2019 Plant Talk 14 Alpine, Artic, Boreal, Polar Plants

2019 Plant Talk 14 Alpine, Artic, Boreal, Polar Plants

Greetings plant enthusiasts!

Below is a labor of love that has taken over 60 hours so far and yet something that i find wanting in various ways. That said it provides a decent overview to a harsh ecotype that occurs the world over. Most of the information comes from a distinctly North American perspective but includes information for these types of habitats from Europe to Asia and down to South America and New Zealand as well.

Description of the Lay of the Land

Alpine plants are generally known as ones growing above the tree line in various mountainous ecosystems around the world (Arno, 1984; Good, 2007; Korner & Spehn, 2019; Wieser & Tausz, 2006). The elevation of this plant community varies by latitude. It can be reached in only a few thousand feet above sea level in Europe and 6,000 feet in Montana but close to 10,000 feet in elevation in the Colorado Rockies or in the Himalayas. However, they can grow down to sea level in Alaska, Scandinavia and Russia. Aspect may also influence the presence of certain plants as the north face of a mountain may have significantly less snow free time than the south face.

Many systems have been applied to slice and dice these ecotypes taxonomically. Some big variables include altitude, latitude, pH, plant communities, regional climate, soil type and water availability.

Typically these forms of ecotypes have species in the hundreds at most and often significantly less in relation to other more diverse areas. That said diversity can be great from area to area. Some plants are circumboreal, circumpolar and even cosmopolitan that grow in these places. This phenomenon is greatest with the older more ancient types of plants like Bryophytes and Pteridophytes as well as groups of herbaceous flowering plants in general.

Though the total number of species in any one place harboring this type of environment is typically fairly low numbering at most in the few hundreds the biodiversity between different areas with this habitat is vast. Especially in the case of mountains they are like islands in the sky! As glaciers retreat and plants climb from the valleys up the hillsides to stay cool they effectively isolate themselves leading to adaptation and species radiation.


Perennials are dominant in this ecotype because of the short growing season. Plants have also figured out various ways to protect themselves from such a harsh environment. These include a cushioned growth pattern i.e. Silene spp., and generally short/stunted stature of most other plants. Other forms include basal rosettes or growth in low mats as well as having foliage that is succulent in nature. Roots are typically very strong and well established in these plants. Bulbils, creeping stems, rhizomes, runners and other forms of asexual reproduction are very common for plants of these habitats. Some plants also have toxins to reduce herbivory on their precious foliage.

Hairs on the foliage and other parts act as insulation is a classic adaptation for alpine plants. It bears mentioning all the different ways that plants can be hairy and the associated terms that go along with that i.e. bristly, ciliate, feathery, glandular, hirsute, pilose, pubescent, stellate, strigose, tomentose and wavy.

Stunted trees growing near this type of area are sometimes referred to by the German term of Krummholtz which means crappy timber. Sub-alpine is the term for the area between treeless alpine and montane forests where meadows and other features may occur. Spring possibly counterintuitively comes later to the sub-alpine zone than the alpine zone because of the protection of snow in this more forested environment.

My Story with Alpine/Boreal plants

i have spent the most time of my life in these environments in pursuit of attendance at the annual National Rainbow gatherings. These are held in a national forest in a different state each year. Some examples of areas i have visited since 1997 include  California, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. Our site for the event has often been 7,000 feet above sea level and higher. Some plant groups that really stick out from these experiences include the Betulaceae, Pinaceae and Salicaceae regarding woodies and Osha spp.and Pedicularis spp. regarding herbaceous members of these ecosystems.

Most of the time i have travelled from North Carolina and early on from Florida to visit the rainbow gathering and in the process made my way through most of the 50 states of the USA. However, i have taken on express journeys to round out my experiences through every state independent of Rainbow to travel through Montana i.e. Glacier National Park and Alaska as a birthday present from a friend to complete my visits to all 50. Sad that there will be no glaciers in the national park named after them by the time kids today are my age. i hope and pray that the carbon cost of my travels are offset by offerings such as these. Yet, still feel called to ask forgiveness of future generations while begging on my knees…

An ecosystem called the Paramo that occurs in Central/South America i.e. in Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica and Peru has similar elements to the environment covered and even some of the same families and genera of plants (Anhalzer & Lozano, 2015; Gavilanes et al., 1999; Islebe & Kappelle, 1994; Kappelle & Horn, 2005; Sklenar, 2005; Vareschi, 1970).

In Europe i have spent some time in Alpine type habitats around the Pyrenees especially in the tiny country of Andorra and the Valle de Nuria. i also spent some time in the Julian Alps outside Lubljana, Slovenia.

Major Families

Bryophytes: Non-Vascular Spore Plants

            This group consists of hornworts, liverworts and mosses. These are ancient plants that don’t have a proper vascular system like the pteridophytes but they reproduce similarly by spores. Because of a lack of vascular system they tend to live in moist to wet areas but are not always obligated to such habitats. Mosses, hornworts and liverworts are further separated by their reproductive structures. i  found one guide specifically for the Bryophytes of the northeast (Pope, 2016).

Some examples of circumpolar Liverworts include Cedar-Shake Liverwort (Plagiochila asplenoides), Hard Scale Liverwort (Mylia anomala), Jameson’s Liverwort (Jamesoniella autumnalis), Leafy Liverwort (Lophozia ventricosa), Little Hands Liverwort (Lepidozia reptans), Northern Naugehyde Liverwort (Ptilidium ciliare), Naugehyde Liverwort (P. pulcherrimum) (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Green Tongue Liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha) is one liverwort listed for the area but also as a cosmopolitan weed of gardens, greenhouses and nurseries where it can kill seedlings (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Mosses can be broken up into a number of groups largely based on habitat including: Dung, Forest floor, Peatland, Rock/Soil, Seep/Swamp, Weedy, and Woody/Bark. Mosses of which Sphagnum is preferred have a tradition of many uses in boreal North America including as diapers, lining for pits, menstrual pads, to wipe off fish, stuffing mattresses, pillows, lining cradles, covering floors, mixed with pitch to caulk canoes and mud to chink cabins (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Following are some typical circumpolar mosses from the various groups according to one source (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995)

Dung Mosses

Brown Tapering Splachnum (Tetraplodon mnioides) Fairy Parasols (Splachnum luteum).

Forest Floor Mosses

Aquatic Apple Moss (Philonitis fontana), Big Red Stem (Pleurozium schreberi), Broom (Dicranum scoparium), Common Hair Cap (Polytrichum commune), Electric Eels (Dicranum polysetum), Hook Leaf Fern (Thuidium recognitum), Knight’s Plume (Ptilium crista-castrensis), Sickle (Drepanocladus uncinatus), Stair Step (Hylocomium splendens), Wiry Fern (Thuidium abietinum)

Peat Mosses

Over 20 spp. of Peat (Sphagnum spp.) grow in the boreal areas of North America alone. Some examples that are circumpolar include Midway (S. magellanicum), Poor fen (S. angustifolium), Shore Growing (S. riparium) Squarrose (S. squarrosa).

            Rock/Soil Mosses

Awned Hair-Cap (Polytrichum piliferum), Erect Fruited Iris (Distichium capillaceum), Fragile Screw (Tortella fragilis), Hairy Screw (Tortula ruralis), Juniper Hair-Cap (Polytrichum juniperum), Pipecleaner (Rhytidium rugosum), Slender Stemmed Hair (Ditrichum flexicaule), Velvet Feather (Brachythecium velutinum).

