The vegetation of the Alaska Interior  falls into four main categories: rain forest, boreal forest, taiga, and tundra. The lush coastal rain forests of Southeast Alaska  are dominated by hemlock, spruce, and cedar. The Sitka spruce, Alaska’s state tree, rivals California redwoods in height, age, beauty—and commercial value, of course. Sparser forests stretch across Southcentral Alaska, with spruce continuing through northern Kodiak Island but not farther west than the adjacent mainland. Dense thickets of alder and willow grow in the higher subalpine areas near the coast.
The boreal forest of the Interior lowlands consists primarily of scattered open stands of white spruce, paper birch, alpine fir, lodgepole pine, and balsam poplar (cottonwood). Taiga, the transition zone between boreal forest and tundra, is characterized by sparse and stunted black spruce, dwarf shrubbery (mostly the ubiquitous willow), and swampy areas known as “muskegs.”
The lower-elevation tundra, also known as the “moist tundra,” starts at the tree line, around 2,500 feet. There you find undergrowth similar to that of the taiga but without the trees. The higher-elevation alpine tundra consists of grasses, clinging mosses and lichens, and an abundance of tiny, psychedelically bright wildflowers, including the unforgettable forget-me-not (state flower), with gaze-catching petals of light blue.
There are actually two tree lines in Alaska : One is determined by elevation, the other by latitude. Generally, the tree line descends in elevation as the latitude ascends. Although alder and poplar do survive in isolated stands near the Brooks Range, the Arctic region on the North Slope is mostly treeless tundra. Dwarf willow, alder, grasses, and moss give the tundra here the appearance of a shag carpet. This tundra belt continues along the shores of the Bering Sea to the Alaska Peninsula and Aleutian Islands. Southward, the Arctic vegetation is gradually replaced by Pacific coastal varieties.
While you’re hiking, an excellent book to have along is Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers by Verna E. Pratt. The photographs are good, the descriptions are usable, and the flowers are conveniently arranged by color.
Fireweed is a wildflower you’ll come to know intimately during your travels in the North. It enjoys sunlight and grows profusely in open areas along roads and rivers. Given proper conditions, tall fireweed can grow to seven feet high. Its long stalk of pink flowers blossoms from bottom to top; sourdoughs claim they can predict the arrival and severity of winter by the speed with which fireweed finishes blooming.
In Southcentral and Interior Alaska , prickly rose is a common sight. The plant grows stems up to four feet high with sharp stickers. The flowers have five pink petals; the bright-red rose hips ripen in mid-August and contain highly concentrated vitamin C. Pop ’em in your mouth, suck off the slightly tart flesh, spit out the pips, and climb a mountain.
Three kinds of primrose, also a pinkish red, are another common sight on the tundra. Other red wildflowers of the tundra include purple mountain saxifrage, moss campion, and large bright-pink poppies.
White flowers include the narcissus-flowered anemone, similar to a buttercup, which also grows on the tundra. Mountain avens are easily recognizable—they look like white roses. A half-dozen kinds of white saxifrage are widespread throughout the state. Be careful of the local water hemlock, which is deadly poisonous. Similar is the yarrow, a medicinal herb with a disk of small white flowers and lacelike leaves. As soon as you identify Labrador tea, you’ll notice it everywhere in the forest and taiga. Cotton grass looks exactly like its name. Daisies and fleabane complete this group of plants with white flowers.
Larkspur looks similar to fireweed, only it’s a dark purple. It grows on a long stalk and a dwarf bush. Monkshood is a beautiful dark-blue flower of the buttercup family; harebells and bluebells are easily identified around Denali. Three kinds of violets grow in the boreal forest. Light-purple lupine flowers grow in 20-inch clusters. Asters, resembling purple daisies, bloom all over the Interior .
Berries are the only fruits that grow naturally in Alaska , and luckily the many varieties are abundant, several are edible, a few even taste good, and only one is poisonous. If you’re into berry collecting, get to know poisonous baneberry immediately. A member of the crowfoot family, it grows mostly in the Southeast and the central Interior . The white berries look like black-eyed peas; they ripen to a scarlet red.
Juniper berries grow throughout Alaska, but the bog blueberries, Alaska blueberries, and huckleberries are much tastier. Blueberries also grow on poorly drained, shady alpine slopes and are generally the first to ripen. Salmonberries turn a dark salmon-red in late summer, and are quite similar to raspberries.
Bunchberries are good tasting but have been known to upset a stomach or two. Bog cranberries are best after the first frost, especially when they’re a deep purple—deliciously tart. High-bush cranberries are common but are best just before they’re completely ripe. Wild strawberries are even better if you can get to them before the birds and rodents.
The several kinds of bearberries (blue and red) are tasteless except to bears, and the soapberry will remind you of getting caught saying a dirty word as a kid. Pick up Alaska Wild Berry Guide and Cookbook for the complete lowdown on Alaska’s berries.
Approximately 500 species of mushrooms are found in Alaska , thrusting up from the fecund forests from Ketchikan  to Katmai and the rich tundra from Kantishna to Kotzebue. Most of the mushrooms are harmless to humans, and are often edible; a handful are poisonous, such as varieties of amanita (especially the muscaria, or fly agaric) and poison pax. But if you learn to identify such common species as hedgehogs and shaggy manes, you’ll enjoy happy hunting, mostly in July–August. For more information, see Alaska’s Mushrooms by Harriette Parker.
In 1941 the managers of the Alaska Railroad offered a $25 prize to the grower of the largest cabbage in the state, and since then cabbage growers have been competing. Usually the largest cabbages at the Tanana Valley State Fair  (in Fairbanks  in mid-August) weigh in at 65–70 pounds, but a world record was set in 2009 when a Wasilla  man grew a 127-pound cabbage.
Ten-pound celery, 3-pound beets, 2-pound turnips, and 1-pound carrots have also been blue-ribbon earners. Find them and more at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer  at the end of August.