On our walk around Paradise Meadows this week both species of heather commonly found in the sub-alpine were in full bloom. Fairly easy to identify, you can impress fellow hikers with your ability to separate the two plants. Pink mountain-heather has flowers that are … pink. White mountain-heather has flowers that are … white.
There you have it.
Once you’ve got them sorted out, take a closer look at the flower structure and structure of the leaves and you’ll realize that these two similar looking plants are actually quite different in ways other than flower colour. Both species are often mixed together so you’ve got plenty of chances to compare them.
White mountain-heather (Cassiope mertensiana) forms low mats over the ground. Its small leaves are scale-like and opposite and arranged in 4 rows, resulting in stems that have the braided look of cedar needles. Of course the flowers are white, and are bell-like in shape, usually nodding.
Pink mountain-heather (Phyllodoce empetriformis) also forms low mats over the ground. The leaves are more needle-like and alternate, resulting in stems that have a more “scraggly” look. Obviously the flowers of this species of heather are pink in colour but the colour ranges to deep rose. The flowers are bell-like in shape and nodding. Compare the structure of this heather to crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) which is often found in the same locations.
While these two species of heather are easy to see in Paradise Meadows, you have to do a little more work to find yellow mountain-heather (Phyllodoce glanduliflora) in Strathcona Provincial Park. You’ll usually see this last species of heather at higher elevations. We found some on Morrison Spire when we hiked up to Marble Meadows in 2005 and have seen it on other high places in the park.
Note that yellow mountain-heather is in the same genus as pink mountain-heather and has some similar characteristics. The leaves are needle-like and alternate but the flowers are yellowish-green rather than pink. The flowers are sticky-glandular and urn-like in shape.
You won’t miss the pink and white mountain-heathers if you take a walk in the meadows—they carpet the ground in beautiful dense mats of colour. Take a closer look and you might just be inspired to plan a hike to higher elevations to search for the yellow mountain-heather!