Plant of the Week

Minuartia obtusiloba range map.
Minuartia obtusiloba range map. USDA PLANTS Database.

Close-up of twinflower sandwort.
This close-up of twinflower sandwort was taken on Santa Fe Baldy in the Pecos Wilderness, Santa Fe National Forest, New Mexico. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

A twinflower sandwort cushion in full bloom.
This twinflower sandwort cushion was in full bloom on July 14, 2007. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Several small twinflower sandwort cushions. Photo by Charlie McDonald.
This large twinflower sandwort cushion has died back and several smaller cushions are now developing in its place. Photo by Charlie McDonald.

Twinflower Sandwort (Minuartia obtusiloba)

By Charlie McDonald

Twinflower sandwort, also called alpine sandwort, is found in alpine tundra throughout the West. The word tundra comes from the Finnish word “tunturia” which means treeless land. Alpine tundra is found on mountain tops above the elevation where trees will grow. At these elevations, often above 11,000 feet, the summers are short, freezing temperatures are possible at any time, there are harsh drying winds, and the sunlight is intense. The soils tend to be rocky, dry, and nutrient poor.
 
Twinflower sandwort is a cushion plant, which is a term that describes the growth form of many alpine tundra plants. Apparently, this growth form works well to protect plants from alpine weather extremes because it has been adopted by many unrelated alpine plants. The cushion shape helps protect tender parts from frost and high winds, helps retain moisture, and holds in heat. Studies have shown that the temperature within a plant cushion can be up to 10 centigrade degrees higher than the ambient temperature.

Twinflower sandwort makes tidy little ground-hugging mounds with only its small leaves exposed to the weather. The flowers are on short stalks barely above the cushion and many of them pop up at once to cover the cushion with color. Like most cushion plants, twinflower sandwort needs to be seen close-up to appreciate its beauty. But, a visit to the alpine tundra is exhilarating and well worth the trip to see twinflower sandwort and its other ground-hugging tundra friends. Twinflower sandwort and many other tundra plants have a short blooming period; the best time to see them is usually late July and early August.

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