Great Basin National Park

Great Basin National Park


Bristlecone Pines


Great Basin Bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) are remarkable for their great age and their ability to survive adverse growing conditions. In fact, it seems one secret to their longevity is the harsh environment in which most bristlecone pines grow.

Bristlecone pines in Great Basin National Park grow in isolated groves just below treeline. Conditions are harsh, with cold temperatures, a short growing season, and high winds. Bristlecone pines in these high-elevation environments grow very slowly, and in some years don't even add a ring of growth. This slow growth makes their wood very dense and resistant to insects, fungi, rot, and erosion. Vegetation is very sparse, limiting the role of fire. Bristlecone pine seeds are occassionally cached by birds at lower elevations. Bristlecone pines grow more rapidly in more "favorable" environments at lower elevations. They do not achieve their legendary age or fascinating twisted shapes.

While bristlecone pines are the longest-living tree, scientists debate what is truly the oldest living thing. The creosote bush that grows in the Mojave Desert may be older. The cresote achieves its age by "cloning" new bushes from its root system. Yet bristlecone pines surely deserve our respect for not only surviving harsh conditions, but thriving in harsh conditions.

Groves in Great Basin National Park

Wheeler Peak Grove
The Wheeler Peak bristlecone pine grove, the most accessible grove in the park, is located on the northeast side of Wheeler Peak. It is unusual in that it grows on a glacial moraine consisting of quartzite boulders. Most groves grow on limestone or dolomite. The northeastern exposure of the Wheeler Peak grove is also unusual as most other groves have a generally southern or western exposure. The Wheeler Peak grove is reached by a 1.5 mile (3 miles round trip) trail from Wheeler Peak Campground. A short self-guided nature trail passes through a portion of the grove. During the summer, the park offers ranger-led interpretive walks in this grove. Check at the visitor center for a schedule.

Mount Washington Grove
The largest grove of bristlecone pines in the park is on Mt. Washington. Located in the west central portion of the park, access is difficult. No developed trails exist in the grove. Some sections of this grove have relatively tall (over 40 feet) bristlecone pines that resemble high-elevation spruce or limber pine more than the typical gnarled treeline bristlecone pines. Unlike the Wheeler Peak grove, the trees on Mt. Washington grow exclusively on limestone. In fact, nearby quartzite areas are notable for their lack of bristlecones.

Eagle Peak Grove

The third grove in the park is near Eagle Peak (Peak 10,842) on the ridge between the Snake Creek and Baker Creek drainages. The terrain is steep and access is difficult. These bristlecones also grow exclusively on limestone soils, while granitic soils in the area lack bristlecones.

Please remember that everything in a national park is protected. Some bristlecone pine wood on the ground may be thousands of years old and important scientifically. Please leave all down bristlecone pine wood in place.

The "Prometheus" Story
In 1964, a scientist was granted permission by the United States Forest Service to study some of the bristlecone pines growing in a grove beneath Wheeler Peak. The researcher was very excited to start studying the lessons preserved in the rings inside these ancient trees. Many lessons were to be learned from one tree in particular, named "Prometheus."

Bristlecone pines, like most trees, add a ring for each year of growth. Scientists can study the variation in width to determine patterns of good and bad growing seasons in past years. The trees literally record the seasons of their lives in their rings. This is very valuable for the study of climate change. Dendrochronology is the branch of science that studies tree rings. Dead bristlecone wood is as valuable to scientists as a living tree, since it extends the continuous climate record even farther into the past by overlapping patterns of identical ring growths in different trees.

Tree ring information can also help date archeological sites that contain wooden beams. This has been particularly useful in the Southwest. Radiocarbon dating (carbon-14) is a very common tool in archeology. Bristlecone pine wood has helped calibrate radiocarbon dates that are up to about 10,000 years old. Sea coral is now used to calibrate even older radiocarbon dates.

The Forest Service granted permission for the researcher to take core samples from several old-looking bristlecone pines and to cut one down. Bristlecone pines often grow in a twisted fashion. Also, one section of the tree may die off even a couple thousand years before another part. This means it can be very difficult to capture the oldest part of the tree in a core sample. The tree that was cut down in 1964--while still living--has since become know to some as "Prometheus."

Counting revealed that Prometheus contained about 4,900 growth rings. This made it the oldest known tree. Currently the oldest known living tree, about 4,600 years old, is in the White Mountains of California. Chances are good that there are other, older, bristlecones that have not been dated.

According to ancient Greek myths, Prometheus was an immortal who brought fire (symbolic of knowledge) to humans. Prometheus the bristlecone pine also imparted much knowledge to humans. Information gained by studying this significant tree added to the knowledge of carbon dating (which is valuable to archeologists and paleontologists) and climate data. Perhaps we have not learned all that we can from bristlecone pines. These ancient trees are protected on federal lands so that we will not lose the lessons we may have yet to learn.

Nonnative Species

An invasive species is defined as a species that is:

  1. non-native, or alien, to the ecosystem and
  2. whose introduction causes or is likely to cause environmental or economic harm, or harm to human health.

