There are more than 1,500 types of plants in Yosemite and Sequoia & Kings Canyon, and describing them all would fill a book. With species ranging from tiny lichen to giant sequoias, the flora in all of the parks is similar, varying primarily by elevation.
The trees native to the region consist mostly of conifers and broadleaf trees. Conifers have needles and cones, do not shed during cooler months, and maintain their green year-round, earning the name evergreen. Broadleaf trees drop their leaves in fall and bloom anew in spring.
At lower elevations, the two most common pines you'll find are the ponderosa pine and Jeffrey pine (both also known as "yellow pines"). The ponderosa pine has yellow-orange bark, needles grouped in threes, and bark scales that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The trunk of a ponderosa pine can grow up to 6 feet in diameter. The Jeffrey pine is similar to the ponderosa but tends to live at higher elevations.
The sugar pine grows at slightly higher elevations and can be seen along many hikes. These pines produce large pine cones, have short needles grouped in fives, and have a reddish-brown bark. Trunks can grow to almost 7 feet in diameter, and mature trees sport very crooked branches.
Pines found at higher elevations include the lodgepole and whitebark. The lodgepole pine, the most widely distributed pine in North America, groups its needles in twos; it has yellow-orange bark and small cones. The whitebark pine bunches five needles together and has sticky purple-tinted cones. These pines tend to be smaller and are found closer to the tree line.
Firs are another species of conifer found in the parks. Red firs, with short needles that curl up and cones ranging from 5 to 8 inches, are found at elevations of 6,000 to 9,000 feet. White firs, found at lower elevations from about 3,500 to 8,000 feet, have 2-inch needles that grow in twists off the branch, grayish bark, and 3- to 5-inch cones. Wildlife often take refuge in the large cavities near the base of old trunks. Both firs grow in forests near Yosemite's Glacier Point and in the high country along Tioga Road. White firs can be seen throughout Sequoia & Kings Canyon.
At the highest elevations (9,000-14,000 ft.), look for foxtail pines, gnarled trees that have adapted to the harsh rocky life of living at the top. This pine, like the whitebark pine, looks stunted and warped, often with a twisted trunk and spiky, dead-looking top. The roots grow over granite and require only a short growing season, allowing the tree to cling to a frigid existence.
The uncommon California nutmeg resembles a fir, with sharp single needles, and can be found along the Marble Fork Trail in Sequoia National Park as you near a creek flowing over marble slabs. Incense cedar is often confused with the giant sequoias, as both have reddish shaggy bark that almost crumbles to the touch. But an incense cedar has flat sprays of foliage that emit a fragrant smell in warm weather and small reddish-brown cones resembling a duck's bill when opened.
The undisputed heavyweight of the national parks' flora is the giant sequoia. Smaller ones can be hard to identify, but there is no mistaking a mature 250-foot tree dating back 2,000 to 3,000 years. These trees grow to a height of 311 feet, weigh 2.7 million pounds, and can have a base 40 feet in diameter. Tree limbs can reach 8 feet in diameter. The trees are bare until about 100 to 150 feet up and then sprout branches. The bark, naturally fire resistant, ranges from 4 to 24 inches thick. These trees resist decay and produce abundant small cones with hundreds of seeds the size of oatmeal flakes. Interestingly, it takes a fire to dry the cones out enough to release the seeds.
Giant sequoias can be found at elevations ranging from 5,000 to 7,500 feet, and occasionally as low as 3,500 feet. Obviously, the best place to see these trees is throughout Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. The large stands of Giant Forest and Grant Grove offer fantastic, easily accessible examples of giant sequoias, and there are other groves, accessible by foot, scattered throughout the park. Yosemite has three stands of giant sequoias -- the Mariposa Grove near Wawona, and the smaller Tuolumne and Merced groves near the Big Oak Flat Entrance.
Broadleaf trees in the area include the California black oak, which grows at lower elevations in both parks. The dark gray to black bark of these trees is distinctive. They also produce acorns and can grow to a height of 75 feet. The blue oak loses its leaves in fall and can be found in foothills of elevation 1,000 to 5,000 feet. Hollylike evergreen leaves mark the canyon live oak, the other common oak tree in the region.
The Pacific dogwood produces blooms with whitish-green flowers each spring. The quaking aspen has paper-thin white bark and an army of small leaves that rustle in the slightest wind. Along streams and rivers at lower elevations, look for cottonwoods, willows, and alders.
Wildflowers produce an array of colors during spring and summer, as they peek from cracks and crevices or carpet fields and meadows. The blooming season begins in February in the lowlands, lasting into early fall in the high country. The list of wildflowers found in these parks is intimidating and includes more than 50 species, some of which are described below.
