2022 Plant Talk 16 Alpine/Artic/Boreal/Polar Plants


2022 Plant Talk 16 Alpine/Artic/Boreal/Polar Plants

Greetings plant enthusiasts! While it is unseasonably warm for this time of year in much of the world the time has come to cover the plants of the very cold places of the Earth.

It has only begun to frost in earnest recently in western North Carolina. Wild greens are still in abundance like Chickweed (Stellaria media), Dandelions, Nettles (Urtica dioica), Yellow Dock (Rumex spp.) and various members of the Brassicaceae.

Soon i will head south to Florida to be with my family for the holiday season and from there i will complete the last class of the year on Neotropical plants. Between then and now the class on Desert plants will be up in a couple weeks. For anybody reading this thanks for hanging on!

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. 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 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 in the northern hemisphere for instance.

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


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 a generally short stature of most 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.

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.

Having hairs on the foliage and other parts 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.

The biodiversity between different areas with this habitat is vast, though the total number of species in any one place harboring this type of environment is typically fairly low. 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.

My Story with Alpine/Boreal plants

This is one of my all-time favorite habitats to botanize within. My greatest extended experiences for this ecotype have included visits to participate in the plant walks and Green Path camp at the annual National Rainbow Gathering. Some examples include California, Modoc National Forest, 2004, Colorado, Routt National Forest 2006, Utah, Wasatch-Cache National Forest 2003, Washington, Gifford-Pinchot National Forest, 2011 and Wyoming, Bridger Teton National Forest, 2008.

Other areas have included travels through Crater Lake in Oregon, Yosemite in California and travels through Montana and Yellowstone/Glacier National Parks. It is wild that within decades there will be no glaciers left in their namesake park after having been there for thousands of years!

More exotic locales i have been privileged to see include thousands of miles of travels in Alaska as the 50th state in the USA visited by me. Great thanks to my big brother Rob Routhieaux for helping make that happen! i also owe a great debt of gratitude to my folks for supporting me in travels through Europe where they live. We visited the Pyrenees together which included in particular the tiny alpine country of Andorra and the Valle de Nuria. Subsequently, i also spent a little time solo in the Julian Alps outside Lubljana, Slovenia.

A similar type of plant collection also occurs in various parts of Latin America and is often referred to by the term of Paramo. (Balslev & Lutyen, 1992; Cooper et al., 2010; Gavilanes et al., 1999; Hooghiemstra et al., 1992; Islebe & Kappelle, 1994; Kappelle et al., 1995; Kappelle & Horn, 2005; Sklenar, 2005). i feel very grateful to have explored such areas in Bolivia, Chile, Costa Rica, and Peru.

The associated photo albums with this class reflect many of these experiences in the links below



Major Families


          This group consists of mosses, hornworts and liverworts. These are ancient plants that don’t have a proper vascular system like the Pteridophytes but they similarly reproduce by spores. Mosses and liverworts are further separated by their reproductive structures. i have come across one specific guide source so far for this plant group in the alpine ecotype (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) and Naugehyde Liverwort (Ptilidium pulcherrimum) (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Green Tongue Liverwort (Marchantia polymorpha) is species listed for this ecotype but also as a cosmopolitan weed of gardens, greenhouses and nurseries where it can kill seedlings (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Mosses can be broken up into a number of groups including: Dung, Forest floor, Peatland, Rock/Soil, Seep/Swamp, Weedy and Wood/Bark. Mosses of which Sphagnum is preferred have a tradition of many uses in boreal North America including as a lining for pits, to wipe off fish, stuffing mattresses, pillows, lining cradles, covering floors, mixed with pitch to caulk canoes and mud to chink cabins (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995; Kimmerer, 2003).

Following are some typical circumpolar mosses from the various groups according to one source (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) and 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 history of use to dissolve kidney and gallbladder stones as well as a hair rinse. Another use is also as a source of fiber to make baskets, brooms, brushes, mats, rugs since ancient times in Europe (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 (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Pteridophytes: 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 has witnessed a massive splitting by the Pteridophyte Phylogeny group (Schuettpelz et al., 2016; Schuettpelz & Pryer, 2007; Smith et al., 2006).

