Plants in a tundra

Various Tundra Plants

The tundra only has what would normally be considered a growing season for two months of every year. Despite the almost year round freezing temperatures, the tundra biome is thriving with a surprising variety of plant life. What you won’t find on the tundra are trees. After all, that is how it got its name – tundra comes from the Finnish “tunturia” which means treeless land. The winds are harsh here, and most of the plants that grow on the surface of the tundra grow in clusters to form a natural barrier against the wind.

There are over 400 different types of plants that bloom on the tundra, but few plants that are associated with year round growth. One of the issues with plants growing on the tundra is the nature of its soil. While there is a thick layer of soil beneath the ice, it rarely thaws beyond a few inches. This means that only plants with the shallowest roots can take hold.

The fact that plant life is present, but not always lasting plays an important role in sustaining the other life forms that live in this biome. As the plants die and decay, many of the other organisms will use them to nourish themselves during the long winter months.

Here is a list and brief description of the common plants you will find on the tundra that are perennials.

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Bearberry

Bearberry isn’t really all about bears, although they have been seen to eat them. The red berries and green leaves attract the owls and birds that come to the tundra. The plant has uniquely adapted to the tundra by growing very low to the ground. It is not quite a ground cover, as it does have some height. It can have berries on it year round.

Labrador Tea

The Labrador Tea is a strange little plant with red leaves and what can only be described as hairy legs. The stems of the plant are covered with a fine type of hair-like growth that helps it to conserve heat. Unusual about this plant is that it is not consumed by any of the animals on the tundra.

Diamond Leaf

The Diamond leaf is a form of willow, but not like the willows that you may be used to. These are not tall willows but they grow close to the ground. Like the Labrador, they also have a hair-like growth that covers their stems and roots that help the plant to stay warm. This plant is also edible and gathered by people and animals because it is rich in calcium and many vitamins. The plant is also very flexible so it is not found in groupings but grows separately as it can bend to manage the harsh winds.

Arctic Moss

Artic Moss is the most plentiful plant on the tundra and it is not quite unlike the moss that grows elsewhere in other biomes. It can grow on the surface but is primarily an aquatic plant that grows beneath the surface of the water. It does not have a root systems but rhizoids. It is also covered in small leaves that are only one cell in thickness, which makes it easy to sustain itself with the very limited amount of photosynthesis it can glean.

Artic moss is a mainstay of many of the animals and mammals in the tundra as it is rich in nutrients and can grow all year long. When it dies, it also becomes an important source of nutrient for other organisms that thrive there. It is also an important food source for birds that pass through the tundra on their migratory paths. It is a favorite study subject of scientists because it reveals much about the natural evolution of life to protect itself in harsh climates.

Arctic Willow

Arctic willow or rock willow is normally found in North America tundra region which consists of Northern Canada and Northern Alaska. Arctic willow is 15-20 cm in height, has long trailing branches and grow prostrate, shrub, and carpet.

Caribou Moss

Caribou Moss grows in arctic and northern regions around the world. They grow on ground and on rocks and can go up to1-4 inches high. They go dormant when there is no light or water. They can grow again after being dormant for a very long time. The stems or stocks of caribou moss are hollow.

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Tufted Saxifrage

Tufted Saxifrage grows on thick stems and has several straight flower stems that can go as high as 3-15 cm. Each stem has around 2-8 flowers and each flower has five white petals. Tufted Saxifrage also has a small fruit that holds many small seeds. The Tufted saxifrage grows on the rocky slopes and can be found from Alaska to the Cascade and Olympic Mountains and northwestern Oregon.

Pasque Flower

Pasque Flower is a member of the Ranunculaceae family and can grow 6-8 inches off the ground. On each stem, it has one flower with 5-8 petals. The color of flower range from lavender to almost white. Pasque Flower grows on southward facing slopes and is common throughout northwestern U.S. up to northern Alaska. It is also the state flower of South Dakota.

There are other plants and flowers that can be found growing on the tundra that will vary according to the season and the location of the tundra climate. The main plants listed are considered to be most definitive of the tundra climate. Variations of these plants are found in different biomes, which also allows scientists to study the spread of plant life via migratory animals as well.

