Vaccinium uliginosum (Alpine Bilberry)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Genus:Vaccinium
Family:Ericaceae (Heath)
Life cycle:perennial woody
Origin:native
Status:
  • State Endangered
Habitat:part shade, sun; bedrock outcrops and pools along Lake Superior, tundra, alpine thickets
Bloom season:June
Plant height:2 to 12 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC MW: none NCNE: FAC
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: 5-petals Flower shape: bell

[photo of flowers] 1 or 2 nodding, bell-like flowers at the tips of 1-year-old twigs. Flowers are about ¼ inch long, broadly urn shaped, often slightly wider than long. The 5 white to pinkish to almost red petals (sometimes only 4 in other parts of its range) have triangular tips that curl back.

inside the flower In the center is a cluster of brown, tubular stamens surrounding a white to pale green style. The calyx is hairless, reddish to dark purple with 4 or 5 triangular lobes that are mostly appressed. The stalk is red and hairless.

Leaves and stems: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are simple and alternate, 1/3 to 7/8 inch long, ¼ to 2/3 inch wide, broadly elliptical to egg shaped, more tapered towards the base, the tip rounded or with an obscure point, and stalkless or nearly so. Blade edges are smooth, often tinged red, the upper surface dark green with a dull luster and a network of veins highly translucent and embossed. The lower surface is pale green with minute hairs, especially on veins. Twigs are generally short and stout; on new growth, notably quite red with dense, minute hairs, quickly aging to reddish brown or brown, the older branches aging to smooth gray.

Fruit: Fruit type: berry/drupe

[photo of developing fruit] Fruit is a round berry, ¼ to 1/3 inch diameter with a waxy powdery blue coating; occasionally the coating is absent making the berries a shiny bluish black.

Notes:

Bilberry is a species of the arctic and subarctic regions around the world, only extending southward via colder alpine habitats. One might imagine it flourished across much of Minnesota as our most recent glaciers began their retreat northward, but today its Minnesota presence is restricted to a tiny population at the extreme northeastern tip of the state along the rocky shores of Lake Superior. Having persisted for unknown ages in this austere, isolated location, it regenerates through vegetative means as the immediate habitat provides little opportunity for seedlings to establish. According to the DNR, Alpine Bilberry has only been recorded 3 times in the state, and only one of those populations is known to still exist. It was designated a Threatened species in 1984 and upgraded to Endangered in 2013 after extensive searches yielded no additional locations.

But that doesn't mean no new locations exist! While the DNR is pretty thorough with their biological surveys, it isn't possible to search every inch of possible habitat, and as luck would have it, while we were scouring the north shore near Grand Marais in search of Small False Asphodel (Tofieldia pusilla), we stumbled upon a previously undocumented population of Alpine Bilberry on private property. What may be an important factor in this is the isolation of this stretch of shore: no public access and very little foot traffic may have helped insulate this population from destruction. More scattered populations may yet be found along the north shore.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka and Peter M. Dziuk taken in Cook County.

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