Invasive species can be plants, animals or other organisms, such as microbes. Invasives are dangerous because they often arrive in environments better suited to them than the ecosystem they evolved in. They thrive because of different seasonal patterns, water patterns, or lack or competition or predation, and can outcompete native species. Pushing natives to extinction reduces overall biodiversity. Estimates suggest that over half of the threatened and endangered species listed under the Endangered Species Act have been negatively impacted by invasives.

Human actions, whether accidental or intentional, are the primary cause of invasive species introductions.

Non-native Animals

Some of the invasive animal species that have been found in Great Basin National Park are the brown trout, brook trout, rainbow trout, Lahontan cutthroat trout, house mouse, wild horse, House sparrow, European starling, and wild turkey.

Plants are introduced via many routes. Some are planted in gardens or during roadside stabilization projects. Others are introduced accidentally as contaminants in seed, animal feed, or even packing material! Nonnative seeds and plant parts are often spread by being carried on the hooves or hides of animals, in the doors or undercarriages of vehicles, or on hikers' apparel. The fact that some plants are continuously being re-introduced into the park poses additional problems.

You can help control non-native plants in the park by scrutinizing your shoes, socks, and pants legs for "hitchiking" seeds.

Lehman Orchard

Fruit trees, well over 100 years old, still thrive just below the lower parking lot at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center. The orchard, begun by Absalom Lehman, discover and early developer of Lehman Caves, has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1975.

The historic orchard, which covered more than 7 acres, included some 40 apricot, pear, crabapple, peach, plum, and apple trees by the early 1930s. Today, only seven apricot trees and one peach tree remain, and they are maintained by the National Park Service.

Fruit from the trees may be consumed on premises by visitors. Collecting or removing fruit from the park is prohibited.

Wildflower Viewing


The diverse habitats found in Great Basin National Park give rise to hundreds of species of wildflowers. Many flowers are attention-grabbing and dazzling with large blossoms and stunning colors. Others require a more observant, but well rewarded, eye.

Generally, wildflowers are most abundant at lower elevations early in the season, and at higher elevations later. Wet years typically provide a greater abundance than dry years.  But regardless of precipitation or month, whether from the car or by foot out on a trail, visitors of all ages and abilities can find wildflowers to enjoy.

Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive is often lined with wildflowers throughout the summer months. Early bloomers such as evening primrose and Desert Mallow are replaced by Golden Peas, paintbrush, and penstemon as the summer wears on. Prickly Poppys, with their showy white blossoms and thorn covered stems, are hard to miss throughout the season.  

Island Forest Trail
This 1/4 mile accesssible loop trail at the end of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive offers glimpses of fragile alpine wildflowers. At over 10,000ft, flowers become lower to the ground, smaller, and harder to find. Look closely for Jeffrey's Shooting Stars, Crimson Columbine, Mountain Bluebells, and Parry's Primrose in damp meadows and along creeks.

Baker Creek Trail
Baker Creek Trail is sure to provide some of the finest and most highly varied floral offerings in the park. This trail, which climbs 1800ft. in elevation, weaves between lush, wet riparian areas, semi-arid slopes, dense woodlands, and wet meadows. Flowers vary throughout the summer months, making each trip up the trail unique.

A hike in late May will begin with fields of big, bold, and brilliant gold Arrowleaf Balsamroot then wind past rose bushes and through Manzanita laden with tiny pink lanterns. Later months bring subtle Sego Lilies and vibrant Paintbrush to the open areas with White Bob Orchids, hosts of Yellow Monkey Flowers, Clover, Parsley, Monkshood, and delicate Shooting Stars near the stream. Columbine, Yarrow, Fleabane, Blue-eyed Mary, Bluebells, Harebells, Prickly Pear, and Lupine in purple and gold all find their niche along the Baker Creek Loop.


The Great Basin is a desert, averaging less than 10 inches of rain a year. It is a cold desert, and because of its high elevation, it receives most of its moisture in winter snows. Despite these dry conditions there are over 800 different plant species in the park and South Snake Range, of these 13 are considered sensitive species. The way many of these plant species are able to survive in this environment is through specialized adaptations or by living in the cooler, wetter mountain ranges.

Dealing With Little Water
Many flowering plants will only grow and produce seeds during a year when there is enough water. These seeds will be dormant until the next season with enough moisture, which may be years from the time they were produced.

Other adaptations help keep plants from losing their water. The Sagebrush, a very common resident of the Great Basin, is well adapted to the area. The Big Sagebrush root system can extend as much as 90 feet in circumference. This adaptation allows the plant to catch as much water as possible when the rains do come. The hairy leaves of sagebrush work as a windbreak to slow down evaporation from leaves. Other methods of water loss prevention are waxy leaves and succulence. The waxy coat acts as a barrier to evaporation by the wind. Succulence allows plants to hold water for the drier times. Greenleaf manzanita is an example of a plant with a waxy coat and prickly pear cactus is a succulent.

Plants exchange gases, including water, through their leaves by a process called transpiration. Plants in this area can not afford to lose much water through evapotranspiration (the process by which plants release oxygen and sometimes water) and have developed modified leaves. Mormon tea or joint fir possesses modified leaves. The leaves are very small and are not the primary area for photosynthesis. The chlorophyll filled stems carry out the primary photosynthesis.

