Adaptations of Tundra Plants: Thriving in the Arctic

Adaptations of tundra plants

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The Arctic tundra is a harsh and unforgiving environment, with long, dark winters, permafrost, and limited resources.

Despite these extreme conditions, around 1700 plant species have adapted to thrive in this unique biome. These plants have evolved an array of remarkable adaptations, from fine hairs on their leaves to shallow root systems, to help them survive in one of the world’s harshest environments. In this article, we will explore the fascinating world of tundra plants and their incredible adaptations for survival.

Challenges Facing Plants Growing in the Arctic Tundra

Challenges facing plants growing in the arctic tundra

Being a plant in the Arctic is fraught with challenges. While these amazing plant species are adapted to cope, they’re up against some extreme conditions.

Cold Temperatures

If there’s anything we know about the Arctic, it’s that it’s super cold. Think about your garden at home and the plants you grow there. In winter, it’s not uncommon for you to have to move them to a greenhouse or be prepared for them to fall victim to frost.

There are some areas of the Arctic in which the soil is permanently frozen in a state of permafrost. There might be a short spell in summer where the soil defrosts but this isn’t for long. Needless to say, the plant’s roots cannot penetrate such dense, solid ground.

What’s more, aside from the 75% permafrost, these plants have to contend with extreme weather, such as storms and blizzards. Harsh, dry winds take much of the moisture from the air, and as we know, plants need moisture to thrive. Contrary to popular belief, the Arctic doesn’t receive that much precipitation, and what does fall, falls as snow. This means that there is a further lack of moisture for plant life and this also makes the Arctic a cold desert.

Low Light

Plants need natural sunlight in order to perform photosynthesis and make food for themselves. However, growing on the Arctic tundra means that plants don’t receive anywhere near as much light as they would in other locations. This means that they need to adapt to be able to grow in low light and cope with extremely long, dark winters.

High Winds

Earlier I touched upon the dry, heavy winds that plants need to put up with in the Arctic. These conditions are incredibly common and can reach speeds of up to 60 mph (97 km/h). You’ll notice that many Arctic plants grow closer to the ground to keep out of the wind.

Nutrient-Poor Soils

With such poor conditions, the soil in the Arctic is not very nutrient rich and, as such, plants are unable to properly establish their roots. This in turn means that they are not able to get the correct nutrients to thrive like phosphorus and nitrogen.

This type of soil, with its permafrost, is known as cryosol soil, and there is a thin layer at the top that thaws seasonally. However, this is usually for a short time and can cause damage to the soil in a process known as frost heaving.

This occurs when the soil constantly undergoes a freezing and thawing cycle, which causes water to expand and contract within it. The result is cracked and heaving soil which exposes the plant roots and damages them.

Dry Conditions

With such hard, frozen soil, it’ll come as no surprise that there’s not a lot of moisture available to Arctic plants. Moreover, since the precipitation levels are so low, plants need to be able to survive with a minimal amount of water.

Short Growing Season

In most places around the world, the seasons are relatively consistent which gives plants plenty of time to complete their life cycle. However, in the Arctic, the growing season is incredibly short meaning that plants need to go through their whole life cycle much more rapidly.

What’s more, with such a northerly location, the sun never gets very high in the sky and shines at more of a latitudinal angle.

Common Adaptations Among Arctic Plants

Common adaptations among arctic plants
Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)

Despite the many challenges faced by Arctic plants, they have evolved to suit the conditions in which they grow. These plants have a number of functional and structural adaptations that help them survive extreme conditions where other plants would fail.

Waxy or Hairy Leaves

Leaves are one of the ways that plants obtain and lose water. In the Arctic, where there isn’t a lot of moisture, plants have smaller leaves to reduce water loss.

In addition to this, their leaves are often hairy or waxy. Not only does this prevent them from losing moisture, but it can also help the plant to retain heat. A good example of this is the wooly lousewort whose furry coating helps to lock in heat.

Short Stature

There can be up to a 9-degree difference in temperature at soil level compared to just 12 inches (30 cm) above it. It is for this reason that many Arctic plants grow low to the ground where they can make the most of the warmth and absorb heat from the sun as it shines on the soil.

Being in this low position has another advantage and that’s staying out of the wind. Those harsh Arctic winds are sometimes packed with ice crystals that can cause erosive damage to plant leaves. However, the winds are not as high at ground level.

