The Alaskan tundra may seem like a desolate and barren place in terms of plant life, especially since no trees of any size can grow there. The Alaskan tundra receives very little precipitation, experiences bone-chilling temperatures and winds and has a layer of permafrost beneath the soil. Nevertheless, plants do survive in this ecosystem. The plants that grow in this part of North America have adapted to such extreme and strenuous conditions.
The Arctic willow, also known as a rock willow, is an unusual shrub in that wherever the branches hang down and encounter the ground, they form roots. The shrub takes on a variety of shapes on the windblown tundra but never grows very tall. Often this plant forms dense mats over an area. It has dark green leaves, lighter on the top of the leaf than on the bottom. The plant produces only seeds when it blooms, lacks a taproot due to the nature of the Alaskan tundra surface and has the ability to protect itself from insects. It does so by producing a type of pesticide that prevents bugs from dining on it. This feature does not stop the ptarmigan, musk ox and reindeer from snacking on the leaves and seeds of the plant.
Bearberry is an evergreen plant that seldom exceeds 8 inches in height and is often only 2 or 3 inches high. Its stem has a surrounding thickened bark along with very fine hairs. The leaves have a leathery texture and are shorter than an inch. Bearberry blooms between March through June and as someone would expect, got its name from being a favorite of the bears where it grows. They eat the berries and the rest of the bearberry plant has uses as well. People will utilize the roots, stems, leaves for a medicinal tea, and eat the berries. The plant’s height keep sit out of harm’s way from the constant winds of its tundra environ and the leathery leaves resist the weather.
Many species of wildflowers flourish on the tundra. One is the tufted saxifrage, a perennial type that exists on dense clusters all over the Alaskan tundra. The stems that bear the flowers rise above the many stiff and hairy leaves. As many as 10 white flowers will bloom on these stems, each with five petals that gradually give the flower a star shape. The plant’s elaborate root system specializes in storing carbohydrates, allowing it to survive the rough conditions of the tundra.
Caribou moss, a plant that caribou and reindeer turn to for sustenance on the tundra when the weather becomes fierce, is actually a type of lichen. Lichens are common on the tundra, a combination of fungi and algae that co-exist. According to the Blueplanetbiomes website the algae produces chlorophyll, which provides the lichen with food and the lichen creates a spongy framework resembling threads that offer the algae protection. Caribou moss grows in grayish-green bunches on rocks and on the ground, reaching as tall as 4 inches in some instances. The plant is rich in nutrients such as carbohydrates, allowing reindeer and caribou to survive the tundra winter when no other plant life is available to eat.