Dealing With Salt
In other places the soils of the Great Basin contain high amounts of salt and only plants with special adaptations such as saltbush and iodinebrush can survive. Four-winged Salt bush excretes salt through its leaves this process prevents build-up of lethal salts in the plant. The plants on the alkaline flats have a high internal concentration of salt and are able to extract water other plants can not.

Importance of Adaptations
The plants in the Great Basin have developed some ingenious methods of dealing with the dry desert conditions. Their adaptations have allowed plants to live in harsh environments, providing a variety of habitats for animals.

Endemic Plants

Endemic plants are special because they are found in only one location on the planet, and nowhere else. Great Basin National Park is home to several endemic plant and animal species. The "sky island" geography of the Great Basin region lends itself to large numbers of highly specialized species. 

Mountain ranges are separated from other mountains by "seas" of desert, across which plant and animal migration is difficult due to the dramatic differences in environment between the high elevations and the basins below. Each mountain range behaves much like an island, where species are trapped. They adapt and change within the very specific parameters of that one location. 

Below is a list of plant species endemic to the Snake Range (home to Great Basin National Park) and to the Great Basin Region.  This is not an exhaustive list of species endemic to the Great Basin Region, but includes only the species found in or near the park.   

Species Endemic to the Snake Range

Mt. Wheeler sandwort (Arenaria congesta var. wheelerensis)
The endemic subspecies wheelerensis is critically rare in Nevada, occuring only in the Snake Range. It has been found in only a few locations in the park in alpine and subalpine environments. Threats include livestock grazing and recreational use of alpine areas.

Holgrem's buckwheat (eriogonum holmgrenii)
Found only in the Snake Range, this flowering plant is considered a sensitive species. It is found in quartzite and limestone talus in alpine and subalpine areas. Threats include sheep grazing and recreational use of alpine areas.

Species Endemic to the Great Basin Region

In addition to those above:

Nevada primrose
(Primula nevadensis)
This is a rare and local perennial flower with a small range that includes only Nye County and White Pine County, home of Great Basin National Park.  It is fairly common in suitable habitats, but limited to alpine and subalpine limestones, which makes it susceptible to disturbances in those areas. Designated a sensitive species and species of concern, threats include sheep grazing and recreational use of alpine areas, especially illegal ORV use in alpine tundra habitats.

Nachlinger's catchfly (Silene nachlingerae)
This flowering plant is found in central Great Basin ranges like the Snake and Ruby. Like many Great Basin endemics, it is found primarily in isolated alpine areas on limestone substrates. It has been found in the park around the Lincoln Peak and Mount Washington areas. Listed as a sensitive species, species of concern, and a Nevada Special Status Species, it is threatened by alpine recreation and livestock grazing in alpine and subalpine habitats, particularly associated with the Murphy Wash sheep allotment.

Waxflower (Jamesia tetrapetala)
This rare and local flowering shrub is found in central Great Basin alpine and subalpine limestone cliff, talus, and canyon areas. It has been found in Great Basin National Park, mostly in the Mount Washington and Lincoln Canyon areas. It is sensitive species, species of concern, and a Nevada Special Status Species. Populations are threatened by recreational use of alpine areas and domestic sheep grazing, especially on the Murphy Wash allotment.

Pennell's whitlowgrass (Draba pennellii)
Endemic specifically to the Schell Creek Range, this flowering native species can also been seen throughout White Pine County. Its presence in the park is possible, but unconfirmed. The plant is found in cracks, crevices, and on rocky slopes and ledges, over a wide elevation range.

Mt. Moriah beardtongue (Penstemon moriahensis)
This rare native flower is limited to very few ranges in Central Nevada, particularly the North Snake and Kern. Located in scrubby woodlands between 7,000 and 9,000 feet, its presence in the park is unconfirmed.

Intermountain wavewing (Cymopterus basalticus)
This short, squat plant is a perennial endemic to western Utah and White Pine County, Nevada.  A member of the family commonly known as the spring parsleys, it can be found in low and mid-elevation sagebrush and pinyon-juniper communities. Its presence in the park is possible, but unconfirmed. Potential threats include sheep grazing and development, such as contruction or road improvements.


Trees and Shrubs


Utah Juniper
Juniperus osteosperma is one of the most abundant and widely scattered trees of the region. Typically found between 3,000 and 8,000 feet, this tree grows amongst pinyon and sagebrush. The short scale-like needles are 1/8 inch long and last several years. Foliage and branches are stiff. Seeds are borne in berry-like scaled cones. The cones, when mature, are up to a half-inch in diameter and bronze in color with a bluish white frosting. Male and female cones are found on the same tree. Bark consists of many layers of fibrous elongated shreds.

Native Americans used the bark for torches, tobacco substitute, and wove it for cloth. The wood was used for wickiups, pit houses, utensils, and as a preferred fuel. Ranchers favored the wood for fence posts because of its durability. Needles produce a tea high in vitamin C. The cones were eaten and today are used to flavor gin.