Seep/Swamp Mosses

Common Tree (Climacium dendroides), Fern (Cratoneuron filicinum), Glow (Aulacomnium palustre), Waterside Feather (Brachythecium rivulare)

Weedy Mosses

Copper Wire (Pohlia nutans), Cord (Funaria hygrometrica), Long-Necked Bryum (Leptobryum pyriforme), Purple Horn-Toothed (Ceratodon purpureus)


Aspen Stocking Moss (Pylaisiella polyantha), Common Beaked Moss (Eurhynchium pulchellum), Common Four Tooth (Tetraphis pellucida) Curly Heron’s Bill (Dicranum fuscescens), Golden Ragged Moss (Brachythecium salebrosum), Mountain Curved Back (Oncophorus wahlenbergii), Red Mouth Mnium (Mnium spinulosum), Small Mouse Tail Moss (Myurella julacea), Whip Fork Moss (Dicranum flagellare)

            Mosses have a rather fascinating history ethnobotanically speaking. Indigenous anthropologist Robin Wall Kimmerer (2003) has written eloquently on the subject. Common Hair Cap (Polytrichum commune) is cosmopolitan in distribution and a tea has a tradition of use to dissolve kidney and gallbladder stones as well as a hair rinse. It has also been used as a source of fiber to make baskets, brooms, brushes, mats and rugs since ancient times in Europe (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). A number of mosses including Broom (Dicranum scoparium) and Stair Step (Hylocomium splendens) have a history of use by florists in arrangements (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Pteridophytes and Lycophytes: Ancient Vascular Spore Plants

            Some of the genera included in this group that occur in conditions covered in this class include Huperzia, Lycopodium and Selaginella. The taxonomy of plants in the Lycophyte group i.e. the first two genera mentioned above have seen a flux in naming with a recent massive splitting by the Pteridophyte Phylogeny group (Schuettpelz et al., 2016; Schuettpelz & Pryer, 2007; Smith et al., 2006).

Many ferns occur in alpine areas as well. From Europe and North America all of the following genera can be found: Asplenium, Athyrium, Botrychium, Carpogymnia, Cryptogramma, Cystopteris, Dryopteris, Matteuccia, Ophioglossum, Pellaea, Phegopteris, Polystichum, Pteridium, Thelypteris, Woodsia (Huxley, 1967; D. Johnson, Goward, et al., 1995; D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Rusty back (Ceterach officinarum) is a European fern of which i am unfamiliar with the genus but it may have wider distribution (Huxley, 1967).

Horsetails (Equisteum spp.) are particularly diverse in number of species in northern latitudes as well. Of the 20 or so species worldwide at least six grow in the boreal regions of western North America (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Horsetails are famous in regards to ethnobotanical applications including as a green scrubby for the cleaning of pots and pans (Abbe, 1985; Cochrane & Lipke, 2006; Rogers, 2014).


Lichens are often broken into a number of sub-groups including Club like, Crustose, Foliose, Fruticose, Hair like and Shrub like. Some taxonomic switch aroos and splitting regarding major genera like Cetraria, Parmelia, Tuckermannopsis have happened in recent times.


i have come across one specific guide to the alpine lichens of New England (Pope, 2005). Guides by Lonepine press for the Pacific Northwest, Yukon and Alaska often have some lichens too (Chambers et al., 1996; D. Johnson, Goward, et al., 1995; D. Johnson et al., 2009; Kershaw, Pojar, & Alaback, 1998; Legasy, 1995; MacKinnon, 2013; MacKinnon & Pojar, 2013a; Pojar & MacKinnon, 2004; Vitt et al., 2007). Below are some examples of lichens found in boreal areas of North America.

Club Like

Cladina spp. Cladonia spp.

Crustose/Crust Like

Aspen Comma (Arthonia patellulata), Button (Buellia punctata), Crusted Orange (Caloplaca cerina), (Caloplaca cerina), Dot (Biatora vernalis), Green Map (Rhizocarpon geographicum), Rim (Lecanora circumborealis), Spraypaint (Icmadophila ericetorum)

Filamentous/Hair Like

Horsehairs (Bryoria spp.), Old Man’s beard (Usnea spp.)

Foliose/Leaf Like

Brown Lichens (Melanelia spp.), Candleflame (Candelaria concolor), Flattened Snow (Flavocetraria nivalis), Fringed Ruffle (Tuckermannopsis americana), Granulated Shadow (Phaeophyscia orbicularis), Green Speckleback (Flavopunctelia flaventior), Green Starburst (Parmeliopsis ambigua), Monkshood (Hypogymnia), Pelt Lichens (Peltigera spp.), Powdered Sunshine (Vulpicida pinastri), Rosettes (Physcia spp.), Orange Lichens (Xanthoria spp.), Waxpaper (Parmelia sulcata).

Fruticose/Shrub Like

Gristles (Ramalina spp.), , Old Man’s beard (Usnea spp.), Reindeer (Cladina spp.) Spruce Moss (Evernia mesomorpha), Wooly Coral (Stereocaulon tomentosum)

Other terms for lichen growth forms include gelatinous (jelly like), leprose (powdery) and squamulose (crustose with scales). Lichens grow very slow and a patch 10cm across may be over 1,000 years old and some are estimated to be more than 9,000 years old among the 500 or so spp. growing in the area of northern North America (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995)!

Lichen ethnobotany is fascinating comprising everything from food, to natural dyes, medicines and more. However, as stated above many lichens grow very slowly and should never be harvested unless in an emergency. Beyond the potential rareness and destruction of a long lived organism many lichens also have very caustic acids that they use to break down the materials they are growing upon and these can be rather damaging if consumed.

Iceland Moss (Cetraria islandica) is probably the most famous with traditional uses for breathing problems, dysentery and by indigenous peoples of Europe and North America for food after treatment with lye/soda/wood ash after which it can be made into bread, jelly and as a thickener in soups and stews (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Usnic acid in the Usnea genus is also famously know as an antibiotic and the subject of much research (GUO et al., 2008; Lucarini et al., 2012; Yu et al., 2016) .

Trees and Shrubs

Conifers make up a large part of the trees growing in very cold places. The following families and their respective genera make up the majority of what one may find in such areas. Cupressaceae (Juniperus, Thuja), Pinaceae (Abies, Larix, Picea, Pinus, Pseudotsuga), Taxaceae (Taxus)

Angiosperms are often not very diverse on a family level in alpine conditions. That said quite a bit of diversity exists within families that may occur given the area of the world. The focus for the list below both for the woody plants and the herbaceous ones is to be as comprehensive as possible for these places in the USA. However, much overlap will occur at the family and even genus level no matter where one may be. Further down in the class i treat special plants that only grow in such conditions outside North America.

Below is a chart of woody families that are not very diverse at the genus level being monotypic or having only two to three genera in alpine/artic/boreal/polar conditions…

Adoxaceae (Adoxa, Sambucus, Viburnum)


Celastraceae (Paxistima)


Myricaceae (Myrica)


Araliaceae (Aralia, Oplopanax)


Cornaceae (Cornus)


Rhamnaceae (Rhamnus)


Aquifoliaceae (Ilex)


Elaeagnaceae (Elaeagnus, Shepherdia)


Salicaceae (Populus, Salix)


Berberidaceae (Berberis, Mahonia)


Fabaceae (Cytisus, Genista, Laburnum)


Sapindaceae (Acer)


Betulaceae (Alnus, Betula, Corylus)


Grossulariaceae (Ribes)


Tamaricaceae (Tamarix)


Caprifoliaceae (Linnaea, Lonicera, Symphoricarpos)


Hydrangeaceae (Philadelphus)


Thymeleaceae (Daphne, Thymelaea)


A few groups are rather diverse at the genus level including those following of which the Ericaceae is particularly varied.