Many ferns occur in these areas as well including from Europe and North America all of the following genera: Asplenium, Athyrium, Botrychium, Carpogymnia/Gymnocarpium, Cryptogramma, Cystopteris, Dryopteris, Matteuccia, Ophioglossum, Pellaea, Phegopteris, Polystichum, Pteridium, Thelypteris and Woodsia (Huxley, 1967; Johnson, Goward, et al., 1995; Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Rusty back (Ceterach officinarum) is a European fern with a genus unfamiliar to me that may have wider distribution (Huxley, 1967).

Horsetails (Equisetum 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 (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).


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 have occurred lately regarding major genera like Cetraria, Parmelia and Tuckermannopsis.


i have come across one specific guide to the alpine lichens of New England (Pope, 2005). A couple guides describe the lichens of Mt Mitchell in NC and the taxa of the Rockies as well (Lendemer et al., 2017; St Clair, 1999). Guides for various areas of Costa Rica some of which approximate this type of habitat have been developed as well (Kappelle & Sipman, 1992; Lücking et al., 2008; Umaña & Sipman, 2002).


Books by Lonepine press for the Pacific Northwest, Yukon and Alaska often have some lichens too (Chambers et al., 1996; Johnson, Goward, et al., 1995; Johnson et al., 2009; Kershaw et al., 1998; Legasy, 1995; MacKinnon, 2013; MacKinnon & Pojar, 2013a; Pojar & MacKinnon, 2004; Vitt et al., 2007).


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.) and 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.) and Waxpaper (Parmelia sulcata).


Fruticose/Shrub Like


Gristles (Ramalina spp.), Old Man’s beard (Usnea spp.), Reindeer (Cladina spp.) Spruce Moss (Evernia mesomorpha) and 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 (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995)!


Lichen ethnobotany is fascinating and comprises everything from food, to medicines and and craft materials (Ignace et al., 2017; Kalle & Sõukand, 2012; Kolosova et al., 2020; MacKinnon et al., 2016; Rogers, 2014; Uzunov & Stoyneva-Gärtner, 2015; Yang et al., 2021). They are especially legendary and important to cultures around the world as a source of natural dyes (Bolton, 1972; Casselman, 1994, 2001, 2011; Gordon, 1980; Lindsay, 1855; McClure, 1992; McGrath, 1977).


However, as stated above many lichens grow very slowly and should never be harvested unless in an emergency or after storm fall especially in the case of tree lichens. A literature concerning lichen conservation has understandably been developed (Allen, 2017; Allen et al., 2019; Giordani et al., 2020; Miller et al., 2020). 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 lichen 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 (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Usnic acid in the Usnea genus is also a famous antibiotic (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995; 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 in tree form are often not very present in alpine conditions. That said quite a bit of diversity exists regarding 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, but much overlap will occur at the family and even genus level, no matter where one may find themselves in the world. 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 a few 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)


Grossulariaceae (Ribes)


Tamaricaceae (Tamarix)


Caprifoliaceae (Linnaea, Lonicera, Symphoricarpos)


Hydrangeaceae (Jamesia, Philadelphus)


Thymeleaceae (Daphne, Thymelaea)



A few families 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, Cercocarpus, Cotoneaster, Dryas, Holodiscus, 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, Brassicaceae, Caryophyllaceae, Ericaceae, Fabaceae, Orobanchaceae, Ranunculaceae, Rosaceae, and Saxifragaceae.

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, Astragalus, Campanula, Castilleja, Draba, Epilobium, Erigeron, Eriogonum, Gentiana, Oxytropis, Pedicularis, Phacelia, Polygonum, Potentilla, Ranunculus, Saxifraga, Senecio, Stellaria, Taraxacum, Valeriana and 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 (Caltha 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 many 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 and 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 genera include (Agropyron, Agrostis, Bromus, Calamagrostis, Cinna, Danthonia, Deschampsia, Elymus, Festuca, Glyceria, Helictotrichon, Hierochloe, Hordeum, Koeleria, Muhlenbergia, Nardus, Phalaris, Phleum, Phragmites, Poa, Stipa and Trisetum).

