A member of the rose family, Robbins’ Cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana),
also called the dwarf cinquefoil, is probably the rarest plant in New England. It was discovered by early botanist and ornithologist Thomas Nuttall, and was named by William Oakes, for botanist James W. Robbins.
Robbins was particularly interested in aquatic plants, was an expert on Potamogeton, having written the Potamoget section of the fifth edition of Gray’s Manual of Botony. Robbins was born in Colebrook, CT on Nov. 18, 1801; he graduated from Yale in 1822 and received he M.D. from Yale in 1828. For many years he was a physician in Uxbridge, MA, and he died there on Jan. 9, 1879.
The Robbins’ Cinquefoil is a petite yellow-flowered perennial, only found in the alpine zone of New Hampshire, in the White Mountain National Forest. It is stemless, measuring 2-4 centimeters in diameter, and bears a yellow flower that begins in early June and lasts about three weeks. The plant grows in some of the harshest conditions found anywhere in New England, withstanding freezing temperatures and high winds. In the wild, cinquefoil takes twelve years to mature.
The plant was first discovered in 1824, alongside the Crawford Path, a bridle path ascending Mount Washington. About 95% of the cinquefoil’s known habitat was found on just one acre of the mountain. It was placed on the endangered species list in 1980 when less about 3,700 of the plants remained. Hikers on the Appalachian trail and plant collectors were felt to be responsible for its peril.
The plant’s recovery was assisted by the cooperative conservation efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Service, the United States Forest Service, the Appalachian Mountain Club, and the New England Wild Flower Society.
By rerouting the hiking trails away from the plant’s habitat in 1983, and by working with biologists (at the New England Wild Flower Society), more populations of these lovely flowers were growing and thriving. In 2002 when more than 14,000 Robbins’ cinquefoils were believed to be growing in our White Mountains, these rare plants were officially removed from the endangered list.
Move over Syringa vulgaris (aka purple lilac) and Cypripedium acaule, (aka pink ladyslipper). You’ve been New Hampshire’s state flower since 1919 and the state wildflower since 1991, respectively. The first of the purple lilac was imported from England and planted at the Portsmouth New Hampshire home of Governor Benning Wentworth in 1750. However, you are not a native of our fine state. The Pink Ladyslipper is not especially rare. It is found mostly in the eastern and northeastern states, and is also found in Canada, and as far west as Minnesota. Besides New England, it can be found in some states such as: South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Minnesota, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. It is very clear that Robbins’ cinquefoil best deserves the honor as our state flower or wildflower.
–Hiker Traffic On and Near the Habitat of Robbins Cinquefoil, an Endangered Plant Species by R.E. Graber and G.E. Crow, New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station, UNH, Durham NH, June 1982
–30 Years of the Endangered Species Act: Robbins’ Cinquefoil– (link updated Dec 2007)
-Mount Washington Observatory: Alpine Flowers Photo Gallery–
-Once close to extinction, the Robbins’ cinquefoil has recovered, and was the first plant species to be removed from the Endangered Species List.
–Federal Register (Showing Removal of Potentilla robbinsiana from the Endgangered Plant List)
[originally written 23 October 2006; updated 27 October 2017]