Ericaceae (Andromeda, Arctostaphylos, Arctous, Calluna, Cassiope, Chamaedaphne, Empetrum, Erica, Gaultheria, Kalmia, Ledum, Menziesia, Oxycoccus, Phyllodoce, Pyrola, Rhododendron, Vaccinium)

Rosaceae (Amelanchier, Cotoneaster, Dryas, Halodiscus, Purshia, Rubus, Sorbus, Spiraea)


Majorly diverse families at the genus level including at least 5 genera throughout the Rockies but represented throughout the region covered in various other ways include Asteraceae (Aster), Brassicaceae (Mustard), Caryophyllaceae (Pink), Ericaceae (Heath), Fabaceae (Bean), Orobanchaceae (Broomrape), Ranunculaceae (Buttercup), Rosaceae (Rose) and Saxifragaceae (Saxifrage).

Majorly diverse genera in regards to numbers of species having at least 5 spp. but often many more are included below and broken up by their membership in the monocots or dicots. In the Monocot division some of the most diverse genera include Agrostis, Calamagrostis, Carex, Elymus, Festuca, Juncus, Luzula, Poa and Potamogeton.

In the dicot division quite a few more genera fulfill this role as is typical for the percentage split between the two groups in other areas of the world. Some of the most diverse genera in this case include Antennaria, Arnica, Artemisia, Arabis, Aster sensu lato, Astragalus, Campanula, Castilleja, Draba, Epilobium, Erigeron, Eriogonum, Gentiana, Oxytropis, Pedicularis, Phacelia, Polygonum, Potentilla, Ranunculus, Saxifraga, Senecio, Stellaria, Taraxacum, Valeriana, Viola.


Monocots are not very diverse with the exception of the Grasses, Lilys (sensu lato) and Orchids. A few of the smaller families include the Araceae (Calla palustris), Cyperaceae, (Carex, Eriophorum), Dioscoreaceae (Dioscorea), Iridaceae (Iris, Sisyrinchium), Juncaceae (Juncus, Luzula, Scirpus), Potamogetonaceae (Potamogeton, Ruppia) and the Typhaceae (Typha).

The Liliaceae sensu lato has several members in these environments although they have more modernly been split among a host of other families. Some examples include Allium, Calochortus,  Camassia, Clintonia, Erythronium, Fritillaria, Maianthemum, Stenanthium, Streptopus, Tofieldia, Trillium, Veratrum, Xerophyllum, Zigadenus

The Poaceae is non-surprisingly diverse in such situations as they have a number of beneficial adaptations. These include pollination by wind so they don’t depend on the vagaries of weather and how that might affect pollinators. They also have many perennial members adapted to an array of growing conditions and that can also often spread asexually. Some major genera include (Agropyron, Agrostis, Bromus, Calamagrostis, Cinna, Danthonia, Deschampsia, Elymus, Festuca, Glyceria, Helictotrichon, Hierochloe, Hordeum, Koeleria, Muhlenbergia, Nardus, Phalaris, Phleum, Phragmites, Poa, Stipa, Trisetum).

The Orchidaceae is the most diverse family in the world though most of them grow in the tropics epiphytically. In cold places orchids tend to grow on the ground and every area tends to have at least a few. The most prominent genera in the USA follow (Calypso, Corralorhiza, Cypripedium, Epipactis, Goodyera, Habenaria/Platanthera, Orchis, Listera, Spiranthes).


            The Dicots have a surprising array of diversity regarding vegetative plants. This includes at least 48 families. Many of these families like those of the other groups discussed already are not very individually diverse. Groups ranging from one to three genera are included in the chart below which measures over half the total. Some taxonmy changes have occurred in this regard as well including the move of Parnassia from the Saxifragaceae to the Celastraceae, the move of Chenopodium to the Amaranthaceae and the move of most of the former plants out of the Scrophulariaceae including Mimulus to the Phrymaceae and the bulk of the others to the Plantaginaceae with the parasitic members being moved to the Orobanchaceae. The Hippuridaceae is now placed in the Plantaginaceae. The Monotropaceae and Pyrolaceae are now subsets of the Ericaceae.

Amaranthaceae (Chenopodium)


Diapensiaceae (Diapensia)

Euphorbiaceae (Euphorbia, Mercurialis)


Papaveraceae (Corydalis, Fumaria, Papaver)


Berberidaceae (Epimedium)


Frankeniaceae (Frankinia)


Phrymaceae (Mimulus)


Callitrichaceae (Callitriche)


Geraniaceae (Erodium, Geranium)


Plumbaginaceae (Armeria)

Resedaceae (Reseda)


Campanulaceae (Campanula, Jasione, Lobelia)


Lentibulariaceae (Pinguicula)

Rubiaceae (Asperula, Galium, Houstonia)

Celastraceae (Parnassia)

Linaceae (Linum)

Santalaceae (Arceuthobium

Geocaulon, Thesium)


Cistaceae (Helianthemum)


Loasaceae (Mentzelia)


Scrophulariaceae (Verbascum)


Convulvulaceae (Convolvulus, Cuscuta)


Malvaceae (Iliamna, Malva)


Valerianaceae (Centranthus, Valeriana)


Crassulaceae (Rhodiola, Sedum, Sempervivum)


Paeoniaceae (Paeonia)


Violaceae (Viola)



Some of the more diverse families are listed below with their respective genera.

Apiaceae (Angelica, Bupleurum, Chaerophyllum, Eryngium, Heracleum, Lomatium, Oreoxis, Perideridia, Peucedanum, Pseudocymopterus)

Apocynaceae (Apocynum, Asclepias, Cynanchum, Matelea, Vincetoxicum)

Asteraceae (Agoseris, Anaphalis, Antennaria, Anthemis, Arnica, Artemisia, Balsamorhiza, Centaurea, Chaenactis, Chrysanthemum, Cirsium, Crepis, Draba, Erigeron, Gaillardia, Happlopappus, Heterotheca, Hieracium, Hulsea, Hymenoxys, Leotodon, Liatris, Onopordum, Ratibida, Scorzonera, Senecio, Solidago, Tanacetum, Taraxacum, Townsendia, Tragopogon),

Boraginaceae (Cerinthe, Eritrichium, Hackelia, Lappula, Lithospermum, Mertensia, Myosotis, Phacelia)

Brassicaceae (Aethionema, Arabis, Aubrieta, Braya, Cardamine, Descurainia, Erysimum, Hornungia, Lesquerella, Synthyris, Thlaspi),

Caryophyllaceae (Arenaria, Cerastium, Honckenya, Melandrium, Paronchia, Sagina, Silene, Stellaria)

Caprifoliaceae (Linnaea, Cephalaria, Scabiosa, Succisa, the latter three former (Dipsacaceae)

Caryophyllaceae (Gypsophila, Honckenya, Lychnis, Minuartia, Moehringia, Paronychia, Sagina, Saponaria)

Ericaceae (Andromeda, Arctostaphylos, Cassiope, Chamaedaphne, Hypopitys, Ledum, Loiseleuria, Oxycoccus, Orthilia, Phyllodoce, Pterospora, Pyrola, Vaccinium) Formerly other families i.e Monotropaceae, Pyrolaceae

Fabaceae (Anthyllis, Astragalus, Hedysarum, Lupinus, Ononis, Onobrychis, Oxytropis, Thermopsis, Trifolium, Vicia)

          Gentianiaceae (Frasera, Gentiana, Lomatogonium, Swertia)

Lamiaceae (Calamintha, Dracocephalum, Galeobdolon, Galeopsis, Hyssopus, Lamium, Mentha, Monardella, Nepeta, Prunella, Salvia, Scutellaria, Sideritis, Stachys, Teucrium, Thymus), 

           Onagraceae (Circaea, Clarkia, Epilobium, Oenothera)

Orobanchaceae (Bartsia, Boschniakia, Castilleja, Euphrasia, Melampyrum, Odontites, Orobanche, Orthocarpus, Pedicularis)

