Expanses of snow and layers of ice, some nearly 3 miles thick, cover 98 percent of Antarctica. That leaves just a few snow- and ice-free footholds for plant life to take root, but some plants--most of them simple algae and lichens--do survive on this inhospitable continent, a "polar desert" that is the coldest, windiest and driest place on Earth. Much of Antarctica's plant life grows on the Antarctic Peninsula and its nearby islands and along the coasts, where the climate is relatively warmer and wetter than the rest of the region.
You will not find any trees or shrubs in Antarctica. In fact, the region supports only two species of higher-order, vascular plants, Antarctic hair plant (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis). Both of these flowering plants are native to the Antarctic. As vascular plants, they rely on a network of tubes to transport nutrients and water throughout their stems, roots and leaves. Pearlwort produces small white, tubular flowers on a long green stalk, while hair grass produces tufts of fine, light green leaves and delicate flowers. Hair grass and pearlwort grow in the South Orkney Islands, the South Shetland Islands and on the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, according to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
Algae make up the largest plant group in Antarctica with more than 700 known species on land and in the water, Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) says. Most of the algae fall into the category of phytoplankton, a type of one-celled aquatic plant. But more than 300 algal species grow on land, according to Thinkquest. They include blue-green algae found on wet rock, sand and gravel or under light-colored quartz rock or other stones. Other algae thrive on the snow, painting the white expanses red, green and yellow.
Some 300 to 400 species of lichen grow in Antarctica, according to the BAS. Most lichen colonies occur in the less-extreme conditions of the western Antarctic Peninsula. One common species, Usnea sphacelata, resembles miniature trees. Some hardy lichens, along with algae and mosses, survive in the severe dryness and cold of the eastern Victoria Land region by growing in the cracks and pores of sandstone and granite rocks, the BAS says. Lichens have been found within 250 miles of the South Pole, according to Thinkquest.
The estimated 50 species of mosses and liverworts, known as bryophytes, prefer sand- and gravel-based soils, according to Thinkquest. The remaining vegetation falls into the category of fungi, some 20 or so species, according to the BAS. Thinkquest says researchers have found some types of mushrooms on the peninsula's west coast and South Shetland Islands.