Elephant Face Off by Lisa Densmore
Location: Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness, Montana
Have you ever faced down two dozen elephant’s with a single stare? I did, and I wasn’t on an African safari. I was backpacking in the Beartooth Mountains in the expansive alpine area near Moon Lake. Among the garden of alpine gentian, buttercups and laurel, I found a wildflower that looked like short, pink lupine from afar. Upon closer inspection, I found a stalk of miniature elephants looking back at me. It was sure obvious why this pretty alpine flower is called Elephant’s head! Each flower bears an uncanny resemblance to the head of an alert pachyderm with its trunk raised and its ears flared.
Elephant’s head (Pedicularis groenlandica) is a type of lousewort which is part of the figwort family. While “groenlandica” in its scientific name refers to Greenland, the plant is not native there. Scientists believe it was first discovered in Labrador. Today, it can be found in the damp alpine, subalpine and montane regions of western North America.
Elephant’s Head likes wild, wet meadows. Though mid-summer and during a severe drought in Montana, the area where I hiked was above 10,000 feet. Huge patches of snow still melted into the small tarns that dotted the area. True to form, the Elephant’s Head was amidst other alpine wildflowers as it is partially parasitic on the roots of its neighbors. If you tried to transplant it, it would likely die.
Elephant’s Head has fern-like leaves that grow in a clump at the base of its stem and then sporadically to the flower. It can reach 20 inches tall in the right conditions, though the more severe the environment, the shorter it grows. The tallest ones I saw in the Beartooths poked a mere four inches above the earth.
Have you seen any wildflowers that resemble something else? This is the first one for me.