Plantaginaceae (Antirrhinum, Asarina sensu lato, Chaenorhinum, Chionophila, Cymbalaria, Hippuris, Lagotis, Linaria, Penstemon, Synthyris, Veronica)

           Polemoniaceae (Collomia, Gilia, Linanthastrum, Phlox, Polemonium)

           Polygonaceae (Eriogonum, Oxyria, Polygonum, Rheum, Rumex)

           Portulaceae (Cistanthe, Claytonia, Lewisia, Spraguea)

Primulaceae (Androsace, Dodecatheon, Douglasia, Lysimachia, Primulus, Trientalis)

Ranunculaceae (Aconitum, Actaea, Adonis, Anemone,  Aquilegia, Caltha, Clematis, Coptis, Delphinium, Enemion, Eranthis, Hepatica, Pulsatilla, Ranunculus, Thalictrum, Trollius)

Rosaceae (Aruncus, Fragaria, Geum, Luetkea, Petrophytum, Potentilla, Sibbaldia)

           Saxifragaceae (Boykinia, Heuchera, Lithophragma, Saxifraga, Telesonix)

Introduced genera to the Americas according to the USDA include Calamint (Calamintha spp.), Caline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris), Devil’s Bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis), Dwarf Snapdragon (Chaenorhinum minus), Hemp Nettle (Galeopsis spp.), Houseleek (Sempervivum), Hyssopus, Ironwort (Sideritis spp.), Leopard’s Bane (Doronicum), Lungwort (Pulmonaria spp.), Masterwort (Peucedanum spp.), Mountain Candytuft (Thlaspi montanum), Smooth Honeywort (Cerinthe glabra), Thyme (Thymus spp.).  


            A number of difference types of conditions regarding soil, weather, elevation, rockiness, water availability and latitude will affect the plant communities growing. Soils can be either acidic or calcareous but tend to be rather thin. Heath is a term used for acidic growing environments as well as plants from the Erica genus. Species in the Hypericum genus as well as members of the Ericaceae are often found in such conditions.

Water is a big controlling factor in what may grow. Bogs are one type of a very wet area and some genera and their respective families follow (Drosera) Droseraceae (Gaultheria) Ericaceae (Menyanthes) Menyanthaceae, (Myrica) Myriacaceae, (Parnassia) Celastraceae, (Pinguicula) Lentibulariaceae (Tofieldia) Liliaceae. Here are a couple references that cover bogs in an alpine context (Farrer, 2015; Sanders, 1930).

Plants that can grow directly in the water i.e. lake, pond, stream come from a diverse array of families as well as can be seen in the following chart.

Acoraceae:              Acorus

Plantaginaceae:        Hippuris

Alismataceae:          Alisma, Saggitaria

Potamogetonaceae:  Potamogeton

Araceae:                  Calla, Lemna

Polygonaceae:          Polygonum

Callitrichaceae:       Callitriche

Ranunculaceae:        Ranunculus

Ceratophyllaceae:   Ceratophyllum

Scheuchzeriaceae:    Scheuchzeria

Lentibulariaceae:    Utricularia

Typhaceae:               Sparganium, Typha

Menyanthaceae      Menyanthes


Nymphaeaceae       Nuphar


Many plants from the Sedgen (Cyperaceae) and Rush (Juncaceae) families will grow in such habitats as well. Marsh and Streambank woody plants include members of the Betulaceae (Alnus, Betula) and Salicaceae (Populus, Salix).

Boulder fields, Fellfield, Gravel Bars and Talus are a few types of rocky growing conditions. A couple plants that grow in such areas are Talus Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Siberian Smelowskia (Smelowskia calycina).

Locales in the World

Included below are categories of distribution for alpine/boreal/polar plants including worldwide, artic/alpine, circumboreal, circumpolar, and regional including where possible incidents of endemism.

Worldwide in the northern hemisphere generally i have come across a small group of plants including Alpine Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Alpine Willowherb (Epilobium alpinum), Northern Gentian (Gentiana amarella), Shrubby Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa), Star Felwort (Swertia perennis), White Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) (Strickler, 1990).        

Alpine Avens  (Geum rossii) and Rock Jasmine (Androsace chamaejasme) occur in artic conditions in Asia and the Americas (Strickler, 1990).

Circumboreal plants make up another rather small group from a host of families in particular the Ericaceae. Some examples follow including Alpine Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), Bog Cranberry (Oxycoccus microcarpus), Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), Bog Star (Parnassia palustris), Bulblet Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum),  Felwort (Gentiana acuta), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Purple Mountain Saxifrage (S. oppositifolia), Swamp cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris), Yukon Saxifrage (S. reflexa), Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis), Roundleaf Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis), Willow-Herb (Epilobium angustifolium) (Trelawny, 1983). Some other members of this exclusive club cited by another source follow including Alpine Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis sylvatica), Moss Gentian (Gentiana prostrata) (Strickler, 1990). Common Bladderwort is another example (Utricularia vulgaris) (Shaw, 1981).

Circumpolar plants are a much larger group consisting of about fourteen families

Asteraceae Fleabane daisy (Erigeron acris) Mastadon Flower (Senecio congestus).

Brassicaceae Alpine Bittercress (Cardamine bellidifolia), Alpine Draba (Draba alpina), Pallas’ Wallflower (Erysimum pallasii), Winter Cress (Barbarea orthoceras)

Caryophyllaceae Bladder Campion (Melandrium apetalum syn Silene uralensis subsp. apetala, Seabeach Sandwort (Honckenya peploides), Artic lychnis (Silene involucrata syn Melandrium affine), Moss campion (Silene acaulis).

Ericaceae Alpine Azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens), Alpine Bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), Lapland Rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum), Leatherleaf Cassandra (Chamaedaphne calyculata), One Sided Wintergreen (Pyrola secunda).

Lentibulariaceae Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris)

           Menyanthaceae Buckbean (Menyanthes trifoliata)

Plumbaginaceae Thrift (Armeria maritima).

Polygonaceae Polygonum bistorta, P. viviparum

Primulaceae Fairy Candelabra (Androsace septentrionalis)

Ranunculaceae Snow Buttercup (Ranunculus nivalis), Celery Leaf Crowfoot (R. scleratus)

Rosaceae Common Burnet (Sanguisorba officinalis), Shrubby Cinquefoil (Potentilla fruticosa, P. norvegica).

Saxifragaceae Spider Plant (Saxifraga flagellaris), Tufted Saxifrage (S. caespitosa)

From Brassicaceae to here cited by (Trelawny, 1983).

Alpine Forget Me Not (Eritrichium aretioides), Creeping Sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens), King’s Crown (Sedum roseum), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia),  Spotted Saxifrage (S. bronchialis), Western Fringed Gentian (Gentiana thermalis) (Strickler, 1990).

Circumpolar grasses include Blue Joint (Calamagrostis canadensis), Common Sweetgrass (Hierochloe odorata), Drooping Wood Reedgrass (Cinna latifolia), Fowl Bluegrass (Poa palustris), Junegrass (Koeleria cristata), Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa pratensis), Northern Brome (Bromus inermis ssp. pumpellianus), Reed Canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea), Short Awned Foxtail (Alopecurus aequalis), Timberline Bluegrass (Poa glauca), Timothy (Phleum pratense), Tufted Hairgrass (Deschampsia caespitosa) (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

The Americas

Alaska is an interesting area to cover plants that are covered in this class. The latitude is so high that they can often grow at fairly low altitude similar to parts of Europe and Russia. Unusual genera from area of Wrangell-St Elias in Alaska include Eutrema and Halimolobos in the Brassicaceae and Wilhelmsia in the Caryophyllaceae (Association, 2002).