Rocky Mountain Juniper
Juniperus scopulorum is similar to the Utah Juniper but tends to prefer cooler moister sites. The foliage is a finer texture and appears somewhat lacy compared to Utah Juniper. Cones are bluish when mature and only about 1/3 inch in diameter. These soft pulpy cones are only found on the female tree.

Singleleaf Pinyon Pine
Pinus monophylla grows between 5,000 and 9,000 feet often mixed with Utah Juniper and sagebrush. Pinyon grows better in places where Utah Juniper is already established as the juniper moderates the microclimate by providing shade. Pinyon migrated into the region eleven thousand years ago after the retreat of the glaciers. Normally this reddish barked tree is small and many branched. This is the only pine to have a single needle fascicle. The needles are usually round or cylindrical in cross section, rigid and sharp. They curve toward the branch and are about 1 ½ inches long. Cones contain wingless edible seeds.

Native Americans relied heavily on this tree. The nuts were an important source of food. One pound of pinyon nuts contains more than 3,000 calories. The tree provided fuel, charcoal for painting, pollen for ceremonies. The resin or pitch was used for chewing gum, mending, cementing, and waterproofing. During the mining boom years of the 1800's pinyon was the primary source of wood used charcoal for the smelters.

Ponderosa Pine
Pinus ponderosa is found throughout the west. Like the pinyon pine, the ponderosa migrated into the area since the last ice age. Ponderosa pines, in this region, are usually found between 7,000 and 8,500 feet on dry rocky slopes. Trees can attain heights of 100 feet. The bark on older trees is made up of broad orange or reddish plates consisting of thin scales. Young trees are blackish or dark brown with narrow furrows in the bark. Twigs are orange brown. Needles are about five inches long, thick and flexible, they come two to a bundle. Cones are 3 to 6 inches long and reddish to yellowish. They produce a mottled purple winged seed. Ponderosa rely heavily on fire to burn back the accumulated litter on the forest floor so that the seedling roots can find the moist mineral soil. Fire also kills back fir seedlings that will shade out the sun-loving ponderosa seedlings.

Ponderosa is a valuable timber pine; it is one of the most heavily harvested woods. The pitch was used in the manufacture of turpentine.

White Fir
Abies concolor is the most widespread western fir. Bark is thin, gray and smooth in young trees. It darkens and thickens into furrows and ridges with age. The 2 to 3 inch long needles are Flat, Friendly and Flexible. The white fir gets its name from its silvery blue needles. The yellow- green cones grow erect on the upper branches and are 3 to 5 inches long. Cones are rarely found on the ground. They disintegrate with the scales and winged seeds falling, leaving only the cone axis behind. White fir is common between 7,000 and 9,500 feet in elevation.

Engelmann Spruce
Picea engelmannii grows from 7,500 feet to timberline. At timberline this tree will form krumholtz, becoming a shrubby thicket. The bark is thin, covering the trunk with loosely attached, rounded, red-brown scales. The dark green one-inch leaves are flexible and sharp pointed, square in cross section and grow upward on the twigs. Englemann spruces are often rounded at the top with gently arched limbs. Cones hang down from uppermost branches. Cones are 1 to 2 ½ inches long with thin, flexible, jagged scales. Seeds are dark and winged. These trees are vulnerable to fire and windstorms because of their thin bark and shallow root system.

Douglas Fir
Pseudotsuga menziesii is the most valuable lumber tree of the west. Although it is not a true fir, Douglas fir's one-inch needles are also Flat, Friendly and Flexible. Bark of young trees is gray and smooth becoming darker and scaly with age. Very old trees display deep furrows in the bark. Cones are red-brown, 2 to 4 inches long with three pointed bracts extending from beneath the cone scales. Seeds have one wing. One of its distinguishing characteristics is long shiny pointy brown buds. Douglas fir is common between 6,500 and 9,000 feet. It may live up to 1,000 years. Native Americans used the needles to make a tea high in vitamin C. The roots were used for basket weaving and the twigs for arrow shafts.

Limber Pine
Pinus flexilis generally grows on exposed sites from 8,000 feet to timberline. The bark is smooth and white on young trees becoming scaly and almost black with age. White Pine County receives its name from the limber pine (early settlers mistook it for white pine). Needles are 1 ½ to 3 inches long in bundles of five. They grow in short bottlebrush-like tufts on the ends of the twigs. Cones are 3 to 10 inches long with thick, woody, unarmed scales. The unwinged seeds are eaten and spread by nutcrackers, jays and chipmunks. The twigs are thick and flexible, a necessity to survive the snows and winds of the higher elevations. Limber pine will form krumholz at timberline. Limber pine grows with and is often confused with bristlecone pine. Limber pine's tufts are shorter and the needles are longer than bristlecone pine. Limber pine can live 3,000 years.

