Arctic Flora | Polar Unbound


While it may first appear that the Arctic supports very little vegetation and could be considered a polar desert, there’s actually plant life consistently present throughout the Arctic. Crustaceous lichens grow on exposed rock surfaces, and algae grows on permanent ice formations. Larger plants can grow in rock crevices and even grow in patches of grass in plots of soil. 

Whatever the Arctic vegetation, they must content with a severe environment consisting of constant daylight in summer, low temperatures, occasionally mobile soil, frozen ground, and harsh winds and snowfall. As such, many of the surviving species grow in compact sizes and groups, cushioned against the climate. They also have a short growing season and rapid life cycle, with spring shoots often showing when frosts still occur and snow remains on the ground and the flowering and seed stages following in short succession.

Arctic Vegetative Zones


The Arctic has two primary vegetative zones: the subarctic zone in the south, formed by the circumpolar boreal forest, and the Arctic proper zone in the north, where the vegetative zone is commonly known as the tundra. The Arctic proper zone and subarctic zone are divided by the tree line. 

Various tree species can be found across the polar tree line, or timberline. In northwestern Canada and Alaska, the tree line is primarily comprised of white spruce and extends from the Alaskan Brooks Range to the Mackenzie River delta before curving southeast toward James Bay and Churchill. The Labrador-Quebec tree line largely supports black spruce and some larch. The tree line in Siberia and northern Europe is largely formed by fir, pine, and larch. 

Arctic Tundra


Vegetation of various sorts largely coats Arctic tundra, with different tundra plant communities distinguished across the polar landscape. 

  • Heath tundra, comprised of some flowering plants as well as lichens and mosses, grows in the better-drained soil and drier regions. 
  • Tundra grassland grows in a similar environment to heath tundra, but it can largely be found westward of Hudson Bay. 
  • Hillock or tussock tundra, comprised of dwarf birch and willow as well as grasses and sedges, grows on the northern Alaskan plain where more moisture can be found. 
  • Subarctic forest-tundra grows south of the tree line and contain galeria forests, where coniferous species such as birch grow. 

In warmer Arctic regions, south-facing slopes and circumpolar fields, woody dwarf shrubs, alder, juniper, willow and birch can be found. 

Arctic Flowers


Flowers can suddenly bloom in the Arctic, especially along the southern reaches of the tundra, and carpet the barren ground in colorful vegetation. There are many species, but visitors to the western North American Arctic can generally find wild crocus, arctic poppy, blue-spiked lupine, mountain avens and saxifrage. 

FUN FACT: Some larger black lichen, known as “rock tripe,” are edible and eaten by starving explorers in earlier Arctic exploration.