If you have hiked up Blackerby or another ridge this spring, or taken the tram to tree line, you have seen the early flowers like Cooley buttercups on Gastineau Ridge or bog rosemary in a high muskeg or alpine meadow. "Alpine" usually refers to areas above the "montane" zone and above tree line, also above the "sub-alpine" area where bushes like salmonberry, alder, willow and blueberry dominate. On Gastineau Ridge, areas quite close to tree line can be considered alpine because the exposure to high wind and snowslides discourages brushy growth. On the other hand, there are protected micro-environments much higher that allow patches of brush and trees to survive. In Southeast Alaska, the alpine and sub-alpine zones are so intermingled we tend to refer to them together as alpine.
We can begin to see alpine species like the pale ivory narcissus anemone, pixie eye primrose, alpine azalea, Alaska moss heather and mountain heathers, dwarf willows, and villous cinquefoil on the terrace above the cross, at about 2000-feet elevation. Among the rocks by the trail we may find alp lily and Oeder's lousewort, where later in the season we'll find the inconspicuous alpine bistort, yellow star-flowered sibbaldia, and an occasional bluebell or harebell. Blueberry bushes yield to the six-inch high small-leaved dwarf bilberry at the higher elevations. Different varieties of arnica appear as you ascend, while lupines just get smaller and more woolly. Blue broad-petalled gentian are prolific near the summit of Mount Jumbo late in August, but they appear in just a few spots on the upper trail of Mount Roberts.
Over the next week or two, on the trail between the top of the tram and the cross, and likely on many other trails through muskegs or above tree line, you can find a number of flowers that are also common at lower elevations. They will be at earlier stages of bloom as you go higher. Some favorites are the purplish-blue veined Crane's bill geranium, Alaska violets, yellow stream violets, bunchberry, roseroot, caltha-leaved avens, lupine, starflower, western buttercups, and deer cabbage. Back in Granite Creek Basin or on the loop trail of Mount Roberts, you can find coltsfoot, Sitka burnet, and dwarf rosy twisted stalk with its dark purple, white fringed bell flowers. Alaska saxifrage is blooming right along the trails. Poisonous false hellebore will soon show spires of greenish blooms. Foam flower and fringecup, two more of at least nine members of the saxifrage family on the ridge, grow along the trail to the cross, but they are more common near the protective woods below.
In the eight years since the Tram opened, the Mount Roberts Stewards have been observing time and quantities of flowering. Narcissus anemone bloomed profusely in June of 1997, with much lighter bloom the next three years, then bloomed very well again in 2001. The literature on alpine plants suggests that they have diverse strategies for survival that include saving up energy for seed production, sometimes having the energy to bloom only every few years. It may be that blooming depends on sufficient sun and moisture over several seasons.
Other adaptations of alpine flowers include various strategies to keep warm, like keeping a low profile, or having hairy stems or woolly blossoms. "Cushioning" helps a plant hold heat. Moss campion has been measured with up to 40 degrees differential between the inside of the cushion and the ambient air. Chocolate lilies and other plants that do well at high elevations smell more like rotting food than like sweet perfume, probably to attract flies for pollination where bees are scarce. Most alpine plants are perennials, and many reproduce vegetatively through runners or root sprouts rather than relying on seed production and dispersal for survival.
For more information look for "The Nature of Southeast Alaska: A Guide to Plants, Animals and Habitat," by Rita M. O'Clair, Richard Carstensen and Robert H. Armstrong, all of Juneau.