Most of western Montana supports lush growth, dominated by coniferous forests. Although there are some western Montana prairies (especially around the Mission Valley and Dillon), timbered hillsides are the rule. This category is usually broken down into at least two separate habitats: lower montane and higher subalpine. The highest peaks of Montana also support small areas of alpine tundra.
Ponderosa pine predominates low on the slopes. A little higher, Douglas fir takes over, and above that, lodgepole pine (a species that depends on fire for its propagation) may form dense stands. Western larch, western red cedar, western white pine, grand fir, aspen, and birch can also be found. Willows and alders sprout up along streambeds, and kinnikinnick, Oregon grape, and serviceberries are common elements of the understory.
Subalpine forests are rooted in subalpine fir and Engelmann spruce. Tasty huckleberries are the best-loved subalpine understory shrub. Alpine larch is another hardy high-elevation conifer. An autumn hillside of reddish-gold “evergreens” doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of dead trees. Rather, it’s probably a stand of larch, one of the few conifer species that drops its needles in the winter.
Wildflower meadows of glacier lilies, alpine poppies, columbine, Indian paintbrush, asters, arnica, globeflowers, white dryads, and bear grass color the midsummer hillsides. Dogtooth violets and mariposa lilies grow a little farther down the slopes. In the valleys and low on the hills, the state flower, the bitterroot, blossoms in early June. Serviceberry bushes turn white with flowers early in May and bear purplish berries late in July. This member of the rose family grows on the slopes and canyons of the Rocky Mountains.