Great Basin Bristlecone Pine
Pinus longaeva, the world's longest living tree, has been known to live for over 4,900 years. It usually grows between 9,000 and 11,500 feet although specimens can be found at lower elevations. Bristlecone grows on exposed rocky sites above the continuous forest. It is usually found on limestone or dolomite but, as is the case on Wheeler Peak, will grow on quartzite or volcanic rock. It forms woodlands alone or with limber pine and Engelmann spruce. At timberline this tree will form krumholtz. At lower elevations it retains its upright shape but stops growing taller at 15 to 30 feet. Trees in protected sites may grow to heights of 60 feet. Wind and snow at higher elevations cause the crown to become bushy and distorted. Wind blown sand and ice crystal polishes the trunk, often wearing away sections of the tree.

Needles are short, one-inch long, and in packets of five. The dark green needles surround the twig and tufts may extend back a foot or more along the branch. Needles can last up to forty years. Developing cones are purple, which helps absorb heat. After two years they turn brown at maturity. The woody scales on the three inch long cones are each tipped with a fragile cat claw-like bristle. Although the seeds are winged, the bristlecone is heavily dependent on nutcrackers to help with dispersion. Bristlecones survive longest where conditions are most strenuous. They are slow growing and easily out-competed by faster growing trees so they have adapted to the harshest conditions where other trees won't grow. The oldest known living bristlecone, 4,600+ years old, is in the White Mountains near Bishop, California. A 4,900+ year old tree was removed from the Wheeler Peak grove in 1964.

Pinus aristata, the Rocky Mountain Bristlecone Pine, can be found in Utah and Colorado. It can live to 3,000 years old.

Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany
Cercocarpus ledifolius is a drought resistant tree common on dry hillsides and ridges between 6,000 and 9,000 feet. It is a small tree with a tendency to be round crowned and sprawling. The bark is red brown and thick with a rough scaly surface. Wood is reddish, resembling true the mahoganies of the tropics. The leaves are evergreen, thick and leathery with curled under margins. They are dark green above and light green underneath. The foliage is a favorite food of deer as it is green year round. Yellow flowers produce hairy seeds in the fall. Each seed is tipped with a 2 to 3 inch tail-like style. These tails twist hygroscopically, in moist weather they are straight but in dry weather they curl like a corkscrew. This twisting bores the seed down into the soil, anchoring it and increasing the chance of germination. The wood makes excellent fuel and it is so heavy that it will not float in water. Navahos used the roots as part of a red dye. Other Native Americans used the stiff wood for bows.

Quaking Aspen

Populus tremuloides usually grows between 6,000 and 8,000 feet but can grow up to 11,000 feet. Aspens are usually found in damp places along watercourses. Trunks are straight and topped with small high open crowns. The bark is smooth and light on young trees becoming darker with furrows on older trees. The bark does not peel. Leaves are nearly round, about 2 inches in diameter, and fringed with marginal teeth. Leaf blades are attached to twigs by long slender leaf stalks, which act as pivots so that the leaves quake in the breeze. Flowers appear before the leaves and produce cottony seeds. Aspens rarely reproduce by seeds in this region. Most new trees are clones of the parents, produced by root sprouts. Aspens grow in groves, which turn the hillsides golden in the fall. They are usually short lived, 100-200 years, due to heart rot fungus. Aspen is an important food source for animals, especially beaver. Beaver prefer the inner bark on aspen to that on other trees. Today aspen is used for packing material, match sticks, and in paper pulp. A close relative of aspen, the Narrowleaf Cottonwood, P. angustifolia, is common along stream channels of lower canyon, below 7,000 feet. White or Silver Poplar, P. alba, is the introduced aspen relative found on the lawn outside the visitor center.

Rocky Mountain Maple or Dwarf Maple
Acer glabrum is a shrubby tree of the conifer forests between 5,000 and 8,000 feet. It grows in moist shady areas where there is a break in the canopy to let in some light. It usually looks like a large shrub but can reach heights of twenty five feet, with a trunk of 6 to 8 inches. The reddish bark is smooth and thin. The twigs, buds and leaf stalks are reddish. The leaves are deep green and have three deeply divided lobes. Sometimes the leaves are so deeply lobed that the lobes form leaflets. Leaves are held perpendicular to the sun. The fruits are rose colored with two parallel wings. Deer browse heavily on these trees.

Water Birch
Betula occidentalis is the only native birch of the region. This small shrubby tree grows in clumps near flowing streams between 5,000 and 8,000 feet. Bark is thin, smooth and dark bronze. The bark does not peel like the paper birch. Lenticular scars are prominent. Twigs are slender and warty with a tendency to droop. Leaves are 1 to 2 inches long by 3/4 to 1 inch wide with sharply toothed margins. The upper leaf surface is dark green with a light green lower surface. The water birch is important as bird habitat especially where it grows alongside stream descending through the otherwise dry basins. Native Americans ate the sap and inner bark. The wood makes an excellent fuel.

The Amelanchier species is also known as shadbrush or shadblow. This shrubby tree is found in canyons, mountainsides and foothills. The bark is usually smooth but sometimes ridged. Leaves are nearly round, about one inch in diameter. The tip of the leaf has coarse teeth. Clusters of small white petaled flowers yield a small, black, apple-like fruit. The fruit is sweet but bland. Native Americans used the dried fruit in pemmican and for a violet dye. Branches were used for arrows and baskets.

