In the cold, windswept climates of the Arctic and the alpine, it is difficult, if not impossible, for plants to grow.

But there is one plant well adapted to these harsh conditions, and once it becomes established, it enables other alpine vegetation to take root.

That plant is Moss Campion, which is not actually a moss.

“It’s actually one of the most important plants in the alpine, and the Arctic,” says Ken Marr, Royal B.C. Museum Curator of Botany.

“It occurs in all the high mountain areas, but it’s really important ecological role is as a pioneer species.”

A pioneer species is the first to grow after the landscape is disturbed, whether that’s by fire, flood, bulldozing or as Marr describes, the last Ice Age.

“We have this absolutely barren landscape — the ice has scraped away all the vegetation — so a lot of plants can’t grow in that type of landscape but a few species, such as Moss Campion, can pioneer and colonize in that type of habitat.

“Once it becomes established, after dozens if not hundreds of years — these cushions grow very slowly – other plants get established as well.”

“So it’s adapted for growing in this environment, close to the ground because it’s cold.  It’s perfectly adapted for really windswept slopes where no other plants can grow.”

Marr admits this is one of his favorite plants, but it does present a challenge to botanists.   Because while most specimens in the museum’s botany collection are flat and relatively easy to mount for storage, Moss Campion is a mound of vegetation.

“These specimens are really challenging to mount,” says Marr, “and to have them somewhat resemble what they look like in life.”

Marr is pleased to have specimens of this important pioneer species in the museum’s collection.

He points out that without Moss Campion “it’s possible that no other plants could get established, or it would happen much more slowly.”

But because of Moss Campion, though it could take hundreds or even thousands of years, a once barren landscape may transition into a lush alpine meadow.

Veronica Cooper