Quick Flowering

Plants produce flowers as part of their reproductive cycle, but since there is such a small window of opportunity for this in the Arctic, the process has to be sped up. That’s why the plants here often flower much more quickly. In the summer, they have the advantage of 24 hour sunlight which makes this process much easier to speed up.

Thick Stems & Leaves

Another way that plants in the Arctic cope with a lack of moisture is by being able to store it more efficiently. This is accomplished with thick stems and leaves that are much better able to retain more water. What’s more, this feature also helps to insulate the plant in cold temperatures.

Grow in Clumps

They say there’s strength in numbers, and that’s certainly true of Arctic plants which grow in groups as a way of protecting one another. Keeping close together affords the plants more cover from the cold and windy conditions. What’s more, growing in clumps means that there is likely to be less damage from ice crystals in the wind.

Small Leaves

Arctic plants don’t have the giant leaves we see in tropical species. Instead, their leaves have a much smaller surface area which helps to prevent moisture loss.

Shallow Root Systems

As I discussed earlier on, plants in the Arctic are unable to establish deep root systems owing to the permafrost. However, plants here have overcome this by adapting shallow root systems that make the most of that top layer of soil which regularly thaws.

This is one of the reasons that you won’t ever see tall, heavy trees or plants growing in the Arctic as they’d never be able to set their roots deep enough to support their height and weight. Instead, plants like lichen, mosses, and flowering shrubs are more common here.

Dark Colored Leaves

We’re all familiar with the notion that, when wearing black in summer, we will feel warmer since dark colors absorb heat more readily. That’s why most Arctic plants have darker leaves as a way of soaking up as much sunlight as possible and staying warm.

Examples of Arctic Plants with Adaptations

The Arctic is home to more than 1700 plant species, and some of them have some incredibly interesting adaptations.

1. Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum)

The Arctic poppy can track the movement of the sun through a process known as heliotropism

The Arctic poppy has perhaps one of the most intriguing abilities of all tundra plants; it can track the movement of the sun through a process known as heliotropism. The flowers open in the morning at first light and then move with the sun, making the most of its light and warmth. At night, the flowers close again.

These are common flowers in the North America Arctic regions that like to grow in dry soil. Their leaves are covered in small hairs which prevent them from losing moisture and act as an insulation shield.

Small plants, Arctic poppies only grow to around 6 inches (15 cm) in height and will make the most of the sun by blooming very quickly once the snow begins to melt.

2. Arctic Moss (Calliergon giganteum)

Arctic moss (Calliergon giganteum) has lots of small leaves, which maximize its photosynthesis abilities

Found in Siberia, Arctic moss is a type of aquatic plant that is often found growing at the bottom of lakes. This is not a flowering plant but it is covered in hundreds of tiny leaves which can live for up to four years. Each individual plant, being so slow growing, can survive for up to nine years!

Growing under the water means that this plant is protected from the harsh elements above the surface. However, there is another species of Arctic moss that grows out of the water and has many of the same characteristics.

It also has lots of small leaves, which maximize its photosynthesis abilities. Moreover, these plants grow very low to the ground, which keeps them out of the wind and closer to warm temperatures.

3. Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)

One of the adaptations of the Arctic willow (Salix arctica) is its dark leaves

Arctic willows are small plants that are found in many areas including Greenland, North America, and Siberia. It’s an important plant on the tundra as many arctic animals use it for food and shelter. In fact, one species of moth will only lay its eggs on this plant; without it, the moth would be extinct!

One of the adaptations of the Arctic willow is its dark leaves. This darker hue ensures that the plant can soak up as much heat from the sun as possible, and let’s not forget those little hairs that help to trap heat. What’s more, the plant grows low to the ground to avoid the harsh Arctic winds and stay closer to warmer temperatures. The shallow root system ensures that the plant can grow in permafrost soils, but this also gives it a wide spread.

The Arctic willow has long been used within Inuit communities for its medicinal properties and because the leaves are high in vitamin C.

4. Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia rangiferina)

Reindeer lichen (Cladonia rangiferina) grows close to the ground to ensure it is kept out of the harsh arctic winds

Sometimes called caribou moss, reindeer lichen is a common Arctic plant that mainly grows in open areas. This is an important food source for caribou and other Arctic animals, which is where it gets its name.

