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U.S. Forest Service

Plant of the Week

Northern Grass of Parnassus, Parnassia Palustris, range map. Range map of Northern Grass of Parnassus. States are colored green where Northern Grass of Parnassus may be found.

Parnassia palustris flower, showing modified (sterile) anthersParnassia palustris flower, showing modified (sterile) anthers. Photo copyright by Jan Parie.

Parnassia palustris growing in an open meadow at Yakutat, Alaska. Photo by Mary Stensvold.Parnassia palustris growing in an open meadow at Yakutat, Alaska. Photo by Mary Stensvold.

Northern Grass of Parnassus (Parnassia Palustris)

Northern grass of Parnassus (Parnassia palustris) isn’t a grass at all but is actually a showy flowering forb. The peculiar common name comes from ancient Greece where cattle grazed this species on Mount Parnassus. Leaves of this plant are somewhat heart-shaped and clustered at the base of the plant, forming a basal rosette. The erect flowering stems grow up to a foot tall and are surmounted by a single flower. Flowers are quite large for the overall plant size and are creamy white with five distinctively veined petals. These flowers are particularly striking as they have 5 fertile stamens alternating with 5 sterile stamens; modified to have 9 or more gland tipped bristles which attract pollinators. This plant is perennial and flowers from late June to August depending on its location.

As the Latin name suggests (paluster = marshy), this plant grows in wet areas such as marshes, fens, lake or river shores or wet meadows. It has a circumpolar distribution and grows throughout Alaska at generally lower elevations. USDA Plants accepts four varieties of this species: mountain grass of Parnassus (P. palustris var. montanensis), Alaska grass of Parnassus (P. palustris var. palustris), small flower grass of Parnassus (P. palustris var. parviflora), and marsh grass of Parnassus (P. palustris var. tenuis).

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