May 5, 2014 by northerncardinalreview
It is a clear, sunny day and all I can think about is those lazy, hazy days of summer. I stand at the top of a rocky hill and look down towards the waters of Koojesse Inlet. The tide is out – way, way out. It reminds me of the Bay of Fundy where the tide stretches out forever, leaving miles and miles of muddy banks in its wake. All I can see is miles of sand, rocks, huge boulders; and mud stretching for as far as my eyes can see. And yet, there’s more. Amid the browns and the grays of rock and sand, there is also a mosaic of vibrant colours; all shades of green, yellow and purple carpet the landscape, etching out a meager existence. Wildflowers of all description, tiny, delicate flowers, find their niche between the rocks and within the sand that marks this rugged terrain.
I am in Iqaluit, the most northern capital city in all of North America. The city’s location is just inside the Arctic Circle, at the head of Koojesse Inlet, an inlet off Frobisher Bay near the southern tip of Baffin Island. The glaciers that once carved their way across much of North America left distinct reminders in the far north. With forces stronger than bulldozers, these ancient glaciers cut across the land, leaving deep-cut riverbeds and huge potholes. It pushed around massive boulders for thousands of years, leaving large deposits of rock and sand. Situated in the Everett Mountains that rise up from Koojesse Inlet, Iqaluit is a virtual desert, a no-man’s land, rugged, sandy and treeless.
My eyes dart around as I make my way downhill towards the inlet. I do not want to walk with my eyes totally downcast, watching each step that I make. However, by looking downwards, I can take note of the interesting wildflowers that somehow manage to find nourishment between the rocks, on the rocks and around the rocks. Some believe that this northern tundra was once a desert. Indeed, in the long winter months, when covered with snow, the tundra looks like a frozen desert, its treeless terrain stretching for miles, as far as the eye can see. It is a wonder, given the short growing season and the sandy, rocky terrain, that anything can grow at all. Yet, it does. Even the innutritious sandy soil is no deterrent to these hardy and very colourful little flowers. There is the official territorial flower, the purple saxifrage. Then there are at least another four hundred wildflower species to discover. It is amazing what this barren, sandy, rocky tundra can produce in such a short growing season.
Arctic flora survives against the harsh odds that make mere survival in the North difficult at best. The short growing season allows for only small plants to survive. Even the short summer months can be cold and very windy. Northern wildflowers grow in clusters and close to the ground to protect themselves from the cold Arctic winds. Some of the flowering plants have fuzzy stems or wooly seed covers to protect the plant from the wind. The dark coloured wildflowers are more prolific as dark colours absorb more solar heat. Small cup-shaped flowers, like the Arctic buttercup, face the sun to absorb more heat from the sun thus, surprisingly, making the flower warmer than the air around it. There is one advantage given wildflowers of the North. The longer daylight hours of summer allow from more sunlight to be absorbed.
The Arctic flora is generally low, ground hugging-flora that brings the barren tundra alive with colour in the summer. Once the snow starts to melt, the flora starts to blossom, including purple saxifrage (Nunavut’s official territorial flower), broadleaved willow herb or dwarf fireweed, Arctic cotton grass, Arctic poppies, mountain avens, buttercups, cinquefoil, moss campion, thrit, yellow and purple vetches and chickweed, just to name a few. Even the rocks support their share of natural growth as lichen and mosses of all colours a description cover much of the rocks that dot the terrain.
The purple saxifrage is one of earliest blooming plants of the short Arctic summer. It is one of the species of edible plants, which is very common all over the high Arctic. A cushion plant, it grows low on the ground in tight clumps, much like a cushion. Its short-stalked, cup-shaped, purple flowers sprout from somewhat woody branches of loosely matted small, rounded leaves. The plant creeps along crevices between the rocks and often looks like it is actually growing on the rocks. Because it is so prolific in its northern environment, it is not unexpected that it should be the chosen flower to represent the northern territory of Nunavut.
Edible plants are just as much a necessity of the northern ecosystem as it is anywhere else on the planet. Arctic willow is an important part of the diet of northern wildlife, including caribou, muskox and Arctic hare. It is a northern shrub, dwarf in size, growing close to the ground to avoid the harsh cold northern winds. The Inuit call this the tongue plant, because of the tongue shape of its leaves. The roots are very short to compensate the permafrost. The leaves turn a bright red in late summer providing a vibrant carpet across the rocky tundra, much the same as the changing leaf colours in southern climates provide a riotous mosaic.
The Arctic poppy plant grows anywhere in the Arctic, between the rocks, on the sand and on the marshy bogs of the riverbanks. Its delicate yellow flower, hairy stems and dark green base that hugs the ground, adds a delicate texture to the colourful mosaic of the tundra. Each hairy stem of the plant, usually about 10 cm high, supports one poppy. The poppy’s flower head consists of four petals forming a cup shape, which opens toward the sun to soak up the sunlight and the heat.
Trees may not grow in the Arctic and shrubs are scarce; but wildflowers and low-lying shrubs and lichens dot the rugged landscape with a colourful carpet of vivid colours. The North is indeed alive with growth in spite of its short growing season, in spite of the sandy, rocky terrain. From the purple saxifrage to the Arctic poppy and countless species of lichens and low-lying shrubs, the Arctic tundra is home to hundreds of species of wildflowers, many of which sustain the wildlife that roam the northern territory. The barren landscape around Canada’s northern capital city of Iqaluit is awash with more colours than just the browns and grays of rock and sand.
Emily-Jane Hills Orford is the award-winning author of The Whistling Bishop and F-Stop: A Life in Pictures. For more information on her writing, check out her website at: emilyjanebooks.ca