Photo of Small-flowered Penstemon

 "The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness" (John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir, edited by Linnie Marsh Wolfe, 1938, page 313).

Blanketflower, Refuge wildflowerWallace Albert, Pat Bartholomew, Judy Hoy, Sheila Morrison, and Peter Stickney did much volunteer botanical work for the Refuge in the late 90's, early 2000's. The Refuge plant list (~425 species) and an out-of-print wildflower brochure are based almost entirely on their work, i.e. the tedious task of compilation, collection and identification of plants. Starting in 2011, volunteers Gary and Joan Dickerson have collected some 140 species from the WVA for environmental education use and as voucher specimens in the Refuge herbarium; Refuge staff are thankful and very appreciative of these efforts.

Nearly 25 soil types/groups currently identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture SSURGO data bases are present on or adjacent to Lee Metcalf NWR (Fig. 6-Heitmeyer et al 2010) ultimately determine plant diversity. The most extensive soils are Riverrun-Curlew-Gash complex, Ambrosecreek sandy loams, and Riverside-Tiechute-Curlew complexes. Most soils on the NWR are shallow, with thin veneers of silts and clays overlying deeper sands and gravels. In many Aspen stand along Kenai Nature Trailplaces sandy outcrops occur, especially near the Bitterroot River.

Historic vegetation in the Bitterroot River floodplain near Lee Metcalf NWR included seven distinct habitat/community types: 1) Riparian/Riverfront-type Forest, 2) floodplain “Gallery-type” forest, 3) Persistent Emergent wetland, 4) Wet Meadow Herbaceous, 5) floodplain and terrace Grassland, 6) Saline Grassland, and 7) Grassland-Sagebrush (soil/water matrix-Table 5). The relatively low precipitation in the Bitterroot Valley prohibits the establishment of expansive areas of densely wooded or herbaceous wetland vegetation communities that require larger amounts of water each year. Consequently, the distribution of woody or wetland-type species is restricted to areas of greater soil moisture – primarily sites adjacent to the Bitterroot River and in floodplain drainages/depressions (Hansen et al. 1995 and indirect observations in various historical accounts including Leiberg 1899, Browman 1989, Cappious 1939, Clary et al. 2005, Wolf Lichen, common lichen of riparian forestStevensville Historical Society 1971, Chaffin 1971, Popham 1998, Losensky 1993). Though not Refuge or Bitterroot Valley centric, the National Park Service has a visual website dedicated to the plant collection by the Lewis & Clark expedition 1804-06.

Riverfront Forest includes early succession tree species such as cottonwood and willow that are present on newly deposited and scoured gravelly-sand, sand, and fine sandy-loams near the active channel of the Bitterroot River and in sand-outcrop sites adjacent to floodplain drainages.

Gallery Forest at Lee Metcalf NWR is dominated by cottonwood and ponderosa pine and is present on higher floodplain elevations with veneers of Chamokane loams over underlying sands along natural levees and point bar terraces adjacent to minor floodplain tributaries. Gallery Forest areas Refuge Wildflower-Nuttall's Pussytoesoften have woody shrubs such as alder, hawthorn, dogwood and wood’s rose in the understory and mixed grass species such as bluebunch wheatgrass and Idaho fescue under and between trees and shrubs.

Low elevation oxbows, depressions, and tributary off-channel areas contained more permanent water regimes and supported water tolerant wetland vegetation species dominated by Persistent Emergent species such as cattail. Sites immediately adjacent to Persistent Emergent communities grade into diverse Wet Meadow communities dominated by annual and perennial sedges, rushes, herbaceous species, and water tolerant grasses.

Rabbitbrush, Refuge shrubThe majority of higher elevations within the Lee Metcalf NWR floodplain region were covered with grasses and some scattered shrubs (Eckmann and Harrington 1917, Cappious 1939, Chaffin 1971, Popham 1998). Sites that had occasional surface flooding contained more wet Grassland communities with interspersed herbaceous plants such as smartweed and sedges while higher floodplain terraces, slopes and alluvial fans included mixed wet- and upland-type grasses and shrubs such as rabbit brush, sage, needle and thread, and junegrass. A useful publication by the Missoula County Extension Service (Wildlflowers and Weeds of Missoula Valley Grasslands) outlines bloom dates for native plants. A composite map of potential historic vegetation communities, based on hydrogeomorphic attributes, is linked here (Heitmeyer et al 2010).