Steershead & Turkeypeas

Steershead, Dicentra uniflora
Image Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane

There is surprise and joy when discovering a flower peeking up at you from near the lingering snow. Long after winter weary eyes have devoured the early floral offerings of gardens here in the valley, our local natives are stirring higher up. As you wander thru mountain sagebrush and meadows, you may encounter scattered groups of two native wildflowers, Steershead and Turkeypeas. Both are a delight to the eyes, but difficult to find initially, as their diminutive nature keeps them hidden amid the surrounding plant litter.

Steershead, or Dicentra uniflora, lives up to its common name. A close cousin to the bleeding heart, it has four white to pinkish petals tinged light brown to purple, two of which are spurred. The longer pair bend back, while the shorter pair are fused at the tip, providing the “cow skull” appearance of the flower. Diminutive plants, they send forth leaves and a single flower from thickened, spindle-shaped tubers. Just a few inches tall, this small plant packs a lot of charm and a bit of poison for protection against plant eaters. Steershead occurrs singly or in small clusters, so it is easily overlooked.

Turkeypea, Orogenia linearifolia
Courtesy & Copyright Intermountain Herbarium
Mary Barkworth, Photographer

Turkeypeas, Indian potato or Orogenia linearifolia, on the other hand, grows in extensive colonies, making this 4 inch tall plant a bit easier to find. A member of the carrot family, Turkeypeas produces very small whiteish flowers in umbels atop a short stem. Arising from a fleshy tuber, the leaves are divided into long linear segments (hence the name ‘linearifolia’). The starchy root is edible, though small, and historically was collected in large numbers by indigenous peoples in the spring. The tubers are avidly sought by squirrels.

So as the snow melts off the hillsides, look for these little darlings. Found only here in Western North America, I’m sure they will charm you as well.

Pictures and links are available on our wild about utah website. Thanks to Michael Piep of the Intermountain Herbarium and Utah Native Plant Society.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane
Courtesy & Copyright Intermountain Herbarium, Mary E. Barkworth, Photographer
Text: Michael Piep, Utah Native Plant Society/ Intermountain Herbarium

Additional Reading:

Intermountain Herbarium:
Encyclopedia of Life:
USU Extension:

Anderson, B.A & A.H. Holmgren 1996, revised. Mountain Plants of Northeastern Utah. USU Extension Services. Logan, Utah.

Shaw, R.J. 1989. Vascular Plants of Northern Utah. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah.

Shaw, R.J. 1995. Utah Wildflowers. Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah.

Welsh, S.L., N D. Atwood, S Goodrich & L.C. Higgins. 2008. A Utah Flora, 4th Ed. Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.