Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei
boreal sweetvetch

Alaska Wildflowers | Purple

Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei boreal sweetvetch

Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei
boreal sweetvetch

Common Names

boreal sweetvetch
Mackenzie’s hedysarum
Mackenzie’s sweetvetch
northern sweetvetch
sainfoin de Mackenzie
sainfoin boréal variété de Mackenzie

Synonyms

Hedysarum americanum var. mackenziei
Hedysarum boreale ssp. dasycarpum
Hedysarum boreale var. leucanthum
Hedysarum boreale var. mackenziei
Hedysarum dasycarpum
Hedysarum leucanthum
Hedysarum mackenziei
Hedysarum mackenziei var. leucanthum

Subspecies

Sub-taxa of Hedysarum boreale
H. boreale ssp. boreale (not present in Alaska)
H. boreale ssp. mackenziei

Genus: Hedysarum
Family: Fabaceae
Order: Fabales
taxonomic heirarchy

Etymology

The genus name ‘Hedysarum’ is derived from the Greek words ‘hedys’, meaning ‘sweet’, and ‘arum’, referring to the pleasant aroma of the plant. The species name ‘boreale’ indicates its northern habitat, derived from ‘boreas’, the Greek god of the north wind. The subspecies designation ‘mackenziei’ honors Sir Alexander Mackenzie, a Scottish explorer known for his overland crossing of what is now Canada to reach the Pacific Ocean.

Duration – Growth Habit

Perennial – Forb/herb



Identification and Information

Hedysarum boreal ssp. mackenziei is a perennial herb in the pea family (Fabaceae) that grows from a fibrous taproot. The stem-base is thick and woody and it has numerous branched decumbent to ascending stems, growing 10-60 cm tall or long (more commonly up to 30 cm).

The leaves are alternate and odd-pinnately compound, featuring 9-15 leaflets. The leaflets are oblong to lance-elliptic. The leaflets, oblong to lance-elliptic in shape, are thick enough that their lateral veins are not obviously visible. This characteristic is one of the simplest ways to distinguish Hedysarum boreale from Hedysarum alpinum (alpine sweetvetch), which has conspicuous lateral veins. The adaxial surface (underside) of the leaflets are dull with fine, silvery grey hairs while the abaxial surfase is darker green with strigose hairs.

The inflorescence is a compact axillary raceme, measuring 2-10 cm long, and features 5-15 large, pea-like flowers. These flowers are bilaterally symmetric and are notable for their broad wing-lobes and elongated claws, with the entire corolla measuring 10-22 mm in length. The calyx is bell-shaped and distinctly 5-lobed, appearing linear with narrow, pointed tips—a characteristic that helps distinguish this subspecies from H. alpinum, which exhibits a more deltoid-shaped calyx. The corolla is vibrant purple (or deep pink), with a blunt keel and helmet lacking teeth at the apex. The wing petals are distinct and shorter than the claw. The staminal configuration consists of 10 stamens, with 9 fused into a tube and one free, all capped with yellow anthers.

The ovary is superior and monomerous, leading to the production of a dry, elongate-cylindrical loment (pod). This fruit type, ranging from 30-40 mm in length and 6-8 mm in width, is covered in fine hairs and marked by conspicuous transverse veins, appearing almost glabrous to the naked eye.

The other subspecies, H. boreale ssp. boreale does not appear in Alaska, but has more pinkish flowers, slightly smaller flowers at 10-29 mm long, and more open racemes, 8-23 cm long.

For more information on distinguishing H. boreale and H. alpinum, consult this great source by Katie Moeller with numerous photos and descriptions!


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Uses

For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.

Most sources regard the plant as poisonous, although others list the root as a food source, reporting that it tastes of licorice. Roots can be eaten fresh or boiled or stored for future use (Upper Tanan). The Native American Ethnobotany Database also lists it as an unspecified drug by the Ute of Utah. It is eaten by livestock and animals.


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Distribution and Habitat

Map data from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF) and NatureServe Explorer.

Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei is widely distributed across most of Canada and Alaska, with isolated populations in the northwestern United States and far-eastern Siberia. Variability in reported distribution across Asia and North America may stem from taxonomic ambiguities associated with its many synonyms and its morphological similarities to other species and subspecies within the genus.

