On the hunt for wildflowers

Wildflowers near Jack Mountain from Devil's Dome, North Cascades National Park 

Park Ranger, flickr

Around this time of year I begin planning wildflower photography hikes. My only requirement for these adventures is that the trail must have a good variety of flowers. A bonus is if the trail is known for having any rare flowers or plants. And that got me thinking, “how many rare flowers and plants are there in the United States and what does ‘rare’ mean?”

I took my query to the web and found a great resource in our U.S. Forest Service. The USFS has a fantastic wildflower page. Even more so, it has a page dedicated to rare flowers and plants.

According to the definition that the USFS uses for ‘rare’ (based on information from NatureServe’s conservation status ranks), there are 8,840 rare plants in the United States — one-third of the total native flora population in the U.S.

Plants identified as ‘rare’ may be difficult to locate due to the limited geographic range in which they live. Or they might be classified as rare because their population is small. Some rare plants’ habitats are managed to protect them, while others are not. Preserving our wild places can help these plants thrive by keeping their habitat healthy and unaltered. Plants on the verge of extinction can also be protected under the Endangered Species Act — just like animals.

Where can I find wildflowers?

In many areas of the United States, now is an excellent time to view wildflowers. Wildflower habitat is as varied as the color of the flowers themselves. Some enjoy wet, drippy rainforests, while others prefer bright sunlight and dessert hot conditions. Most likely you can find wildflowers by simply stepping out your door and into a neighborhood park. To find wildflower viewing areas in our National Forests and Grasslands, check out the Forest Service’s interactive map.

Wildflower etiquette

While everyone loves a good flower bouquet, wildflowers will do best not on your kitchen table, but in their native habitat. Resist the urge to pick a flower and instead pick up your camera and shoot a photo — it’ll last longer anyway. Picking wildflowers without a permit is illegal. Permits to collect plants or plant material may be obtained at a U.S. Forest Service District Office (more info on the permitting process).

Tips for wildflower photography

I don’t know about you, but I always seem to end up with a handful of blurry wildflower photos. Over time, I’ve compiled some simple ideas for capturing flowers in their native settings without much additional equipment…hopefully ending up with that perfect shot.

  1. Always use a tripod. Ok, I admit that I don’t always do this, but when I do, the flower shots turn out the best. While I’d like to think that I have a steady hand, a tripod will always be steadier.
  2. Go ahead, get close. Close-up flower shots can be some of the most creative, showing the intricacy of the flower. Not all cameras can handle macro, so make sure you know your camera’s abilities first (or do a few test shots and review them on your digital camera).
  3. Be creative. Some of my favorite flora shots have been from a bug’s-eye view. I’ll literally lay on the ground (but not on the flowers!) to capture a shot so it actually feels like I’m part of the flora forest.
  4. To flash or not to flash. There are definitely times to use a flash such as cloudy days when a little fill from a flash can draw out the flower. But in sunny conditions or with adequate light, try going sans flash. (Of course everyone has their own opinion on using flash too.)
  5. Careful of your shadow. If the sun is overhead, make sure you take notice of your shadow enveloping the flower. Try to move around the flower or position your camera so you’re not leaving the flower in the dark. On the other hand, I’ve also used my shadow to reduce the glare on an extremely sunny day (you can also buy a diffuser if the light is too harsh).

Editor's Note: This post was originally published July 15, 2010 and was updated in April 2011.