Life Zones: Arctic – Alpine

In the Zone

The Alpine (Arctic) Zone rises from Timberline to the top of the mountains. The climate is too severe for any trees to survive (hence the name timberline – no trees above that line). Soil forms slowly on rocky summits, but mosses, lichens, sages and grasses are at work breaking down the rocks to earth, patiently building humus. The plants that survive have all the sunlight to themselves, without trees to shade them. It is a land of tough, dwarf things: thistle, phlox, columbine and bear grass. Perennials, or low wooded mats with basal-like leaves and flowers only a few inches high, are the common pattern. The ever-present adverse conditions are low temperature, frequent precipitation and erratic, strong winds. They will blow your hat off.

In this final zone you will discover some of the flowers that were described in the Sub-Alpine and Montane Zones, yet they have their unique survivors as well.


A member of the Sedge family, cottongrass is white and loves bogs and marshy depressions that stay wet. It can be found in Alpine Zones near 13,000 feet across the US, Canada, and Alaska, as well as Greenland, Iceland and Eurasia. The stems can grow to 28 inches, but they are usually shorter. The native Inuit Tribes use the fibers for cloth and eat the bulbs before they go to seed for a tasty, high altitude treat.

Glacier Lily

This lovely little lily, only 10 inches high, can be found on the very edge of receding snowbanks. It grows only on the West side of the Continental Divide.

Other names for this delicate flower are Lamb’s Tongue, Fawn-lily, Dog-tooth Violet, Adder’s Tongue, and Avalanche or Snow Lily. Some color variations have some patches of the lily flower that are white, instead of yellow.

Arctic Willow

True to its name, the Arctic Willow is common and widespread in the Arctic and at high elevations in the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains. This flowering shrub is well adapted to short seasons, it grows slowly and is long-lived (one individual plant in Greenland lived for over 200 years.)

Mountain Laurel

In the early Spring, this low plant of boggy spots often covers large areas of the rocky slopes. Rarely more that 8 inches high, the diffusely spreading woody branches make an impenetrable carpet. Within the saucer-shaped corolla, the stamens are held back in little pouches which are released only by the expansion of the blossom or by the pressure of insects, one of nature’s ingenious ways to insure pollination at the optimum moments.

Spring Beauty

This member of the Purslane family is one of the first flowers to follow the retreating snowbanks. The plant is rarely over six inches high and several stems grow from a bulbous root, with a single flower at the end of each stem.

Miner’s Lettuce

Often found at high and low altitudes, Miner’s Lettuce has two leaves that are fused together with the stem and white flowers in the center. They distinctly resemble a circle or heart shape with a deep, smooth green color and little flowers or bulbs in the center. The leaves are edible and taste great when you need some greens.

Alpine Loop in American Basin Colorado