By Janelle Eklund
Lousewort dots the high tundra in the Copper River Basin dressed in different forms and beautiful hues. In this miniature plant kingdom Pedicularis labradorica's small clusters of yellow flowers sit like pinwheels on scattered branches. Whereas Pedicularis langsdorffii wears a full embodied regal dress in pink hues from top to bottom on a single stem.
Tiny toothed hairy leaves resembling ferns sit across from each other along the stem(s). On Pedicularis langsdorffii the white hairs on the leaves are thicker than those of Pedicularis labradorica - somewhat wooly - making them appear to be tightly nestled between the flowerets.
Each small floweret on Lousewort has a convenient wide landing surface for bees. An elegant colorful helmet acts as a roof over the landing platform. On Pedicularis langsdorffii the landing platform is a light pink with a darker pink helmet. Once a bee lands it is lured into a bright cavern with a dreamy like entrance. Inside, bees are awarded treasures of nectar.
Pedicularis is a parasitic plant. Its roots are modified to connect to the conductive system of another plants roots providing it with water and nutrients.
I looked extensively to find out where the common name, Lousewort, came from and could only find on Wikipedia that it "derives from an old belief that these plants, when ingested, were responsible for lice infestations in stock".
In past tundra wanderings I have met woolly lousewort (Pedicularis lanata), whose dress is much like Pedicularis langsdorffii with its floweret's covering the stem, but the leaves are surrounded by an even thicker wooly white hair like netting. Thus, its common name, Wooly Lousewort. Pedicularis lanata has a robust lemon colored taproot that can be quite long. This beautiful root has a sweet nutty flavor. Pedcularis langsdorffii roots are similar but paler and more branching. Both of these plant roots are edible and the Inuvialuit people of northern Canada utilize them for food, cooked or raw. The somewhat sweet blossoms of Pedicularis lanata are edible raw, as well as the leaves and stems.
The thick hairs on Louseworts hug the stem and act like insulation to protect it from the cold and wind, and help the plant to stay moist. In the cool days of spring, before the flowers emerge, they are protected by this wooly blanket. Once summer brings its warm breath the flowers break through the blanket of wool announcing their glorious splendor. Like wool on a sheep, the hairs have the ability to trap warm air so the plant can survive the harsh conditions of the north.
Look closely at plants and they will tell you the secrets of adapting to and surviving the rigors of a challenging environment.
From my light to yours-
References: http://www.nps.gov/bela/learn/nature/wildflowers.htm; https://en.wikipedia.org; www.flora.dempstercountry.org; www.nature.ca/aaflora; Inuvialuit Nautchiangit, by Inufialuit elders with Robert W. Bandringa.
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.