Population of dwarf willow is only the second known instance in New York
By Mike Lynch
In mid-August a trio of summit stewards hiked Algonquin Peak in search of a rare plant.
Within an hour, seasonal summit steward Katie Leton had found dwarf willow (salix herbacea).
It was the first recorded sighting of the plant on the 5,114-foot Algonquin since 1980, and only the second known location of it in New York. There is also a patch of dwarf willow on Mount Marcy.
Dwarf willow is an arctic plant that grows mostly in tundra areas, including Canada and Alaska in North America. In the Eastern U.S. it is only found on summits in New Hampshire and Maine.
Summit Steward Coordinator Liam Ebner, who organized the Aug. 15 search, said they used old emails and letters, including some from the late Ed Ketchledge, a botanist who started the stewardship program, to find the plants.
“The clues did help us get to the right area,” Ebner said. “But yeah, she happened to walk to the right spot and found it.”
The summit stewardship program stations staff from spring until fall atop the highest mountains in New York, including the two highest Marcy and Algonquin, to educate hikers to stay off the alpine plants and on bare rock. They also perform research and trail maintenance. The program is run through a partnership between the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Nature Conservancy, and Adirondack Mountain Club and is based at the Adirondak Loj.
A June 1990 letter from Ketchledge indicated he had looked for the plant but had not been able to locate it.
“But the Salix was gone!,” Ketchledge wrote to a colleague. “Not a leaf to be seen.”
He guessed the plants had died off after a dry summer in 1988.
The newly discovered dwarf willow patch is 15 feet long and two feet wide, and stewards estimate it contains 10 plants. Species generally have about 100 leaves per plant. They counted about 1,000 leaves.
Currently, there are only two documented instances of the plant on Marcy.
Dwarf willow is difficult to find because the woody plant is one of the smallest in the world. It generally grows to be between .5 and 5 centimeters tall. Its branches develop underground forming mats, leaves are rounded and green with paler undersides. Like all willows, it presents small flowers in tight clusters called catkins.
“We usually see it with the leaves just barely sticking out of a patch of moss or growing through diapensia,” Ebner said. “It’s really easy to overlook. We had to be very attentive when we were out there looking for the plant, and really poking around to see if it’s growing in any small spots that are easy to miss.”
This is the second discovery of a rare plant that Ebner has been a part of recently. Last fall, he found a purple crowberry on Mount Mansfield, the first documentation of the plant in Vermont since 1908.
That discovery happened on a birding field trip on the last day of the Northeastern Alpine Stewardship Gathering. During a snack break, Ebner happened to be observing the alpine plants when he noticed some purple crowberry, a species he has a habit of observing on summits in New York.
“We just literally happened to stumble upon it,” he said.
But he didn’t realize right away the importance of the discovery until he later looked up the Vermont status of the plant online.
Ebner said he is working on future trips seeking to find rare plants, including another one for dwarf willow on Haystack, where it has been found in the past.
As for the Algonquin population, he reported that to the New York Natural Heritage program for their database. And it may be part of future summit stewardship training.
“The rediscovery of this plant is great news for the Alpine zone and alpine communities,” Ebner said. “It shows we still have really great diversity of our plants. … The plants are there. We really just have to look for them.”