Alpine plant believed extinct in Vermont since 1908 rediscovered on Mount Mansfield

  • A closeup of the Purple Crowberry plant found on Mount Mansfield. Photo courtesy of Native Plant Trust, Glen Mittelhauser Native Plant Trust — Glen Mittelhauser

  • Bob Popp of Vermont Fish & Wildlife trains Green Mountain Club caretakers in alpine plant recognition. Photo courtesy of Green Mountain Club Photograph courtesy of Green Mountain Club

Published: 11/17/2022 10:12:30 PM
Modified: 11/17/2022 10:12:31 PM

The purple crowberry, a small alpine shrub, was last documented in Vermont in 1908 — until hiker Liam Ebner rediscovered it on Mount Mansfield.

Ebner made the discovery while participating in the 2022 Northeastern Alpine Stewardship Gathering, a biennial conference hosted by the Green Mountain Club and The Waterman Fund.

“We weren’t really up there specifically to look at plants. But as someone who works up in the mountains, I tend to do that a bit,” said Ebner, a recent graduate from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a trained summit steward with the Adirondack Mountain Club.

The crowberry plant grows low to the ground in rocky habitats above the treeline. It has needle-like leaves and berries that can be purple or, more commonly, black. The purple crowberry is found in the Northeast, where it is listed as uncommon in New Hampshire and endangered in New York.

Ebner said he saw the crowberry plant while hiking but couldn’t tell right away whether it was a black crowberry plant or purple until he got closer.

“I just got lucky and it happened to be a purple crowberry species, which was a really big surprise because everyone out there didn’t think that it grew in the state anymore,” Ebner said.

Bob Popp, a botanist with the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, revisited the site on Oct. 19 and confirmed three clumps of purple crowberry.

“This is an extraordinary find,” Popp said. “The purple crowberry is easily overlooked alongside the closely related and more abundant black crowberry. This discovery emphasizes the benefit of having a community of keen botanical observers on the ground.”

Vermont botanists had searched Mount Mansfield in previous years for the alpine shrub, with no success. Ebner’s find is the second rediscovery of a plant that was thought to be extinct in Vermont in the past year. Earlier, a man rediscovered a federally threatened orchid in Vermont via a smartphone app.

The purple crowberry plant was found off the trail, in a place where there is a “low risk of trampling,” an announcement from the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department said. The exact location of the plant hasn’t been disclosed in an effort to protect it from accidental damage.

The plant will be monitored by Fish & Wildlife and the Green Mountain Club to look for signs of predation or encroachment from other plants. The plant might also be put on Vermont’s threatened and endangered species list, as the viability of the plant in Vermont becomes better understood.

“The discovery of a purple crowberry population after so many years really underscores the importance and effectiveness of the Green Mountain Club’s Backcountry Caretaker program,” said Nigel Bates, caretaker program supervisor at the Green Mountain Club.

The club manages 500 miles of hiking trails in Vermont, educating hikers on the stewardship of Vermont’s hiking trails and mountains.

Ebner and officials at Vermont Fish & Wildlife are asking hikers to stick to trails and not wander off to search for rare alpine plants.

“It takes very few human footsteps to kill these special plants. They’ve adapted really well to the harsh climates they grow in, but when it comes to human impact, they’re extremely fragile,” Ebner said.

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