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Arctic White Heather

Cassiope tetragona

  • Name also: Arctic Bell-heather, White Arctic Mountain Heather
  • Family: Heather Family – Ericaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial dwarf shrub.
  • Height: 10–30 cm (4–12 in.). Stem erect, rigid, woody, lower part branched, branches 4-edged.
  • Flower: Corolla campanulate, white, 6–8 mm (0.24–0.32 in.) long, fused, 5-lobed. Sepals 5, greenish, sometimes reddish. Stamens 10. A single carpel. Flowers solitary, axillary, terminating branches, long-stalked, nodding.
  • Leaves: Stalkless, opposite and decussate (in 4 rows), overlapping close to stem, overwintering, fragrant. Blade scale-like, with entire margins.
  • Fruit: Spherical, 4 mm (0.16 in.) long, ridged, erect capsule.
  • Habitat: Shrubby heaths in fell tundra, stony places, precipices. Calciphile.
  • Flowering time: July–August.
  • Endangerment: Near threatened.

The Heather family is quite large, and the genera that belong to it are dominated by dwarf shrubs and bushes. Genus Cassiope is comprised of a dozen plants who like cold and frosty areas in the northern hemisphere. Two species grow in Europe, including Finland. Arctic white heather is the northernmost of Finland’s dwarf shrubs that grow on fells, and seeing it demands a journey to the remotest corners of the “arm” of Finland, where it grows on ten fells, most abundantly on the dry fell slopes and heaths of the alpine tundra zone. Unlike most Finnish fells, the soil on the large Enontekiö fells is rich. Calciferous soil is rare in Finland and has a highly significant effect on the lives of many plants: some can’t stand it at all, some can’t get along without it, and still others tolerate it on the extreme edge of their habitats. Arctic white heather’s relationship with lime is more complicated: in the lower tundra it clearly favours it, but higher up it isn’t choosy. Most heather plants prefer acid, limeless soil.

Arctic white heather is a familiar sight to visitors to Halti because it grows in many places as the main dwarf shrub and its dark green patches stand out in the landscape. Even flowerless it is easy to identify from its stiff form and scaly leaves, which are clearly grouped into four rows. The shoots look as if they are braided, and the Saami name for the species is “plait-plant”. Wide, dense stands of Arctic white heather usually flower abundantly and are very impressive, and the flowers are somewhat reminiscent of lily-of-the-valley. In arctic areas the plant was commonly used as fuel – and Finnish reindeer herders and ramblers have also used it for this purpose. Nowadays the Lapland visitor is better using a portable stove to cook his meals and leave the slowly-regenerating arctic white heather to grow in peace. Shoots can reach up to 20 years old.

Other species from the same family

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