Alpine Botany of British Columbia

Project Partners
  • William MacKenzie, Provincial Research Ecologist, BC Ministry of Forests, Lands & Natural Resource Operations
  • Dr. Geraldine Allen, Professor, Department of Biology, University of Victoria
  • Dr. Richard Hebda, Curator (Emeritus) of Botany and Earth History, Royal BC Museum
  • Dr. Erica Wheeler, Head of Collections Care and Conservation, Royal BC Museum
  • Laurie McCormick, Research Technician, Department of Biology, University of Victoria

Project overview

The alpine tundra biome covers 3% of the earth’s land. In British Columbia, tundra covers more than 12% of the land, making BC one of the most mountainous jurisdictions in the world and an important steward of alpine biodiversity. Much of BC’s alpine is remote. Large mountains, lakes and even entire mountain massifs have no names in settler languages. The ecology of BC’s forest biome has been relatively well studied; alpine biodiversity, however, is poorly documented, particularly with regard to species distributions. In 2002, botanists at the Royal BC Museum began to inventory BC’s alpine plants to address this gap in knowledge.

This research has three broad goals:

  1. Document alpine plant diversity for current and future research by making comprehensive collections emphasizing locations where botanists have not previously sampled.
  2. Use DNA markers of several widespread arctic-alpine species to discern their migration paths into BC following the last ice age. We are also evaluating whether these markers support or refute the long standing view that all of BC was covered by ice during the most recent ice advance.
  3. Investigate patterns of alpine species distribution across BC’s alpine to identify areas of high diversity, locations of rare plants and identify the environmental drivers of alpine plant diversity.  Only preliminary analysis of the latter goal has been undertaken to date.

Project activities

Initially, we focused on the vast, nearly roadless region north of Smithers. More than 450 kilometres separate the Stewart-Cassiar highway on the west and the Alaska highway to the east.Although some mining and logging roads penetrate this region, large areas are without road access.Our focus is now on southern BC, where relatively more collections have been made previously.But this region too contains large areas where access is difficult and few collections have been made.

To date we have made collections from more than 100 BC mountains. By 2023 we hope to have visited about 120.At each location, we camp for two to three days and make collections from the full range of habitats, from dry, windswept ridgetops to moist meadows. We have done fieldwork in Russia, the US and Yukon Territory to collect specimens and tissue for DNA analysis (see below). The Royal BC Museum now houses the largest and most comprehensive collection of alpine plant specimens in Canada. By the completion of the collecting phase in 2023, over 22,000 alpine plant specimens will have been added to the museum’s herbarium, increasing the scientific and educational value of this unique biodiversity baseline. Two PhD dissertations have utilized specimens that we collected for this project. We have reported our findings from 10 provincial parks and ecological reserves to the BC Ministry of Environment.

Widespread fieldwork is critical to document species distribution patterns that often tell stories about the history of the landscape. In the course of our fieldwork, we have discovered one species new to the province, established that some species previously thought to be rare are not so rare after all, and confirmed that some genuinely are rare. Some of our collections document species occurrences several hundred km from the nearest previous collection. These range extensions are not a consequence of climate change—they are due to the paucity of previous collections. Some species present in northern BC are absent from southern BC, but do occur even further south in the US. This has not been noted previously and reflects historical plant migrations at low elevations during colder climates, with subsequent localized extinctions in the intervening areas. At the request of researchers in Japan, Norway and the US, we have collected tissue samples used for DNA analysis in their research. 

Analysis of plant migrations using DNA markers requires tissue samples from as much of a species range as possible. In addition to our own fieldwork in Russia and the US, botanists in other parts of Canada, the US and Europe have sent us samples in order to expand the geographical coverage of our study. Of the four species that we have analyzed to date, one indicates migration from the north and the south following the last ice age as well as strong evidence of persistence within BC during the last ice advance. Evidence from the other species indicates post–ice age migration into BC from the north and the south.

External supporters

NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council
BC Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resources and Rural Development
BC Ministry of Environment (BC Parks)
John and Joan Walton Innovators Fund
Weston Foundation


Peer Reviewed Articles
Article Author

Arctic Plant Origins and Early Formation of Circumarctic Distributions: A Case Study of the Mountain Sorrel, Oxyria digyna.” New Phytologist 209 (2015):1–12.  

Wang, Q., J.Q. Liu, G.A. Allen, Y.Z. Ma, W. Yue, K.L Marr and R.J. Abbott

Geographical Origins, Migration Patterns and Refugia of Sibbaldia procumbens, an Arctic–Alpine Plant with a Fragmented Range.Journal of Biogeography 42 (2015): 1665–1676.

Allen, G.A., K.L. Marr , L.J. McCormick and R.J. Hebda.
Vicariance, Long-Distance Dispersal, and Regional Extinction–Recolonization Dynamics Explain the Disjunct Circumpolar Distribution of the Arctic-Alpine Plant Silene acaulis.”  American Journal of Botany 102 (2015):1703–1720.   Gussarova, G., G. Allen, Y. Mikhaylova, L.J. McCormick, V. Mirré, K.L. Marr, R.J. Hebda and C. Brochmann.
Phylogeographic Patterns in Arctic-Alpine Bistorta vivipara (Polygonaceae) and Implications for Refugia During the Last Glacial Maximum in Western North America.” Journal of Biogeography 40 (2013): 847–856. Marr, K.L., G.A. Allen, R.J. Hebda and L.J. McCormick.
The Impact of Pleistocene Climate Change on an Ancient Arctic-Alpine Plant: Multiple Lineages of Disparate History in Oxyria digyna.” Ecology and Evolution 2 (2012): 649–665. Allen, G.A., K.L. Marr, L.J. McCormick and R.J. Hebda

New Alpine Plant Records for British Columbia and the Recognition of a New Biogeographical Element in Western North America.” Botany 90 (2012): 445–455.

Marr, K.L., R.J. Hebda and W.H. MacKenzie

Alpine Plant Range Extensions for Northern British Columbia including Two Species New to the Province.”  Canadian Field-Naturalist 125 (2011): 227-234.

Marr, K.L., R.J. Hebda and W.H. MacKenzie. 
Refugia in the Cordilleran Ice Sheet of Western North America: Chloroplast DNA Diversity in the Arctic-Alpine Plant Oxyria digyna. Journal of Biogeography 35 (2008): 1323–1334. Marr, K.L, G.A. Allen and R.J. Hebda
What's inSight magazine articles

Dying Rivers of Ice: The Loss of Glaciers in BC.” Winter 2019.

Marr, K.L.
Summer 2018 Alpine Biodiversity Fieldwork: Collections of Plants, Insects, Spiders and Fungi from Biologically Undocumented Mountains.”  Spring 2019. Marr, K.L.and Claudia Copley
Sugar Thief.” Spring 2015. Marr, K.L. and Claudia Copley.
A Puzzling Gap.” Summer 2015. Marr, K.L. Richard Hebda and Erica Wheeler
DNA Traces the Migration of BC's Alpine Species.” Winter 2014. Marr, K.L. and R.J. Hebda.
Exploring the Alpine Unknown in Northern BC.”  Winter 2013. Marr, K.L. and R.J. Hebda.
Other Publications
Alpine Plants, Spiders and Some Fungi of Sikanni Chief River ER and Ospika Cones ER.” The LOG (the Friends of Ecological Reserves newsletter). Autumn/Winter 2018. Marr, Kendrick.

Alpine Plants Learning Portal:


Get in Touch

Kendrick Marr, PhD
Curator of Botany