"Flowers are the music of the ground. From earth's lips spoken without sound." - Edwin Curran
The Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla patens) is the very first spring flower to bloom in Wrangell-St. Elias. Called Crocus by some, this plant takes full advantage of the changing seasons. It starts blooming in May when there are still patches of snow on the ground. It grows on south-facing hillsides, taking full advantage of the returning warmth of the sun. Because it is still rather chilly out, the Pasque Flower wears a soft sweater of downy hairs to keep warm and opens its spectacular colorful blossoms close to the ground, huddling away from cold winds. As the days warm up, the flower grows taller. By the time it goes to seed it can be a foot or more off the ground. Now the seeds can take advantage of the wind, using it to disperse next years bounty of beauty far and wide. The best place to look for Pasque Flowers in Wrangell-St. Elias is along the Boreal Forest Trail at Park Headquarters in Copper Center, Alaska.
Lupines are one of the early-season flowers in Wrangell-St. Elias, blooming throughout the month of June. There are 2 species living in the park. The Arctic Lupine is the variety usually found in the Wrangell Mountains and the Nutzotin/Mentasta Mountains. The Nootka Lupine is a bit taller and most often found in the Chugach and St. Elias Ranges. Lupines will hybridize, so the plant you see may actually be both species! Lupines are important pioneer plants. They are nitrogen fixers. This flower has the ability to take nitrogen from the air and release it into the ground, enriching the soil and creating conditions favorable for other plants to grow.
Wooly Lousewort (Pedicularus Kanei ssp. Kanei) is such an ugly name for such a beautiful flower! The Wooly Lousewort is one of the showiest flowers of the tundra. It is covered with fuzzy down to keep itself warm, since it is an early bloomer. It usually blooms in early to mid-June. The Wooly Lousewort is most often found in alpine tundra, but occasionally makes a rare lowland appearance. Keep a sharp eye out if you are traveling the Root Glacier Trail in early summer, as they are sometimes seen near Jumbo Creek. All parts of this plant are edible. The leaves and stems are good lightly steamed or in a salad. The flowers are sweet. The roots are the most valuable; cook them like yams - baked, boiled or stir-fried. It would take a lot of these flowers to make a meal. Unless you happen to come upon a place where they are incredibly abundant, they are far too rare and beautiful to harvest.
Chiming Bells (Mertensia paniculata), sometimes called Bluebells or Languid Lady, are a June to early July flower. They are a great trail snack or addition to a salad. A member of the Borage family, the flowers taste like cucumber. The leaves are also edible, but since they have a fuzzy texture, they are better cooked. Try them in an omelet sometime!
Prickly Rose (Rosa acicularis) blooms in in mid-June and along the McCarthy Road, Prickly Rose grows like a hedge with its sweet perfume in the air for miles. Roses not only smell and look wonderful, they are also a delicious food. The flowers themselves are edible. Just tear off the white edge where the petal attaches to remove any bitterness, and the flowers are great in a salad, as a tea, or eaten right off the plant as a trail snack. Even better is the fruit, rose hips that develop later in summer. Three rose hips contain as much Vitamin C as an orange! Wait to gather them until after the first frost. The fruit is delicious, but the seeds can cause intestinal distress, so remove the seeds if you are eating them as a trail snack or using them like raisins in baking. When making jelly or tea with the fruit, you can leave the seeds intact and strain them out later. NOTE: Although prickly roses grow abundantly along many roads in Alaska, never pick edible plants along a roadside, which could contain harmful chemicals from vehicle exhaust. Pick plants along the trail or in the woods instead.
Dwarf Dogwood (Cornus canadensis) is a low growing plant which likes shady areas and provides a lovely ground cover throughout the forests of the Wrangells in June. The plant is also known as bunchberry for the four tiny berries each flower is transformed into in the fall. Although the berries are not poisonous, they are not particularly edible.
Wild Sweet Pea
Wild Sweet Pea (Hedysarum Mackenzii) grows extensively on the gravel bars of braided rivers, and will perfume the air for miles around with their delicate fragrance. This flower blooms throughout June and July. Enjoy its beauty and fine fragrance, but do not eat this plant. Wild Sweet Peas are poisonous. Although the flowers are easy to tell apart, their leaves closely resemble the leaves of Eskimo Potato, which is an edible plant.
Eskimo Potato (Hedysarum alpinum) blooms in June and July, also known as Indian Potato, with edible roots. The flowers are much more scraggly than the poisonous Wild Sweet Pea. The plants are easy to tell apart while in flower, but when it’s time to gather roots in the fall after the first frost, the differences are not so apparent. The underside of the Eskimo Potato leaves have prominent veins, whereas the Wild Sweet Pea leaves do not. Better yet, to be on the safe side, do not harvest Eskimo Potato unless you know it is growing in an area where there are no Wild Sweet Peas.
Moss Campion (Silene acaulis) grows as mounds of mossy pink flowers that bloom in the tundra throughout June and July. Get down on your knees and bury your nose in the soft, fragrant cushion. They smell sublime!
Common Fireweed (Epilobium augustifolium ssp. Augustifolium) can be found growing almost everywhere in Alaska, especially on disturbed ground and roadsides. It is named fireweed because it is a pioneer plant, usually the first to sprout following a wildfire, and it could also be called fireweed for the flame red colors of the leaves in the fall. Firewood is an edible plant and the young spring shoots are especially yummy. High in vitamins A and C, with a bit of a spicy taste, cook them like asparagus or eat them raw. Soil conditions may affect the taste, so if they are bitter in one location, try another place. Add the leaves to a salad and the flowers are a great garnish or be used to make jelly or honey. The inner pith of the stems are also edible. NOTE: Although fireweed grows abundantly along roadsides, never pick edible plants along a road. They can absorb harmful chemicals from vehicle exhaust. Pick plants along the trail or in the woods instead.
Dwarf Fireweed (Epilobium latifolium), cousin to the Common Fireweed, doesn’t grow as tall but the flowers are bigger and showier. Also known as River Beauty, this flower is especially common along the shores and gravel bars of glacial rivers. Dwarf Fireweed is also edible and may be used in the same ways as Common Fireweed. Some say it is even superior in taste to the Common Fireweed. Dwarf Fireweed blooms mid to late summer in July and August.
Yellow Dryas (Dryas Drummondii) is one of the most common flowers in Wrangell-St. Elias. It is the first pioneer to colonize the land after a glacier retreats, and grows along the rivers from the glaciers down into the valleys. Yellow Dryas grows in a tough, inhospitable environment and shares a lot of the same characteristics as tundra plants. It grows low to the ground to stay out of harsh winds and in mats, huddling together for warmth, which are slow growing but long-lived. They catch the loess, or glacial dust, and help transform rocky, barren ground into soil so that other plants may follow. Although the flowers of Yellow Dryas bloom in mid-summer, they are seldom noticed. Just a peek of yellow shows on the nodding heads, which never quite open. It is after they go to seed that Yellow Dryas really shine. The twisted wild seedheads are often called “Little Einsteins” because of their crazy hairdos. Fields of golden dryas glowing in the sun beneath a backdrop of spectacular snow-covered peaks and glaciers is a scene one will remember forever!
Last updated: September 20, 2021