Splashed on meadows and along hillsides is a lavender flower, lupine. It's easily recognized by its palmate leaves -- leaves that originate from a central point like fingers from a hand. Look for the bloom along valley floors and in the Wawona region of Yosemite. You will also see cow parsnip here, bluish-tinged flowers set on spindly stems, with almost fernlike leaves. The cow parsnip's dartlike flowers resemble violets at a distance, but closer inspection reveals an umbrella-shaped top and leafless stalk. Large blue-to-purple blooms that shoot out amid tall, narrow leaves are wild irises. In the Wawona region of Yosemite, look for mountain misery, clumps of small, white flowers atop fluffy, pine-needle-looking leaves; and farewell-to-spring, a whimsical pinkish flower with four large, fragile petals and small, slender leaves.
You may also see monkey flower, showy milkweed, and yarrow at these elevations. The monkey flower is one of nature's brightest flowers, ranging from blue to purple, pink, and orange, and seen along streams and at high altitudes in gravelly soil. Petals consist of two-lipped blossoms that more imaginative folk say resemble the smiling face of a monkey. The showy milkweed grows in meadows and forest clearings. These sturdy plants have large oval-shaped leaves and stalks filled with a poisonous milky sap. In summer, colorful bunches of tiny five-petal flowers appear; later the milkweed pods burst, releasing a tuft of silky seeds to scatter in the wind. Growing up to 3 feet tall, yarrow blooms as a flat, wide cluster of white (occasionally pink) flowers with a pungent aroma. It was used by Native Americans as a healing herb, a drink to cure indigestion and to reduce fever. Today the dried flower is commonly seen in potpourri.
At night, look for evening primrose -- its four-petal flowers open at sunset and wilt in the morning, and are pollinated by moths. Blossoms range from white to yellow and pink and have a sweet lemon smell; stems can reach 6 feet.
One of the last flowers of the season is meadow goldenrod, which appears in late summer and fall. The plant grows in long stalks, with narrow leaves protruding all along it, and may be topped by a shock of yellow that resembles a feather. Goldenrod was used by American Indians to cure all sorts of ailments.
In forests, you'll find pussy paws and snow plant in the shade, and lupine, mariposa lily, and mountain violet in the sun. The snow plant has a flaming red or orange stalk, while pussy paws have small, fuzzy leaves and delicate flowers that group together to resemble the shape of a cat's paw. The mariposa lily, which blooms beneath pines in Yosemite, is named for the Spanish word for butterfly, which it is said to resemble. Blooms consist of three snow-white petals with dark spots at their base; the long stems give the flowers a floating appearance. American Indians roasted the bulbs of these blooms to eat.
At higher and cooler elevations, a number of slender blooms abound. The mountain sorrel has leaves shaped like lilies, with clusters of small pink flowers no bigger than the tip of a fingernail. The spreading phlox has pointed leaves that stick out like thorns and broad, flat flowers on top. The meadow penstemon produces a group of bright pink flowers atop a single, slender stalk. The blooms are arranged like trumpets, pointing in every direction.
A favorite flower of hummingbirds, columbine grows in meadows and springs from rocky crevices. It looks quite fragile, with bushy leaves clumped at the base of bare stalks that produce droopy blooms. The color can vary, but look for five petals that extend backward in a long, pointed tube.
Shrubs & Plants
One of the many plants found in the parks is the wild azalea. These plants resemble their household cousins and are often the first to proclaim the arrival of spring, with an abundance of vibrant color. The Sierra sports just one variety: the western azalea, a low-lying shrub with smooth, deep-green leaves.
Bear clover is a low-growing shrub with sticky leaves and a pungent smell, found in the Lodgepole area of Sequoia and at elevations around 7,000 to 8,000 feet.
The mariposa manzanita, with its smooth red-to-purple bark and oval, coin-size leaves, blooms year-round and is but one type of manzanita common in this region. The mariposa manzanita produces small white and pink clusters of flowers that eventually turn into berries that look like little apples, which is what manzanita means in Spanish. This shrub is plentiful in the foothills of Sequoia National Park.
Now look up into oak trees and search for a clump of green bush that looks as if it were growing out of branches. This is mistletoe. Despite its holiday charm, it is a parasite more than a shrub, growing in green bunches high up in the treetops and sucking nourishment from oaks and other trees. Another pest is poison oak, prevalent below 5,000 feet. Watch for a shrub with shiny three-leaf clusters and white berries. In winter, poison-oak stems are bare and very difficult to recognize, so steer clear of any thickets that resemble sticks stuck in the ground.
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