It’s that lovely time of year when alpine meadows, roadsides, and back alleys are filled with colourful wildflowers. But which ones are native, and which ones are invasive?
By definition, wildflowers are flowers that grow freely and without human intervention. There are a number of species that many people would call a “wildflower” (because they didn’t plant them), but are actually also considered to be invasive plants.
Here’s a little field guide to help you distinguish between a few native vs invasive wildflowers.
Blue-Headed Gilia – NATIVE
These light blue, globe-shaped flowers are whimsically perched on these ends of branching, leafy stems. Blue-Headed Gilia likes to grow in open, sandy or rocky soils, grassy hillsides, and can be found up into the alpine environment.
If you take a closer look, the multitude of flowers in each sphere distinguishes them from the invasive Bachelor’s Button, which only has one flower at the end of each stem.
Learn more about Blue-Headed Gilia here.
Bachelor’s Button – INVASIVE
These invasive flowers are also known as “Cornflowers” and are often sold in wildflower seed packets. Their blue, pompom-like flowers grow on greyish-green stems, 0.2-1.5m tall. Bachelor’s Button prefers dry disturbed areas such as roadsides, riverbanks, meadows, fields, and grasslands.
Mountain Bluet also looks similar to Bachelor’s Button, and is also invasive.
Learn more about Bachelor’s Button here.
Tiger Lily – NATIVE
The bright orange, exotic-looking flowers might set off a little alarm bell in your brain – is this flower invasive? Fortunately, they’re not! Though they look fairly different from many native flowers, they are in fact native, though perhaps just more rare to come across. Similar looking native wildflowers include Fairyslipper, Red Columbine, and Chocolate Lily.
You may come across this lovely little flower in moist areas, all the way up into the subalpine.
Learn more about Tiger Lily here.
Orange Hawkweed – INVASIVE
(Hieracium aurantiacum L.)
This bright orange little flower is very common in open areas and disturbed sites, including roadsides, pastures and clearings. It’s also slowly creeping into the Sea to Sky alpine, which is bad news, since it forms dense mats that outcompete native wildflower (and other plant) species. This invasive plant is easily recognizable by its orange colour, and stems that are covered with black, bristly hairs, and filled with a milky sap.
Learn more about Orange Hawkweed here.
Cow Parsnip – NATIVE
The white, umbrella-like clustering flowers of Cow Parsnip grow on top of thick, hollow 1-3m tall stems. It thrives in rich moist soil along streams and rivers, roadsides and in meadows. This plant can tolerate a wide range of climates, all the way from sea level up into alpine meadows.
It looks similar to Wild Parsnip and Giant Hogweed, both of which are invasive plants in the same family as Cow Parsnip. The white flowers distinguish it from Wild Parsnip (which has yellow flowers), and it is much smaller than Giant Hogweed. We have a detailed blog post about the differences between Cow Parsnip and Giant Hogweed; check it out here.
CAUTION – Cow Parsnip, Giant Hogweed, and Wild Parsnip are all toxic. Take care around these plants, and do not get any of their sap on your skin, as it can cause photosensitivity (photodermatitis), resulting in severe blistering when exposed to sunlight.
Learn more about Cow Parsnip here.
Wild Parnsip – INVASIVE
Wild Parsnip is usually found in abandoned fields and meadows as well as on roadsides, railways and trails. Like Cow Parsnip and Giant Hogweed, its flowers are presented at the end of stalks, in umbrella-shaped clusters. It can be distinguished by its yellow flowers (though very rarely they can be white).
CAUTION – Wild Parsnip, Giant Hogweed, and Cow Parsnip are all toxic. Take care around these plants, and do not get any of their sap on your skin, as it can cause photosensitivity (photodermatitis), resulting in severe blistering when exposed to sunlight.
Learn more about Wild Parsnip here.
Fireweed – NATIVE
This whimsical wildflower loves growing in disturbed areas where it gets lots of light, such as recent burns, clear cuts, forest edges, and roadsides. They are usually one of the first plants to pop up after a wildfire.
It has long, lance-shaped leaves and produces purple flowers on the end of stalks which grow up to 2m tall. It looks similar to invasive Foxglove or Himalayan Balsam, but can be distinguished by its flowers, which have 4 petals, and its stems, which are much hardier than the hollow ones of Himalayan Balsam.
Learn more about Fireweed here.
Foxglove – INVASIVE
This tall, showy plant is abundant in disturbed areas, along roads, in fields, clearings, gravel pits, and forest edges. Its distinguishing feature is the bell-shaped flowers that grow up a 0.5-1.5m tall stem, and come in shades of pink, purple, white, and sometimes yellow.
CAUTION – Foxglove is highly toxic to humans and animals. It can cause serious illness or death if ingested due to the presence of glycoside digitoxin in the leaves, flowers, and seeds.
Learn more about Foxglove here.
Paintbrush – NATIVE
Also known as Prairie Fire, this showy wildflower stands out in the alpine meadows where it thrives. There are actually over 200 species in the genus Castilleja, adapted to various elevations and climates. They come in a stunning array of bright colours – red, yellow, purple, white, pink, and orange. We often see the Common Red Paintbrush (Castilleja miniata) in our local alpine meadows.
These flowers are pretty easy to identify – they look like brushes dipped in paint!
Learn more about Paintbrush here.
Yellow Toadflax – INVASIVE
Bright yellow “snapdragon-like” flowers are arranged on the ends of stems that grow 0.15-1.0m tall. Yellow Toadflax and the closely-related Dalmatian Toadflax are invasive plants that thrive in well-drained, open, low-elevation forests and grasslands.
This invasive plant could be confused for a yellow species of Paintbrush from afar, but once you check out the multitude of flowers on each stalk, they are pretty easy to differentiate.
Learn more about Yellow Toadflax here.
Hardhack – NATIVE
This native shrub has pink, fluffy flowers on the end of long woody stems. It enjoys consistently moist soils, so it’s often found in ditches, swamps, bogs, and alongside creeks and rivers.
Learn more about Hardhack here.
Himalayan Balsam – INVASIVE
Also known as “Policeman’s Helmet”, due to the shape of its flowers, which come in shades of pink, purple, and white. These flowers grow on the ends of hollow, fragile stalks, up to 3m in height.
Himalayan Balsam’s unique flowers and hollow stems will allow you to differentiate it from other species. If in doubt, give the stem a little tug – it should pop right out of the ground quite easily due to its shallow root system!
Learn more about Himalayan Balsam here.
After looking at all those pretty pictures, of course you want to go out and buy some colourful wildflowers to plant in your own garden. Unfortunately, often the “wildflower” seed packets that are sold in garden stores contain invasive flowers, as well as non-invasive ones. Please make sure to always read the list of seeds (and look for the latin names), so you can avoid purchasing and spreading invasive plants.
More information on these wildflowers
- Blue-Headed Gilia (native)
- Bachelor’s Button (invasive)
- Mountain Bluet (invasive)
- Tiger Lily (native)
- Fairyslipper (native)
- Chocolate Lily (native)
- Crimson Columbine (native)
- Orange Hawkweed (invasive)
- Cow Parsnip (native)
- Wild Parsnip (invasive)
- Giant Hogweed (invasive)
- Fireweed (native)
- Foxglove (invasive)
- Paintbrush species (native)
- Yellow Toadflax (invasive)
- Hardhack (native)
- Himalayan Balsam (invasive)