Visit the high country of the North Cascades and other mountainous regions of the west during the summer and you’re likely to come across masses of pink mountain-heather, Phyllodoce empetriformis. It’s one of our very common low-growing woody plants, lighting up the hillsides for a short period of time with nodding bell-shaped brilliant pink blossoms. Some people call it pink mountain-heath.
I made these photos of pink heather along the Scott Paul Trail on the south side of Mt. Baker on August 7. It was a misty, overcast day so the flowers on this old friend sparkled and glistened with raindrops.
Pink heather often grows with white heather, Cassiope mertensiana, and Cascades blueberries, Vaccinium deliciosum. Together these low sub-shrubs can carpet acres of subalpine and alpine meadows. They’re all pretty fragile, with brittle stems that are easily broken when stepped upon. Stick to trails, or when hiking cross-country step on the less-fragile grasses and sedges.
It’s easy to recognize pink heather when it’s in bloom. The bell-shaped flowers are usually in clusters at the end of the stems, dangling above the foliage. Each flower is formed of five petals fused into a shallow tube with rolled-back edges. The evergreen leaves look a little like conifer needles. But don’t let the superficial resemblance to conifers fool you. Heather is in the Ericaceae family, the same as rhododendrons, madrone, and blueberries.
Pink heather is one of the earlier plants to bloom after the snow melts in the high country. You’ll generally find it blooming in between the glacier lilies and the lupines, timewise.
Since pink heather grows in high elevation alpine environments it can be challenging to grow in the garden. If you’re inclined to try, give it a bright and sunny but cool location. The Rhododendron Species Foundation in Federal Way, Washington lists plants grown from wild-collected seed for sale.
View more photos of Phyllodoce empetriformis on my Pacific Northwest Wildflowers website. It’s included in both of my books, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest and Trees and Shrubs of the Pacific Northwest.