Reindeer lichen is a very slow-growing plant that doesn’t get to more than 3 inches (8 cm) in height. It grows more rapidly in spring but does not flower. Growing so close to the ground ensures that the plant is kept out of the harsh winds and also allows it to stay warm since temperatures are significantly higher nearer the soil.

What’s more, these plants grow close together as a way of offering protection to one another from the elements. Amazingly, the tissues of this plant are not damaged by frost, further allowing it to survive in these extreme conditions.

5. Arctic Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

The Arctic bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is found growing in low-nutrient soils and is able cope with cold conditions thanks to leathery leaves which help to retain moisture

The Arctic bearberry, sometimes called the foxberry, grows low to the ground in order to stay as warm as possible. But this isn’t its only adaptation for surviving in the Arctic.

These plants are found growing in low-nutrient soils in Europe, Asia, and North America. They cope with the cold conditions thanks to leathery leaves which help to retain moisture. These leaves are also covered in fine hairs which act as insulation.

Rather than growing tall, these plants have a shallow root system that allows them extensive ground cover. They don’t typically reach more than 8 inches (20 cm) in height, but a single plant could spread for up to 6.6 feet (2 meters).

6. Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum)

Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum) has very narrow leaves with a small surface area which prevents it from losing essential moisture

Cottongrass is essential in the Arctic as it’s one of the most abundant food sources for animals like caribou and geese. As its name suggests, cottongrass has fluffy, cotton-like seed clusters which can be blown by the Arctic winds for reproduction.

But these hairy structures also serve another purpose and that is keeping the plant warm. On top of this, cottongrass has very narrow leaves with a small surface area which prevents it from losing essential moisture.

While the plant is a food source for some animals, it’s toxic to lemmings. You’ll find it growing all over the Arctic regions of Asia, Europe, and North America.

7. Dwarf Birch (Betula Nana)

Dwarf birch (Betula Nana) has dark-colored leaves which trap heat

The dwarf birch is a small Arctic tree species that grows to around 3.9 feet (1.2 meters). These trees have dark-colored leaves which trap heat, and the surface area is no more than 0.8 inches (20 mm) which ensures heat and moisture are retained.

Dwarf birch trees have green flowers which bloom between April and May. They’re found in most areas of the Arctic, including Canada, Greenland, and the United States. Although there are some species that are found in southern cold climates around the Andes. 

8. Woolly Lousewort (Pedicularis lanata)

Woolly lousewort (Pedicularis lanata) has a wooly coating over their stems and leaves, which keeps heat in

One of the most obvious ways that the wooly lousewort protects itself against the cold is in its name. These plants have a wooly, almost sweater-like coating over their stems and leaves, which keeps heat in. What’s more, this fur ensures that the plant loses as little moisture as possible.

These plants are sometimes called the bumblebee flower and can grow up to 9.8 inches (25 cm) in height. Their purple flowers typically bloom towards the end of May or the beginning of June. If the snow is still thawing, they can be seen as spots of color protruding through the white blanket.

9. Mountain Aven (Dryas octopetala)

Mountain aven (Dryas octopetala) grow very close to the ground ensuring that they are protected from the harsh Arctic winds

Mountain aven are small flowering plants that are common in North America, especially across Canada. They grow very close to the ground ensuring that they are protected from the harsh Arctic winds. This also means that they’re closer to the warmth of the soil.

The leaves of the mountain aven are very small which prevents the plant from losing too much heat or moisture. On top of this, there is a layer of hair on the underside to further prevent transpiration and heat loss.

The plants grow in clusters, creating a cushion close to the ground which enables them to trap heat during the winter.

10. Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum)

Labrador tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) has branches that are covered in fine wooly hairs that afford the plant protection from heat and moisture loss
Doug McGrady / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Depending on whether it’s found in the southern or northern parts of the tundra, labrador tea may grow directly upwards or over the ground. The branches are covered in fine wooly hairs that afford the plant protection from heat and moisture loss.

These plants have small, narrow leaves which also help it to retain heat and water. The leaves are a very deep green color and this darkness ensures that the plant can absorb as much heat as possible from the sun.

Found in North America, the leaves of the labrador tea plant were often used by natives thanks to their high vitamin C content. They are common throughout the Arctic tundra and typically flower around June when they attract bees. However, they’re not eaten by animals as they’re quite toxic.