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


          The Dicots have a surprising array of diversity regarding herbaceous plants. This includes at least 48 families. Many of these families like those of the other groups discussed already are not very diverse ranging from one to three genera included in the chart below comprising over half the total. Some taxonomy 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. This includes Mimulus to the Phrymaceae, the bulk of the others to the Plantaginaceae and the parasitic members to the Orobanchaceae. Hippuridaceae is now also in the Plantaginaceae. Monotropaceae and Pyrolaceae are now subsets of the Ericaceae.

Amaranthaceae (Chenopodium)


Diapensiaceae (Diapensia)

Euphorbiaceae (Euphorbia, Mercurialis)


Paeoniaceae (Paeonia)


Berberidaceae (Epimedium)


Frankeniaceae (Frankenia)


Papaveraceae (Corydalis, Fumaria, Papaver)


Callitrichaceae (Callitriche)


Geraniaceae (Erodium, Geranium)


Phrymaceae (Mimulus)


Campanulaceae (Campanula, Jasione, Lobelia)


Lentibulariaceae (Pinguicula)

Plumbaginaceae (Armeria)

Resedaceae (Reseda)


Celastraceae (Parnassia)

Linaceae (Linum)

Rubiaceae (Asperula, Galium, Houstonia)

Cistaceae (Helianthemum)


Loasaceae (Mentzelia)


Santalaceae (Arceuthobium

Geocaulon, Thesium)



Malvaceae (Iliamna, Malva, Sidalcea)


Scrophulariaceae (Verbascum)


Convulvulaceae (Convolvulus, Cuscuta)


Menyanthaceae (Menyanthes)

Valerianaceae (Centranthus, Valeriana)


Crassulaceae (Rhodiola, Sedum, Sempervivum)


Montiaceae (Montia)

Violaceae (Viola)



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

Apiaceae (Angelica, Bupleurum, Chaerophyllum, Eryngium, Heracleum, Lomatium, Oreoxis, Oxypolis, 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 syn Aurinia, Arabis, Aubrieta, Braya, Cardamine, Descurainia, Erysimum, Hornungia, Lesquerella, Noccaea, Physaria, Synthyris, Thlaspi),

Caryophyllaceae (Arenaria, Cerastium, Honckenya, Melandrium syn Silene, Paronychia, Sagina, Silene, Stellaria)

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

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

Ericaceae (Andromeda, Arctostaphylos, Cassiope, ChamaedaphneHypopitys, Ledum, Loiseleuria, Oxycoccus, Orthilia, Phyllodoce, Pterospora, Pyrola, Vaccinium) Formerly other families

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

Gentianiaceae (Frasera, Gentiana, Lomatogonium, Swertia)

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

Onagraceae (Circaea, Clarkia, Epilobium syn Zauschneria, Oenothera) Zauschneria

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

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

Polemoniaceae (Collomia, Gilia, Ipomopsis, Leptodactylon, Leptosiphon syn. Linanthastrum, Phlox, Polemonium)

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

Portulaceae (Claytonia, Lewisia, Cistanthe syn. Calyptridium  & Spraguea)

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

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

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

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

Introduced genera to the Americas according to the USDA include Calamint (Calamintha spp.), Carline 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 (Noccaea fendleri syn Thlaspi montanum), Smooth Honeywort (Cerinthe glabra) and Thyme (Thymus spp.).  


          A number of different types of conditions regarding soil, weather, elevation, rockiness, water availability and latitude will affect the plant communities growing. Soils can be either acidic or more basic. Heath is a term used for acidic growing environments and species in the Hypericum genus and 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) Myricaceae, (Parnassia) Celastraceae, (Pinguicula) Lentibulariaceae and (Tofieldia) Liliaceae.

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, Sagittaria

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 Sedge and Rush 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, fellfields, gravel bars and talus are a few types of rocky growing conditions. Talus Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) and Siberian Smelowskia (Smelowskia calycina) are a couple examples of plants from these areas.