Image credit: rongay58 , brewbooks
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Rinkesh

A true environmentalist by heart ❤️. Founded Conserve Energy Future with the sole motto of providing helpful information related to our rapidly depleting environment. Unless you strongly believe in Elon Musk‘s idea of making Mars as another habitable planet, do remember that there really is no ‘Planet B’ in this whole universe.

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Plant and animal life

Vegetation

Two main vegetation zones are found in the polar lands. In the south is the subarctic, formed by the northern subzones of the circumpolar boreal forest. To the north is the Arctic proper, where the vegetation is generally referred to as tundra, from the Finnish word for an open rolling plain; in North America the descriptive term Barren Grounds is frequently applied. The two zones are separated by the tree line, or timberline, defined in this case (the term also applies to the upper limit of arboreal growth at high elevations) as the absolute northern limit of treelike species, although even beyond it the same species may be found in low shrubs and dwarfed forms. The tree line is composed of different species. In Alaska and northwestern Canada white spruce is dominant, while in Labrador-Quebec it is black spruce and occasionally larch. By contrast, in northern Europe and Siberia the tree line is formed by larch, pine, and fir. The tree line is related to summer warmth, which may be correlated closely with tree growth. Alexander Supan found good coincidence between the tree line and the 50 °F (10 °C) July isotherm, a figure later modified by Otto Nordenskjöld to allow for spring temperatures.

In North America the tree line extends from the shores of the Bering Strait along the Brooks Range of Alaska to the Mackenzie River delta and then curves southeastward across the Northwest Territories to Churchill and James Bay. East of Hudson Bay it crosses northern Quebec to Ungava Bay and then continues into Labrador. In western Scandinavia the tree line is within a few miles of the sea; it curves east and crosses northern Siberia 50 to 150 miles south of the Arctic Ocean.

Arctic plants must contend with a harsh environment including low temperatures, continuous daylight in summer, infertile and often mobile soil and permanently frozen ground, and in many areas strong, dry winds and blowing snow. The species that survive are few and are frequently dwarfed. Many plants grow in compact cushions for maximum protection from the climate. The growing season is so short that annuals are rare and perennials reproduce asexually by shoots or runners. Even so, Arctic plants have a rapid seasonal life cycle. Spring growth often begins when snow is on the ground and there are still heavy frosts; the flower and seed stages follow in a period as short as six weeks. The sudden blooming of flowers is spectacular, particularly along the southern edges of the tundra, and for a short time in July the Barren Grounds are covered with a mass of flowers. The species vary but typical are those in the western American Arctic, which include the blue-spiked lupine, wild crocus, mountain avens, arctic poppy, and saxifrage. By late August the cycle is complete, and the plants are awaiting winter.

At first sight many parts of the Arctic are polar deserts without soil or vegetation. Closer inspection shows that some plant life is always present, and even on permanent ice there are often algae. The bare rock surfaces support thin brown, black, or gray crustaceous lichens that swell and become soft when wet; some of the larger black lichens are edible and are generally known as “rock tripe.” In the past these lichens have been used for food by starving explorers. Higher plants grow in rock crevices and succeed in forming tussocks on patches of soil. Close to the southern edge of the Arctic, dwarf shrubs are found in protected sites on these rock deserts.

Tundra areas have a continuous cover of vegetation, and many different tundra associations (plant communities) may be recognized. In the drier and better-drained parts, heath tundra, made up of a carpet of lichens and mosses with isolated flowering plants, is dominant. In some areas, notably west of Hudson Bay, a similar environment results in tundra grassland. When there is more moisture, sedges and grasses become important and form tussock or hillock tundra; willow and dwarf birch may be found between the individual mounds. This type of tundra reaches its greatest development on the northern Alaskan coastal plain.

In the warmest parts of the Arctic, woody dwarf shrubs, willow, birch, juniper, and, locally, alder are profuse. In the southern Arctic several of these shrubs modify the heath tundra, and low scrub woods may be extensive. On sheltered, south-facing slopes, tall thickets of willow, birch, and alder develop, and under optimum conditions these bushlike “trees” may be more than 10 feet high. This type of vegetation is common in all circumpolar lands close to the tree line and is conspicuous in the inner fjords of southwestern Greenland and in northern Iceland. The bushes may be used in the western Canadian Arctic by the Eskimo (Inuit) for fuel or for mats, and in former times the wood was made into arrow shafts. It is unsuitable for bows, spears, or boat building; for these purposes the Eskimo either had to travel to the tree line or search for driftwood, which was formerly widely distributed along the Arctic coasts.

