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Quttinirpaaq National Park of Canada


Arctic Poppies © Parks Canada / Christian Kimber

Most of Quttinirpaaq National Park is classified as an arctic desert. Vegetation cover is sparse because of low precipitation, and a terrain largely covered by snow, ice, and coarse rock debris. Cool temperatures greatly retard organic decay and chemical weathering, so soil development is minimal. Even in summer, snow-free areas thaw only to a depth of between 10 cm and 1 metre.

Arctic poppy and saxifrage are the most common flowering plants, occurring wherever nutrients and moisture are available. Hummocky tundra vegetation or wet tundra meadows are found in lowland areas such as Lake Hazen, Tanquary Fiord, and the Lady Franklin Bay lowlands, where surface moisture is available for much of the growing season.

154 species of vascular plants have been documented in Quttinirpaaq, along with 44 species of lichens and 193 species of bryophytes (mosses and liverworts).

Arctic plants face many challenges for survival, yet are remarkably adapted to their inhospitable environment. Challenges include:

  • Permafrost, which limits the depth of root systems
  • Low winter temperatures, which require the plants to withstand solid freezing
  • Cool, short summers, which reduce productivity and growth by slowing plant metabolism and the activity of pollinating insects.
  • Low nitrogen supply in the soil, caused by low rates of decomposition of organic matter due to permafrost and cool temperatures
  • Strong winds, which can result in abrasive damage to plants by particles of blowing sand or ice
  • Low precipitation

There are many different adaptations to these harsh conditions. Some plants preserve heat by growing in rosettes or dense mats. Others have structural adaptations such as hairy stems or woolly seed covers. All arctic plants are small and grow close to the ground.

Most arctic plants contain varying degrees of the pigment anthocyanin, a compound which absorbs solar radiation and allows photosynthesis to occur at lower than normal temperatures. Where vegetation is thick, temperatures at ground level can be up to 20º C higher than the air temperatures above due to the heat-absorbing properties of anthocyanin. While dark-colored plants will absorb more heat than light-colored plants, light-colored plants still contain some anthocyanin (masked by other pigments) to compensate.

A variety of reproductive strategies are used. Many species are able to reproduce from existing stems, rhizomes, or root systems (vegetative reproduction). Some plants rely on insect pollination, while others rely on the wind. Species relying on insect pollination may have their male and female flowers growing in close proximity to increase the chances of pollination success. Because wildlife densities are low, few plant species rely on dispersal of seeds by birds or animals.

Another interesting adaptation is the ability of some plants to tolerate unseasonably cold conditions for more than a year, foregoing growth and reproduction until more suitable temperatures return the following year.

Arctic Willow © Parks Canada / Christian Kimber

The arctic willow is the tallest tundra plant, yet it creeps close to the ground to avoid the cold wind. Inuit call it the tongue plant because of the shape of its leaves. It is an important food source for arctic herbivores such as Peary caribou, muskoxen, and arctic hares.

This beautiful arctic poppy is common and widespread, and can be found in even the most barren areas. The poppies are solar collectors, designed to reflect the heat of the sun onto the ovaries for faster maturation of the seeds. The flower heads actually rotate to follow the path of the sun.

Purple Saxifrage © Parks Canada / Christian Kimber

Purple mountain saxifrage is one of the earliest flowers to bloom. Its leaves are fringed with tiny hairs to capture heat. A hardy plant, it thrives in extreme conditions, surviving both the cold winds of winter and the baking summer heat.