Lessons from Travels: Alaska Herbs

by Carl Strang

One advantage of travel is the perspective it gives. This is, of course, the main point of the Lessons from Travels winter series of blog posts, and it is nowhere more evident than in comparative botany. Take this scene, for instance:

This lowland tundra scene from western Alaska, with the Bering Sea just beyond the horizon, features a little pingo, or ice-cored hill, topped by a dense cluster of Polemonium acutiflorum.

This lowland tundra scene from western Alaska, with the Bering Sea just beyond the horizon, features a little pingo, or ice-cored hill, topped by a dense cluster of Polemonium acutiflorum.

That species of Polemonium up close looked just like our own Jacob’s ladder (P. reptans). Our species lives in forests, however; the Alaska one of necessity was adapted to open places. Here’s another cognate, at least by its genus:

There is no mistaking this as a cinquefoil.

There is no mistaking this as a cinquefoil.

This Potentilla (egedii, I think)  grew just outside the intertidal zone, where it had to tolerate occasional flooding by seawater. I doubt that any of our local cinquefoils could grow in such conditions. One also has to broaden one’s perspective on weeds:

The eye-catching reddish plants are a species of Rumex.

The eye-catching reddish plants are a species of Rumex.

Our similar Rumex is the weedy European curly dock, R. crispus. The Alaskan one (Rumex arcticus) belonged in that landscape. I also recall a common winter cress (Barbarea) and a dandelion (Taraxacum) that were native to western Alaska, though their relatives here are regarded as undesirable invasives. At least a couple lessons are offered by such experiences: some groups of plants are extremely cosmopolitan, and one has to be careful about generalizing a plant’s value or ecological role.

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2 Comments

  1. December 11, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    We live part of the year above the arctic circle. The diversity of plants up here surprised us when we first came up. Of course, everything is low to the ground and in diminutive form compared to plants art lower latitudes. Blueberry bushes grow ankle high, if that. In summer, the variety of small flowers is astounding.

    • natureinquiries said,

      December 12, 2012 at 7:16 am

      And so beautiful, too. I neglected to mention the beauty. Thanks!


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