By Maggie Romuld
The campground is deserted, and the trails are still quiet, but wildflower season is well underway in the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park. Albertans don’t typically think of badlands when they think of flowers, but for a magical few months each spring, the normally parched and barren mud-coloured hillsides come to life as wildflowers bloom wherever melting snow has left little pockets of moisture.
The first flower to appear each year is the Prairie Crocus, and the thought of slopes covered in these short, pale blue or mauve flowers is often enough to lure me out to the park when a still-weak sun is battling the last of the cold north winds. The flower isn’t really a crocus; it’s an anemone (the Latin name for the Prairie Crocus is Anemone patens).
These soft showy flowers are also known as Pasque flower or “wind flower.” Anemone comes from the Greek word for “wind,” and it was believed that they only bloomed when the wind blew in springtime. If you visit after the crocuses have finished blooming you will find that long feathery hairs have replaced the petals. All parts of the plant contain compounds that are poisonous if eaten, and irritating if touched. Stories tell of First Nations peoples using the Prairie Crocus to play practical jokes; if the leaves were used as toilet paper they would make the skin burn and itch.
Moss Phlox is a low, mat-forming plant with a woody stem and woody roots. It’s one of my favourites because in early May it is covered with masses of small white or pale violet flowers. The tiny greyish-green leaves are covered with fine hairs, like many of the plants you’ll find on a hike through the badlands. If you miss the blooming period, you might completely overlook the plant because it is fairly inconspicuous. One of the most conspicuous plants, on the other hand, is the Smooth Blue Beardtongue. A striking bright blue with a touch of lavender, it is easily spotted in the dust-coloured hills.
Three-flowered Avens is also quite distinctive. Three reddish-purple urn- shaped flowers top long flower stems. The feathery heads that replace the flowers give the plant its common names of Prairie Smoke or Old Man’s Whiskers. Scarlet Mallow is another easily identified wildflower. It sits quite close to the ground and has pale orange-red flowers that appear between May and July.
Early Yellow Locoweed has a long spike of pale yellow flowers that appear in May or June. If you visit after the petals have dropped, you’ll find the plant covered in short, leathery pods. Despite the fact that many locoweeds are poisonous, some were used by First Nations to treat asthma, sore throats, and bronchial problems. Golden Bean is often confused with Early Yellow Locoweed, but the flowers of Golden Bean are a much brighter yellow; if you spot the two flowers together it is easy to tell the difference. A flat, curved pod replaces the flowers after they have bloomed in May or early June.
An easy day trip from Calgary, Lethbridge, or Medicine Hat, Dinosaur Provincial Park is about half an hour north and east of Brooks. There are lots of reasons to visit the park, at any time of the year, but an early spring hike along the Badlands Trail (1.3 km) or a scramble up the hills in the Loop Road area will reward you with unique wildflowers in an uncommon landscape. It could be just what you need to kick-off a summer of outdoor adventures.