant precipitation for water. But here they were, vast fields of them, gently swaying in the keen mountain air. The wildflowers spread outward through the landscape in long waves of purple, yellow, orange, pink, white and blue, representing an astonishing variety of species.

Turning off of the Parkway, we chose a narrow dirt road that climbed around Brian Head Peak to the right. As it followed the curve of the hill, the dusty track rose through a sloping meadow thick with flowers. Our car passed through broad drifts of blue-purple mountain larkspur interspersed with small-flowered penstemon, its double clusters of lavender blue flowers teeming with bees. There were pint-sized groupings of woody aster with its bright yellow eye and here and there, the feathery bristles of Indian paintbrush added a bright red accent to the picture.

Tall mountain larkspur

Showy goldeneye, a member of the sunflower family

Small-flowered penstemon and bee

Further up the rise, the broad swathes of meadow flowers gave way to lone clusters of flowers common to upper elevations. Stubbornly clinging to the steep rocky slope were pale white columbines and 4-foot high clusters of tall mountain bluebells. The bluebells’ deep blue nodding blooms and bluish-green leaves, more akin to a woodland setting, provided a stark contrast to the dusty grey soil.

White columbines

Tall mountain bluebells

Closer to the peak, the white columbines were joined by others in pastel shades of blue, including the white and lavender Rocky Mountain columbine with its distinctive white cup and fringed yellow center. The Rocky Mountain columbine is the state flower of Colorado and its colors are symbolic. The blue petals represent sky, the white cup snow and the yellow center symbolizes Colorado’s gold mining history.

Rocky Mountain columbine, the state flower of Colorado

Finally we mounted a rise and the summit appeared before us, a rocky plateau whose only feature was a lone cabin perched on the edge of a cliff. A sign read that the structure was built in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. From this vantage point, you could see parts of Utah, Nevada and Arizona, part of a staggering vista that extended in every direction for hundreds of miles.

Civilian Conservation Corps hut built in 1935

Yet, even here in this inhospitable place, plants were growing. Moss spread tiny green carpets while tucked into the bare rocks were colonies of colorful rock lichens. And on the cliff face itself the rocks were spattered with neon patches of Pleopsidium, a lichen that prefers the surface of vertical rocks.

Neon-colored lichen growing on the cliffs of Brian Head Peak

Not to be outdone, the bright yellow blooms of cinquefoil provided a welcome touch of greenery at the cabin’s threshold.

Cinquefoil blooming at 11,000 feet

All in all, a great day spent in nature’s garden.

Wildflower Diaries: What’s Blooming In July On the Chesapeake Bay


‘There are always flowers for those who want to see them’ – Henri Matisse

For most of my life, I’ve been more attracted to ornamentals than to wildflowers. Yes, I’ve noticed many beautiful native species in the landscape, but never really taken the time to observe them. You might say, I’ve been wildflower blind.

So, recently I decided to become acquainted with some of the plants in my area. I began by taking a walk near my home on the Chesapeake Bay and photographing every flower I saw blooming. Then, I set about trying to identify the various species using native plant databases. It was much harder than I thought it would be.

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It turns out that nature’s garden is far more complex than my own, with a seemingly infinite number of variations. And each species has a particular purpose, whether it’s to furnish pollinators with nectar, baby butterflies with food or grazing animals with forage.


Bee on common milkweed

Learning the names and habits of the wildflowers in my home area has proved enormously rewarding. No longer anonymous, the tiny roadside flowers now have meaning. Their colorful stories have opened up a brand new world.

Where I once saw weeds, I now see a garden.

Here are a few of the standouts making waves on the Bay in early July. Most of these wildflowers can be found up and down the east coast and in many other parts of the country. See if you don’t run into some of them in your own area!



Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)

A member of the buttercup family, thimbleweed has large, showy white sepals that resemble petals and a seed head that looks like a thimble. In my photo here, the seed head is still hidden by the yellow flowers.



Common Milkweed

At the end of June on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, these striking wildflowers with paddle-shaped leaves can be found growing everywhere. Domed clusters of fragrant mauve flowers rise high atop stout stems and bloom well into summer. Common milkweed provides food and habitat for a wide range of insects, in particular the monarch butterfly.


