Tundra and Polar Plants ~ Kwentology

Image of TundraThe plants of the Arctic include pretty flowers such as the Arctic poppy, low-growing cushion plants, and tiny trees such as dwarf birch and willow.

Where is the Tundra?

The tundra lies north of the coniferous forest belt, in a band roughly following the Arctic Circle. It covers about 10 million square miles (25 million sq km), from Alaska, through Canada, Greenland, Iceland, northern Norway, Finland and Sweden into Siberia. Only a small area of the Antarctic has similar conditions, on the northern tip nearest South America.

The northern parts of many land masses—Canada, Greenland, Europe, and Siberia, for example—extend into the Arctic region, and provide many open habitats for plants, especially in the summer. About 900 species are native to the Arctic tundra.

Most of Antarctica is covered with snow and ice all year. Only the Antarctic Peninsula has habitats where plants can survive, because it is warmed by the sea. Only two kinds of flowering plant—a hair—grass and a cushion plant—are native to Antarctica.

Image of LichenMany lichens are able to survive the cold and wind of the tundra.

Plants Live and Survive on a Freezing Tundra

Many Arctic plants have swollen roots or underground stems. They contain food reserves in readiness for a quick spurt of growth in the following summer.

Most tundra flowers are pollinated by insects. However, there are relatively few bees this far north, and the main pollinators are flies. Flies cannot distinguish colors like bees can, so flowers do not need to be so colorful. Leaving most tundra flowers white or yellow.

Several Arctic and mountain plants that survive under the snow have dark colored leaves and stems. When the Sun begins to shine, they absorb the heat and melt the snow around them.

A species of poppy has been found growing farther north than any other flower, at 83°N, or on a level with the north of Greenland.

Many Arctic shrubs keep some or all of their leaves throughout the winter. Leaves formed in late summer stay on the plant, often protected by dead leaves formed earlier in the year. As soon as the spring returns, the green leaves are ready to photosynthesis, losing no time to make their food over the short summer months.

Image of Caribou

What Plants Do Caribou Eat?

Caribou survive the Arctic winter by foraging for food. They dig beneath the snow with their hooves and antlers, seeking out tender lichens, mosses, sedges, and grasses.

The Polar Permafrost

Even where the surface soil in the Arctic thaw in the summer, deeper down it is permanently frozen. This icy layer is known as permafrost. Because the ice prevents rain water seeping deeper down, the surface can be wet.

What is the Tundra Really Like?

The most striking feature of the tundra is its total lack of trees. Woody plants cannot survive here unless they are very small—there is simply not enough warmth in the summer for their growth. The dominant plants are grasses and sedges, mosses and lichens, with shrubs such as heathers, and dwarf willows and birches. There are also many flowers such as saxifrages, avens, and Arctic poppies.
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