In the high reaches of Unalaska’s volcanically-formed peaks, the flora hugs the ground, a natural defense against Aleutian winds, snow and cold. These same winds brought most of Unalaska’s plants here centuries ago, as seeds from east and west blew in on currents – or were carried by migrating birds. Gifts from Asia include the purple orchid, iris and Chukchi primrose. Those from North America include yarrow, lupine and goldenrod.
Over time, they all took hold and adapted to the cool climate, one that far surpasses the U.S. average for inches of rain and snow and days a year with precipitation (221!). Unalaska’s plants flourish today in a lush carpet of green revealed and welcomed by all when the snow melts away.
Between June and August, Unalaska’s wildflowers decorate the undulating green hills in a profusion of blue, purple, pink, white and yellow. This natural flower garden greets the eye virtually anywhere you wander, and is delightful to explore on foot. (See our trail guide for an idea of where you can easily get out and start exploring).
The flowers are not only beautiful, though. Many have been known to generations for their practical and healing properties.
Flowers/Plants You May Find (by Habitat)
Shoreline – Grasses, putchki, monkshood, beach green
Lakes/marshes – Wild iris, sedge, cotton grass, orchids
Riverbanks – Violets, yarrow
Meadows – Cranesbill geranium, fleabane, coastal paintbrush
Hillsides – Orchids, blueberries
Upper slopes – Crowberry, pussytoes
Alpine – Alpine lily, Unalaska arnica, mountain sorrel, lousewort, lichens
Flowers of Note
Orchids – A dozen species, including purple bog orchid, lady’s slipper orchid, and the Bering bog orchid, which is only found in Japan, Kamchatka and the Aleutians. Look for orchids in damp meadows, slopes or marshy areas – sometimes without their flowers, as ground squirrels tend to snack on them!
Wild geranium – Wild geranium, or cranesbill, has a more delicate appearance than the geraniums of urban flowerboxes, with a purple-blue flower and leaves with five lobes and a toothy margin. This common flower also has a long pistil resembling the bill of a crane (thus the nickname).
Primrose – Two varieties of primrose grow on Unalaska, and they bloom early in the summer. The wedge-leaved primrose with violet pink flowers can be found readily from sea level on up to higher altitudes, usually in damp, rocky areas. The Chukchi primrose is not as common, but at 10 inches tall, it is one of the largest of the Alaska primroses. Look for it in wet meadows.
Monkshood – The purple flowers of this ubiquitous plant resemble the hoods of monks. Found in grassy meadows and hillsides. Enjoy with your eyes but don’t ingest, as it is quite poisonous.
Chocolate Lily – Named for its brown color, this lily is pollinated by flies that are attracted to its stinky smell. They are very showy, however, and typically found in meadows and on slopes.
Lupine – Spikes of blue-purple flowers tipped with white grow on dry slopes, in gravel and sand and along the coastline. Can also be found with white or pink flowers.
Fireweed – The dwarf version of this pinkish-purple flower grows along roadside and dry rocky areas. The taller version (up to six feet high) presents bold patches of color where it grows in meadows and along hillsides.
Some of these flowers are difficult to cultivate outside their natural habitat, so please leave them where they are happiest – where you found them!
Other Common Plants
Rye grass – Seas of rye grass wave in the wind and have been used for centuries by the Unangan to make tightly-woven baskets for storing dried meats and berries. You can find examples of these on display in the Museum of the Aleutians.
Scurvy grass – With high levels of vitamin C providing nutritional protection against scurvy, this white-flowered grass was collected by sailors, including those from Captain Cook’s 1778 visit to Unalaska.
Putchki – Another plant collected by Captain Cook’s crew, putchki is also known as wild celery or cow parsnip. Easy to identify by its large leaves and small white flowers clustered together, putchki grows up to 7 feet high. Avoid touching it with bare skin, as it contains chemicals that can cause a painful rash and blistering when exposed to sunlight.
- Before exploring, get a recreational land use permit from the Ounalashka Corporation, owner of much of the land on Unalaska and Amaknak Islands.
- If you want all the details on the 160+ species of flowering plants you may come across, get a copy of Suzi Golodoff’s Wildflowers of Unalaska, published by the University of Alaska Press.