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  Idaho Mountain Wildflowers

Heath Family, Ericaceae  

Ericaceae, the scientific name for the Heath family, was derived from a Greek name for a now unknown heath. The family is made up of 140 genera and approximately 3000 species of shrubs and trees. Most prefer acidic soil and the cooler temperatures of temperate zones, growing often in moist shaded areas, along streams and on mountain slopes. Although the leaves are usually opposite, they may be alternate or whorled. The flowers have four or five sepals and four to seven petals. The petals are often joined at the base to form a tube so that the flowers are urn- or bell-shaped. Many members of the family are commercially important for their fruit (Vaccinium spp.: blueberries, cranberries and related shrubs; and GayLusacia spp.: the huckleberries); others are important as decorative garden plants including many species of Rhododendron (a genus that also includes Labrador tea and azaleas). Four members of the heath family are state flowers: Rhododendron maximum for West Virginia, and Rhododendron californicum for Washington. The mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) is Pennsylvania’s state flower, and the fragrant and secretive mayflower or trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is the state flower of Massachusetts.

Pink mountain heather, Phyllodoce empetriformis (Sm.) D. Don. (left). Both this and the mountain heather shown on the right are low evergreen plants. This one’s flowers are pink and its joined petals roll outward along their margins. Phyllodoce was a water nymph in Greek mythology. Why the names of mythological Greek characters were applied to alpine heathers is a mystery; empetriformis, from the Greek, means “on rocks.” Frederick Pursh in his 1813 Flora reported seeing a Lewis and Clark specimen that was probably gathered in north-central Idaho.

Merten’s mountain heather, Cassiope mertensiana (Bong.) G. Don var. gracilis (Piper) C. L. Hitchc. (right). Merten's mountain heather and the pink mountain heather shown on the left are so closely related that they often hybridize when growing close to each other. The plants are the same size and have the same growth preferences. The name Cassiope is from Greek mythology, the name of Andromeda’s mother. The species name honors German botanist Franz Karl Merten.

Alpine laurel, Kalmia microphylla (Hook.) A. Heller (left). Our alpine laurel is a ground hugging plant closely related  the Pennsylvania state flower,  Kalmia latifolia, a white-flowered shrub or small tree often used in ornamental landscaping. The relationship between the two plants is confirmed by this plant’s woody stem and almost identically shaped flowers. Often found in the company of the two mountain heathers shown above, the alpine laurel prefers wet mountain meadows and bogs, where it blooms soon after snowmelt. Alpine laurel is poisonous to cattle and sheep—not usually a problem, given the altitude at which it grows.

Rusty menziesia, Menziesia ferruginea Sm. (right). Rusty menziesia (also “false azalea” and “fool’s huckleberry”) honors Archibald Menzies who first collected the plant. It is an attractive deciduous shrub that grows from California to Alaska, and inland to the northern Rocky Mountains. The plant prefers moist surroundings, and is often found in the company of trapper’s tea. Urn-shaped flowers, ranging in color from rust to bright red, help to identify it. The fruit is inedible, hence the common name “fool’s huckleberry.” Menziesias are sometimes used as ornamental shrubs in moist situations.

Trapper’s tea, Rhododendron neoglandulosum Harmaja (left, right). Trapper’s tea (formerly Ledum glandulosum or  L. groenlandica) is a  leathery leaved, western subapine to alpine plant that blooms in early summer. Its large white flowerheads, set off by deep green leaves, are striking. The fruit is a small brownish capsule that contains numerous seeds. The derivation of the name, “trapper's tea” is uncertain; presumably the leaves were used as a beverage in the distant past. Readers should not emulate our pioneer forebears, because the plant is poisonous.

Kinnikinnick, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (L.) Spreng (left, right). Kinnikinnick is a circumboreal plant found throughout the northern United States and Canada as well as in Europe and Asia. It is a ground-hugging plant with oval leathery leaves, urn-shaped early-blooming white flowersthat mature into bright red berries. The fruit is not really palatable, but Native Americans used it as a component of pemmican. A fur trader gave Lewis and Clark a specimen of kinnikinnick while they were overwintering at the Mandan Villages in today’s North Dakota (1804-1805). He told them that the Indians mixed leaves of kinnikinnick with the bark of the red-osier dogwood and with tobacco to stretch the tobacco supply. Kinnikinnick grows in our mountains, in moist or shady locations, and on alpine tundra.
Grouseberry, Vaccinium scoparium Leiberg ex Coville (right and left).  The grouseberry (also grouse whortleberry) is a small mountain plant that often forms dense patches of ground cover at high elevations. The plants have many thin branches and if bundled form a serviceable broom (scoparium means broom-like). In good years the plants bear many small flowers typical of those of other Vaccinium species (blueberries, cranberries, etc.). These ripen into red berries that taste like sweet blueberries. Other vacciniums grow in our mountains, but the grouseberry is the most common species at higher elevations.

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