The tundra vegetation is the source of food for the northern grazing mammals but contains few foods of direct value to man. Berries are found throughout the southern Arctic. Most widely used by the native population has been the black crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), eaten either raw or mixed with animal oil. Europeans have found the cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), and mountain cranberry (V. vitisidaea minus) more palatable. Mushrooms are widely distributed and can be used for a welcome change of diet.

South of the tree line is the subarctic forest-tundra. Its bare windswept ridges are covered with tundra associations, while in the sheltered valleys there are woodlands, which may become continuous near large rivers and, if the rivers flow north, may penetrate many miles into the Barren Grounds. These areas, known as galeria (gallery) forests, are found along the Coppermine River of Canada and the north Siberian rivers. The woods contain the same coniferous species as forms the tree line, together with several broad-leaved species, notably birch.

J. Brian Bird

Tundra Biome

Did you know that the Arctic Tundra is the world’s youngest biome? It was formed 10,000 years ago. Located at latitudes 55° to 70° North, the tundra is a vast and treeless land which covers about 20% of the Earth’s surface, circumnavigating the North pole. It is usually very cold, and the land is pretty stark. Almost all tundras are located in the Northern Hemisphere. Small tundra-like areas do exist in Antarctica in the Southern Hemisphere, but because it is much colder than the Arctic, the ground is always covered with snow and ice. Conditions are not right for a true tundra to form. Average annual temperatures are -70°F (-56°C).

Tundra comes from the Finnish word “tunturia”, which means a barren land. The ground is permanently frozen 10 inches to 3 feet (25 to 100 cm) down so that trees can’t grow there. The bare and sometimes rocky ground can only support low growing plants like mosses, heaths, and lichen. In the winter it is cold and dark and in the summer, when the snow and the top layer of permafrost melt, it is very soggy and the tundra is covered with marshes, lakes, bogs and streams that breed thousands of insects and attract many migrating birds.

The main seasons are winter and summer. Spring and fall are only short periods between winter and summer. The tundra is the world’s coldest and driest biomes. The average annual temperature is -18° F (-28° C). Nights can last for weeks when the sun barely rises during some months in the winter, and the temperature can drop to -94° F (-70° C). During the summer the sun shines almost 24 hours a day, which is why the Arctic is also called the Land of the Midnight Sun. Summer are usually warm. Temperatures can get up to 54° F (12° C), but it can get as cold as 37° F (3° C). Average summer temperatures range from 37° to 60°F (3° to 16°C).

The Arctic tundra is also a windy place and winds can blow between 30 to 60 miles (48 to 97 kilometers) per hour. Of the North American, Scandinavian and Russian tundras, the Scandinavian tundra is the warmest, with winter temperatures averaging 18°F (-8°C)

The tundra is basically like a desert when it comes to precipitation. Only about 6 – 10 inches of precipitation (mostly snow) fall each year. Below the soil is the tundra’s permafrost, a permanently frozen layer of earth. During the short summers the top layer of soil may thaw just long enough to let plants grow and reproduce. Since it can’t sink into the ground, water from melting permafrost and snow forms lakes and marshes each summer.

There is barely any vegetation in the tundra, only about 1,700 different species, which isn’t very much. These are mostly shrubs, sedges, mosses, lichens and grasses. There are about 400 varieties of flowers. The growing season is only about 50 to 60 days long. There are no trees, except for some birches in the lower latitudes. The ground is always frozen beneath the top layer of soil, so trees can’t send their roots down. Willows do grow on some parts of the tundra but only as low carpets about 3 inches (8 cm) high. Most plants grow in a dense mat of roots which has developed over thousands of years. The soil is very low in nutrients and minerals, except where animal droppings fertilize the soil.