This subspecies typically inhabits dry gravel bars, river terraces, rocky slopes, and roadsides. It is most commonly observed in the braided river gravel bars (often in dwarf forms) and along roadsides, environments that provide the well-drained conditions it prefers.

Classification

RankScientific Name (Common Name)
KingdomPlantae (plantes, Planta, Vegetal, plants)
SubkingdomViridiplantae (green plants)
InfrakingdomStreptophyta (land plants)
SuperdivisionEmbryophyta 
DivisionTracheophyta (vascular plants, tracheophytes)
SubdivisionSpermatophytina (spermatophytes, seed plants, phanérogames)
ClassMagnoliopsida 
SuperorderRosanae 
OrderFabales 
FamilyFabaceae (peas, legumes)
GenusHedysarum L. (sweetvetch, sweet vetch)
SpeciesHedysarum boreale Nutt. (Utah sweetvetch, northern sweetvetch, sweetvetch, boreal sweet-vetch, boreal sweetvetch)
SubspeciesHedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei (Richardson) S.L. Welsh (northern sweetvetch, boreal sweetvetch, sainfoin boréal variété de Mackenzie)

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References and Further Reading

Guidebook

Pratt, V. E. (1989). Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers: Commonly Seen Along Highways and Byways (p. 25). Alaskakrafts, inc.

Johnson, D., Kershaw, L., & MacKinnon, A. (2020). Plants of the Western Forest: Alaska to Minnesota Boreal and Aspen Parkland (3rd ed., p. 141). Partners Publishing. ISBN 978-1772130591.

Brandenburg, D. M. 2010. National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Wildflowers of North America. Sterling Publishing. (p. 240)

Classification and Taxonomy

Integrated Taxonomic Information System. (2024). Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei. Retrieved from https://www.itis.gov/servlet/SingleRpt/SingleRpt?search_topic=TSN&search_value=524125#null

Brouillet, L., & CANADENSYS. (2024). Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei. Retrieved from https://data.canadensys.net/vascan/taxon/5739?lang=en

USDA, NRCS. (2024). Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei. Retrieved from https://plants.usda.gov/home/plantProfile?symbol=HEBOM

Uses

Native American Ethnobotany Database. (2024). Hedysarum boreale. Retrieved from http://naeb.brit.org/uses/search/?string=hedysarum+boreale

Map and Distribution

GBIF. (2024). Occurrence Detail 4018443359. Retrieved from https://www.gbif.org/occurrence/4018443359

NatureServe. (2024). Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei. Retrieved from https://explorer.natureserve.org/Taxon/ELEMENT_GLOBAL.2.145602/Hedysarum_boreale_ssp_mackenziei

Plants of the World Online. (2024). Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei. Retrieved from https://powo.science.kew.org/taxon/urn:lsid:ipni.org:names:118466-2
*I chose not to use this source for my map data – signs of possible taxonomic confusion

Description and Information

Hultén, E. (1968). Flora of Alaska and Neighboring Territories: A Manual of the Vascular Plants (1st ed.) (pg. 667). Stanford University Press.

University of Alaska Fairbanks. (2024). Hedysarum boreale ssp. mackenziei. Retrieved from https://ecologicalatlas.uaf.edu/index.php/browse-plant-species/atlas-page/?nps_id=953

E-Flora BC: Electronic Atlas of the Flora of British Columbia. (2024). Hedysarum boreale. Retrieved from https://linnet.geog.ubc.ca/Atlas/Atlas.aspx?sciname=Hedysarum%20boreale&redblue=Both&lifeform=7

University of Alaska Fairbanks. (2017). Hedysarum systemic botany presentation [PDF]. Retrieved May 28, 2024, from http://web.corral.tacc.utexas.edu/UAF/arctos/mediaUploads/20170607/Katie_Hedysarum_Systemic_Botany_Presentation.pdf

Canadian Museum of Nature. (2024). Hedysarum boreale. Retrieved from https://nature.ca/aaflora/data/www/fahebo.htm

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