Somewhat weedy-looking individually, alpine, or, American bistort (Bistorta bistortoides) nevertheless puts on an impressive display when it occurs en masse, especially in the alpine meadows it throngs in sweeping drifts. The blooms consist of tightly compressed clusters of tiny flowers that bob above the plant on wiry stems. The white flowers are occasionally tinged pink. Each bloom’s exerted stamens, reaching well beyond the petals to increase its chances of pollination, lend the raceme a generally ragged appearance. And alas, bistorts exude an unpleasant fragrance, as their most reliable pollinators on the frequently chilly, windswept slopes are flies. For this reason, one of their less known but whimsical common names is “miners socks.” Upon pollination, bistorts produce large numbers of achenes, or, dry, granular fruits that are nearly indistinguishable from the single seeds each contains.
Bistorts sprout from thick, underground stems called rhizomes, which store energy and provide alpine perennials an advantage over annuals that must complete their entire life cycle within a few short months. Bears, rodents, and sometimes humans take advantage of that energy by consuming the rhizomes. The unusual common and botanical name “bistort” is shared with a very similar Eurasian species, B. officinalis, and is said to derive from their rhizomes’ writhen, S-shaped form (in Latin, bis-, or, “twice,” and –torta, “twisted”). Atop the rhizome, strap-like leaves cluster about the base of the stem, to which a few, much smaller leaves clasp at jointed nodes. Where they occur with other species, bistorts’ leaves may be nearly concealed amongst competing foliage.
Bistorts are found throughout the Olympic, Cascade, Rocky, and Sierra Nevada mountains from Alaska east to Alberta and south to California, Arizona, and New Mexico. Look for them in moist alpine and subalpine meadows in combination with other wildflowers or in vast, single-species swathes. Bistorts’ bloom time is late spring through high summer, depending on elevation.
Bistorts in typical alpine habitat:
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