Surprisingly there are animals in the tundra. Although there isn’t a lot of biodiversity, only 48 species of land mammals are found on the tundra, there are a lot of each species. These consist of slightly modified shrews, hares, rodents, wolves, foxes, bears and deer. There are huge herds of caribou in North America (known as reindeer in Eurasia) which feed on lichens and plants. There are also smaller herds of musk-oxen. Wolves, wolverines, arctic foxes, and polar bears are the predators of the tundra. Smaller mammals are snowshoe rabbits and lemmings. There aren’t many different species of insects in the tundra, but black flies, deer flies, mosquitoes and “no-see-ums” (tiny biting midges) can make the tundra a miserable place to be in the summer. Mosquitoes can keep themselves from freezing by replacing the water in their bodies with a chemical called glycerol. It works like an antifreeze and allows them to survive under the snow during the winter. The marshy tundra is a great place for migratory birds like the harlequin duck, sandpipers and plovers.

The tundra is one of Earth’s three major carbon dioxide sinks. A carbon dioxide sink is a biomass which takes in more carbon dioxide than it releases. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. During the short summer tundra’s plants take in carbon dioxide, sunlight and water in the process of photosynthesis. Plants normally give off carbon dioxide after they die and decompose. But because of the short, cool summer and freezing winter temperatures, plants can’t decompose. Remains of plants thousands of years old have been found in the tundra permafrost. In this way the tundra traps the carbon dioxide and removes it from the atmosphere. Today global warming is melting the permafrost of the tundra and every year several feet of tundra are lost. As the tundra melts, the plant mass decomposes and returns carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

The tundra is a very fragile environment. The extremely cold temperatures makes it a difficult environment to survive in during the winter, and plants and animals have a hard time coping with any extra stresses and disturbances. More people moving to the tundra to work in the mines and oil rigs have created towns and more roads. Some animal’s movements to traditional feeding and denning grounds have been disrupted by these obstacles. When they try to pass through a town they are often scared away or shot. With their feeding patterns disrupted, many polar bears have starved. The Alaskan oil pipeline was built across a caribou migration route. In some places the pipeline has been raised above the ground so the caribou can pass under it. Pesticides have been used to control the hordes of insects. Thousands of migrating birds come to the tundra because of the abundant insects. Through the food chain the pesticides reach many of the animals that live on the tundra.

Pollution from mining and drilling for oil has polluted the air, lakes and rivers. The land around some nickel mines in Russia has become so polluted that the plants in the surrounding area have died. Footprints and tire tracks can be visible for many years after they were made. When the sun hits the ruts it causes the permafrost to melt. This causes erosion and the ruts get bigger, and eventually the ruts turn into gullies. Tracks made during WW II have grown so large that some of them are now lakes.

The tundra is not a cold and useless wasteland. It is a very fragile environment and the plants and animals that have made their home on the tundra biome have made some incredible adaptations to the long, cold winters and the short but abundant summers. They live on a precarious edge and the smallest stresses can bring about their destruction.

by Whitney S. 2002

Bibliography:

Kaplan, E. (1996). Biomes of the World: Tundra. Hong Kong: Marshall Cavendish Corporation.

“Encyclopedia.com – Results for tundra”, http://www.encyclopedia.com/articles/13116.html, (June 2000)

“The World’s Biomes: Tundra”, http://www.latymer-upper.org/geog/sixth/tundra%20the%20not%20do%20barren%20land.htm, (July 2000).

The tundra biome

Tundra along the Colville River, Alaska.

Tundra is the coldest of all the biomes. Tundra comes from the Finnish word tunturi, meaning treeless plain. It is noted for its frost-molded landscapes, extremely low temperatures, little precipitation, poor nutrients, and short growing seasons. Dead organic material functions as a nutrient pool. The two major nutrients are nitrogen and phosphorus. Nitrogen is created by biological fixation, and phosphorus is created by precipitation.

