Vaccinium uliginosum (Alpine Bilberry)
|Also known as:|
|Life cycle:||perennial woody|
|Habitat:||part shade, sun; bedrock outcrops and pools along Lake Superior, tundra, alpine thickets|
|Plant height:||2 to 12 inches|
|Wetland Indicator Status:||GP: FAC MW: none NCNE: FAC|
|MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):|
|National distribution (click map to enlarge):|
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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.
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:
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 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.
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.
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Photos by K. Chayka and Peter M. Dziuk taken in Cook County.
Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?