Ethnobotanically speaking Parry’s Wallflower (Parrya spp.) is referred to as little cabbages by the indigenous and roots and leaves are used as food while the flowers smell like Lilacs (Pratt, 1990). A number of other resources for Alaskan botany are available that can help flesh out the ethnobotany of this intriguing place (J. P. Anderson & Pohl, 2016; Extension, 2012; Graham, 1986; Hulten, 1968; Kania, 2019; Kari et al., 2013; Pratt, 1990, 1993; Schofield, 2003; E. Viereck et al., 1987).

An Alaskan endemic is Smelowskia borealis and some that grow in only Alaska and Canada  are Artic Douglasia (Douglasia artica), Bear Flower (Boykinia richardsonii) and Kitten tails (Synthyris borealis)  (Trelawny, 1983)

A number of resources cover the phenomenon of exotic invasive plants in Alaska (Bauder, 2005; Hébert, 2001; Shephard, 2007). A couple others refer specifically to the trees and shrubs of the area (Little & Viereck, 1975; L. A. & L. Viereck Elbert L., 1975).

New England has a relatively small area of these types of growing conditions. That said a few resources are available (Haines, 2011; Magee & Ahles, 2007; Slack & Bell, 2014).

California has some of this type of habitat at high elevations in the Sierras and a great history of thorough botanical study as well (Chatfield, 1997; Faber, 2005; Graf, 1999; Munz et al., 2003; Peterson, 1975; Petrides, 2005; Smiley, 1921; Tweed & Medeiros, 2016; Vizgirdas & Rey-Vizgirdas, 2005).

The Rockies comprise a huge area from Colorado and Utah in the south all the way into Canada. Therefore not surprisingly a rich literature has developed to support the exploration of this inspirational area (Ackerfield, 2015; Kershaw, Pojar, & MacKinnon, 1998; Kimball & Lesica, 2005; Lesica, 2002, 2012; Parish et al., 2018; Willard, 1992).

i have come across a good pocket guide to Alpine flowers of the Rockies with great line drawings and a key that leads to plants laid out by family (Wingate & Yeatts, 2003). White Rhododendron (Rhododendron albiflorum) is the only species of this genus in the Rockies, Hayden’s Alpine Clover (Trifolium haydenii) is endemic to s Montana and nw Wyoming. Kelseya is endemic to ID,MT,WY and Pygmy Poppy is endemic to Glacier National Park (Strickler, 1990). Snowlover (Chionophila tweedyi) is a rare endemic of Idaho and MT and Oeder’s Lousewort of MT alone (Pedicularis oederi) (Strickler, 1990).


A number of good books, manuals and papers have been developed that explore the ethnobotanical aspects of food and medicine for plants that grow in the region of interest in this class that is represented by Canada (Armstrong et al., 2018; Biggs, 1999; Joseph et al., 2012; MacKinnon, 2013; MacKinnon & Pojar, 2013b; Nancy J Turner, 1983; Nancy J. Turner, 1988; Nancy Jean Turner, 1973).


The Alps in Europe are one of the more famous regions for the ecotype covered in this class. Makes me think of the famous Edelweiss (Leontopodium spp.) Here are a couple wildflower guides to the area (Hoppe, 2013; Price, 2014). A book covering the growing and propagation of plants from the region is available as well (Jermyn et al., 2005). The floras of Europe are of use of course as well (Blamey & Grey-Wilson, 1989; Cullen et al., 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2011d, 2011e; T. G Tutin, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c; T. G. Tutin et al., 1976, 1993; Thomas Gaskell Tutin, 1989).

The Alps consist of a number of sub-sections in Europe and the alpine habitat also extends to mountain ranges that go by other names such as the Appenines, Cevennes and Pyrenees. In central southern Europe the Alpine habitat starts around 1,500 meters above sea level but is much lower in elevation in Scandinavia.

i have located a few resource for the Caucasus as well (Batsatsashvili et al., 2020; Kikvidze, 1993; Nakhutsrishvili et al., 2017; Onipchenko, 2004)

Listed below are a few genera that i am not familiar with according to one admittedly older field guide. Given the age of the source it is possible that the scientific names have changed though i have at least updated the families (Huxley, 1967). i have also confirmed that none of these are listed as growing naturalized in the USA by the USDA Plants website. One woody plant group that stood out is the Myricaria spp. in the Tamaricaceae.

In the case of monocots i came across a few that don’t occur in the wild in the Americas. From the Liliaceae sensu lato Asphodel (Asphodelus), Dipcadi serotinum, Herb Paris (Paris quadrifolia), St. Bernard’s Lily (Anthericum liliago), St. Bruno’s Lily (Paradisea liliastrum). The Poaceae contains a couple genera including Oreochloa, Sesleria.

The Orchidaceae as is typical has a few special members that don’t occur in the wild in the Americas including Bird’s Nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis), Fragrant Orchid (Gymnadenia conopsea), Musk Orchid (Herminium monorchis), Pyramid Orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), Red Helleborine (Cephalanthera rubra), Round Headed Orchid (Traunsteinera globosa), Vanilla Orchids (Nigritella spp.).

The European Dicots are much more diverse in their divergence from the American flora as might be expected. Below are a few examples

Apiaceae  Athamanta, Hacquetia epipactis, Masterwort (Astrantia spp.), Molopospermum peloponnesiacum, Sermountain (Laserpitium spp.), Xatartia scaber last not in Plant list!  

Asteraceae Adenostyles alliariae, Aposeris foetida, Blue Sowthistle (Cicerbita alpina syn Lactuca alpina), Berardia subacaulis, Knapweed (Rhaponticum spp.), Ox Eye (Buphthalmum), Jurinea bocconii

           Boraginaceae Goldendrop (Onosma echioides), Moltkia suffruticosa

Brassicaeae (Hugueninia tanacetifolia), (Murbeckiella pinnatifida), Buckler Mustard (Biscutella laevigata), Madwort (Alyssoides utriculata), Pyrenean Whitlow-Grass (Petrocallis pyrenaica) Brassicaceae

           Campanulaceae Edraianthus graminifolius and Rampions (Phyteuma spp.)

           Caryophyllaceae Telephium imperati

Fabaceae Cytisanthus horridus, Pyreneana Broom (Sarothamnus purgans), Hedgehog broom (Erinaceae anthyllis), Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa)

           Gesneriaceae Ramonda myconi

Orobanchaceae Creeping Snapdragon (Asarina procumbens), Fairy Foxglove (Erinus alpinus) Plantaginaceae Paedarota bonarota traditionally Scroph not in the plant list! Tozzia alpina and Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria).

Primulaceae Vitaliana primuliflora, Sowbread (Cyclamen spp.) Snowbell (Soldanella)

           Ranunculaceae  Glacier Crowfoot (Callianthemum) and Isopyrum thalictroides

Some common name confusion that can happen with plants growing in Alpine areas of Europe include the use of the term Pheasant’s eye for both Narcissus and Adonis as well as the use of the name Masterwort for the genera Astrantia and Peucedanum (Huxley, 1967).


The Himalayas are super famous for their special flora! So far i have found one good definitive text to the Flowers of the Himalayan region (Polunin & Stainton, 1985). Here are a few resources for the ethnobotany of the region as well (Cook, 1997; Lancaster, 1983; N. P. Manandhar, 1980; Narayan P. Manandhar & Manandhar, 2002; Rhoades, 1997; Stainton, 1989; Subedi et al., 2013; Tamang, 2009; Watanabe et al., 2005).

Japan is probably the place i most wish to visit in Asia given the compact size, classic island endemism and similarity to the Appalachia flora that i call home and adore above any other. So far i have come across a few mostly older resources for the alpine area there (Kudo, 2016; Tabuchi, 1979; H. Takeda, 1938; Hisayoshi Takeda, 1961, 1961, 1969; Tetsuji Gillette, 1960; Yamazaki, 1985).

i have found a couple of resources regarding Chinese alpine flora as well (Chang & Jingwei, 1986; Tingcheng, 1999).

