The tundra is the planet's coldest biome and covers roughly a tenth of the Earth's land surface. It is home to unique and resilient flowering plants despite the freezing temperatures. In fact, tundra plants can survive in harsh climates with temperatures as low as -64 degrees Fahrenheit.
Unlike other plants, the flora species discussed in this article can cope with scanty rainfall, short summers, and a generally harsh environment. Read on to learn more.
Tundra biome – One of the world's major biomes
Tundra, from the Finnish word tunturi means treeless land. It is well known for its cold climate, little precipitation, and short-growing seasons. It is also the coldest biome of all the other biomes in the world.
There are two types of plants in the tundra: arctic tundra plants and alpine tundra plants.
What are the most common Arctic plants in the tundra?
The Arctic Tundra is located in the northern hemisphere, between the boreal forest or tree line and the North Pole. It has cold desert-like conditions, with an average summer temperature between 37 and 54 degrees Fahrenheit, which helps support animal and plant life. Winter arctic temperatures are an average of -30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Here, you will find a thick layer of permanently frozen soil called permafrost. The permafrost layer consists mostly of gravel and fine material. This means only plants with a shallow root system can thrive in the Arctic tundra.
In the Arctic tundra, you will find a wide variety of plants, including low shrubs, reindeer mosses, grasses, flowers, cushion plants, and more. One common plant is the dwarf willow, a low-growing shrub.
Dwarf willows, among other plants, are essential to Arctic tundra ecosystems and provide shelter and food for various animals. Some animals in the Arctic tundra include Arctic hares, Arctic foxes, wolves, polar bears, moths, salmon, etc.
What are the most common Alpine tundra plants?
The Alpine tundra is found high in the mountains, where trees cannot grow. Its growing season is estimated to last 180 days, and its night temperature is usually below freezing. The alpine tundra has well-drained soil and plants similar to those in the Arctic tundra. It also includes dwarf trees and small-leafed shrubs.
14 of the Most Common Plants in the Tundra
Tundra plants are both versatile and beautiful.
1. Bearberry (Arcostaphylos spp)
Bearberry plants, which are a typical feast for bears, are evergreen tundra plants that grow in low, dry, and harsh climates. They thrive on rocks and only require a little soil nutrients to grow. They have dark green leathery leaves and a stem covered in a thick bark and hairs. The plant produces bright red berries, which the bears feast on.
2. Arctic Moss (Calliergon giganteum)
The tundra biome is home to various types of moss. The Arctic moss is an aquatic plant that grows in large clusters called giant spearmoss. You can find these plants growing in the northern regions of the tundra.
Unlike plants that grow on soil, tree bark, and other terrestrial environments, Arctic moss grows in water. These plants grow around bogs and beneath the tundra lakes. They have rootlets and can quickly adapt to cold climates.
3. Alpine Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis alpestris)
The Alpine Forget-Me-Not is native to the Alpine tundra. However, these plants grow throughout the United States and are a popular ornamental flower in Alaska. Their blue flowers and yellow centers are beautiful on rocky slopes and open grounds.
Several types of Alpine Forget-Me-Not are found in different parts of the world, including mountains in Central Europe, Central and East Asia, and North Africa.
4. Tundra Rose (Potentilla fruticosa)
Tundra roses are flowering plants in beautiful white, yellow, orange, and pink colors. They are well-adapted to the harsh winds and climate of the tundra and maintain their bright colors to attract pollinators.
This is because the Tundra rose has a root system that allows it to survive droughts, air pollution, soil erosion, and the coldest temperatures.
5. Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea)
The Dwarf Willow is one of the smallest trees, only growing to about two inches. Its small size and root system help it survive the tundra's strong winds and extreme climates. This tundra plant has broad leaves that produce flowers that range from yellow to pink, red, and brown.
6. Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum)
You can find the Arctic Poppy, also known as the yellow poppy, in the North American Arctic and the rocky mountains in Northern Mexico.
These tundra plants have a root system made up of runners to help them access water. Their flowers have a lighter color than other poppy species, which makes it easy for these plants to blend with the Arctic environment. Their cup-shaped petals also help the plant absorb sunlight.
7. Moss Campion (Silene acaulis)
Moss Campions are pink flowers found in North America and Eurasia. They grow in sandy, rocky soil in the lower Alpine. These plants are slow-growing and hug the ground as they grow to form a cushion. This helps the plant conserve heat while the small leaves keep it from being exposed to the harsh winds and climate.
8. Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
Native to the Arctic tundra and boreal forest throughout the northern hemisphere, the Mountain Cranberry is an evergreen shrub with various uses, including culinary, agricultural, medicinal, and so on.
It can survive the extremely cold temperatures of the tundra and prefers moist, acidic soil. Due to climate change, it can also adapt to sudden frost or quick melting snow, making it one of the most resilient plants in the tundra.
9. Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia)
Purple saxifrage, also known as purple mountain saxifrage, is a plant native to the tundra. It forms a ground cover along mountains, cliffs, rocks, and open grounds. The plant is edible and is part of the diet of some tundra animals. It is also great for gardens, patios, and container pots.
10. Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum)
The Labrador Tea shrub is common in lower altitudes of the tundra. These plants grow in a unique style, adapting to the specific climate.
So, in the warmer latitudes of the tundra, it grows upward to take advantage of the sun. It grows close to the ground in the colder latitudes, maintaining a bushy structure to stay warm and protect itself from the chilly climate.
You can find this plant worldwide, as manufacturers process it as herbal tea. This tea treats common conditions like sore throat and chest congestion. The tea shrub is also believed to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood glucose1.
11. Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)
The pasqueflower, found in northern Alaska, grows close to the ground and is covered with fine hairs to help protect it from the cold. It has a cup-shaped and dark purple to white flowers. The pasqueflower grows on south-facing slopes and prefers gravel or sandy soils.
Some people use them as healing agents. However, eating some of them can be harmful to animals and humans.
12. Cottongrass (Eriophorum callitrix)
The Cottongrass plant is not really grass but belongs to the sedge family. Distributed along the Arctic belts from the Northern American Arctic to the Eurasian continent, the cottongrass flourishes under harsh climates.
It has a slant and slender stem that carries clusters of fluffy seeds. The cotton-like fluffy seeds help to keep the plant protected for longer. While it looks like cotton, manufacturers use it as ornamental grass to make candle wicks and paper.
13. Alpine Foxtail (Alopecurus magellanicus)
The Alpine foxtail is a type of tundra grass that you can find all over the world. Their leaves and inflorescence look like a foxtail, hence the name.
Although these plants can be found in biomes besides the tundra, they grow best in its extremely cold temperatures. Their underground stem (the rhizome) is very resistant to hostile climates.
14. Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)
Native to the North American Arctic (which comprises Northern Canada and Northern Alaska), the Arctic Willow is a plant with long trailing branches and a height of no more than 15-20 ft.
These plants come in various shapes and have a shallow root system that allows them to adapt to the poor soil. Their leaves are oval with a pointed tip, and their flowers are spiked with no petals. A cluster of flowers forms on elongated stalks, giving off a stunning summer sight.
Furthermore, the Arctic Willow also acts as a natural pesticide for insects in the tundra.
Where do plants in the tundra grow?
So, where exactly do tundra plants grow? Well, tundra plants can grow in the Arctic Circle towards the North Pole or in alpine regions with permafrost layers.
The Arctic tundra is in Northern America, Northern Asia, and Europe, while the alpine regions are in the earth’s mountainous regions with tundra biomes. Plants native to the tundra belts can also be found in the high mountain ranges of lower latitudes, even in the southern hemisphere.
Characteristics that help tundra plants survive harsh conditions.
Plants in the tundra survive the very cold temperatures by having adaptations that help them grow in the tundra. Firstly, these plants have shallow roots that help them avoid the permafrost, so almost all plants are found in the topsoil profile.
Secondly, they grow low to protect themselves from the intense winds and harsh weather. Also, they have waxy leaves to preserve water and trichomes on the flowers and stems to conserve heat.
Final Thoughts: Tundra Plants
The tundra has a simple but beautiful vegetation structure. Most of these plants have a short season of reproduction and growth, which helps them adapt to extremely cold weather. Despite the harsh conditions of the tundra, it is home to some of the most unique plant life, including mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs, etc.
Ouchfoun, M., Eid, H. M., Musallam, L., Brault, A., Li, S., Vallerand, D., Arnason, J. T., & Haddad, P. S. (2015). Labrador Tea (Rhododendron Groenlandicum) Attenuates Insulin Resistance in a Diet-induced Obesity Mouse Model. European Journal of Nutrition.