Recently a group of strong, wonderful people set off for the White Mountains to do a little hiking. The hope was to complete the entire Presidential Traverse – 23 miles of mountains – in 2 days. Four of the eight mountains are the largest in New England. Needless to say, it’s an extremely challenging hike both mentally and physically. The elements can be unpredictable and downright dangerous at times. The mountains are steep, rocky, and the weather can change in a moments notice.
Do to unforeseen circumstances we did not complete the hike this time around and were forced to stop. Although the hike may have not led us to the end, it did lead us to an AMC (Appalachion Mountain Club) hut nestled between Mount Madison and Mount Adams. Thanks to the Universe, some good vibrations, and a little luck, there was just enough room and we were able to spend the evening at the hut. These shelters are speckled around the White Mountains and provide hikers with a place to eat and sleep, however they’re typically booked solid do to their popularity. So we were super lucky!
During our short stay at the Madison Hut, we were able to poke around the area and explore the Alpine Forest. A naturalist, Hope, led us on a little excursion around the cabin to discuss this unique habitat.
What remarkable plants! Many different species live in the alpine environment and grow together as a plant community. The conditions are extreme and include high winds, low temperatures, dryness, ultraviolet radiation, and a short growing season. One clear observation I made was that the plants, shrubs, and trees were quite small and even stunted in growth. Many of the plants will use the snow as protection and insulation, therefore it benefits them to be on the shorter side. The layer of soil they grow within is only a few inches deep! The soil has taken thousands of years to accumulate and vegetation has slowly introduced itself starting with lichen. The stunted trees use each other for support and can often be found with their roots tucked under rocks. The waxy needles and leaves of the trees and plants ensure that water will not be lost do to the dryness of the mountain air. It’s truly amazing that plants can grow and even thrive in this environment! However, as durable as these plants sound, they are still quite fragile to the human foot. Remaining on clearly marked paths is important and will ensure their place on earth.
Alpine Cranberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
The hardy Alpine Cranberry is native to the Boreal forest and the Arctic tundra throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In the early summer this small evergreen shrub produces clusters of small white/light pink bell-shaped flowers. The flowers in late summer turn into edible fruit, which can be quite sour if unripe. By mid to late summer the berries will have turned red and be considered ripe (and delicious!)
Alpine Cranberry uses:
The berries are astringent, diuretic (produce urine), and nervine. They can be eaten to stimulate the appetite, treat diarrhea, and are a source of vitamin C and A. The juice from these berries can be consumed in large quantities to flush the kidneys. The berries can be eaten, juiced, or made into a decoction.
The leaves can be made into a decoction or tea and be used to treat UTI’s, gout, and rheumatism. They are best picked after the berries are ripe.
Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum)
This hardy deciduous shrub is native to the North Pole (circumboreal), northern and central Europe, as well as rocky and sandy terrain in New Hampshire. The shrub is low lying with thick leaves producing white to pinkish bell-shaped flowers in early summer. Later in the summer months the flowers give way to plump blue to almost blackish colored berries, which are edible! Unlike her blueberry cousin, the bilberries grow in singles or pairs rather than clusters. She is typically not cultivated due to her difficulty to grow and small fruit size.
It is said that bilberries can improve vision, reduce inflammation, and lower oxidative stress. This berry is commonly eaten or made into jam, jelly, or sauce.
The Alpine Zone is a fragile yet resilient place on earth, so please tread lightly. Sometimes it’s best to enjoy their beauty and understand their role instead of gathering and collecting! Cheers