Common milkweed

Monarda didyma (Bee Balm)

There’s a beautiful stand of monarda didyma growing next door at our neighbor’s house. The deep red, tufted flowers with spiky hair hold their own on tall, sturdy stems in the toughest of ocean breezes. Lean in close and you can’t mistake the plant’s distinct minty smell, a favorite among bees.


Monarda didyma

I’ve always loved monarda because it reminds me of one of the Muppets characters.



Coastal Panic Grass

What’s not to love about the name of this native grass whose deep roots help stabilize the soil in our area? Grasses don’t have showy petals, but they do have flowers. The flowers, which are enclosed by scales, are called florets. The nodding, feathery blond flowers of coastal panic grass are a common sight along the roadsides in our area.


Coastal panic grass

St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

A low shrub with dense clusters of yellow flowers, St. John’s wort has been used for centuries for health purposes including treatment of wounds and mild cases of depression. The plant blooms in our area from July through September. St. John’s wort was apparently gathered and burned to ward off evil spirits on the eve of St. John’s Day (an ancient feast celebrating the birth of John the Baptist), which is how the wildflower got its name.

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St. John’s Wort

Cross Vine (Trumpet Flower)

A woody vine, cross vine gets its name from its tendency to grow in cross sections. Climbing by miniature claws to as high as 50 feet, it laces the branches of trees and shrubs while covering itself in showy, orange-red, trumpet-shaped flowers. The semi-evergreen leaves change from dark green in summer to reddish-purple in winter.


Cross Vine

Daisy Fleabane

A member of the aster family, daisy fleabane gets its name from an old superstition that held that dried clusters of the plant could be used to rid homes of fleas. Although the plant hasn’t shown it can actually do that, it can be used as a diuretic and medicine for stomach ailments.

Daisy fleabane/Here By Design

Daisy Fleabane

Daisy fleabane has hairy stems and leaves. Its flower is composed of short, petal-like white rays and a large, bright yellow central eye.


Field Thistle

As its name implies, this short-lived perennial grows primarily in fields and wide open spaces. Its large purple flowers are cupped by a ring of green leaf-like structures called bracts. Field thistle is a favorite of American goldfinches, who eat its seeds.


Goldfinches also use the thistle down to line their nests.


Thistle down of field thistle

Common white yarrow

Common yarrow is a familiar sight along coastal roadsides during the summer where its flat-topped clusters of small white flowers bloom from April to October. Growing to just around 3 feet in height, its feathery, fern-like leaves emit a grassy, almost astringent, fragrance. The nectar of the flowers attracts many insects, especially flies and wasps.

White yarrow/Here By Design

Common white yarrow

Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica)

Introduced to North America in the mid-1800s as an ornamental plant, Japanese honeysuckle has since become an invasive species in most areas, spreading rapidly by long runners that take root wherever they touch moist ground. Japanese honeysuckle is often seen girdling young trees and shrubs, which cuts off the flow of water to those plants.

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Japanese Honeysuckle

On a good note, Japanese honeysuckle’s sweet-smelling, delicate white flowers come in pairs and turn a soft yellow with age. Their nectar is a favorite among hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators.


Queen Anne’s Lace

I never knew that this popular wildflower has a near-identical cousin, poison hemlock. Both Queen Anne’s Lace and poison hemlock have taproots that look a lot like carrots and their small white flowers and deeply cut leaves are similar. But poison hemlock (not to be confused with the hemlock tree) is highly poisonous to humans. If ingested, it causes a progressive paralysis, leading to respiratory distress and eventually death. Socrates was poisoned by hemlock juice.

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Queen Anne’s Lace

All to say that it’s important to be informed before cutting any of these lovely flowers to avoid any unnecessary complications. For more info on the differences between the two plants (as well as photos), check out this helpful guide at Hansen’s Northwest Native Plants Database.


Interested in learning more about your area wildflowers? One of the very best databases for wildflowers is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas. You’ll find many full color photos of each species as well as detailed information. Check it out. It will make your next afternoon walk infinitely more interesting!