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 (Dasiphora fruticosa syn. Potentilla fruticosa), Star Felwort (Swertia perennis) and 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 (Vaccinium oxycoccos syn. Oxycoccus microcarpus), Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia), Bog Star (Parnassia palustris), Bulblet Saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua), Cuckoo Flower (Cardamine pratensis), Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum),  Felwort (Gentiana acuta), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Purple Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia), Swamp cinquefoil (Comarum palustre syn Potentilla palustris), Yukon Saxifrage (S. reflexa), Roundleaf Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) and 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) and Moss Gentian (Gentiana prostrata) (Strickler, 1990). Common Bladderwort (Utricularia macrorhiza syn. U. vulgaris) is another (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 (Dasiphora fruticosa syn. Potentilla fruticosa, P. norvegica).

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

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

Alpine Forget Me Not (Eritrichium aretioides syn E. nanum), Creeping Sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens), King’s Crown (Sedum roseum), Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia),  Spotted Saxifrage (S. bronchialis) and Western  Fringed Gentian (Gentiana thermalis) are a few more (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 syn K. macrantha), 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) and Tufted Hairgrass (Deschampsia caespitosa) (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

The Americas

Alaska is an interesting area to cover plants that are the focus of 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 the area of Wrangell-St Elias in Alaska include Eutrema and Halimolobos in the Brassicaceae as well as Wilhelmsia in the Caryophyllaceae (Association, 2002).

Ethnobotanically speaking Parry’s Wallflower 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 area (Alexander et al., 1986; J. P. Anderson & Pohl, 2016; Chapin et al., 2006; Extension, 2012; Hulten, 1968; Kari et al., 2013; Pratt, 1993; Schofield, 2003; E. Viereck et al., 1987).

An Alaskan endemic is Smelowskia borealis. Some plants that grow in only Alaska and Canada  are Artic Douglasia (Douglasia arctica), 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; L. Viereck & Little, 2007). Here’s a website that takes on fruit growing in Alaska Alaska Pioneer Fruit Growers Association.

New England has a relatively small area of these types of growing conditions. That said at least one resource is available (Slack & Bell, 2014).

The Rockies comprise a huge area from Colorado and Utah in the south all the way into Canada (Arno, 1984; Gilbert & Graham, 1996; Nicholls & Ward, 2002; Seebeck, 1998; Shaw & On, 1981). Therefore not surprisingly a rich literature has developed to support the exploration of this inspirational area. Colorado in particular is rich in resources describing the alpine habitat (Ackerfield, 2015; Ells, 2011; Weber, 1991; Weber & Wittmann, 2012b, 2012a).

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; Turner, 1973, 1983, 1988).


The Alps in Europe are one of the more famous regions for the ecotype covered in this class. Thoughts of the region make me think of the famous Edelweiss (Leontopodium spp.) i have come across a few wildflower guides to the area (Bajd, 2015; Bennett, 1897; Hoppe, 2013; Mayer, 1963; Price, 2014; Stefenelli, 1994). A book covering the growing and propagation of plants from the region may be of interest as well (Jermyn et al., 2005). The flora of Europe is of use of course too (Blamey & Grey-Wilson, 1989; Cullen et al., 2011a, 2011b, 2011c, 2011d, 2011e; Tutin, 1989, 2010a, 2010b, 2010c; Tutin et al., 1976, 1993).

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.

Listed below are a few genera that i am not familiar with according to one admittedly older field guide so it is possible 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 includes 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) and St. Bruno’s Lily (Paradisea liliastrum). The Poaceae also contains a couple genera including Oreochloa and 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) and 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 a few good texts to the Flowers of the Himalayan region in general (Polunin & Stainton, 1985, 1998; Stainton, 1989). The tiny country of Bhutan in particular has some well developed resources (Grierson & Long, 2003; Thinley Namgyel & Karma Tenzin, 2009; Tshewang et al., 2021; Wangchuk, 2009, 2011).

Here are a few resources for the ethnobotany of the region as well (Abbasi et al., 2012, 2014; Bhattarai et al., n.d.; Cook, 1997; Joshi et al., 2016; Lancaster, 1983; Manandhar, 1980; Manandhar & Manandhar, 2002; Pradhan et al., 2020; Rahman et al., 2019; Rhoades, 1997, 1997; Salick et al., 2014, 2020; Sigdel et al., 2017; Sood, 2001; Subedi et al., 2013; Tamang, 2009; Watanabe et al., 2005; Yang et al., 2021).

