Plants and Flowers
The plants and flowers of Nunavut are some of the most beautiful and tenacious residents in the territory!
Plant life is pretty precarious in Nunavut. Winters are long and summers are short. The average temperature is well below freezing for much of the year. The entire Canadian Arctic Archipelago receives such little precipitation annually it qualifies as a desert. The shallow soils of Nunavut are mostly acidic and very low in nitrogen. Plants must eke out a tough existence in a few meagre inches of earth, their roots confined by impenetrable layers of bedrock or permafrost that lie just below the surface.
Nunavut plants and flowers are remarkable for enduring these severe conditions, largely through a series of adaptations. Most tundra plants are perennials, which helps ensure their long-term survival. While even the strongest plants in temperate southern latitudes will succumb to freak frosts and blizzards, the beautiful flora species of Nunavut can be completely frozen one minute and thawed out the next as if nothing had happened!
Plants here also protect themselves against the elements by crowding together and creating small microclimates where the temperature is significantly higher than the surrounding air. This promotes photosynthesis and metabolism that would otherwise be impossible. That is why Nunavut plant life nestles into sheltered rock crevices and hugs the ground. What soil does exist upon the tundra barrens is rarely visible, because it is usually covered by a dense layer of mosses and lichens through which other herbaceous and shrubby plants can grow.
Some common Inuktitut terms for Nunavut plant life:
- wild flowerpiruqtusajaq
- berry plantkallaquti
- resinous fuel plantitsuti
- sedge ivik
- lichen (caribou moss)tingaujaq
- green mossurjuk
- white mossivissugaq
- purple saxifrageaupaluktunnguat
Major Species of Nunavut Flora
There are 200 species of flowering plants in the tundra meadows of Nunavut, plus an even greater number of lichens and mosses. Major flora species of Nunavut include:
Arctic cotton (eriophorum), also called cottongrass, is a sedge plant that thrives in acidic bog habitats. It grows abundantly in the tundra and its silky white plumes have long been collected by the Inuit to be used as wicks for the traditional seal-oil lamp known as a 'qulliq' in Inuktitut.
Arctic fireweed (chamerion latifolium), also called dwarf fireweed or river beauty willowherb is a nutritious species of flowering primrose plant. Inuit steep the leaves in water for tea and also eat the leaves, flowers and fruits raw, often as a salad. It tastes a bit like spinach.
Arctic white heather (cassiope tetragona) is a highly resinous dwarf shrub plant. The leaves are evergreen and its bell-shaped flowers are yellowish white with pink lobes. Inuit traditionally collected this plant for use as a bedding material in summer camps. Its branches are still widely used as fuel by Inuit families spending time on the land.
The arctic willow (salix arctica) is a tiny creeping member of the Salicaceae family. Fluffy willow catkins emerge before the snow disappears completely. The hairs of pussy willows are transparent, which conduct sunlight into the plant, warming it to several degrees above the surrounding air temperature.
Labrador tea (rhododendron tomentosum) is a wetland shrub plant of the Heath family with strongly aromatic leaves that can be used to make a delicious herbal tea that has been a favourite beverage of Inuit people for thousands of years.
Lapland rosebay (rhododendron lapponicum) is a small tundra shrub plant with a purple flower. The woody stem of a Lapland rosebay plant, which usually grows no thicker than a person's finger, may contain as many as 400 annual growth rings!
Moss campion (silene acaulis) is small, evergreen perennial wildflower also known as cushion pink. It is common all over the high arctic and tundra regions of Nunavut. As a low, ground hugging plant, it is often densely matted and moss-like. Thick clumps of this plant have a substantial taproot, which is edible.
The mountain aven (dryas octopetala) is a small evergreen shrub of the Rosaceae family. Its botanic name comes from the Greek words 'octo' (eight) and 'petalon' (petal), referring to the eight petals of its distinctive small white flower. Eight is common, but this flower also naturally occurs with up to sixteen petals. The Inuit named this flower 'malikkat' in Inuktitut, which means 'the follower,' because it moves throughout the day to always face the sun.
Mountain sorrel (oxyria digyna), also called alpine sorrel, is a species of flowering plant in the buckwheat family. It is most commonly found in the tundra around animal dens, bird roosts and old Inuit campsites where the thin arctic soil has been enriched with nitrogen. Some other Nunavut plants that employ this same survival strategy are chickweed and stitchwort.
Purple saxifrage (saxifraga oppositifolia) is the official territorial flower of Nunavut. The beautiful purple-to-lilac coloured flowers of this creeping, ground hugging plant are often the first flowers to appear in the spring. Purple saxifrages, called 'aupaluktunnguat' in Inuktitut, are the most northerly flowering plants in the world!
Wintergreen (gaultheria procumbens) is variety of creeping shrub that, as its name suggests, remains green throughout the year. This botanical characteristic is commonly now called evergreen. The round leaves of wintergreen plants are very tough in order to survive freezing, retaining their colour when dormant in order to maximize photosynthesis as soon as they thaw in the sunshine.
The yellow cinquefoil (dasiphora fruticosa), also called shrubby cinquefoil, is a shrub of the Rosaceae family. It often grows inside dense clumps of mosses and lichens that provide extra warmth and protection. Its bright yellow flowers appear in the spring once the snow has melted.
Alpine bearberry (arctostaphylos alpina) is a procumbent shrub that spreads along the ground from its main taproot without making any new roots. It has small white flowers and dark purple berries that are almost black when ripe. In the late summer, the foliage of this plant turns a brilliant scarlet red, colouring entire hillsides.
Blueberries (vaccinium corymbosum) are perennial flowering plants of the genus Vaccinium. Harvested every summer in Nunavut for many centuries by Inuit women and children, these low-lying plants provide a small but sweet, abundant and highly nutritious fruit.
Northern cranberries (vaccinium oxycoccus microcarpus) belong to the same Vaccinium genus as blueberries, bilberries and huckleberries. The flowers are dark pink, with a purple central spike, growing on hairy stems. The fruit is a small pale pink berry with a refreshingly sharp acidic flavour. They are great for cooking!
The crowberry (empetrum) is a variety of dwarf evergreen shrub, which bears an edible fruit that looks similar to a blueberry and is smaller than an alpine bearberry. Black, plump crowberries are a favourite of the Inuit. Their many seeds give them a gritty texture.
Lichens (cladoniaceae) are not single plants — they are instead a symbiotic association of algae and fungi cells living together. The ubiquitous map lichen is named for its map-like appearance on rock faces. The rock tripe lichen is edible and Caribou moss, which is actually a lichen, is a winter staple food for caribou.
The territorial flower of Nunavut is the purple saxifrage (saxifraga oppositifolia). The Inuit name 'aupaluktunnguat' is the plural Inuktitut word for these vivid purple blooms.