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What Kind of Plants Grow in the Arctic Tundra?

8 min read

I spot it from a distance of five metres or so and immediately decide that the Arctic sunlight is playing tricks on my eyes. I was picking my way across the grey-brown tundra along the shoreline of Van Keulenfjorden, a 30 km-long fjord on the west coast of Spitsbergen, in the Norwegian Arctic, when a splash of unexpectedly perfect yellow jumped out at me. 

It was near the end of my Spitsbergen Highlights: Expedition in Brief voyage, an unforgettable photo-filled week during which my eyes were exposed to glaciers, huge chunks of ice—occasionally with a chunky walrus lazily sunning itself on top—snow-capped mountains, iconic Arctic polar bears and ice-laden fjords.

Primary colours and flowering plants—such as this buttercup yellow—hadn’t been part of the Arctic palette up to that point. It suddenly changed on that afternoon walk-about during a shore excursion.

I knelt down and gingerly planted my hand on the soil anchoring the yellow flower—careful not to touch the petals.

It seemed like such a thing of fragile beauty that I feared I’d harm it. But what’s the likelihood, I now realize, of this flower succumbing to my touch when it had already lived—and thrived—despite the harsh environment, extremely cold temperatures of an Arctic winter, scarcity of water and the rigors of the windswept tundra region.

Plants in the tundra have to be resourceful, which for some only add to their beauty because it is so unlikely that such pretty plants and colors can survive with minimal rain and freezing temperatures in the difficult tundra conditions.

The pretty Yellow Marsh Saxifrage is often found in Arctic bogs.

The pretty Yellow Marsh Saxifrage is often found in Arctic bogs. Courtesy: Quark Expeditions

The flower turned out to be Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus), a perennial herb with yellow flowers and red stem (reaching anywhere from 5 to 30 centimetres high) and commonly found in bogs.  

Soon after, I spotted the equally-stunning Purple Saxifrage, and then the wine-coloured petals of the Bearberry. That prompted me to wonder about the kind of plants that grow in the Arctic tundra.

Of course, my eyes had to adjust to such blasts of color after several days of being transfixed on glaciers, mammoth chunks of ice, snow-capped mountain peaks and ice-laden fjords of the Arctic. 

To get a better sense of what kind of plants grow in the Arctic Tundra, it’s helpful to understand a little about tundra itself, which you can experience on various Arctic voyages including Under the Northern Lights: Exploring Iceland and East Greenland.

What is tundra?

The Arctic tundra biome (the large naturally occurring community of flora and fauna affiliated with a major habitat) is found between the edge of the boreal forest, or tree line, and the ice caps of the Arctic Ocean or North Pole. The Arctic tundra is in the northern hemisphere and covers parts of Europe, Siberia and North America including northern Canada and northern Alaska.

Tundra ecosystems contain various terrain from broad lowlands to huge mountains. Many travelers, upon hearing the word tundra, immediately envision a barren and rock-strewn landscape but tundra can also include many animal species and vast plant life including arctic foxes, arctic hares, evergreen shrubs, dwarf trees, and low shrubs.

The Arctic tundra is an expansive, dry, mostly treeless region with scarce nutrients. We can thank the Finnish for the word “tundra,” which comes from “tunturi,” the term Finns use to describe a treeless plain. Another key feature of tundra—and one that directly impacts Arctic tundra plants and Arctic flora is permafrost, the thick layer of soil that remains frozen throughout the year. 

Polar enthusiasts on voyages with Quark Expeditions can encounter tundra on voyages in the Canadian High Arctic, Greenland, Russia and the Norwegian Archipelago of Svalbard, of which Spitsbergen is the biggest and most popular island. 

And if you’re wondering what kind of Arctic flora grow in the Arctic Tundra of Greenland, one option is to hop on a mountain bike like our colleague and mountain biker Ben Haggard who discovered the  “seemingly inhospitable and empty tundra can reveal a surprising bounty of life.” Ben, like all members of the Quark Expeditions team, are experienced outdoor experts and know how to explore while preserving the landscape and not harming plant life of any kind.

Getting to enjoy the wildlife and natural beauty of the Arctic is one of the many reasons a Arctic expedition is worth the travel.

Five things you didn’t know about Arctic Tundra Plants and Flora

The Bearberry adds a splash of red-wine color to the Arctic tundra.