11. Moss Campion (Silene acaulis)

Moss campion (Silene acaulis) grows close to the ground for warmth and rarely exceeds a few inches in height

Sometimes called the cushion pink or compass plant, moss campion grows in the higher regions of the Arctic and can be found everywhere from Siberia all the way west to North America.

These plants are perfectly adapted to their conditions and grow much more slowly as a result of this. What’s more, moss campion grows close to the ground for warmth and rarely exceeds a few inches in height. It forms a cushion-like mat across the ground that could cover up to 10 feet (3 meters) in diameter.

This growth pattern, and the consistently growing stems mean that none of the plant’s rosettes are ever exposed. Growing close and compact like this is a way of conserving heat and shielding the plant from the elements.

Sadly moss campion is near threatened, but these purple flowering plants that bloom in August could live for up to a decade each.

12. Purple Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia)

Purple mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) has hairy leaves which act as protection from the cold conditions

The purple mountain saxifrage grows at a high elevation and is common in parts of northern North America, such as the Rocky Mountains, in the northern reaches of the United Kingdom and as far east as Japan. It’s actually considered to be one of the most northern plants in the world and has some special adaptations to help it cope.

Purple mountain saxifrage flowers early in the year, usually around February, and this continues until around May. It’s one of the first pops of color as the snow starts to melt. This longer flowering period means that insect pollination is more likely and this is imperative to the survival of the plant.

These plants also have hairy leaves which act as protection from the cold conditions. They’re actually designed to help create a bank of snow which then offers protection from the wind.

13. Diamond Leaf Willow (Salix planifolia)

Diamond leaf willow's leaves are silky and often covered in small hairs, which act as insulation and protection against moisture loss
Matt Lavin / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Known as Sura in Arctic regions, the diamond leaf willow is found growing around marshes and other wet areas. The leaves are used to make tea and are thought to have healing properties as well as containing very high levels of vitamin C.

Diamond leaf willow grows in Canada and the northern parts of the US and is one of the taller Arctic plants, reaching up to 30 feet (9 meters) in height. Although it does grow close to the ground to make the most of the heat.

The leaves are silky and often covered in small hairs, which act as insulation and protection against moisture loss. The plant blooms in May and bears fruit in June.

14. Arctic Lupine (Lupinus arcticus)

The Arctic lupine (Lupinus arcticus) benefits from a wooly coating all over its stems which allows them to retain heat and moisture

The Arctic lupine is a type of legume which is native to the northwestern parts of North America, most notably in British Columbia, Canada. It boasts stunning purple flowers that bloom between June and July as well as several adaptations that help it thrive in extreme conditions. They grow up to 20 inches (50 cm) in height in grassy areas or alpine slopes.

This plant benefits from a wooly coating all over its stems which allows them to retain heat and moisture. What’s more, the Arctic lupine contains toxins that are dangerous to grazing animals which is a form of defense that ensures their survival.

How Climate Change is Affecting Tundra Plant Life

Climate change impact on tundra’s arctic plants

Climate change is bringing about problems for the plants growing on the Arctic tundra. While conditions here are extreme, the plants have adapted to them, and any change to the temperatures, season length, and other factors has a direct impact on the flora here.

What’s worrying is that this impact could also cause problems for the animal life in the Arctic. For example, with rising temperatures, the soil will thaw more readily, which means that plants like shrubs are much more easily able to thrive. It’s thought that, compared to 50 years ago, there is 20% more plant cover in the Arctic. As a result of this, shrubs could overcrowd lichens, but these are important sources of food for wildlife, such as caribou. Not only this but with Arctic greening taking place, this can also affect the people that live in the area and their reliance on the land for food. 

There is already a lack of moisture in the Arctic, and with rising temperatures, this could become worse. There is evidence that Arctic lakes are already disappearing in places like Greenland. One of the reasons for this is that the Arctic appears to be warming up to twice as fast as anywhere else on the planet, so the effects are significantly higher. For example, it’s been observed that flowering plants in the Arctic are shifting their blooming period in line with temperature cues. This could be detrimental to their very survival. 

But what’s most worrying of all is that climate change in the Arctic seems to be something of a catch 22. With rising temperatures, plants are growing taller, and this means that they are more easily able to trap snow. As a result of this, the soil isn’t able to freeze and is more likely to thaw. The permafrost in the Arctic plays an important role as it stores around half of the world’s carbon stores. Not being frozen could therefore contribute to climate change making the whole thing a vicious circle

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