This article previously appeared in the Spring 2023 Long Trail News under the headline “Alpine Steward Discovers Rare Plant on Mount Mansfield’s Summit.” It was written by Liam Ebner.
Alpine zones, the living remnants of the last ice age, make their home on the higher summits in New England and New York, where they serve as the refuge to endangered plants that have adapted to thrive in the harsh conditions there. In Vermont, less than 275 acres of this special tundra biome remain.
Because the rare patches of alpine zone lie in beautiful and popular recreational areas, their plants face multiple dangers: climate change, development, invasive species, and the most immediate danger, human recreational impacts. In such austere conditions, survival is never guaranteed. However in 2022, the alpine zone welcomed back to the community a plant long considered extinct in Vermont.
A Steward of the Alpine Zone
My first experience in the alpine zone was hiking Algonquin Peak with friends in September 2020. New York has 173 acres of alpine zone, fewer than neighboring states, all concentrated in the Adirondack High Peaks like Marcy, Haystack and Algonquin.
I knew these mountaintops were special, and I wanted to help protect them. I was fortunate to work as a summit steward for the Adirondack Mountain Club in 2021 between my junior and senior years of college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. After graduation, I returned to ADK for the 2022 season, educating hikers about the alpine zone, assisting in botany research, and maintaining trails above tree line in the High Peaks. In February this year, I became the Summit Steward Coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain Club, and am thrilled to continue working to protect this fragile ecosystem.
In October 2022, I attended the biennial Northeastern Alpine Stewardship Gathering co-hosted in Vermont by the Waterman Fund and the Green Mountain Club. The conference features professional presentations of alpine research and stewardship, and is a chance to engage with counterparts from New England, New York, and Canada to discuss challenges, trends, and successes.
After two days of presentations, conference participants went on field trips to places with significant natural histories in Vermont. I joined a trip up Mount Mansfield led by Kevin Tolan, Staff Biologist at the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, to learn about the Bicknell’s Thrush (Catharus bicknelli), a rare migratory songbird that breeds in high elevation coniferous forests before migrating south to the Greater Antilles for the winter. Like alpine plants, the alpine and subalpine breeding habitats of the Bicknell’s Thrush are threatened by climate change. In October the chance of seeing this bird was slim, so I was also checking out some plants while on the summit ridge.
Moment of Rediscovery
At our turn-around point we chatted and took a snack break. Like any curious steward, I carefully explored, making sure to stick to bare rock while off trail.
Plants in the alpine zone are extremely vulnerable to human impact: only a few footsteps can permanently damage or kill them. That’s why you’ll see white string delineating trail corridors on summits in Vermont and New Hampshire. It helps clearly guide people and dogs to stay on durable surfaces and concentrate their impact away from the most delicate plants.
I noticed a small cluster of crowberry plants clinging to the soil and sprawling across the rock. In New York, two species of crowberry plants live in the alpine zone. The more common species, black crowberry, Empetrum nigrum, is abundant on most summits, and even grows on lower summits that would not normally be considered alpine (less than 3,500 feet in elevation). It’s common in Vermont as well.
Purple crowberry, Empetrum atropurpureum, is much rarer in New York. It had not been seen in Vermont since 1908, causing biologists to list it as extinct in the state. While working in New York I picked up the habit of checking every crowberry plant, hoping to find more populations of the purple crowberry.
Two major characteristics differentiate the two plants. Berry color is the most obvious. Purple crowberry sports purple fruit, while black crowberry bears black fruit. This enables easy identification, but only when there are berries. The plant on Mansfield had no berries, so I turned to the next trait.
Black crowberry leaves grow from a bare red-orange stem, while the purple crowberry stem has the same color, but fine white hairs too. The Mansfield plant had white hairs, confirming it to be purple crowberry!
What Does Purple Crowberry’s Reappearance Mean?
Discovering a plant thought to be extinct in Vermont is extremely exciting. Not only is it great news for the biological community, it helps show that stewardship practices, such as GMC’s summit caretaker program, continue to help protect the alpine zone.
The greatest danger for these plants remains hikers’ footsteps, but the greatest protectors are hikers themselves. You need not be an outdoor professional to help ensure plant survival. Just stick to marked trails, stay on bare rock, and practice Leave No Trace principles.
Vermont’s Fish and Wildlife department will monitor the health and growth of the purple crowberry and consider whether to include it on the state’s threatened and endangered species list. Next time you are on a high summit in Vermont or New York, ask a summit steward to show you some plants, and remember to do the rock walk!
Liam Ebner is the Summit Steward Coordinator for the Adirondack Mountain Club. In his free time, he enjoys birding, paddling, and nature photography.