As we deepen into the end of Summertime, there’s a beautiful and magnificent evolution that transforms the landscape as wildflowers spread up the canyons in a beautiful symphony - a florescendo of color and luxurious scents. Observing the beauty and diversity of wildflowers is rewarding for any and all who take the time to stop and smell the flowers. In Utah, for instance - observers are rewarded with a visionary bouquet of the purple-gray-blues of silvery lupine juxtaposed next to the magenta-colored sticky geraniums and the vibrant yellows of mulesears.
Such is the beauty of wildflowers that they can capture the heart and attention of young and old alike. Wildflowers are one of the few things in life that bring spontaneous joy to everyone. Wildflowers are also one of those magical distractions that excite children. Learning about wildflowers and wildflower identification is a fun and rewarding pursuit for families. Chasing the wildflowers, as it were, is also a great way to get kids excited about hiking and spending time in nature.
As I’ve chased wildflowers across the foothills and up the mountains near my home, and as I’ve taught myself and my son about wildflowers, I have learned a thing or two about the art of teaching kids about wildflowers. Below are my best tips for teaching kids about wildflowers:
1. Begin with Basic Wildflower Observations:I recommend starting with basic observations to capture a kid’s curiosity. Point out flowers to your little ones and let them point out flowers to you. Talk about the flower’s characteristics: e.g., color, shape, number of petals, leaf shape, height, etc. Ask your child questions about the flowers that promote observation and deduction skills - for instance: how old is the flower? Is it about to bloom, is it in full bloom, or has it faded? What shape are the leaves? How many petals are there? Depending on the age and experience of your child, you can go more or less in depth and expand on your questions. Building observation skills for noticing simple details of wildflowers is an important foundation for later identifying wildflowers with a guide because sometimes the only way to distinguish one species from another is in the details.
2. Bring Along a Wildflower Guide:Bring a local wildflower guide with you on your nature walks and spend time trying to identify the wildflowers that you come across. The best way to learn and remember wildflowers is to identify them on the spot, and to point them out and name them as you see them again on your path. In my experience, kids love to learn the names of the flowers they’re witnessing and point them out along paths. Depending on the age of your child, it can be fun to use your guide and additional research to learn additional fun facts about the flowers. For instance, lupines can use nitrogen in the atmosphere to make their own fertilizer, and actually improve the soil where they grow. Dyer’s woad is an invasive species in North America and was used by the vikings to create blue dye. The Mormon Pioneers ate Sego Lilies to survive during a plague of crickets that depleted crops. You can also let kids use their own powers of observation to flip through the pages of a wildflower guide to find the one that best matches the flower in front of them. The best part about a wildflower identification guide with pictures is that little kids who cannot yet read can still flip through the pages to find matches.
3. Make it a Game:Play “I Spy” to point out wildflowers during your outing. For younger children, I like to point out a wildflower initially, name it, and have the kid repeat the name. The next time I see that wildflower, I ask the child if they can find it. Young children get excited to point out the flowers and often remember far more than I expect. It is also the cutest thing to hear a toddler identify a wildflower by its full name. Older children can take the lead in calling out the name of a flower for everyone else to find and identify. Another fun activity is to take a list of common wildflowers in your area and check each flower off that you see as part of a scavenger-hunt style activity. This can also be done in the form of a game of bingo, by replacing the numbers on a typical bingo game with the names or pictures of wildflowers. The sky is the limit when it comes to nature games and I recommend being creative and coming up with new and fun games each time you go out on a nature walk or hike.
4. Learn about Wildflower Conservation:A basic principle of wildflower conservation is that you should not walk on or pick wildflowers. While a field of wildflowers is one of the most enchanting places you can find in nature, it is also one of the most fragile. Over time, as wildflowers are destroyed by too many people picking them or repeatedly treading on them, a chain of events is triggered that causes ecosystems to decline. Wildflowers support entire ecosystems for birds, pollinators, and small animals. Animals that depend on the wildflowers for their food supply and life support systems die once their habitat is destroyed. Talk to kids about the reasons we do not pick or walk on wildflowers. Older kids may understand the concept of declining ecosystems, while younger kids can understand simpler principles, such as the idea that one person picking a flower may not have a big consequence, but over time, if every person who visits a location picks a flower, the flowers will no longer grow. You can point out that if a flower is picked, it is no longer there for you and your child to enjoy the next time you return or for someone else to enjoy when they walk the same path.
5. Research Areas to Visit:Spend a little time researching areas or hikes that have a lot of wildflowers. Pay attention to the seasons when the flowers bloom and visit when the time is right. If you find a local trail, you can visit repeatedly and watch with awe as the wildflowers in bloom change over the season. The best way to spark excitement in both children and adults for wildflowers, is to visit an area that is chalk-full of blooming flowers. Few things are more magical than walking a trail full of flowers at just the right time. I like to use the AllTrails app to see if any of the comments mention whether the wildflowers are in bloom in a particular area. Asking around is another great way to find spots to visit. You can ask friends, Forest Rangers, and other hikers for recommendations on where the flowers are in bloom. Another way I like to time the blooming of wildflowers is to take photos of flowers when I visit trails and look back at those photos the next year to see what time of year they were blooming on trails I visited in the past. Wildflowers in a particular area typically bloom consistently around the same week every year.
6. Continue the Learning Experience at Home: Learning about wildflowers does not have to end on the trail. You can take photos of flowers and spend time identifying them later at home. Make sure to take pictures of both the flowering part of a plant as well as the leaves - a lot of wildflower species are most easily distinguished from other similar-looking flowers by the shape of their leaves. Let kids take the photos - it can be a lot of fun for them. If you do not have a wildflower guide you can take out on the trail, you can use your photos (or memory) to identify flowers using free online resources, such as the US Wildflower’s Database, found at https://uswildflowers.com/wfquery.php?SName=viola&CName=.
7. Visit a Local Wildflower Festival or Other Event: If there is a wildflower festival in your area, take the time to visit and join one of the wildflower tours. Most likely, hikes or walks will vary by difficulty and include some kind of guide discussing the various wildflowers in the area. If you are visiting a National or State Park in the right season, sometimes the schedule of events will include ranger programs focusing on ecology, including wildflowers.
8. Visit a Local Field Office: If you are visiting an area with a ranger station or field office (e.g., Forest Service field stations or National Park visitors centers), stop in and ask about the current wildflowers in bloom, best places to see the wildflowers, and whether the park or office offers some kind of guide. Be sure to check out any displays or brochures they offer on the wildflowers or other ecology in the area.
Additional Resources: Visit the following links for additional resources on wildflowers:
- https://www.nps.gov/subjects/wildflowers/visit.htm - National Park Service’s page on wildflowers in various parks
- https://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethics/index.shtml - U.S. Forest Service’s page on wildflower ethics and native plants
- https://uswildflowers.com/wfquery.php?SName=viola&CName= - Database of wildflowers throughout the United States
By Lexi Jones
Lexi is a mama of two boys and a lawyer. She loves going on hikes and bike rides. She also has an incredible knowledge of wildflowers (we are always so impressed!). You can find her on Instagram @trailgirlfriend