Come April, light-starved Alaskans on porches lift their faces to the sun, letting it gently massage cheeks, brows, and shuttered eyelids. Some native wildflowers attuned to circadian rhythms even more diligently in June follow suit.

The glory of summer tundra is fleeting, brilliant florescence. Boreal perennials bud mostly just before fall slams the door, powering up and unfolding as soon as temperatures climb in the spring. How much nectar they produce depends on the sunshine they receive. South-facing slopes benefit these dainty creations, though all yield less than their austral kin. Several screen their reproductive goods—pollen—from rain. When clouds gather, Arctic gentian’s porcelain furls within minutes, keeping its ambrosia undiluted. In harsh environments, hardier, dwarf species or subspecies evolved, like the region’s two magenta marvels, Lapland rosebay (a fragrant, heathery rhododendron) and purple saxifrage. Waxy leaves the size of ladybug wings hug the earth, ducking winds, checking evaporation.

Alaska moss campion is the Mr. Freeze of floral cold adaptation— unsurprisingly, antiquity’s champions wore crowns woven from blossoms of a related species. Up to two feet in diameter, it can thrive for over three centuries at 6,600 feet. It pillows in densely packed greenery saying “moss” but sprouts spangled splendor. It loves dry gravelly spots, rocky ridges, and scree, fell fields some people call “barren.” Lodging in cracks where few things dare to root, this stunted carnation buffers meat-locker conditions, nursing plants in and around it. It migrated south along Pleistocene-ice edges, and when those sheets retreated clung to alpine refugia in Wyoming, Colorado, even Arizona, pockets much like the original habitat. Cushioning, a trait shared with creeping phlox and Arctic forget-me-not, lets this relict hoard moisture from flurries and fog. It also gleans minerals from blown silt and its own leaf litter caught in the verdant mat. A hedgehog silhouette combines the largest photosynthetic surface with the least exposure, the lowest risk of damage. Air flowing over the domes as over a plane wing traps warmth underneath. 

Ah warmth, you golden blessing.

flies on the center of two flowers with yellow centers and white petals.
Fly pollinators inside dryas, which lent its name to a late-Pleistocene geological period during which it spread in Europe. Courtesy Jörg Hempel.

Moss campion channels it into segmented blushing, erupting first in a gorgeous south-side rash while pea-green still mantles its shady half—hence a second moniker: compass plant. That contrast outshines sandworts, white, grounded star showers. At their peak, campion florets hiding foliage sometimes rose-tint a whole hemisphere. 

Alas, as with porches or tanning beds, too much of a good thing can be harmful. Expanding in mild years, moss campion shrinks during the hottest, which now march in lockstep. This troubles Lower-48 holdouts especially, as, shifting upward, they’ll run out of mountain at last.  

Where campion squats, Arctic poppies thrust up thready stems. Their chalices, delicate sulphur butterflies trembling in tundra northerlies, fixate like audience gazes do onto a model catwalking the runway. The parabolic reflectors track the lodestar full circle, optimizing radiation, creating interiors up to 40 degrees balmier than the ambient air. This heliotropism known to the ancient sun-worshipping Greeks, observed in young sunflowers and cream-colored, velvety mountain avens too, quickens fly pollinators and attracts heat-seeking mosquitos while speeding seed ripening through rays focused onto the center’s pistils. 

Why don’t the rubbernecking beauties twist their own heads off? Fluid-pressure differences in the stalks’ cells cause the craning best captured in time-lapse footage. Cells elongate less, that is, grow slower, on the sunward side, because sunlight curbs the production of hormones responsible for the poppies’ vertical striving. Upward bound, they bow synced to Helios’ rounds, except on gusty or overcast days. 

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a water nymph spurned by the sun god Sol and jealous of her sister wastes away, becoming the first heliotrope, the Middle English “turnsole” whose pigment illumed medieval parchments. Pinkish-globe clusters of mountain heliotrope, an Alaskan member of her clan, a valerian of bogs and river flats, blanch with age.

But what about proper attire?

Like humans and other creatures in subzero climes, anchored gems bank on insulation. Dark-brown hair coats sepals cradling the crowns of snow buttercup, another rotator. Fuzz silvers immature woolly lousewort; when spring arrives, ranks of tender throats part the veil, showering heaths with flamingo accents.

We’re told there are folks that shun our planet’s main energy source, holed up in bars, wearing shades, pulling blinds—cavemen dismissing the heliocentric life. Their vegetal counterparts bell heather, Cassandra, bog rosemary, and berry bushes droop tiny heads. (The heather, however, also looks east to greet dawn.) All danglers in fact cup the warmth rising from soil.

The father of modern taxonomy Carl Linnaeus adopted twinflower, among the most graceful of the inverted miniature vases, as his coat of arms upon being ennobled in 1757. It remains the only plant named for this ruddy “Pliny of the North.” Fame, “flowering but for a brief time,” mirrors Alaska’s blooming brocade, including his favorite, “lowly, insignificant” Linnea borealis. He signed these autumn thoughts “From Linnaeus, who resembles it.”


Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. An inveterate cabin dweller, he lives in Fairbanks and works as a wilderness guide. Read more of his work at michaelengelhard.com and read Ice Bear here.

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