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 areas there (Kudo, 2016; Tabuchi, 1979; Takeda, 1938, 1961, 1969; Tetsuji Gillette, 1960, 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, 1985; Malcolm & Malcolm, 2003; Mark, 1973; Metcalf, 1996; Parkinson, 2001; 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 as described formerly above (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, Ledum

Fabaceae Hedysarum mackenzii versus edible Hedysarum alpinum, Thermopsis,

Liliaceae sensu lato Maianthemum dilatatum, Veratrum, Zigadenus syn. Toxicoscordion

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 (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). One source reports Fir Club Moss (Huperzia selago syn. 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 Foods for People from the  Gymnosperms and Angiosperms

Ethics matter even more in such special habitats. It is important to only harvest when abundant. Focus on the above ground parts for the most part and on the weeds as well. That said special occasions may call for a broader pallet whether for survival, seasonal celebration or something else important.

A number of categories can frame the conversation about the food that grows for people in this area.

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 the fleshy cones of Juniperus scopulorum in the summer and fall (Shaw & On, 1981). In the Pinaceae an Indigenous tradition of eating the seeds of Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) exists as well as making a meal for bread and consuming bark as a survival food (Shaw & On, 1981). Pine nuts from Europe the Mediterranean and desert southwest. are another example (Lanner, 1981; Wiles, 2016).

Fleshy fruits from woody plants 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.) in the Fagaceae make up the lion’s 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) and 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 had some great personal experiences eating the flowers of Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon spp.) and flowers of Brassicas. However, it is very important to know that some of these can be rather rare though! Petals of roses provide a ready 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 (Maianthemum racemosum syn. 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 (Chamerion latifolium syn. Epilobium latifolium) Engelmann Aster (Eucephalus engelmannii syn. Aster engelmannii), Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), Nettles (Urtica dioica) and 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.) and Shepard’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) are a few others (Pratt, 1990). Cooked greens of Marsh Marigold are known from this area and others in the world (Caltha leptosepala) (Shaw, 1981).

Young stems and leaves of Roseroot (Rhodiola spp. syn Sedum roseum) are edible raw or cooked and the young shoots of Sudenten Lousewort (Pedicularis sudetica) are 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, especially 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). Flowers and leaves of Pineapple Weed (Matricaria discoidea syn Matricaria matricariodes), leaves and stems of Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), leaves and seeds of Bedstraw (Galium spp.) are a few other tea plants (Schofield, 2003). Leaves of Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium) are used to make a tea called Kapor in Russia (E. Viereck et al., 1987). Tea of Marsh Cinquefoil leaves is much known throughout the artic and the root tea is used medicinally as well (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).


Seaweeds also occur very far north in latitude where the elevation is low but the environment is frigid in a similar manner to other taxa from alpine environments. Some examples of which that are edible include Bladderwrack (Fucus spp.), Bull Kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana), Dulse (Palmaria mollis), Nori (Porphyra spp.), Ribbon Kelp (Alaria) and Sea Lettuce (Ulva spp.) (Schofield, 2003). i have come across a couple resources specifically for the Seaweeds of Alaska (Garza, 2013; Lindeberg & Lindstrom, 2012).


Seeds of Jewelweed and Lambsquarters 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 (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Underground Foods

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

Roots of Marsh Cinquefoil (Comarum palustre syn Potentilla palustris) have an indigenous tradition of consumption after boiling or roasting (Shaw, 1981). Cooked roots of Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) Citation.

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 while roots of Pointed Mariposa Lily (Calochortus apiculatus) and Thistles (Cirsium spp.) have a tradition of being eaten in times of emergency (Shaw & On, 1981). Bulbs of Camas (Camassia quamash) and Yampah (Perideridia gairdneri ssp. borealis syn P. montana) are a couple of the most famous (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 lutea ssp. polysepala syn Nuphar polysepalum) (Pratt, 1990; Shaw & On, 1981). Arrowhead (Sagittaria cuneata) roots eaten raw but better roasted 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 lanata syn 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 Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa) as a 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

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 as well as many other use mentioned above (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 the cooled tea for an eye wash as well as kidney trouble and asthma (E. Viereck et al., 1987). A colleague has developed a guide to the edible ferns of the world more generally for further reference (Łuczaj, 2022).

