Mountain Misery

Mountain misery (Chamaebatia foliolosa), a perennial native to California, is naturally found growing only in the partial shade of ponderosa pine or sugar pine forests on the western slopes of the Cascades and Sierras where the summers are dry and the winters mild and wet. It is also known as bear clover or bearmat. Depending on location and soil type, mountain misery may have nitrogen-fixing nodules on its roots and thus can be actinorhizal (a non-legume nitrogen fixer).

A member of the rose family, mountain misery flowers are white, five-petaled and clustered at the ends of young shoots. The flowers resemble strawberry blossoms for a good reason since strawberries are also members of the rose family. The evergreen leaves are pinnately divided into crowded segments and look fern-like. The tip of each segment has a resin gland that produces a sticky, strong-smelling substance that clings to hands, clothes or anything that touches the plant. By the time I finished taking these pictures my hands and camera were tacky. I KNEW not to touch but still managed to get all sticky – one of the reasons for the common name.

This small shrub grows to a height of one or two feet. It propagates mostly by a tenacious underground rhizome system that allows mountain misery to form masses of dense, tangled undergrowth that are nearly impossible to walk through – another reason for the name.

Forest managers have a mixed relationship with mountain misery. One of the first plants to recover after a forest fire, mountain misery stabilizes soil and hillsides damaged and denuded by the flames. At the same time its tangled growth impedes the emergence of new conifer seedlings and takes moisture needed by the young plants. Although mountain misery is highly flammable because of its resinous nature, rarely does it grow tall enough to act as a ladder for flames to reach the tree crowns. Thus in naturally growing areas mountain misery burns fast and “cool” and helps to keep the forest floor clear of brush and flammable debris.

During the summer growing season the resinous oils repel most animals and it is of little use as food. However, the resin is washed away by winter rains and wildlife, particularly deer, utilize mountain misery plants for feed during the winter. Livestock, particularly horses and cows, will not eat mountain misery, even in the winter.

Mountain misery tea was used by the Miwok Indians of California for digestive ailments. Otherwise there is little use made, other than soil stabilization, of this plant. I think it is a very pretty shrub, just do not touch!

These plants were growing in Shasta County CA along the Pit River below Lake Britton.

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1 Response to Mountain Misery

  1. H.B. says:

    Great article! I saw/smelled some mountain misery up in the Sequoia national park area, and wondered about the name’s origin. Thanks!

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