Characteristics of tundra include:

  1. Extremely cold climate
  2. Low biotic diversity
  3. Simple vegetation structure
  4. Limitation of drainage
  5. Short season of growth and reproduction
  6. Energy and nutrients in the form of dead organic material
  7. Large population oscillations

Tundra is separated into two types:

  • Arctic tundra
  • Alpine tundra

Arctic tundra

From left: tundra near Churchill, Manitoba, Canada; tundra in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

Arctic tundra is located in the northern hemisphere, encircling the north pole and extending south to the coniferous forests of the taiga. The arctic is known for its cold, desert-like conditions. The growing season ranges from 50 to 60 days. The average winter temperature is -34° C (-30° F), but the average summer temperature is 3-12° C (37-54° F) which enables this biome to sustain life. Rainfall may vary in different regions of the arctic. Yearly precipitation, including melting snow, is 15 to 25 cm (6 to 10 inches). Soil is formed slowly. A layer of permanently frozen subsoil called permafrost exists, consisting mostly of gravel and finer material. When water saturates the upper surface, bogs and ponds may form, providing moisture for plants. There are no deep root systems in the vegetation of the arctic tundra, however, there are still a wide variety of plants that are able to resist the cold climate. There are about 1,700 kinds of plants in the arctic and subarctic, and these include:

  • low shrubs, sedges, reindeer mosses, liverworts, and grasses
  • 400 varieties of flowers
  • crustose and foliose lichen

All of the plants are adapted to sweeping winds and disturbances of the soil. Plants are short and group together to resist the cold temperatures and are protected by the snow during the winter. They can carry out photosynthesis at low temperatures and low light intensities. The growing seasons are short and most plants reproduce by budding and division rather than sexually by flowering. The fauna in the arctic is also diverse:

  • Herbivorous mammals: lemmings, voles, caribou, arctic hares and squirrels
  • Carnivorous mammals: arctic foxes, wolves, and polar bears
  • Migratory birds: ravens, snow buntings, falcons, loons, sandpipers, terns, snow birds, and various species of gulls
  • Insects: mosquitoes, flies, moths, grasshoppers, blackflies and arctic bumble bees
  • Fish: cod, flatfish, salmon, and trout

Animals are adapted to handle long, cold winters and to breed and raise young quickly in the summer. Animals such as mammals and birds also have additional insulation from fat. Many animals hibernate during the winter because food is not abundant. Another alternative is to migrate south in the winter, like birds do. Reptiles and amphibians are few or absent because of the extremely cold temperatures. Because of constant immigration and emigration, the population continually oscillates.

Alpine tundra

From left: alpine tundra in Mt. Rainier National Park, Washington; Dall Sheep in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaska.

Alpine tundra is located on mountains throughout the world at high altitude where trees cannot grow. The growing season is approximately 180 days. The nighttime temperature is usually below freezing. Unlike the arctic tundra, the soil in the alpine is well drained. The plants are very similar to those of the arctic ones and include:

  • tussock grasses, dwarf trees, small-leafed shrubs, and heaths

Animals living in the alpine tundra are also well adapted:

  • Mammals: pikas, marmots, mountain goats, sheep, elk
  • Birds: grouselike birds
  • Insects: springtails, beetles, grasshoppers, butterflies

Freshwater

Marine

Desert
Forest Grassland Tundra

Top photo from the Geosciences in Alaska website; Arctic tundra photos, from left: Dr. Robert Thomas and Margaret Orr © 2004 California Academy of Sciences; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, AK. Alpine tundra photos, from left: Gladys Lucille Smith © 2000 California Academy of Sciences; U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, AK.

The original biomes pages were created in fall 1996 by the Biomes Group, Biology 1B class, section 115, at UC Berkeley; all were reformatted, with many new photos added, in March, 2007. Coral reef photo by Marguerite Gregory © 2004 California Academy of Sciences. The pages were re-designed in 2019 as part of a general UCMP website overhaul. Unless noted, content on these pages have not been updated.

The biota and its adaptations

Plant life

The vegetation of many alpine tundras and over most of the Arctic tundra tends to be greenish brown in colour. While plants do not remain in flower for more than a few days or weeks in these environments, the blossoms are generally large in relation to the size of the plant and are rather colourful, especially in alpine habitats. The foggy tundras found along coastal areas produce matted and grassy landscapes. Algae and fungi are found along rocky cliffs, and rosette plants grow in rock cornices and shallow gravel beds. In the drier inland tundras, spongy turf and lichen heaths develop.

Wildflowers blooming on the tundra in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, northeastern Alaska, U.S.U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Across the southerly Arctic tundra, which is marked by vast areas of low relief, boggy peat soils with an abundance of lakes and meandering rivers prevail. These coastal plain areas are dominated by sedges and cotton grass, and mosses including Sphagnum are common. On slightly elevated sites, often only 15 to 60 cm (6 to 24 inches) above the wet peaty soils, low willows (Salix), grasses, and rushes occur. Taller willows, grasses, and plants in the sunflower and legume families (Asteraceae and Leguminosae, respectively) are common on the sands and gravels of riverbanks, but vegetation is quite sparse on higher lands, foothills, and Arctic mountains.

