As spring warms the ground, remember that the night sky is not the only place to gaze at stars. We can also marvel at the vibrant shooting stars that scatter color across the ground in the foothills around us.
These members of the primrose family earn their name from their appearance, as they seem frozen in mid-flight, with slender petals pushing backwards and stamens shooting forward to the earth. Other common names for this flower are "wild cyclamen, " "lover's dart" and "bird's bill."
The flower's Latin name is dodecatheon, meaning "12 gods" and derived from a myth of 12 gods who diligently protected the beauty of this flower. There are believed to be about 40 species of dodecatheon throughout North America, four of which are found in Montana.
The flowers range in color from magenta to lavender, or even pure white. The stamens burst out from the flower's center, their golden yellow color setting a fine contrast to the striking petals.
Woodland shooting star has the broadest distribution, ranging from moist grasslands and shrublands to open alpine meadows and can be from 2-40 centimeters tall.
Most plants have few flowers, but some varieties bear many flowers in an umbrella like structure. The lance shaped basal leaves also can vary in length. There is a prairie shooting star and a mountain shooting star which is coarser and taller and occurs in moist to wet montane and subalpine environments.
The shooting star is among the first wildflowers to arrive in our area in the spring, then appears at the higher elevations in June and July. Shooting stars are buzz-pollinated - a kind of fly-by pollination process, in which the bee's rapid wing movements cause the release of a fine powdery pollen from the anthers of the flower. Native Americans have roasted and eaten the leaves and roots.
Richarda Ruffle is a graduate student in environmental studies at the University of Montana. She came to UM from New Hampshire, and has since explored the mountains of the West. Throughout the growing season, the Montana Native Plant Society writes a weekly column for the Missoulian Outdoors section.