Western Chokecherry

Prunus virginiana is a common tree of stream bottoms and moist hillsides. It can grow to a height of 30 feet or more. It has smooth dark bark on young trees that becomes gray and slightly furrowed with age. Twigs are brown with prominent lenticular scars. Leaves are shiny green and finely toothed. Flowers are white and form in clusters. Fruit is cherry-like, dark red to black and very bitter. They are eaten by birds and deer. The leaves contain cyanide and are poisonous to domestic livestock. With enough sugar the fruit makes a good jam. Native Americans ate the fruits and used them in pemmican. Fruits and twigs were also used in some ceremonies.

Six Salix species are found within the park. They are primarily found along stream courses and in swampy meadows. Individual species are difficult to distinguish due to hybridization. Generally willow are a fast growing short-lived species. Leaves are alternate and short stalked with finely toothed margins. Leaves are usually much longer than wide. The flowers, two inch catkins, appear before the leaves and produce cottony seeds. Willow twigs were important to Native Americans for basket weaving. The inner bark was made into a tea to reduce fever and relieve pain. The active ingredient in aspirin, salicylic acid, is derived from some willows.



Mormon Tea or Joint Fir or Ephedra
Two Ephedra species are found in the park. They are erect and shrubby plants with green jointed smooth twigs that branch into three. Terminal buds are conical and tiny. Male and female plants are separate. Yellowish "flowers" are solitary or in whorls in the axils of the stems. The fruit is small and cone-like, which reflects the distant relationship to conifers. Ephedrine, an antidepressant and anticongestive drug is produced from some Asiatic species of Ephedra. Both Native Americans and Mormons made a tea from the dried stems. The seed are also edible.

Nevada Ephedra (E. nevadensis) is common in the drier desert areas. Its stems are evergreen and olive in color. The branches are stout and spreading.

Green Ephedra (E. viridis) inhabits moister locations among the pinyon and juniper. The stems are bright yellow-green. The branches are slender, parallel, and point upwards.

Rubber Rabbitbrush or Gray Rabbitbrush
Chrysothamnus nauseosus grows to 10,000 feet in dry open places, often with sagebrush. It can grow from 30 cm. to 2 m. in height. The erect woody stems are flexible and covered with dense felt-like hairs. The narrow, linear leaves are hairy and alternate with entire margins. Yellow flower heads appear in dense clusters at the ends of the stems in August. This composite produces only disk flowers. They are surrounded by several rows of papery overlapping bracts. The seeds are wind dispersed. Flowers yield a yellow dye and cause allergies in some people. Native Americans used the twigs in basket weaving and in a tea reputed to be good for colds. Twigs contain a trace of rubber and were chewed by Native Americans. In World War II, rubber rabbitbrush was investigated as a source of rubber but its production was not cost effective.

Green Rabbitbrush, Chrysothamnus viscidiflorus, grows in the same areas as rubber rabbitbrush. It lacks hairs on stems and foliage giving it a greener look. Stems and flowers are sticky.


There are six species of Artemisia in the park. Sagebrush tolerates a great range of elevations and ecological conditions. It is the indicator plant of the Great Basin Desert. Big Sagebrush, A. tridentata, is the most common sagebrush in the park and the state flower of Nevada. Big sagebrush is a branched, erect, evergreen shrub with aromatic gray-green alternate leave. Leaves are lobed at the tip and have silvery hairs on both sides. Numerous, small, stalk-less yellow flowers appear in erect clusters in August. Flowers are wind pollinated and cause allergies in some people. Sagebrush was important to the Native Americans. Seeds were eaten and tea from the leaves was used as an antiseptic and as a cure for colds and stomach ailments. Leaves provided a green dye. A hair tonic and a tonic to treat worms were made from the plant. Fibrous branches provided tinder for fires and were woven into cloth. Branches were used in smudging before a hunt. Today some sagebrush species provide absinthe, a fragrance.

Other common species of sagebrush include Dwarf Sagebrush, A. arbuscula, which is a smaller plant than big sagebrush and has three lobed leaves that wide and wedge shaped. Black sagebrush is considered a subspecies of dwarf sagebrush. Both grow on poor rocky soil. Silver Sagebrush, A. cana, and Bud Sagebrush, A. spinescens, are also found in the park. Silver sagebrush looks similar to big sagebrush from a distance but it is smaller and the leaves are generally not lobed. Bud sagebrush grows amongst shadscale. It is distinctive for its spines. It tolerates the most arid condition of the sagebrush species.

Four-winged Saltbush
Atriplex canescens is a salt tolerant plant found below 8,500 feet in dry sandy areas. It has small gray-green, densely branched stems. It grows between 1 and 2 meters tall. Leaves are numerous, alternate, evergreen, and lance shaped with entire margins. Leaf surfaces are gray and hairy above and below. New growth is covered with scarf, minute white scales that protect against drying. Male and female plants are separate. The female produces tiny yellow flowers that yield a large number of conspicuous four winged seeds that are light green and papery, drying to nearly white. Native Americans used these seeds to make mush and flour. Leaves were eaten like spinach. Ashes served as a substitute for baking powder. Roots were used a soap.

