(tussock cottongrass)Select an option below for more information on this species
Photo of Eriophorum vaginatum by Carl Roland
is one of the most abundant and distinctive plants in Alaska, found in low-lying, moist areas dominated by acidic soils and permafrost. Though called 'cottongrass' for the white, fluffy flowers, it is actually a member of the sedge family. Eriophorum vaginatum
forms large, dense tussocks
, which can dominate huge swaths of land, and make walking difficult and treacherous. The stems grow 10-60 cm tall, though the growth of the tussock
can elevate the whole plant higher than that above the ground. Tussocks
consist of many persistent dead leaves— though Eriophorum vaginatum
may appear to dominate a landscape, living leaves and stems are often less abundant than they seem because of the volume of persistent dead material from these plants. Basal sheaths are 1-3 per stem. Leaves are filiform and triangular in cross-section. Spikes
are solitary and upright, round to ovoid-oblong
in shape, lacking involucral bracts
. The scales subtending
the highly reduced flowers are dark grey at the center with pale or transparent margins (distinguishing it from closely related tussock
-forming E. brachyantherum
and E. callitrix
). Flowers are highly reduced and bisexual. The fruits are single-seeded, ovoid achenes
with pointed tips, 2-3.5 mm long, surrounded by white bristles.
Eriophorum vaginatum is perennial and flowers in early summer.
Members of the genus Eriophorum
, with bisexual flowers. The flowers are wind-pollinated and the fruits wind-dispersed. Seeds of Eriophorum vaginatum
germinate the best in disturbed soils. Seeds can germinate almost immediately after dispersal (not requiring stratification) and can remain present in the seedbank for several years, but their viability declines with time (Innes 2014
can survive fires, and rapidly regenerate and produce many new seedlings. This species does not spread vegetatively via rhizomes
The 'cotton' of the flowering head was traditionally used by Alaska Natives as stuffing, or as a firestarter.
Disclaimer for Known Uses.
Eriophorum vaginatum has a widespread circumpolar range. In North America, E. vaginatum ranges from the northeastern United States, through eastern and northern Canada to Alaska. In Alaska, E. vaginatum is found throughout much of the state, except for the Aleutians and Southeast Alaska. In Denali, E. vaginatum is common, widespread and locally abundant north of the Alaska Range.
Details are shown in the Plots & Charts found at right, depicting recent Denali data.
Eriophorum vaginatum is most abundant at low to moderate elevations where it has a 50% probability of occurring at any site under 300 meters, but its cover is highest at 300-500 meters. It is more abundant and has much higher covering on north-facing (or east/west facing) slopes, but in general has a strong preference for more level terrain. The average slope for all recorded occurrences is only 3 degrees. If a site in Denali is less than 4 degrees incline, there is a more than 35% chance Eriophorum vaginatum will be found there.
Details are shown in the Plots & Charts found at right. For more on how to interpret these figures, visit Understanding Data Presented.
Eriophorum vaginatum is found in wet, acidic soils. can be found on permafrost-ridden slopes, and other wet places.
Poorly-drained, wet to moist sites.
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