New Zealand

i was surprised and delighted to see the number of resources available regarding the alpine flora of New Zealand (Cartman, 1985; Malcolm & Malcolm, 2003; Mark, 1973; Metcalf, 1996; Salmon, 1999).

New Zealand being composed of two big islands contains a lot of unusual plants of which genera i am unfamiliar with can be seen below. These may occur in other parts of the southern hemisphere especially that share a similar habitat.

Apiaceae (Anisotome spp.)

Rubiaceae (Coprosma spp.)

Brassicaceae (Cheesemania latisiliqua)

Violaceae (Melicytus spp.)

Plantaginaceae (Parahebe cheesemanii)

Xanthorhorrhoeaceae (Bulbinella spp.)

Rosaceae (Acaena spp.)


Asteraceae (Brachyglottis), (Celmisia spp.), (Dolichoglottis scorzoneroides), (Haastia spp.), (Leucogenes spp.), (Olearia spp.), (Raoulia spp.)

Campanulaceae (Pratia spp.), (Wahlenbergia)

Ericaceae (Dracophyllum), (Epacris), (Leucopogon), (Pentachondra)

Phyllanthaceae (Poranthera spp.) Formerly Euphorbiaceae (Oreoporanthera)

Orchidaceae (Adenochilus gracilis), (Caladenia lyallii)

           Poaceae (Chionochloa), (Rhytidosperma spp.)

Stylidiaceae (Donatia spp.) formerly Donatiaceae (Forstera spp.), (Phyllachne)

Thymelaeaceae (Kelleria) formerly Drapetes, (Pimelea spp.)

Central/South America

The ecotype called Paramo in the high elevations of Latin America bear a similar resemblance to the Alpine area described for other places in the world (Balslev & Lutyen, 1992; Gavilanes et al., 1999; Hooghiemstra et al., 1992; Sklenar, 2005).

Major Poisons

Not many super poisonous plants occur in this ecotype. That said some of the most deadly poisonous plants in the world do! A relatively few families like the Apiaceae, Ericaceae, Fabaceae, Liliaceae sensu lato and Ranunculaceae have the lion’s share of representatives in this category.

           Apiaceae Cicuta, Conium

           Ericaceae Andromeda, Dracophyllum, Epacris, Ledum,

           Fabaceae Hedysarum mackenzii versus edible Hedysarum alpinum, Thermopsis,

Hypericaceae (Hypericum japonicum) Hypericin causes photosensitivity and sensitivity to cold water (Malcolm & Malcolm, 2003).

           Liliaceae sensu lato Maianthemum dilatatum, Veratrum, Zigadenus

           Onagraceae (Epilobium glabellum) raphide crystals (Malcolm & Malcolm, 2003)

           Ranuculaceae include Aconitum, Actaea, Anemone, Delphinium, Ranunculus

           Some plants that can be irritating externally due to the presence of oils are Blue Flag (Iris setosa), Giant parsnip (Heracleum spp.) and Poison Ivy/Oak/Sumac (Toxicodendron spp.) (T. E. Anderson, 1995; Baker, 2011; Hauser & Epstein, 2008; Sanchez, 2015). Usnic acid in some lichens can also cause contact dermatitis in sensitive individuals (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). One source reports Fir Club Moss (Lycopodium selago) to contain a poisonous alkaloid that can cause diarrhea, mouth pain and vomiting if consumed (Pratt, 1990). The entire Wild Calla (Calla palustris) and the fruits of Devil’s Club (Oplopanax horridus) are said to be poisonous as well (Pratt, 1990). Arrowgrasses (Triglochin spp.) contain hydrocyanic acid (Schofield, 2003).

Major People Foods Gynosperms and Angiosperms

           It bears mentioning when moving into uses of plants the essential need for a focus on sustainability. Some considerations include harvesting items mostly only when very abundant and for the most part weedy. Also focusing on above ground parts especially of perennials. Never take more than a 10th of any one place for the most part if not an exotic invasive or super prolific native. It is also important to note that things can be locally abundant but regionally scarce. These plants should still be harvested in only small amounts if at all. Going to the USDA Plants site one can see a map of plant distributions if the prevalence is in any doubt.

A number of categories can frame the conversation about the food that grows and people employ for sustenance in the area covered by this class.

Woody Plant Foods

           Conifers are a prolific feature of the alpine environment and a ready resource for a host of ethnobotanical applications. In the Cupressaceae there is an Indigenous tradition of eating Juniperus scopulorum fleshy cones in the summer and fall (Shaw & On, 1981). In the Pinaceae Indigenous tradition of seeds of Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) as a meal for bread and bark as a survival food (Shaw & On, 1981).

            Woody plant fleshy fruits are rather limited as one might expect in such an environment. That said they make up a very important part of the indigenous diet of people and other animals.

Adoxaceae Elderberry (Sambucus ) Viburnum (Viburnum edule),


Ericaceae (Empetrum, Vaccinium)


Berberidaceae (Mahonia repens)


Grossulariaceae Currants (Ribes)


Elaeagnaceae (Elaeagnus commutata) Buffalo Berry (Shepherdia canadensis)


Rosaceae (Amelanchier, Crataegus, Fragaria, Prunus, Rosa, Rubus, Sorbus)



Woody nuts are in even less supply than the fleshy fruits.     Hazelnuts (Corylus) from the Betulaceae and possibly some acorns from Oaks (Quercus spp.) Fagaceae make up the lion share of what might be available.

Herbaceous Foods

Herbaceous plant foods are the most prolific in diversity as is the case in most ecosystems.

A type of flour from Cattail has an indigenous tradition of use (Moerman, 1998; Shaw & On, 1981). Flour can also be made from the inner bark of Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) the inner bark of Willows (Salix spp.) can be dried and also used as a flour substitute (Schofield, 2003).


Edible flowers include Chiming Bells (Mertensia paniculata), Columbine (Aquilegia spp.), vitamin C rich Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) catkins and Oysterplant (Mertensia maritima) (Schofield, 2003). i have personal experience eating Shooting Stars (Dodacatheon spp.) and the flowers of Brassicas. It is important to know that some of these can be rather rare though. Petals of Roses (Rosa spp.) provide a ready if astringent adornment throughout the cold parts of the world.


Herbaceous fruits that have a tradition of consumption are less common than in woody plants. However, there is an indigenous tradition of eating the fruits of Western Solomon’s Plume (Smilacina racemosa) (Shaw & On, 1981). The juicy berries of Claspleaf Twisted Stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius) may be eaten raw or cooked in stews or soup (Shaw, 1981). Seeds of Yellow Pond Lily (Nuphar polysepalum) can be popped like popcorn and the fruits of Timberberry (Geocaulon lividum) are edible though not tasty (Pratt, 1990).


Greens are the largest category of plants with a tradition of human consumption in alpine environments. Some examples cited from the Americas include Agoseris aurantiaca,  Alpine Fireweed (Epilobium latifolium) Engelmann Aster (Aster engelmannii), Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.), Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), Nettles (Urtica dioica), Thistles (Cirsium spp.) (Shaw & On, 1981).