In Arctic and alpine tundra ecosystems, the plant communities are influenced by soil drainage, snow cover and time of melt, and localized microclimates that differ from one another in temperature, wind, soil moisture, and nutrients. On gentle slopes where soil has developed, extensive meadows occur. On windswept ridges, cushion plants dominate. On rocky slopes and peaks, plants are found in scattered patches where there is a bit of soil and some snow cover in winter. In higher mountains, having much snow, ice, and exposed rock, lichens and mosses manage to grow on rocks. Vascular plants usually end at or just below the line of permanent snow.

The transition from mountain forest to the shrub- and herb-dominated alpine tundra at higher elevations is very similar to the transition from the coniferous forest belt to the Arctic tundra at higher latitudes. The alpine transition, however, occurs over only 100 metres (330 feet) or so of vertical rise. Timberline trees are mostly spruce (Picea), fir (Abies), and pine (Pinus), with very few deciduous tree species. Willow clumps less than 60 cm (about 24 inches) tall are common in the krummholz (a transitional zone of scattered clusters of stunted trees) and beyond, where snowdrifts are extensive. Willows are also common along streams, in the lee of rocks, and in basins or on the lee side of ridges where winter snow is deeper.

With plant growth and many aspects of animal activity confined to two to four months of the year, when temperatures are above freezing, evolution has favoured a rapid completion of life cycles. Tundra organisms are opportunistic. Many species of plants are perennials that flower within a few days after the snow begins to melt, and some produce ripe seed within four to six weeks. Very few species are annuals. Plants 2.5 to 7.5 cm (1 to 3 inches) tall typically flower first, because they are in the warmer air layers near the soil surface. During cloudy periods, in shade, and at night, flower temperature is very similar to that of the surrounding air. In sunlight, however, flowers may be about 2–10 °C (4–18 °F) warmer than the air around them. Some plants that freeze while in flower when sudden storms hit continue to develop and produce seed upon thawing. Many plants set few seeds and depend mostly upon runners or underground stems for increasing their numbers, such as a number of Arctic species in the heath family (Ericaceae). A few species produce bulblets that develop roots and shoots on the parent plant before they drop to the ground. The hairy flower stalks of cottongrass (Eriophorum), lousewort (Pedicularis), and willows retain warm air, raising the temperature near the stalks by 3–9 °C (5–15 °F); this ability is an important adaptation for flowering in areas where air temperatures may approach the freezing point.

Edible Plants in the Arctic

Being stranded in the arctic is certainly no small crisis. While it’s not impossible to survive, it would certainly be a huge challenge, but if you travel to arctic regions at all for hunting, fishing, or other sporting, you should prepare yourself, just in case, for the unfortunate disaster in which you might end up stranded.

Of course, being able to make or find shelter, start a fire, and simply survive the freezing temperatures is the biggest priority, if you have those down, you will need to sustain yourself.

While hunting and fishing will probably be you best bet, there are a few edible plants that are good to know about.

Lichen

Lichen and moss can be most commonly found growing on rocks or tree trunks. While they’re edible raw, you’ll probably want to boil them a few times to get the bitterness out and make them more palatable. Lichen has been known to be a supplementary part of an Eskimo diet, when other sources of food were low.

Arctic Willow

While the soft, small sprouts that you can consume are usually only available in spring, if you happen to be in the arctic during this time, they’ll make a great treat.

Pines and Spruce

All varieties of pine and spruce are edible, and you can eat them both in the same way. The needles are edible and can be used in a very nutritious and hearty tea. The pine nuts, inner bark, and baby cones are also edible. Virtually every part of each tree is better boiled, which you’ll probably prefer anyway since you’re in the arctic, after all.

Ferns

The freshly sprouted tips of fern plants are edible the world over, and this applies in the arctic as well. They can be eaten raw, but are also better after boiling. Look for the small, soft, curled leaves on the inner part of any fern, often referred to as “fiddleheads”.

