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Alpine Plant Believed Locally Extinct in Vermont Since 1908 Rediscovered

November 18, 2022 by VAL

The purple crowberry (photo) grows low to the ground in exposed, high elevation habitats. The purple crowberry is easily mistaken for the common and closely related black crowberry. © Glen Mittelhauser

MONTPELIER, Vt. – The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department announced on Tuesday that the purple crowberry (Empetrum atropurpureum), a diminutive alpine shrub last documented in Vermont in 1908, has been rediscovered on Mt. Mansfield.

“This is an extraordinary find,” said Bob Popp, a botanist with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.  “The purple crowberry is easily overlooked alongside the closely related and more abundant black crowberry.  This discovery emphasizes the benefit of having a community of keen botanical observers on the ground.”

The purple crowberry grows low to the ground in rocky habitat above the tree line.  The species is identifiable by needle-like leaves and purple berries, and is found in the Northeast in Maine, New Hampshire, and New York.  The purple crowberry is listed as uncommon in New Hampshire and state endangered in New York.

Vermont botanists had searched Mt. Mansfield—the site of the 1908 historical record—for the purple crowberry unsuccessfully in recent decades and had determined that the species was no longer present in the state.

A fresh set of eyes on an overlooked stretch of Mt. Mansfield upended that conclusion.

“I’m always looking for new purple crowberry populations,” said Liam Ebner, a recent graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a trained summit steward with the Adirondack Mountain Club.

At the time of his discovery, Ebner was on Mt. Mansfield as participant in the 2022 Northeastern Alpine Stewardship Gathering, a biennial conference hosted this year by the Green Mountain Club and The Waterman Fund.

“Since I saw a crowberry plant, I decided to check it out and was pretty surprised to see that it was purple crowberry up there,” Ebner said.

Ebner reported his find to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department the following day.  He added that as an alpine stewardship professional he was able to approach the plant—which was off the trail—while staying on exposed rock, preventing damage to the crowberry or the plant’s surroundings.

Popp revisited the site on October 19 and confirmed three clumps of purple crowberry.

“That observant members of the public rediscovered two different plant species believed lost from our state in the same year is a tribute to our community’s flourishing interest in and knowledge of the natural world,” said Popp, who worked with community scientists earlier this year to confirm the rediscovery of the small whorled pogonia, a federally threatened orchid, in Vermont.

“At the same time, we do not encourage anyone to venture off trail in search of rare alpine plants,” Popp added.  “The work of the Green Mountain Club as stewards of our delicate alpine areas is part of what has allowed the purple crowberry to persist in this highly trafficked area for more than a century.”

The newly discovered purple crowberry population is located safely off the trail and at low risk of trampling.  The department is not disclosing the purple crowberry’s exact location to protect the plants from accidental damage.

“The discovery of a purple crowberry population after so many years really underscores the importance and effectiveness of the Green Mountain Club’s Backcountry Caretaker program,” said Nigel Bates, Caretaker Program Supervisor at the Green Mountain Club.

The club, which manages 500 miles of hiking trail in Vermont, including the alpine zones in the state, employs caretakers trained in stewardship and alpine botany to educate hikers and encourage responsible use during the hiking season.

“We take this sighting as proof that our practices on the mountain are working,” said Bates. “And we thank visitors for their commitment to walking on durable surfaces, leashing their dogs, and protecting the fragile alpine flora communities in Vermont.”

In the short term, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department and the Green Mountain Club will monitor Mt. Mansfield’s purple crowberry population for signs of predation or encroachment by other plants.  In the longer term, the department will consider the purple crowberry for designation on the state’s threatened and endangered species list as more is learned about the species’ viability in Vermont.