City Wilds blueberries
iNaturalist may call these bog bilberries but there’s no question these are Alaska tundra blueberries, up in Chugach Front Range 
 
 
 




Flora of Chugach State Park, second of two parts

Besides teaching me more about the plants, lichens, and fungi that inhabit Anchorage’s “backyard wilderness,” my participation in the Flora of Chugach State Park project has given me some lessons in scientific nomenclature and, more generally, the names we apply to wildflowers and other life forms.

To briefly recap before moving on to the naming of organisms and the confusion it sometimes causes: this project is a cooperative effort between the Alaska Native Plant Society (AKNPS) and Chugach State Park (CSP) staff, intended to inventory and map the park’s flora and fungi “including vascular plants, bryophytes, lichens and fungi.” (This list reminds me of something else I’ve learned this year, or more likely once knew and therefore relearned: lichens are part of the Fungi Kingdom. And for those who might be wondering, bryophytes are non-vascular plants, for instance mosses. As to the difference between vascular and non-vascular plants, I’ll leave that discussion for another time.)

Begun in 2020, this volunteer endeavor “will serve as a baseline to help understand future changes and to inform future conservation and land management activities” within Chugach State Park.

Some of the data accumulated so far comes from “voucher specimens” collected by hand within the park. But the great majority of it has been compiled through the use of the iNaturalist “nature app,” which allows just about anyone with an interest in wild nature (and a smartphone) to participate in “citizen science” projects like this one.

Given my longtime love of both Chugach State Park and Alaska’s wildflowers, and a recent infatuation with iNaturalist, it was perhaps inevitable that I would get pulled wholeheartedly into this project once I discovered its existence, which happened this past spring.

With that brief review, let’s proceed to the challenges of naming and nomenclature. 

Because AKNPS botanists are leading this effort, much of the language involves scientific terminology. While the project’s iNaturalist page includes both common and scientific names for observations made by participants, its 2020 progress report—put together by society members—exclusively uses scientific names. (That report can be found and downloaded at https://aknps.org/#flora_of_csp_2020report.)

For those who need reminding, scientific names identify organisms by their genus and species, using Latin words. For instance: rather than using the common name “frog orchid,” botanists are more likely to say Dactylorhiza viridis when discussing the plant among themselves.

This can get confusing for a nature writer/naturalist like myself. I once spent several days in the company of botanists while on an AKNPS field trip to Unalaska Island and had to repeatedly ask them to translate wildflower names from Latin into English.

Given this protocol, each of the 820 “unique taxa” identified in the Flora of Chugach State Park’s 2020 Progress Report (Appendix B) is listed by its scientific name. That makes it challenging (if not impossible) for a generalist like me to know exactly what plants, fungi, and lichens were found last year. Perhaps project leader Aaron Wells and his fellow botanists will consider including common names along with scientific ones in this year’s updated list.

Even the term “unique taxa” might be confusing to some readers, as it was to me. I asked Wells, why not simply say unique species? He explained that the list includes some subspecies and varieties of plants, so the general classification term “taxa” is a more appropriate fit. Whatever the terminology, 2020 observers found 820 different kinds of plants, fungi, and lichens, a substantial number.

If you ask them why they insist on using scientific names, botanists will patiently explain there’s a simple reason: some plants are known by a variety of common names; and multiple plants may be known by the same common name. That can get confusing.

As Wells points out, “Common names for plants are tricky. Most plants have multiple common names and the preferred common name for a plant often differs between regions and countries. . . . I think this is kind of a cool thing about common names, that they are regionally specific. But it also can be frustrating that they aren’t more standardized.

“Scientists use Latin names to help reduce the ambiguity . . . That’s not to say that Latin names are perfect. Because of constantly evolving taxonomy (due to continued research and genetics) there are multiple scientific names for some taxa.”

Here’s a good example of the ambiguity Wells  describes: a large, big-leafed northern plant with thick, hairy stems and a showy umbrella of small white flowers occurs throughout much of Alaska, including Chugach State Park. While many Alaskans recognize the plant as cow parsnip, some residents know it best as “putchki” (derived from Russian); and still others call it wild celery. Here’s where things get complicated, because an entirely different Alaskan plant, Angelica lucida, is also known as wild celery. 

