Postcard from Southeast Alaska

For the past 10 days I have been enjoying meeting plants in southeast Alaska, where it’s spring. This part of the world is also experiencing climate change and the season is more advanced than usual – we’ve had a number of hot, sunny days which locals say is unusual. Rain is usually more likely but we’ve had only a small shower or two,  nothing much.

Our guides have been knowledgeable and enthusiastic, even if he or she has been a young American from “the lower 48” working at a summer job. Sam has been in Hoonah for only  6 weeks but has taken the trouble to learn enough of the local Tlingit language (pronounced Klingit – it’s not an easy language having, for instance, 57 sounds not found in any other language) to introduce himself in the traditional way and has been entrusted with several Tlingit stories local to Hoonah, which he is allowed to share with visitors. Susan has lived in Sitka for 47 years and imparts the history of the island, which was the capital of Russian-America, from Tlingit to present day, while in Wrangell we were particularly fortunate to be led by Brittany, a local Tlingit woman, who has a BA and is now in the second year of her law degree. Read some Tlingit history here.

They have all mentioned local plants of interest, from berries to orchids, as part of their tour and have been good at pointing out ones we shouldn’t touch – there are several!

The Tongass National Forest is the largest in the US and covers most of Southeast Alaska so every time we walked in a national park it was the Tongass, which is a temperate rainforest comprised primarily of western hemlock, western red cedar and Sitka spruce trees. Read a 2007 National Geographic article here.

In a patch of sunlight in the forest I noticed pink flowers growing at the base of a tree. A later check of my Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers by Verna E Pratt (2004) I saw that it was a round leaf orchid (Galearis rotundifolia). Other sources say it is found right across Alaska, Canada and Greenland and parts of the northern US.


Galearis rotundifolia. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Muskeg are swampy places with acidic soil that stunts the trees that grow there and it was in a muskeg near Hoonah that I met another Alaskan orchid, the aromatic bog candle (Platanthera dilatata), although this is also native to much of Canada and other parts of the US. Read more about the plant and see more photos here. I was thrilled to see swathes of it growing by the roadside as we went back into town but we were on a bus so all I could do was admire it out the window.


The bog candle orchid, seen in the Spasski Valley near Hoonah. The white ‘fuzzy’ blob towards the bottom of the stem appeared to be the work of a spittlebug. Photo: Sandra Simpson