Atriplex confertifolia is related to saltbush. Like saltbush, it does well in alkaline and saline soils. Shadscale is spinier than saltbush. The small, rigid branches bear grayish, hairy leaves then taper becoming woody and spiny. The bush may reach one meter in height. The leaves are 2 cm long, ovate and deciduous. The small flowers are wind pollinated. Male and female appear on separate plants. Both shadscale and saltbush are important forage plants.

Sarcobatus vermiculatus is a common desert shrub of alkaline areas up to 7,000 feet. This white barked shrub had rigid spiny branches with linear, alternate, bright green succulent leaves. Male and female plants are separate. Male flowers are rose colored and form spikes at the end of branches. Female flowers are inconspicuous, in the axils of the leaves. Fruit is small and globular, surrounded by winged membranes. Young twigs were boiled and eaten by Native Americans.

Ceretoides lanata is a small shrub, rarely growing more than one meter tall. Small hairs cover the entire plant, which give it a whitish appearance. Leaves are generally short and narrow and curled towards the underside. Larger spring leaves die back and are replaced in midsummer by smaller hairy or scaly leaves. The flowers are small and cottony. Winterfat is an important forage plant for wildlife and livestock. It is a good source of protein and vitamin A. Native Americans boiled leaves and stems to produce an infusion used to treat eye problems, headlice and baldness.

Spanish Bayonet, Blue Yucca or Banana Yucca
Yucca baccata is found in the lower elevations of the Great Basin. Sword-like leaves are roseate, densely clustered, thick, rigid and pointed at the tips. These fibrous leaves were important to native cultures for weaving. Large white flowers produce large fleshy fruits that resemble short bananas and taste like apples. Flower petals, stalks and seeds are also edible. Roots produce soap.

Fern Bush
Chamaebatiaria millefollium is a fragrant plant of the rocky soils of the pinyon juniper forest. It grows 1 to 2 meters high. Leaves appear like miniature fern fronds. Leaves are tiny and clustered in whorls near the tips of the twigs. White flowers grow in clusters. Flowers have five petals, five sepals, and numerous stamens and produce a dry brown fruit pod. Native Americans made a tea from the leaves to ease cramps and stomach aches. Fern bush is now used as an ornamental shrub.

Bitterbrush or Antelope Bitterbrush
Purshia tridentata is common among sagebrush. It grows in sandy or rocky well-drained soil. It is a close relative of cliffrose and will hybridize with it. The three-lobed wedge-shaped leaves are small and bright green. Leaf margins are curled under. The undersides of these deciduous leaves are hairy. Flowers have bright yellow flowers and produce a small one seeded achene. Seeds are prized by rodents, ants and birds. The small roots of the plant are infected with fungi that take the place of root hairs and absorb water and nutrients for the plant. Native Americans valued the shaggy bark as a source of fiber and the leaves as medicine.

Desert Sumac or Squawbush or Skunkbush
Rhus trilobata is a smooth brown barked shrub found above 4,000 feet. It usually grows on dry rocky slopes but can grow in moist valleys. It grows 1 to 2 meters high and as wide. Leaves are alternate and compound with three lance-shaped, shiny, toothed or lobed leaflets. Leaflets are 1 to 3 cm long. Leaves turn red in autumn and are aromatic when crushed. Tiny yellow flowers appear in dense clusters before the leaves develop. The reddish-orange berries are edible. They have been used to make a lemonade-like drink and were also ground up into cakes. Native Americans used the stems in basket weaving and the berries in dyes.

Cowania mexicana is a shrub of the dry rocky hillsides from 3,500 to 8,000 feet. It grows 1 to 4 meters tall but can reach 8 m in height. The erect crown is composed of stiff, irregularly shaped branches. Bark is red-brown and shreds into long narrow strips on older trees. Wedge shaped, evergreen leaves are tiny, less than one inch long, and have 5 to 7 lobes and slightly hairy undersides. The pale yellow flowers resemble a simple rose. They produce dry, hard seeds with a long hairy plume that aids in wind dispersion.

Common or Dwarf Juniper
Juniperus communis is a circumpolar shrub found in the Great Basin region above 7,500 feet. Twigs are yellowish and three angled, possessing tiny needle-like leaves in whorls of 3 to 5 at each node. Needles are chalky white on the upper surface. Common juniper lacks the scaled leaves of other junipers; its leaves remain in the juvenile state. Dark blue berry-like cones contain 1 to 3 seeds. Native Americans used the berries in pemmican. Needles were used to produce a tea high in vitamin C and A. More recently the berries have been used as a spice and to flavor gin.

Red Osier Dogwood
Cornus sericea is a shrub of the shaded riparian areas to 9,000 feet. This shrub has smooth straight red stems. The bright green, opposite leaves are lance shaped with entire margins. The prominent lateral veins curve toward the leaf tip. Small white flowers with four petals and four sepals form flat-topped clusters. Large white bracts appear petal-like, making the flowers seem large. A cherry-like bluish fruit is produced in the fall. The fruit is unpalatable. Native Americans did use the twigs in basket weaving and the roots for red dye. Extracts were also made for fevers and coughs.