So if I refer to wild celery, which plant do I mean? There’s no such confusion if I use cow parsnip’s scientific name, Heracleum lanatum —assuming all parties speak that particular language. 

Well, maybe there is room for some confusion after all: it turns out (based on some additional research I’ve done) that cow parsnip is known in some scientific quarters as Heracleum maximum. And according to iNaturalist, some botanists consider it a subspecies. So maybe this wasn’t such a good example. And maybe scientific naming isn’t as straightforward as botanists suggest it is (as Wells himself admits).

Whew, this stuff does get perplexing, doesn’t it? Maybe I should stick with wildlife, where naming isn’t such a problem. Unless you’re trying to explain the differences between brown and grizzly bears. Oh, never mind.

I learned much about the confusion that can result from using common names for plants while working with the iNaturalist app this year. Several of the names that I have long associated with certain wildflowers—names that I learned from Verna Pratt’s celebrated Alaska wildflower guides—aren’t recognized by iNaturalist. 

For instance, the beautiful lavender-petaled wildflower that I’ve always known as “wild geranium” is identified by iNaturalist as woolly cranesbill. To name a few others: the chocolate lily is called rice root (or alternatively Kamchatka lily or Kamchatka fritillary), pink pyrola is bog wintergreen, shy maiden is one-flowered wintergreen, pixie-eye primrose (a favorite alpine flower whose name I also love) is wedge-leaf primrose, and false Solomon’s seal is star-flowered lily of the valley (one of the few alternative names that I much prefer).

Two of iNaturalist’s preferred common names especially confused and dismayed me. First, the widespread berry plant that we Alaskans know as high-bush cranberry is instead called squashberry. Squashberry? Ugh. High-bush cranberry wasn’t even listed as an alternative name, which seems very strange to me.

And then there’s the bilberry. 

The iNaturalist app insists on identifying blueberry plants that I find in Chugach State Park’s tundra landscapes as “bog bilberry” (scientific name Vaccinium uliginosum). 

When I asked him why bilberry was used instead of blueberry, Wells, the project leader, admitted, “I don’t know,” though he pointed out that bog bilberry is listed as an alternative to bog blueberry in several reference books, including Alaska Trees and Shrubs, long considered the “definitive work” on Alaska’s woody plants.

 I’m happy to report that Pratt’s flower guides don’t mention bilberries, which several online sources call a low-growing Eurasian shrub. It seems a form of sacrilege to me, that anyone would use the term bilberry to identify our state’s beloved wild tundra blueberries. I’ll also note my surprise that “bog bilberry” is uniformly applied to what I perceive (in my admittedly unscientific way) to be different varieties of blueberry plants.

Enough about blueberries and bilberries for now, though I may return to this matter during some future blueberry picking season.

Though I have several other questions to address, for the moment, I’ll end with this: why, I’ve wondered, does a study of the park’s flora—by definition, plants—also include fungi and lichens?

Wells agreed that was a “great question.” And he had a reasonable answer. “We decided to include lichens,” he explained, “because they are important components of plant communities in Alaska that are often overlooked. For instance, lichens are some of the first organisms to colonize disturbed sites and stabilize soils, some lichens are nitrogen fixers (they turn nitrogen in the air into bioavailable nitrogen in the soil), other lichens are indicators of air quality, and still others are important forage species for wildlife. Lichens are also commonly surveyed together with bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts), which are in the plant kingdom. 

“Fungi were included after noticing that there were many fungi observations in Chugach State Park, but few of them were of research grade. We wanted to highlight this diverse group of organisms and hopefully encourage participation of mycologists to provide identifications. We also figured that people out looking for plants would encounter fungi and in the process make observations of fungi too.”

That’s all for now, except for this: a link to the Flora of Chugach State Park iNaturalist page, for those who’d like to learn more from it:

Anchorage nature writer and wildlands/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com

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