A Whole New World: Alaska's Wildflowers

My expectations for Alaska were filled with wondrous visions of riding bears and dancing with wolves. I envisioned learning the ways of the natives and catching fifty pound salmon. I pictured myself living within the wilderness surrounded by rushing rivers and towering mountain peaks. While some of my expectations may have been a little fantastic, I was not disappointed by what I have found here. Above all, the thing that was totally unexpected and yet has truly taken hold and captured my interest are the wonderful wildflowers of the Alaskan wilderness. 

Naturally as a wildlife enthusiast and Eagle Scout, I was excited about seeing bears and moose and caribou. Yet as we made our way through both national parks and scenic hikes, I began to discover an abundance of life that I had not been prepared for. On many of the hikes our guides would stop to point out different plants, describing them in detail. I almost never paid attention to this preferring to scour the area for the bigger life-forms. It wasn’t until I was hiking high up in Denali National Park in what is considered alpine tundra did my perspective change.  We were being led along the ridge of a mountain, heading for a herd of Dall sheep, when I saw a tiny little blue flower with a yellow center. Such a simple little flower,  yet at that moment I saw how incredible this plant must’ve been to be able to thrive in such a harsh environment. It was so delicate and seemingly insignificant, yet it completely captivated and  inspired me. 

This little plant turned out to be the Alpine Forget-Me-Not, Alaska’s state flower. From that point on I began to pay much closer attention to all the life surrounding me, not just the big and dangerous. I purchased a field guide and began to identify any flowers that I came by. It wasn’t long till I grew to love Alaska’s wildflowers. The more I observed, the more I realized how remarkable plants are and this realization truly changed and enhanced my experience. I noticed how people would walk through the Alaskan wilderness hoping to see a wolf or a lynx completely ignoring the abundance of life only inches away. I am so happy to have gained this respect and understanding for Alaska’s native plant life because it has given me a better glimpse into what this place truly is. Both the plants and the animals are crucial in maintaining their ecosystem, a fact which more often than not goes unnoticed. Because of this new-found respect, I have been able to truly experience the wildlife of Alaska in all its remarkable forms. Whether it’s Arctic Lupine, Monk’s Hook, Siberian Aster, Fireweed, or the Alpine Forget-Me-Not; all of these flowers are important and have revealed a world in which I was completely ignorant to. They have taught me that beauty is spontaneous and open, existing in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and colors; a lesson that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.  

While I obviously cannot go into detail about every flower Alaska has to offer, here are some of my favorites that I encountered along my journey through the Last Frontier:

Arctic Lupine - One of the coolest plants I've ever seen, Lupine
is poisonous to humans, but is an important food source
for grouse and Alaska's state bird, the ptarmigan.

Red Columbine - Found this near a waterfall, the Red Columbine
attracts both hummingbirds and butterflies due to the open
chutes that lead straight to its nectar.
Tall Larkspur - Another great plant, Larkspur is poisonous to
both humans and animals. Able to get up to 6 feet tall, its seeds
are its most toxic part. Check out Glenn in the background!

Monk's Hood (Wolf's Bane) - Another toxic plant, it is named for
its resemblance to the hood of a monk. It was once called
Wolf's Bane because of its use in poisoning wolves
who at the time were wrongly believed to be a
detriment to the Alaskan ecosystem.

Alpine Forget-Me-Not - Alaska's state flower; they were
once worn to maintain a lover's affection. They grow
on mountain slopes and in alpine tundra.

Cow Parsnip - One of the larger plants I came across, Cow
Parsnip has an alkaloid inside its stem that can
react with sunlight to cause an irritating rash. I noticed
a lot of people confused it with Yarrow.

Yarrow - Much smaller than Cow Parsnip, Yarrow has unusual
fern-like leaves, making it easy to identify. It is an
aromatic herb, often being used in tea.

Fireweed - Extremely common on hillsides and meadows, Fireweed was
one of the first plants I noticed in Alaska simply because it was
everywhere. It's been known to be used in jams, ice cream
and even candy. It's named for its appearance in
areas that have recently had forest fires.

Blue Bells - A pretty little flower, these plants are
also known as chiming bells. They grow in
meadows, beaches, and woodlands.

Siberian Aster - Characterized by its starburst flower head,
Siberian Aster is just one of Alaska's aster species.

Thanks for reading! Come see these flowers for yourself!

--Stephen St. Michael

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