Andy's Rocky Mountain and Alpine Wildflowers

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Sugarloaf Mountain, Carcross, Yukon, copyright 2007 Andy Fyon,

Sugarloaf Mountain alpine meadow, south of Carcross Yukon, July 3, 2007.



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Illustrated on this page are wildflowers that grow in the Rocky Mountains, from Waterton National Park to northern Yukon.  Many of the plants illustrated were photographed in the alpine and subalpine.  Although focusing on the Alpine and Subalpine subzones, wildflowers illustrated on these pages may occur in several subzones.  The species illustrated is not comprehensive. The intent is to illustrate only a few of the many species that occur in the Rocky Mountains.

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The Rocky Mountains consist of a variety of terrains, each with topographically different conditions.  Major valleys run parallel to the mountain ranges.  Mountain drainage systems allow water from mountain glaciers and snow packs to drain into the valleys.  The Rocky Mountains trend along the western part of Alberta and form the Continental Divide.  In Alberta, the Rocky Mountains range in width from 10 km in the Waterton Lakes National Park area to more than 100 km in the central portion.  Elevations rise from east to west, reaching a height of about 3700 metres along the Continental Divide.  The highest mountains occur in the central part of the Region with the lower mountains in the far north and far south. 

The Rocky Mountains are distinguished from the Foothills of Alberta by the differing geology. The Rocky Mountains consist primarily of deformed carbonate and quartz-rich (quartzite) rock.  The Foothills consist primarily of deformed sandstone and shale.

Within the Rocky Mountain region, three natural subregions exist: Montane, Subalpine and Alpine.

Montane Subregion:
Much of the southerly portion of the Montane Subregion occurs on east-west trending ridges that extend out from the Foothills Belt from the United States border.  The Montane subzone marks the beginning of mountain forests.  Sandstone outcrops are typical of the main, southerly portion.  Elevations range from 1000-1350 metres in Jasper National Park, to 1350-1600 metres in Banff National Park, to more than 1600 along the Eastern Slopes south of Calgary.

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Subalpine Subregion:
Typically, the Subalpine Subregion is intermediate between the Montane, or the mountain forest subregion, and the treeless alpine subregion.  The Subalpine subregion is cooler and wetter than the Montane and lower zones.  The upper limit of the Subalpine Subregion ranges from about 2300 metres in southern Alberta to about 2000 metres in northern Alberta.  The lower limits of the Subalpine Subregion range from about 1600 metres in the south and 1350 metres in the north.  These conditions support white and Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir and five-needle pines.  Lodgepole pine replace the spruce and fir stands after forest fires.  Shrubs typical of the subalpine region include: false azalea, Labrador Tea, bracted honeysuckle, rock willow, and Canada buffaloberry.  At higher elevations, where winds are stronger and intense sun increases moisture stress, Engelmann spruce and subalpine fir dominate.  Ultimately, subalpine merges with the alpine subzone and tree cover becomes sparse and characterized by asymmetric tree shapes called kruppelholz (a German word meaning "crummy wood") or elfin wood-shapes.  The elfin wood shape is bent to assume a horizontal shape.  Melting snow pack commonly maintains water flow in creeks or small rivers throughout the summer.

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The Alpine Subregion:
The Alpine Subregion is the highest vegetative zone , above the treeline, with level to steep slopes.  Extensive areas of unvegetated bedrock occur. Rock glaciers occur in some areas, such as Kananaskis Country and northward to Jasper National Park.   Wildflowers grow on thick sod grasses and sedges.  The subregion may have permanently frozen soil characterized by low-growing vegetation such as lichens, mosses, tussock grasses and stunted shrubs.  The land is generally rocky, with sparse soil, exposed windswept ridges, level to steep slopes.  The subregion is colder and has a shorter growing season with longer, harsher winters compared to the other subregions.  Summer temperatures may occasionally dip below freezing.  Wildflowers bloom during the longer days of summer - mid-June to mid-July.  Plant diversity is determined in part by snow cover, soil development and type, snow melt patterns, and wind exposure.  The main flowering period is June and July, although the same species may be seen in different states of flower development by traveling up-elevation.

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Wildflower Adaptations for Harsh Conditions of the Subalpine and Alpine Subregions:
Wildflowers that grow in the Subalpine and Alpine Subregions evolved several adaptations to accommodate in an environment characterized by strong and desiccating winds, abundant sunlight and intense solar, ultra-violet radiation, wide fluctuations in temperature, and low moisture capacity of the sparse soils.  Most flowering plants are perennials to accommodate the short and harsh growing season.  Major adaptations reduce evapouration of scarce water from the plant. This adaptation is accomplished by having:

  • a waxy leaf surface;

  • special stomata that open at night when the temperature is cooler and loss of water vapour is less;
  • dense pubescence, or hairs, that reduce wind-driven evapouration and act as a sunscreen that filter out harmful solar radiation;
  • a preference to grow in crevices;
  • a compact or cushion growth shape;
  • deep and strong roots to find limited soil nutrients and moisture;
  • large flower structures and dwarf vegetative parts.

Despite the generalities described above, many areas are characterized by quite different growing conditions, while coexisting side by side.  For example, south-facing zones lose their snow cover early and flowering starts early in the warm sunlight.  A north-facing valley may keep its snow cover late into the summer.  The contrasting habitats is called microclimate.

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© 2007-2008 Andy Fyon
Sudbury, Ontario

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Date last modified:

Andy Fyon

March 13, 2008

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