If you’re tough enough to survive the arctic, these edible plants will make a nice supplement to any animals you can catch, or keep you going if hunting is fruitless.

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Our camp chef, Jason Mullin, recounts his experience foraging the tundra near Qikiqtarjuaq on Polar Bears & Glaciers of Baffin Island. Reposted with permission from Edible Adventure Travel.

Qikiqtarjuaq was a new location above the Arctic Circle for me at a time of the year I haven’t yet spent in this area of the world. The Arctic summer is a short season, where the majority of the snow does melt, the permafrost becomes spongy, flowers bloom and the tundra becomes a mosaic of colours. While being the ‘Land of Icebergs’ as I heard our guide say, and they are simply mesmerizing with their ever changing shapes, curves and jagged edges, I was most excited for something else.

The tundra was in full bloom. It was the season to forage what the tundra offered. The Inuit were hunter gatherers for centuries. It is common knowledge that seal, caribou, narwhal and even the odd polar bear are harvested as a form of sustenance, clothing and warmth, but the lesser known gathering side of things was what had me interested.

There are many plants found that have general uses, for example, Arctic cotton could be used in combination with whale oil to create a wick for lanterns. Obviously though, it was the edible goodies I was after.

Arctic char with Qunguliit crust, dwarf fireweed garnish

The only plant I have picked in past years was purple saxifrage. A small purple flower, one of the first to bloom in the Arctic spring towards the end of May, beginning of June. Now, patches of flowers dotted the landscape, Dwarf Fireweed being the most present. Large pink pedals, they make a beautiful addition to salads and a garnish to many plates. Seaside Bluebells and the clusters of the Labrador tea white blossoms were also common in the area.

Labrador TeaThe leaves of the Dwarf Fireweed could be used in teas, but I favored the Labrador tea. Found in abundance, it is used traditionally for its medicinal properties. Fragrant, floral, and a slight piney flavour I was enjoying a cup of this almost nightly. It can be dried for use all winter. While cooking for our guests, I was treating it as a flavoring agent, steeping it in cream for a panna cotta or crème brulee.

One of the thousands of icebergs around QikiqtarjuaqLaden with berries ripening, I could barely take a step without accidentally crushing some form of edible. Arctic blueberries, bearberries and the prominent crowberry littered the ground as I picked in abundance to preserve, make sauces and add to simple baked goods or my tundra oatmeal.

Arctic blueberriesI was surprised at first to find mushrooms growing, but after thinking about it, it was the perfect environment for them to thrive at this time of year. I heard in passing that they are all edible here, but that is not a game I like to play without a professional to properly point me in the right direction.

MushroomsOf all the good eats found on the unsuspecting tundra, my absolute favorite, the piece de resistance was the Qunguliit or mountain sorrel as known by southerners. Found largely around streams, it had a sweet and sour flavour, a citrusy bite to it. Fragrant and flavourful, I used it in salads and as a garnish, but the big hit amongst our guests was the qunguliit almond pesto crusted Arctic char. Fish caught right in front of camp and the mountain sorrel picked right behind. Ingredients meant to go together.

Caribou carpaccio with qunguliit/dwarf fireweed

Patch of qunguliit

Foraging has been a passion of mine for some time now and being able to learn more about the offerings of the tundra was beyond a treat. It’s always amazing to find the flavours of the earth that thousands walk right by without ever knowing.

For foragers, the Arctic is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered and the best way to learn is through the professionals. The local Inuit who have inhabited and lived off this land for centuries. There will be no better teacher, so immerse yourself given the chance and untold learning opportunities may just unfold.

View of Arctic Kingdom camp

Polar bear swimming

Driftwood foraged for a campfire. Guests enjoyed s’mores in the Arctic.

Animals of the Tundra

Animals of the tundra, like this caribou, are well adapted to the cold and dry weather. Click for more detail.

Could you handle always living in the cold? Some animals can. Animals of all sizes have adapted to harsh weather conditions and long winters of the tundra.

Many animals have shorter legs and ears to minimize exposing their skin to the cold. Some are also well adapted to living high up in the mountains. For example, mammals at high elevation are able to use oxygen more efficiently.