Amaranthaceae: Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), Strawberry Blite (Chenopodium capitatum) (Gray, 2011).

Asteraceae: Wormwood (Artemisia tilesii) for hotpacks and liniments applied to sore muscles as well as internally for cold, flu, and upset stomach (Schofield, 2003).Gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa) indigenous tradition externally for poison ivy and the gum used for asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough (Shaw, 1981). Some other common medicinals from this family include Arnica spp., Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), Dandelion (Taraxacum alaskanum, T. caratophorum, T. officinale), Goldenrod (Solidago spp.), Wild Chamomile (Matricaria discoidea),Wild Sage (Artemisia frigida, A. tilesii), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) (Gray, 2011).

Caryophyllaceae: Nailwort (Paronychia spp.) used medicinally to treat infected finger and toenails (Strickler, 1990). Chickweed (Stellaria media) (Gray, 2011).

Ericaceae: Arctostaphylos for urinary tract and as a tobacco adjuvant or substitute. Pipsissewa (Chimaphila umbellata) for a variety of ailments (S. Foster & Hobbs, 2002; Gray, 2011; Shaw, 1981). Blueberry (Vaccinium ovalifolium, V. uliginosum), Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), Labrador Tea (Ledum groenlandicum and L. palustre), Mossberry (Empetrum sp.) (Gray, 2011).

Lamiaceae: Monarda fistulosa as a remedy for bronchial issues and skin disorders (Shaw & On, 1981). Mint (Mentha arvensis) (Gray, 2011).

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

Pinaceae: Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta), Subalpine Fir (Abies lasiocarpa), Spruce (Picea glauca, P. mariana), Tamarack (Larix laricina) (Gray, 2011).

Polygonaceae: Dock, Mountain Sorrel (Oxyria digyna), Sheep Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) (Gray, 2011).

Rosaceae: The leaves of Antelope Bitterbrush (Purshia tridentata) have an indigenous tradition of use a cough medicine (Shaw, 1981). Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), Raspberry (Rubus idaeus), Rose (Rosa acicularis), Saskatoon Berry (Amelanchier alnifolia), Strawberry(Fragaria virginiana) (Gray, 2011).

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

Salicaceae: Aspen (Populus tremuloides), Cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) and Willows (Salix spp.) (Gray, 2011).

Some other families of note with traditional uses include woodies from the Adoxaceae (Viburnum edule), Araliaceae (Oplopanax), Betulaceae (Alnus, Betula), Cupressaceae (Juniperus communis, J. horizontalis), Elaeagnaceae (Shepherdia canadensis) and Grossulariaceae (Ribes hudsonianum, R. oxycanthoides, R. triste).

Other herbaceous families of note Amaryllidaceae (Allium schoenoprasum), Boraginaceae (Mertensia paniculata), Crassulaceae (Rhodiola integrifolia), Equisitaceae (Equisetum arvense), Gentianiaceae (Gentianella amarella), Onagraceae (Chamerion angustifolium, C. latifolium), Plantaginaceae (Plantago major), Poaceae (Hierochloe hirta ssp. arctica syn Anthoxanthum hirtum, A. monticola),  Rubiaceae (Galium boreale, G. trifidum, G. triflorum), Urticaceae (Urtica), Valerianaceae (Valeriana capitata, V. dioica) (Gray, 2011).

Parasitic Plants

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

Ericaceous plants are an interesting group. The parasitic members used to be in separate families i.e. the 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 known as the Coral Roots (Corallorhiza spp.) (Keenan, 1998).

The Orobanchaceae is a famous parasitic family round the world. It has grown greatly by the addition of the parasitic members of the Scrophulariaceae. Some genera of the family growing in very cold conditions as currently treated include (Bartsia, Boschniakia, Castilleja, Euphrasia, Melampyrum, Odontites, Orobanche, Orthocarpus and Pedicularis).