Another source offers other examples of greens from the Americas including Birch (Betula spp.), Burnet (Sanguisorba spp.), Chickweed (Stellaria media), Chiming Bells (Mertensia paniculata), Coltsfoot (Petasites spp.), Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), Jewelweed (Impatiens noli-tangere), Lamb’s Quarters (Chenopodium album), Mare’s Tail (Hippuris spp.), Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus), Nettle (Urtica gracilis, U. lyalii), Oysterleaf (Mertensia maritima), Plantain (Plantago major), Saxifrage (Saxifraga spp.), Sheperd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) (Schofield, 2003),

Twisted stalk (Streptopus amplexifolius) (Pratt, 1990; Schofield, 2003). Alaska Cotton (Eriophorum scheuchzeri)  stems, Artic Dock (Rumex articus), Mare’s Tail (Hippuris vulgaris), Roseroot (Rhodiola rosea), Spring Beauty (Claytonia sibirica) and (C. sarmentosa) and Strawberry Blite (Chenopodium capitatum)  (Pratt, 1990). Cooked greens of Marsh Marigold (Caltha leptosepala) (Shaw, 1981). Young stems and leaves of Roseroot (Sedum roseum) edible raw or cooked and the young shoots of Sudenten Louswort (Pedicularis sudetica) eaten boiled in soup in Siberia (Trelawny, 1983).

Sweet Gale (Myrica gale) is famous all over the world as a flavoring akin to bay leaves. Though considered safe in moderation it can cause vomiting and even abortion when the boiled herb is consumed and should be avoided during pregnancy (Schofield, 2003).


Tea is one of my favorite ways to prepare many of the plants i consume in particular ones from the wild. There is an indigenous tradition of making tea from the flowers and leaves of Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) (Shaw & On, 1981). Different parts of various plants have a tradition of use including flowers and leaves of Pineapple Weed (Matricaria matricariodes), leaves and stems of Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) and leaves and seeds of Bedstraw (Galium spp.) (Schofield, 2003). Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) is used to make a tea called Kapor in Russia (E. Viereck et al., 1987). Tea of Marsh Cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris) leaves is much known throughout the artic and the root tea is used medicinally as well Citation?.


Seaweeds also occur very far north in latitude where the elevation is low but the environment is frigid in a similar manner of plants from alpine environments. Some examples include a number of edibles including Bladderwrack (Fucus spp.), Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana), Dulse (Palmaria mollis), Nori (Porphyra spp.), Ribbon Kelp (Alaria), Sea Lettuce (Ulva spp.) (Schofield, 2003).


Seeds of Jewelweed (Impatiens sp.) and Lambsquarters (Chenopodium sp.) have a tradition of consumption (Schofield, 2003). The grains of Manna grasses (Glyceria grandis) are famous in various parts of the world as a grain (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Underground Foods

Underground foods are another major category of sustenance that have a tradition of consumption in alpine environments. This is perhaps unsurprising given the short period of availability of above ground parts of plants.

Roots of Marsh Cinquefoil (Potentilla palustris) have an indigenous tradition of consumption after boiling or roasting (Shaw, 1981). Cooked roots of some Evening Primroses (Oenothera spp.) are best in the spring (Shaw, 1981).

Roots of Alaska Cotton (Eriophorum scheuchzeri) (Pratt, 1990).

Roots of American Bistort Americas (Polygonum bistortoides) are starchy and edible raw or cooked and prized traditionally by Indigenous groups of the while roots of Pointed Mariposa (Calochortus apiculatus) and Thistles (Cirsium spp.) have a tradition of use in times of emergency (Shaw & On, 1981). Bulbs of Camas (Camassia quamash) and Yampah (Perideridia montana) (Shaw & On, 1981).

Roots of Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) (Schofield, 2003; Trelawny, 1983). Coltsfoot (Petasites spp.) (Schofield, 2003).

Roots of water plants like Spadderdock (Nuphar polysepalum) (Pratt, 1990; Shaw & On, 1981). Arrowhead (Saggitaria cuneata) roots eaten raw but better roasted and also retrieved by indigenous tribes from Muskrat caches (Shaw, 1981).

Tuberous Spring Beauty (Claytonia tuberosa) has an edible corm (Trelawny, 1983). Roots of Cous (Lomatium cous) are a famous edible (DeSanto, 1993). Roots of Wooly Lousewort (Pedicularis kanei) edible raw or cooked (Pratt, 1993; Trelawny, 1983). Roots of Northern Sweetvetch (Hedysarum boreale), Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) and Thistles (Cirsium spp.) (Shaw, 1981). A number of sources refer to Valeriana spp. as having an indigenous tradition of food use (Shaw & On, 1981).

One source speaks to the use of Calpyso Orchid (Calypso bulbosa) as vegetable (Pratt, 1990). i would take exception to the use of Orchid roots at least in the Americas for anything other than absolute emergencies as they are rarely common and often slow to reproduce.

Major Medicines

          The category for plants used for medicine is one that is currently too much to take on in any depth. Hopefully the time will come to flesh this out more in the future.

Spaghnum moss (Sphagnum spp.) is antibacterial and has a tradition of use among indigenous groups of North America and Europe it also was used to dress wounds in World War I (E. Viereck et al., 1987).

Shield Fern (Dryopteris dilatata) fiddleheads are reported as edible and the rhizome is said to be antihelmenthic, astringent, tonic, and vulnerary with reported use by indigenous tribes in Alaska who boil it hard then use cooled tea for eye wash as well as kidney trouble and asthma (E. Viereck et al., 1987).


Wormwood (Artemisia tilesii) for hotpacks and liniments applied to sore muscles as well as internally for cold, flu, upset stomach (Schofield, 2003).Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) indigenous tradition externally for poison ivy and the gum used for asthma, bronchitis, whooping cough (Shaw, 1981)


Alder and Birch are both known to be used medicinally by a diversity of cultures on different continents.


Nailwort (Paronychia spp.) used medicinally to treat infected finger and toenails (Strickler, 1990).


Arctostaphylos for urinary tract and as a tobacco adjuvant or substitute. Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) for a variety of ailments (S. Foster & Hobbs, 2002; Shaw, 1981).


Monarda fistulosa as a remedy for bronchial issues and skin disorders (Shaw & On, 1981).


Bitterroot (Lewisia spp.) formerly Portulaceae are one of the more famous rot medicines of the Rockies (DeSanto, 1993).


The leaves of Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) have an indigenous tradition of use a cough medicine (Shaw, 1981).


Buckthorn, Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus spp.) as a laxative


Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) and Willows (Salix spp.)


Urtica spp.

Parasitic Plants

            Parasitic plants are not uncommon in alpine environments but they are also not very diverse in their membership.  (Arceuthobium americanum) Santalaceae is specific to Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta). Geocaulon is another member of the parasitic Sandalwood family (Santalaceae).

Ericaceous plants are an interesting group in regards to parasitism. The current parasitic members used to be in separate families i.e. Monotropaceae and Pyrolaceae. However, with modern taxonomic studies they have been subsumed into the Ericaceae. Some examples include Monotropa, Pterospora and Pyrola.

The Orchidaceae has one common genus of parasitic plants that occur in alpine environments which are the Coral Roots (Corallorhiza spp.).

The Orobanchaceae is a famous parasitic family around the world. It has grown greatly by the addition of the parasitic members of the Scophulariaceae. Some genera of the family as currently treated include (Bartsia, Boschniakia, Castilleja, Euphrasia, Melampyrum, Odontites, Orobanche, Orthocarpus, Pedicularis).

Major Wildlife Foods for North America

            It is important to remember that wild animals unlike humans don’t have grocery stores. As we continue to alter these types of habitats through innumerable ways.

Bears feed on Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) in the spring and are known to feed on the bulbs in particular (Shaw, 1981; Shaw & On, 1981). Food for Bears also includes fruits of Cascade Mountain Ash (Sorbus scopulina), Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)  and roots of American Bistort (Polygonum bistortoides) (Shaw & On, 1981). The fruits of Buffalo Berry (Shepherdia canadensis) and the Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) are a favorite as well (Pratt, 1990).

Bears, Birds, and Rodents feed on the seeds of pines like (Pinus albicaulis) and the Clark’s Nutcracker goes after the seeds of Limber Pine (Pinus flexilis) in particular (Shaw & On, 1981).     