Small creatures, such as ground squirrels, can seek refuge in vegetation but because it’s usually sparse and low, it may expose them to predators. To avoid danger, some species have evolved to be fast runners or to be camouflaged.

The mixed fur colors of this arctic fox show the white winter coat giving way to the dark summer coat. Click for more detail.

Between summer and winter, the grayish-brown fur of snowshoe hare, arctic fox, and others like them blends into white hairs in preparation for winter camouflage.

Sometimes prey animals feed at night to avoid being eaten. They may also reproduce a lot since not all young will survive to adulthood.

Fat = Energy?

Another key to an animal’s survival in the tundra is knowing when to eat and when to sleep in order to save energy. Many animals in the tundra hibernate during the long, cold winter months.

Grizzly bears make sure to get enough food during the warm seasons on the tundra so they can hibernate through the colder winter months. Image by Albert Herring.

Hibernation is a period of rest lasting several months. During this time, animals stay hidden in dens. Their metabolisms lower into a dormant state, so less energy is required for their bodies to perform the necessary functions. For that energy, they rely on stores of fat they built up over the summer.

Tundra animals have other strategies to keep warm too. It helps to have a lot of fur and fat. After all, the colder it is, the more energy it takes for a mammal to maintain a stable body temperature to live.

Just like in other biomes, in the tundra, different types of animals get energy from different types of foods. Carnivores are at the top of the food web because they are meat eaters.

This crabeater seal lives on the coast of Antarctica. It can store fat easily, building a thick blubber to protect it from the cold. Image by François Guerraz.

Carnivorous mammals such as wolves and seals prey on smaller animals to survive while herbivorous mammals only consume plant-based foods. Animals that eat both other animals and plants are called omnivores.

Lemmings, voles, caribou, arctic hares and squirrels are examples of tundra herbivores at the bottom of the food web. They often have a strong sense of smell to help them find food underneath the snow.

Timing is Everything

Summer melts away the snow, allowing shallow wetlands to form. In the available pools of water, insects breed and attract birds. This explains why animals are most active in the short summer. They forage heavily on the plentiful insects and flowers that are in bloom before they are forced to hibernate or migrate to a warmer place for winter. Luckily, during the long-lighted days of summer, there is more time in each day to hunt for food.

This map shows migration routes taken by several birds, including some that live in the tundra. Click for more detail.

Summer is for mating, too. Everything from insects, like mosquitoes, flies, moths, grasshoppers, blackflies and arctic bumble bees, to larger animals take advantage. It turns into a race against time.

Migratory birds such as falcons, loons, sandpipers, terns and snow birds must successfully produce young during the short summer. If they don’t, there is not enough time to start over with a second nest.

Even given constraints like these, a lot of animals call the tundra home for at least part of the year. As the seasons change, so do the species found in the tundra.

Pacific golden plover spend part of the year in the Alaskan tundra, and part in South America. Image by Daniel Ramirez.

Young plover, a kind of bird, are abandoned on the tundra in Alaska and have to make their way back to Argentina in South America on their own. The adult parents leave earlier, perhaps to allow more food for the young.

Stories like the plovers’ are normal for species that spend part of the time in the tundra.

Insect Anti-Freeze

Picture holding an insect in your hand and how tiny it looks compared to you and everything else. Even small insects live in the tundra. But how do they survive in below-freezing temperatures? For some, the answer is antifreeze.

If you’ve heard of antifreeze, it was probably from someone with a car. In cars, antifreeze is a manmade (and very dangerous) chemical mixture that allows all the water-based liquids to operate in a wide range of low and high temperatures.

All the tiny dots in this picture are mosquitoes. But how do mosquitoes live in the cold conditions of the tundra? Click for more detail.

Just like it’s important for a car to function, antifreeze in tundra insects is critical for life. Insect antifreeze is a naturally occurring protein that lowers the freezing point of water in insect bodies.

The protein’s structure also lets it attach to ice crystals to prevent more from forming. Not only do insects benefit from this adaptation, but arctic fish do as well.

The cold can affect insects in other ways, as some insects mature very slowly, perhaps taking 10 to 15 years to pass through all their larval stages. This slow growth occurs because they can only get a little food each short summer. No matter the size of the animal, life in the tundra can be tough.

Images via Wikimedia commons. Woolly bear image via IronChris.

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