Empetrum Heaths

Empetrum heath is a circumpolar Arctic-alpine vegetation type dominated by species of the genus Empetrum (crowberry). Empetrum heaths are a wideranging vegetation type in the Sub- and Low Arctic. They occur in small to mid-sized patches on well-drained soils of plains and upland areas. The word Empetrum is from the Greek en petros, meaning "on rock," referring to the common Arctic and alpine habitat. Plants of the genus Empetrum can be found growing on moist, acidic peat, gravel, or sand, often in dense mats. It is also occasionally abundant on sandy or gravely upper beaches and coastal dune fields. In these unstable habitats, where the substrate is continually being removed by the wind, Empetrum can form hummocks by accumulating sandy material. In alpine areas of northern Scandinavia, it is prevalently found on windy peaks with scarce and short-term snow cover. Empetrum is also common in bogs (see Peatland and Bogs) throughout the boreal forest and in other alpine areas of temperate biomes.

Empetrum (crowberry, black crowberry, curlewber-ry, blackberry, Paungait (Inuktitut), Paarnaqutit (Greenlandic)) is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Ericales, family Empetraceae. There are two recognized subspecies of crowberry, both having a circumpolar dis tribution: Empetrum nigrum subsp. hermaphroditum (Lange. ex Hagerup) D. Love and E. nigrum subsp. nigrum. Many other synonyms are cited, but these usually refer to one of these subspecies. Empetrum nigrum subsp. hermaphroditum (hybrid or bisexual) can reach 15 cm in height and has long, creeping branches. The needlelike, 2-5 mm long leaves are up to 3 times as long as they are wide and deeply grooved on their underside. E. nigrum subsp. nigrum can be distinguished by its longer leaves, usually 3 to 5 times as long as wide. The inconspicuous, solitary flowers of both species vary from pink to purple and are seldom noticed. Flowering occurs in early spring, as soon as the snow melts.

The juicy black berries of Empetrum persist on the branches all winter and are edible and relished by birds and mammals. They are also a favored food source for the Inuit. Although the taste is somewhat insipid, it tends to improve upon freezing. In former times, the berries of Empetrum were preserved in seal oil by some Inuit groups and stored for the winter months. Medicinal uses by native people include making a tea from the boiled plant to treat illnesses such as digestive problems and tuberculosis. Empetrum is known to have chemical substances in the leaves, which inhibit germination and growth of other competing plants. They also contain toxins that render the leaves of crowberry plants unpalatable for herbivores such as caribou. Crowberry has been broadly successful at naturally colonizing borrow pits in tundra regions of Northwest Canada and may be of use in managed reclamation projects.

Jorg Tews

See also Dwarf-Shrub Heaths Further Reading

Burt, Page, Barrenland Beauties: Showy Plants of the

Canadian Arctic, Yellowknife: Outcrop Ltd., 2000 Nilsson, M.-C., "Separation of allelopathy and resource competition by the boreal dwarf shrub Empetrum hermaphrodi-tum Hagerup." Oecologia, 98 (1994): 1-7

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