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Cottongrass – Alaska cotton
Genus: Eriophorum L.
15 Species native to Alaska
Full list below
*I use Alaska cotton in the title here because it is the only name I have heard it called in Alaska. The actual common name is just cottongrass, as many species have a widespread distribution in the northern hemisphere.
Duration – Growth Habit
Perennial – Graminoid (grass-like)
The stem and root are edible. Eriophorum angustifolium has the most record of being used as food by native tribes. The roots sometimes being boiled or eaten raw. Stem fried in seal oil or roots stored in seal oil. Yupik traditionally used an extract from the leaves for medicinal purposes to treat gastrointestinal problems.
Flower: Seed heads cotton-like fibers or bristles (pappi), white to reddish-brown in color. Some species may have multiple flower heads, some are singular.
Leaves: grass-like, slender, v-shaped
Stem: Erect, tall
Most species are between 30-60 cm (12-24 in) tall with a drooping head of cotton that is whitish in color. The cotton fibers release in the wind to disperse seeds. Alaska cotton typically grows in the tundra on tussocks or in boggy areas or near water where there is wet soil.
Distribution and Habitat
There are 18 species of cottongrass in the world and 15 of these are native to Alaska. Out of the 15 species of Alaska cotton, the most common is Tall Cotton Grass (Eriophorum angustifolium), which is also the most common cottongrass found throughout the world. Hikers are very familiar with the Tall Cotton Grass that grows on deep round tussocks and make it all too easy to roll an ankle.
Species Found In Alaska
Eriophorum angustifolium (tall cottongrass, narrowleaf cottonsedge)
Eriophorum beringianum (Bering cottongrass)
Eriophorum brachyantherum (northland cottonsedge)
Eriophorum callitrix (arctic cottongrass, arctic cottonsedge)
Eriophorum chamissonis (Chamisso’s cottongrass)
Eriophorum churchillianum (Churchill cottongrass)
Eriophorum gracile (slender cottonsedge)
Eriophorum medium (medium cottongrass)*
Eriophorum porsildii (Porsild’s cottongrass)
Eriophorum pylaieanum (cottongrass)
Eriophorum rousseauianum (Rousseau’s cottongrass)
Eriophorum russeolum (red cottongrass)
Eriophorum scheuchzeri (white cottongrass, dense cottongrass)
Eriophorum vaginatum (tussock cottongrass)
Eriophorum viridicarinatum (thinleaf cottonsedge, tassel cottongrass)
*Listed by the Integrated Taxonomic Information Center, but not the USDA as native to Alaska
|Rank||Scientific Name (Common Name)|
|Subkingdom||Tracheobionta (Vascular plants)|
|Superdivision||Spermatophyta (Seed plants)|
|Division||Magnoliophyta (Flowering plants)|
|Family||Cyperaceae (Sedge family)|
|Genus||Eriophorum L. (cottongrass)|
References and Further Reading
Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg 63
Grasses, National Park Service: Bering Land Bridge
Eriophorum L., ITIS Report
Eriophorum angustifolium, Wikipedia
State Search Eriophorum, USDA
eriophorum search result, Native American Ethnobotony Database (September 2020)