Major Wildlife Foods for North America

It is important to remember that wild animals don’t have grocery stores! Make sure to maintain the local resources with that in mind while foraging…

Bears feed on Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum) in the spring (Shaw & On, 1981). They are also known to feed on the bulbs in particular (Shaw & On, 1981). Other food for Bears 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 use it as a building material (Shaw, 1981). A favorite browse is Whiplash Willow (S. lucida ssp. lasiandra syn 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 (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 (Ipomopsis aggregata syn Gilia aggregata) provide nectar for Hummingbirds (Shaw, 1981). The hard seeds of Thread Leaved pondweed (Potamogeton filiformis) are adapted to distribution by birds (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) (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Food for Deer include leaves of White Spirea (Spiraea betulifolia) and Bunchberry Dogwood (Cornus canadensis) (Shaw & On, 1981).  They also eat Usnea when other food is sparse (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995). Deer and Elk eat the greens of American Bistort (Polygonum bistortoides) 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 membranaceum syn Vaccinium globulare), Rocky Mountain Maple (Acer glabrum) and Sasakatoon/Western Serviceberry (Amelachier alnifolia) (Shaw & On, 1981).  Caribou, Moose and Muskrats feed on the sweet rootstocks of Common Reedgrass (Phragmites australis) (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 Birch leaf Spirea (Spiraea betulifolia) and fruits of Common Snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) (Shaw & On, 1981). They also feed on Cascade Mountain Ash which Grosbeaks feed on as well (Shaw & On, 1981). Several song birds use lichens like Usnea spp. in their nest building (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/Reindeer feed on lichens such as Iceland Moss (Cetraria islandica) and  when overgrazing happens Wooly Coral (Steroecaulon tomentosum) patches may take over (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) for bows (Shaw & On, 1981). False Melic (Schizachne purpurascens) is traditionally used by Chipewyan people to make wicks for grease lamps burned in birch wood bowls (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

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) (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).

Another Indigenous tradition is that of weaving baskets, making clothing and utensils from Beargrass (Xerophyllum tenax) (Strickler, 1990). Willows are famous plants used in basketry all over the world (Schofield, 2003; TerBeest, 1988; Trestain, 1998). Cornus serícea is another plant for basketry as well. Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) for canoes, lodges and tótem poles (Shaw & On, 1981).

Floral Arrangements can be made from the various Docks (Rumex spp.) and Goldenrods (Solidago spp.).

i have not yet come across a lot of information on natural dyes from the area. However, a couple examples include an indigenous tradition in NW Americas of dye from the flowers and leaves of Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) and 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 models for such plants in models which is a multi-million dollar industry in Finland and Sweden (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 (Johnson, Kershaw, et al., 1995).


          Many elements threaten this fragile and ever changing ecosystem. Some examples include climate change, exotic invasives, fire, and Pine Beetles.

Some recent publications have looked at the problem of climate change in particular in which effects are being seen much faster than at other altitudes and latitudes in the world (Kellomaki, 2016; Nagy et al., 2003; 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). A couple potential invasives of this type of habitat include Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and White Campion (Silene latifolia). One study combines the problem of climate change with exotic invasives (Thuiller et al., 2007).

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


These plants have been highly sought after for centuries and thereby one might imagine a host of references for cultivating them. 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. In one resource he includes unusual genera (Bloom, 1994). i have also come across an encyclopedic guide that is alphabetical by genus (Ingwersen, 1991).

There are quite an number of other guides to cultivation of Alpine plants as well (Clarke, 2010; R. Foster, 1982; Good, 2007; Halliwell, 1992; Jermyn et al., 2005; Murfitt, 2005).

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 Exotic and New Zealand as well as rare plants from the worldwide alpine ecotype in general. Places like Mt Kilamajaro in Africa and similar habitats in HI and other more typically tropical places would also be interesting. The continuing effects of climate change are an area for further exploration. Here is an intriguing article on Critchfield’s Spruce (Picea critchfieldii) which is an example of a typically alpine genus growing in the deepsouth of the USA historically as well as an article by the BBC about the grief that comes to communities as winter weather fades away.

For the next class we will cover major Desert Plants and it will be posted around December 10th

Please write me directly at marc@botanyeveryday.com or leave information in the commentary under this class. Praises to all that have donated to the cause!!! i encourage everyone reading this to donate as they are able financially, commentarialy, or energetically... Your contributions greatly help me continue this crucial work of ethnobotanical research and education. Please let me know your thoughts in general and any way i can help this class serve you best.

Thanks, marc


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