Beavers feed on Alder (Alnus incana) and also used it as a building material (Shaw, 1981). A favorite browse for them is Whiplash Willow (Salix lasiandra) (Shaw & On, 1981). Beavers, Muskrats and Moose feed on the rhizomes of Yellow pond Lily (Nuphar polysepalum) (Trelawny, 1983). Muskrats, Beavers, Moose and Deer eat great amounts of Pondweeds (Nuphar spp.) and their tubers and these plants provide habitat for insects and fish as well (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Fruits of Western Serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) are food for Bear, Chipmunks and Squirrels (Shaw & On, 1981). Chipmunks and birds eat the fruits of Utah Honeysuckle (Lonicera utahensis) (Shaw, 1981).

Willow is browsed by a host of wildlife and the buds of the Artic Willow (Salix arctica) are eaten by the Ptarmigan in particular (Shaw & On, 1981). Snow willow (Salix nivalis) and a number of other species are important for Ptarmigan as well (Strickler, 1990). Ptarmigan also eat the twigs and buds of Alders (Alnus spp.) which is a plant that provides seeds in nutlet form to many songbirds (E. Viereck et al., 1987). The flowers of Skyrocket Gilia (Gilia aggregata) provide nectar for Hummingbirds (Shaw, 1981). The hard seeds of Thread Leaved Pondweed (Potamogeton filiformis) are adapted to distribution by birds (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

The flowers and foliage of Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) make up most of the diet of the Sage Grouse (Shaw, 1981). Most waterfowl, in particular ducks, eat the fruits, leaves and stems of Water Milfoil (Myriophyllum spicatum var. exalbescens) (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Food for Deer include leaves of Spiraea betulifolia and Bunchberry Dogwood (Cornus canadensis) (Shaw & On, 1981).  They also eat Usnea when other food is sparse (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Deer and Elk eat the greens of American Bistort (Polygonum bisortoides) and Mountain Lover (Paxistima myrsinites) (Shaw & On, 1981). They also feed on White Mules Ear (Wyethia helianthoides) (Shaw, 1981).  Deer, Elk, and Moose browse on the twigs and foliage of Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Globe Huckleberry (Vaccinium globulare) Rocky Mountain Maple (Acer glabrum) and Western Serviceberry (Amelachier alnifolia) (Shaw & On, 1981).  Caribou, Moose and Muskrats feed on the sweet rootstocks of Common Reedgrass (Phragmites australis) (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Elk browse on the flowers and stems of Bracted Lousewort (Pedicularis bracteosa) (Shaw & On, 1981). Deer, Elk and Sheep browse on Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and Beaked Sedge (Carex rostrata) (Shaw & On, 1981).

Food for Grouse include leaves of Spiraea betulifolia and fruits of Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) (Shaw & On, 1981). They also feed on Cascade Mountain Ash (Sorbus scopulina) which Grosbeaks feed on as well (Shaw & On, 1981). Several song birds use lichens like Usnea spp. in their nest building (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Various birds feed on the fruits of Honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.) (Shaw & On, 1981).

Food for Horses includes Thistles (Cirsium spp.) and they are particularly fond of Elk Thistle (Shaw & On, 1981). Mountain Goats eat the leaves of Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) (Strickler, 1990).

Caribou feed on lichens such as Iceland Moss (Cetraria islandica) and when overgrazing happens Wooly Coral (Steroecaulon tomentosum) patches may take over (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Rodents eat the seeds of Northern Sweetvetch (Hedysarum boreale) (Shaw, 1981).

Many wildlife species browse the leaves and stems of Sitka Valerian (Valeriana sitchensis) (Shaw & On, 1981).

Major Craft and Material Culture Plants

           Western Yew (Taxus brevifolia) has a tradition of use for bows (Shaw & On, 1981). False Melic (Schizachne purparescens) is traditionally used by Chipewyan people to make wicks for grease lamps burned in birch wood bowls (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

There is an indigenous tradition of making thread and fishing tackle from Wild Blue Flax (Linum lewisii) (Shaw & On, 1981). Clothing insulation, mats and a type of soap all have a tradition of production from Reed Canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea) (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) has traditional use with indigenous groups for weaving baskets, making clothing and utensils (Strickler, 1990). Willows are famous plants used in basketry all over the world (Schofield, 2003; TerBeest, 1988; Trestain, 1998). Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus serícea) is used for basketry. Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) has an indigenous tradition of use for canoes, lodges and tótem poles (Shaw & On, 1981).

Some individual plants and groups that can be used as floral arrangements include the fresh flowers of the Brassicaceae, the fresh flowers of Lupines (Lupinus spp.) dried fruiting stalks of Docks (Rumex spp.), the fresh or dried flowers of Goldenrods (Solidago spp.), and fresh or dried flowers of the Poaceae.

i have not yet come across a lot of information on natural dyes from the area. However, a couple examples from an indigenous tradition in the NW Americas are the dyeing of textiles from the flowers and leaves of Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) and a red dye from the roots of Northern Bedstraw (Galium boreale) (Shaw & On, 1981).

The tree and shrub like structure of Reindeer lichens leads them to be used as stand ins for such plants in models of which a multi-million dollar industry in Finland and Sweden has grown (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Oak Moss (Evernia mesomorpha) has been used since the 1600s to fix scents of perfumes to last longer and also collected as a dye plant in Scandanavia (D. Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).


            Many elements threaten this fragile and ever changing ecosystem. Some exampls include Climate Change, Development, Exotic Invasives, Fire, Industrial Forestry and Pine Beetles to name a few.

Quite a few publications have looked at the problem of climate change in particular in whose effects are being seen much faster than some of the other ecotypes of the world (Apps et al., 1995; Cebon et al., 1998; Chapin et al., 2006; Hänninen, 2016; Hari & Kulmala, 2009; Kasischke & Stocks, 2000; Kellomaki, 2016; Kudo, 2016; Lütz, 2011; Pedrotti, 2017; Shugart et al., 1992; Stanturf, 2015).

Exotic invasives are an issue in this habitat just like any other although the diversity of species that can thrive in this habitat are more limited (Brock & Galen, 2005; Frelich et al., 2006; Godfree et al., 2004; Kohli et al., 2004; Muñoz & Cavieres, 2008). One study combines the problem of climate change with exotic invasives (Thuiller et al., 2007).

Quite a number of  resources also cover the role of fire in these types of ecosystems (Alexander et al., 1986; Goldammer & Furyaev, 1996; Henry, 2002; E. A. Johnson, 1992; Kasischke & Stocks, 2000; Lynch, 2001; Perera & Buse, 2014; Sugihara et al., 2006).

Diseases i.e. Pine rust from Ribes is one example of a challenge to this ecosystem.


            Plants from the environments have been highly sought after for centuries and thereby one might imagine a host of references for cultivating them. Rock gardens are a particular haunt for such species. i have come across a few old school references that may be accessed by Google books .

Alan Bloom is a legendary authority from England in this field who got his start in the 1920s  (Adrian Bloom, 1975; Alan Bloom, 1968, 1990, 1994).. i have also come across an encyclopedic guide that is alphabetical by genus (Ingwersen, 1991).

Other guides to cultivation of Alpine plants include (Clarke, 2010; R. Foster, 1982; Good, 2007; Grey-Wilson, 2000; Halliwell, 1992; Jermyn et al., 2005; Murfitt, 2005; H. Takeda, 1938).

Further Work

            Further work that i would like to put into this class over the next year includes a more comprehensive focus on the plants of Asia and New Zealand as well as rare plants from the worldwide alpine ecotype in general, the extent of effects of climate change in the area as well as that of exotic invasives. A more comprehensive looks at medicinal plants from these locales will round out the future endeavors… However, this is it so far after about 60 hours…

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