The Bearberry adds a splash of red-wine color to the Arctic tundra. Photo: Quark Expeditions

Discovering what kind of plants grow in the Arctic tundra is a lesson in the mysterious, some would say “super powers” of Arctic tundra plants, especially Arctic flora able to survive in the harsh and changing Arctic climate.

Did you know?

Snow is a good thing for Arctic tundra plants.

Tundra plants benefit from the insulating snow cover throughout the harsh winter months that help them conserve heat. Researchers believe that twelve inches of snow can provide the same insulating effect as a 2x4 wall filled with fiberglass insulation.

Arctic plants grow quickly.

Arctic tundra plants must grow quickly during the limited growing season that’s permitted by Arctic temperatures and sunlight. This makes the short-lived summer months very colorful.

The pretty Mountain Avens are one example. When the summer sun shines 24 hours per day north of the Arctic Circle and the average summer temperature warms the area, certain Arctic plants grow and develop much faster than similar plant species in the southern regions.

Look close to rocks.

According to the National Geographic, resilient flora, such as cushion plants (which are indeed soft and cushiony),  survive in the colder zones by growing in rock depressions, where it’s warmer and the little flowers are sheltered from the Arctic's harsh winds. Consequently, they’re commonly found in tight spaces.

No soil required for lichens.

Did you know that lichens (which aren’t flora but can be so incredibly colorful) do not need soil to grow. They’re able to survive very low temperatures beneath the snow.

The persevering lichen has adapted to the Arctic tundra, thriving without any soil.

The persevering lichen has adapted to the Arctic tundra, thriving without any soil. Photo: Acacia Johnson

Some plants huddle together.

According to Hinterland’s Who’s Who, Arctic tundra plants have “learned” to stay warm in Arctic climates by growing close to other plants in a huddle.

Some individual species have adapted by growing in a specific pattern, such as a rosette, which, as with the Three Toothed Saxifrage, enables the Arctic flora to trap the warmer air between plants.

A benefit of travel, especially to remote areas the Arctic, and getting the chance to see such beauty and learning something new about the world around us ignites a childlike curiosity in all of us - and travelling with children offers a whole new experience.

What kind of plants grow in the Arctic Tundra? And provide a splash of color?

Beauty—and color—are in the eye of the beholder. There’s something about the muted shades of the Purple Saxifrage that appeals to me. But then others will insist the Bearberry (Arctous rubra, sometimes known as Kinnikinnick) outshines all other Arctic flora.  

Are you eager to learn what kind of plants grow in the Arctic tundra? I suggest you set aside some time and tune into our segment on  The Beauty of Polar Plants” in our Polar Learning Channel. The segment features expedition guide and Botanist Samantha McBeth, who has a wealth of information about Arctic tundra flowers and Arctic flora. 

As featured during that segment, I think polar enthusiasts agreed that in addition to  the Purple Saxifrage  (Saxifraga oppositifolia) and Yellow Marsh Saxifrage (Saxifraga hirculus), the other most colourful Arctic flora included the Mouse-eared Chickweed  (Cerastium arcticum), Bearberry plants (Arctous rubra,  sometimes known as Kinnikinnick)and the Elegant Sunburst Lichen (Xanthoria elegans) — the latter of course being a lichen whose color, however, rivals many petals of other plants found in the Arctic tundra landscapes.

The appearance of the Purple Saxifrage often surprise polar travelers

The appearance of the Purple Saxifrage often surprise polar travelers who stumble upon the colourful flower during
guided shorelines in the Arctic. Photo: Acacia Johnson

What kind of plants grow in the Arctic Tundra?  

While explorers expect to see wildlife, snow and ice in the tundra biome, be sure to keep your eyes out for beautiful flowering plants and fascinating shrubs close to the ground in their natural habitat during your next polar adventure. Arctic tundra plants to keep your eye out for include:

  • Arctic Moss
  • Arctic Willow
  • Reindeer Moss
  • Tundra Rose
  • Arctic Poppy
  • Caribou Moss
  • Diamond Leaf Willow
  • Cotton Grass
  • Labrador Tea
  • Snow Gentian
  • Pasque Flower

Our expedition team has also rounded up Our Five Prettiest Arctic Flowers. It serves as a good reminder: sometimes it pays to look down when you’re wondering across the tundra on an Arctic expedition.

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