*There is confusion over the classification/naming of this plant due to similar species as well as common usage of antiquated taxonomy. I am using the name, descriptions, and info for the species native to and common in Alaska that is accepted by ITIS. See notes below.
Polygonum bistorta var. plumosum
Bistorta Officinalis (Polygonum bistorta – synonym)
Duration – Growth Habit
Perennial – Forb/Herb
Identification and Information
Meadow bistort is a pink-flowering perennial herb that grows from contorted rhizomes (hence the name snakeroot). It is usually single-stemmed with the stem growing 10-40 cm (4-16 inches) tall. The leaves are simple, alternate, lanceolate-elliptic to ovate, dark green or brown, and attached to the stem by winged petioles. The inflorescence is a single, cylindric peduncle 1-8 cm (0.5-3 inches) tall. The flowers are bright pink or purplish-pink with oblong to elliptic tepals 3-4 mm in diameter. The stamens often protrude from the flower and have dark purple, almost black anthers.
There is certainly some confusion in the naming and classification of this plant. There are multiple similar varieties found in North America. Verna Pratt lists pink plumes under the name Polygonum bistorta in her guide “Alaskan Wildflowers”, which I’ve often seen other guides and listings for wildflowers in the region.
ITIS lists Bistorta officinalis as the accepted name for P. bistorta, although the International Plant Names Index lists both. According to GBIF, both are found in Alaska. Flora of North America does not list Alaska as a region for B. officinalis, rather stating that it is a European species that has been transplanted to the northeastern United States. It was difficult for me to distinguish the (possible) two plants by photos published in GBIF other than the leaves looking slightly longer for P. bistorta.
It’s also worth noting that Flora of North America states that chromosome numbers 2n=24, 44, 46, and 50 have been reported for B. officinalis. I have a sneaking suspicion there may be either multiple subspecies or a few subspecies that regularly hybridize.
NatureServe Explorer only lists P. bistorta and not B. officinalis. This agrees with other sources that the plant was moved into the genus Bistorta in the early 1900s. It mentions that there are two varieties found in North America, P. bistorta var. bistorta, which was introduced from Europe, and P. bistorta var. plumosum (the synonym for B. plumosa) which is native to Alaska and western Canada.
I believeBistorta plumosa to be the dominant species in Alaska, the shorter height and few leaves are the biggest giveaways. P. bistorta and B. officinalis are both described as being 30-100 cm (12-40 inches) tall. Yet, at least in the Alaska Interior, I’ve never observed meadow bistort to be much more than 12 inches in height, usually smaller. They also usually have only a few smaller leaves, unlike the much more leafy photos I’ve seen of the other two. I fully accept that this is anecdotal and may be incorrect. Interestingly, Wikipedia has a bit of info on the taxonomy of B. plumosa. I’m even more confused at the multiple listings of P. bistorta var. plumosum if it was moved to the genus bistorta in 1904.
For information only (typically historical) – I take no responsibility for adverse effects from the use of any plant.
The Native American Ethnobotony Database lists uses by Polygonum bistorta and Polygonum bistorta var. plumosum as a food, dietary aid, and tonic. The whole plant is likely edible, the leaves eaten as a salad are rich in vitamin C and vitamin A, the roots can be boiled and added to stews or soups. I did not find any record of traditional or food uses for the flower.
In England the leaves are used with the leaves of nettles, oats, and bacon fat to make dock pudding, or Easter Ledge pudding. I will try making this next spring. I admit it does not look very good, but I could see it being tasty.
Distribution and Habitat
While varieties of meadow bistort are found widely distributed across the northern hemisphere, Bistorta plumosa is primarily found in Alaska, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Siberia. There are a few reports of it in other areas of Canada and Europe, but I’m not hugely confident in them given the possibility of confusion with similar species (see notes above). I have used data from NatureServe Explorer for Bistorta plumosa and left off regions with only single occurrences.
B. plumosa is found in both moist and dry environments, most commonly in alpine meadows and tundra.
|Scientific Name (Common Name)
|Plantae (plantes, Planta, Vegetal, plants)
|Viridiplantae (green plants)
|Streptophyta (land plants)
|Tracheophyta (vascular plants, tracheophytes)
|Spermatophytina (spermatophytes, seed plants, phanérogames)
|Polygonaceae (knotweed, renouées, buckwheat)
|Bistorta (L.) Scopoli (bistort)
|Bistorta plumosa (Small) Greene (meadow bistort)
References and Further Reading
Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, Pratt, Verna E. pg 22
Classification and Taxonomy
B. officinalis Delarbre, Taxonomic Serial No.: 823770, ITIS Database
P. bistorta L. var. plumosum (Small) B. Boivin, USDA Database
P. bistorta L. meadow bistort, USDA Database
P. bistorta L., Native American Ethnobotany Database
Map and Distribution
B. plumosa (Small) Greene, NatureServe Explorer
Description and Information
4. B. officinalis Delarbre, Fl. Auvergne, ed. 2. 2: 516. 1800., Flora of North America
B. plumosa, Flora of North America
Meadow Bistort (B. plumosa), iNaturalist.ca