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    In 1753 Linnaeus named this genus "Polygonum" from a newly collected specimen that came to be known as Polygonum officinalis.  The genus was renamed Bistorta in 1754 by physician and naturalist, Giovanni Scopoli (1723-1788). 

    A Utah Flora accepts Scopoli's Polygonum designation; Synthesis of North American Flora, the Flora of North America, and Colorado Flora accept Bistorta as the name of the genus..  

    "Bis" Latin for "twice", and "torta", "twisted", refer to the twisted, contorted rhizomes in some species.

Bistorta bistortoides Bistorta vivipara

Bistorta bistortoides
Bistorta bistortoides.  Synonym: Polygonum bistortoides(American Bistort)
Polygonaceae (Buckwheat Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Left: Winter Trail Head, June 27, 2000.
Below left: U.S. Basin, August 4, 2015.

This white-topped Buckwheat is abundant in high mountain and alpine areas, sometimes being so thick that it gives a snowy appearance to meadows.  The soft cottony flower head often has a blush of pink, but as delicate and appealing looking as the flowers are, do not be fooled; their scent is usually quite unpleasant;  one common name for the plant is "Miner's Toes"! 

Partially red stems and leaves are characteristic, and the reds become more pronounced in the fall.  Typical plants are twelve to eighteen inches tall but it is common to find plants two feet tall.

Meriwether Lewis collected this plant in Idaho in 1806, and Frederick Pursh named it Polygonum bistortoides in his 1814 Flora Americae Septentrionalis. Pursh gave the specific epithet, "bistortoides" because he saw the resemblance of this species to members of the Bistort genus.  "Oides" is Greek for "similar to". Botanist John Small thought the resemblance so great that in 1906 he took the species out of the Polygonum genus and placed it in Bistorta, thus giving us the odd name of Bistorta bistortoides, the "Bistort that is similar to Bistort".

                                   Bistorta bistortoides

Bistorta bistortoides
Bistorta bistortoides.  Synonym: Polygonum bistortoides (American Bistort)
Polygonaceae (Buckwheat Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Pass Creek Trail, July 19, 2007.

Bistorta bistortoides.  Synonym: Polygonum bistortoides.    (American Bistort)
Polygonaceae (Buckwheat Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows, wetlands. Summer.
Pass Creek Trail, July 19, 2007.

Leaves have distinctive venation and a sheath encloses the stem below each bulging leaf node.

 

Bistorta vivipara. Synonym: Polygonum viviparum.  (Alpine Bistort)
Polygonaceae (Buckwheat Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings, tundra. Summer.
Sharkstooth Trail, July 30, 2004.

This is a miniature of the much taller, more conspicuous, and more abundant Bistorta bistortoidesB. vivipara grows in scattered colonies in open, grassy areas.  Its very unusual structure is well worth bending to observe, for in addition to the flowers that the plant almost always has, it also has bulblets, identical copies of itself.  A number of floras make no mention of the flowers' fertility, some indicate that all the flowers are infertile, and some indicate that seeds are rarely produced and rarely fertile. Polygonaceae expert James Reveal indicates in the Flora of North America, "Abortion of stamens, production of bulblets, and the rarity of fruits suggest that reproduction is largely asexual; fruits and seedlings are produced rarely".

"Vivipara" is Latin for "brings forth alive". A viviparous plant asexually produces plants genetically identical to itself as sprouts on itself.  In the case of Bistorta vivipara, bulblets are produced below the tiny flowers.  These bulblets fall to the ground and can grow into mature plants.   The more common Bistorta bistortoides is not viviparous.  Human beings are viviparous in the zoological sense: we give birth to live young.  (See also Lithophragma glabrum.)

Linnaeus named this plant Polygonum viviparum in 1753 from collections made in the subalpine in Europe, and Delarbre renamed it Bistorta vivipara in 1800.

Bistorta vivipara

Bistorta vivipara

Bistorta vivipara

Bistorta vivipara. Synonym: Polygonum viviparum.  (Alpine Bistort)
Polygonaceae (Buckwheat Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings, tundra. Summer.
American Basin, July 24, 2007.

Young bulblets show below the flowers.

Bistorta vivipara

Bistorta vivipara. Synonym: Polygonum viviparum.  (Alpine Bistort)
Polygonaceae (Buckwheat Family)

Subalpine, alpine. Meadows, openings, tundra. Summer.
Bridal Veil Creek Trail, July 26, 2012.

In this most unusual Bistorta vivipara, the bulblets have actually sprouted on the stem.

Range map © John Kartesz,
Floristic Synthesis of North America

State Color Key

Species present in state and native
Species present in state and exotic
Species not present in state

County Color Key

Species present and not rare
Species present and rare
Species extirpated (historic)
Species extinct
Species noxious
Species exotic and present
Native species, but adventive in state
Eradicated
Questionable presence

Range map for Bistorta bistortoides

Range map for Bistorta vivipara