Oregon Grape
Berberis repens is a low growing evergreen shrub with stiff, spiny, holly-like leaflets on alternate compound leaves. The yellow flowers grow in clusters and yield small purplish grape-like berries in the fall. A yellow dye can be extracted from the roots. Native Americans used a preparation from the roots in checking dysentery. Jelly is made from the berries.

Blue Elderberry
Sambucus cerulea is a shrub of moist, porous soils along streams, hills and field edges. It may have multiple trunks. Bark is brown and smooth on young twigs, gray and furrowed on older twigs. The four paired, lance shaped leaflets have finely toothed margins. Leave size ranges from 2.5 to 15 cm long. Small white flowers grow in flat-topped dense clusters. Small bluish fruit form similar flat-topped clusters. The berries are edible and are an excellent source of vitamin C and A, calcium, iron and potassium. Native Americans used the fruits in pemmican. Today they are used in wines and jellies. Twigs and stems have large central spongy piths that Native Americans removed to make flutes. They also used various parts of the plant to make infusions for colds and tuberculosis and a general tonic. Red Elderberry, S. racemosa, is found at higher elevations. It can be distinguished from blue elderberry by red berries in dome topped clusters. It has caused cases of poisoning.

Four Symphoricarpus species can be found in the park. Snowberry is found on dry rocky slopes to 10,000 feet. The small pointed opposite leaves are heavily browsed by sheep.

Tubular white to pink flowers produce white edible fruits in the fall. Native Americans used the leaves in smoking and made small bows from the twigs.

Greenleaf Manzanita

Arctostaphylos patula inhabits dry sunny sites in the open forests below 9,500 feet. It prefers cooler areas than sagebrush. The crooked, ridged stems have a thin, shiny, smooth bark that peels and is dark red to chocolate in color. Bright, round, alternate, evergreen leaves have entire margins. Leaf orientation varies depending on the amount of light and heat. Shrubs in shady areas have horizontal leaves to catch all available light; ones in sunny areas have vertical leaves to reduce water loss. Terminal clusters of small white to pink urn shaped flowers appear in late spring. Fruit is edible apple shaped berries. Berries can be used in jams, jellies and cider. Native Americans used the leaves as a diuretic.

Currants and Gooseberries
Three species of Ribes are found in the park; R. aureum, the Golden Currant, R. cereum, the Wax Currant, and R. velutinum, the Plateau Gooseberry. They range from moist to dry areas. All have alternate, palmately lobed or compound leaves. Their small flowers are borne in clusters at the leaf axils. The sepals, not the petals, fuse into a pink, white, or yellow tube to form "flowers". An edible orange or red fruit appears in the late summer. Currants lack spines and have larger flower clusters than gooseberries. Ribes species serve as an alternate host to white pine blister rust. The blister rust destroys the valuable white pine timber of the east. Many of the Ribes east of the Mississippi River have been destroyed to protect the white pine (Pinus strobus).

Wild Rose or Wood's Rose

Rosa woodsii looks like domestic roses but with smaller petals and leaves. It inhabits the cool, moist, generally shaded places below 9,000 feet. Stems are reddish with stout curved spines. Stalked, alternate leaves are divided into leaflets. The 5 to 9 saw-toothed leaflets are green and smooth above, paler below. Five-petalled pink flowers with numerous stamens appear in the early summer. The fruit, or hips, remain after the leaves fall. Rose hips are high in vitamin C and A. In fact, the juice from the hips is 24 times richer in vitamin C than orange juice. Hips are used in tea, wine, jam, and jellies. Native Americans ate the hips and petals and made a tea from the roots. The inner bark yields a yellow dye.

Red Raspberry
Rubus idaeus is found on the talus slopes and canyon bottoms to timberline. The woody stems are covered with stiff bristles. Leaves are green above, lighter below, and divided into 3 to 5 leaflets. White flowers in the spring produce a red fruit that is used in jams, jellies and pies. Leaves are used to make tea.



Lanner, Ronald M. Trees of the Great Basin. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1984.

Monzingo, Hugh N. Shrubs of the Great Basin. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1987.

Peattie, Donald Culross A Natural History of Western Trees. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1950.

Spellenberg, Richard The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wldflowers. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979

Taylor, Ronald J. Desert Wildflowers of North America. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 1998.

Taylor, Ronald J. Sagebrush Country: A Wildflower Sanctuary. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 1992.

Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West. Missoula: Mountain Press Publishing Co., 1997.

Great Basin Flora

The diverse habitats found in Great Basin National Park give rise to hundreds of species of wildflowers. Many flowers are attention-grabbing and dazzling with large blossoms and stunning colors. Others require a more observant, but well rewarded, eye.

Generally, wildflowers are most abundant at lower elevations early in the season, and at higher elevations later. Wet years typically provide a greater abundance than dry years.  But regardless of precipitation or month, whether from the car or by foot out on a trail, visitors of all ages and abilities can find wildflowers to enjoy.

To learn more about the flora of the Great Basin, please explore the following links:

>Great Basin Wildflowers:

>Utah Desert Plants:

>Great Basin/Mojave Desert Region: