As we made our evening walk to the creek the other night, I spied one of my favorite wildflowers. Each year in June, an orange-yellow flower appears in the woods that smells incredibly fragrant — the Western Wallflower.
Its name belies its beauty, and bring up memories of my childhood.
“Oh, that girl doesn’t get many dates, she’s such a wallflower!”
Growing up in Missouri, I spent time with my grandparents who lived locally. They used some rather old-fashioned terms in conversation.
I heard them talk about girls who didn’t have much social life as wallflowers, but I never understood why. In my child-like brain, I thought of flowers as beautiful. Why would a flower growing against a wall be seen as undesirable?
A Google search sheds some light on the issue. According to Dictionary.com, a “wallflower” is “a person who because of shyness, unpopularity, or lack of partner remains at the side during a party or dance”. The term supposedly comes from the fact they are left sitting against the wall.
I only ever heard the term used with women, never men. And somehow, during my midwestern upbringing, it reflected on physical beauty, not shyness.
When I left the midwest, moving first to Washington, DC and later out west, I never heard the term again. Apparently, Washington, DC and San Francisco were too cool and hip to refer to women in this way.
But it later resurfaced during my career as a Park Ranger, first in the Sierra and then later in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. As a naturalist, we were expected to learn about the flora and fauna of the parks we worked in. I’ve always loved wildflowers, but knew little about botany.
That would change when my supervisor asked me to lead guided wildflower walks. Initially, I felt overwhelmed. How could I learn all of these species of wildflowers by name? What would I talk about with visitors?
But then I happened upon a wonderful book called Botany in a Day. It broke down plants and flowers by families, explaining the patterns and traits that flowers shared. It even explained medicinal purposes and how flowers attracted bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
As I led those walks each summer, I got to know which flowers would bloom as the summer wore on. Certain flowers became my favorites — one of which was the Western Wallflower.
As part of the Mustard family, it grows on a thin stalk with a cluster of yellow blooms at the top. As I found out from my wildflower walks, the Wallflower is a great pollinator. Not only does it yellow color attracts bees, but so does its scent. If you take the time to kneel down and give it a sniff, it is wonderfully fragrant — until the bees get to it. Once the bees have collected the pollen, the flowers lose their scent.
Their work is done.
And where does it get its unusual name from? You can look to Europe to find the answer.
The European species grew along stone walls. Though, it tends to grow in the U.S. along sandy flats, the name stuck.
So next time you’re on a hike in early summer, take a closer look (and a sniff) at this common flower. It’s definitely not shy about what it contributes to our enjoyment of the Rocky Mountains.