The flora of the tundra, despite being less diverse than other wildlife habitats, has a great story to tell. Dubbed the most inhospitable among the 5 main biomes, the tundra is described as a treeless habitat dominated by dwarf vegetation.
Tundra plants exhibit an evolutionary advantage to cope with the seemingly desolate plain that experiences short warm summers, frigid environments, and scanty rainfall that an average warm-loving plant simply cannot make. These plants are simply unique and possess an exciting quality unknown to many. Some landscape designers take advantage of these traits when planning a low-maintenance garden. If you are thrilled to know more about these underfocused flora, this article puts a spotlight on this hardy group of plants.
A biome is a large geographical unit occupied with distinct community flora and fauna, formed in response to the vegetation, soil, and climate type. One of the planet’s major biomes is the tundra which translates to treeless plain–the most characteristic feature of this macrohabitat. A permanent layer of frozen soil, called permafrost, prevents gigantic trees from growing. Apart from that, the thin and nutrient-deficient soil layer also helps limit vegetation size. If that is not harsh enough for typical plants, tundras experience icy temperatures, brisk winds, and unusually little rainfall all year round. But that does not stop plants and animals from thriving.
Shaped with the harsh physical environment and natural evolution, plants have adapted to exist and survive in this almost barren habitat. Stunted, short-season plants with long life cycles help them escape the cold and take advantage of the short warm season–lasting only 6-8 weeks and rising no more than 10°C (50°F). Small, waxy leaves and hairy stems also help them retain moisture. Animals possess thick feathers or fur to insulate themselves or simply hibernate during the coldest period. Despite the fact of its inhospitable climate, tundras still host a great number of resilient and exceptional species.
What Are the Dominant Plants in the Tundra?
What plants are in the tundra? The answer is innumerable. The dominant plants in the tundra are diverse enough but share similar forms that are adaptations to the hostile environment. Perennial flowering plants with short growing seasons, such as Arctic willow, eight petal mountain-avens, Alpine Forget-Me-Not, and purple mountain saxifrage, bloom on the onset of short warm months. Low shrubs and grasses also dominate the landscape, including Mountain Cranberry, Alpine Bearberries, Cottongrass, and Alpine Foxtail. Rocks, gravels, and thin soil layers also host simple tundra plant life forms like mosses and several lichen species, taking advantage of the moisture from the air and the condensed water on the rocks.
How Many Plants Are in the Tundra?
It is estimated that at least 1,700 plant species occupy the cold-climate landscape. Unlike other biomes that teem with diverse wildlife, tundra is limited to specialized forms, adapting to an incredibly hostile climate and soils devoid of phosphorus and nitrogen. Plant species in the tundra range from low-lying shrubs, grasses, and sedges, to mat-forming flowering plants.
Common Plants That Live in the Tundra
TDespite being underrated, the plants that live in the tundra are admired for their exquisite beauty and versatility in landscape gardening. Ready to get to know them? Here are some of the common tundra plants in arctic and alpine macrohabitats:
- Arctic Willow (Salix arctica) — The arctic willow is a common sight in Canada’s arctic. They are well-adapted to the piercing cold of Northern America’s tundra. In fact, it is the only known species of the family to reach the farthest northern tip of the country. Growing no more than 6-7.8 inches (15-20 cm) in length, this little shrub has a shallow root system and limited growth rate to adapt to the poor soil and permafrost layer. The cluster of flowers borne on elongated cylindrical stalks, called catkin, produces a stunning sight in summer.
- Arctic Moss (Calliergon giganteum) — Many moss species, such as Hylocomium splendens, and Sphagnum spp., can be found abundantly in the northern polar regions. Still, this particular clinging plant is one of a kind. Unlike their terrestrial cousins that grow on rock surfaces, tree barks, and other moist substrates, these arctic species have adapted to make their way underwater. It sits comfortably under the tundra lake beds and survives by slowly growing while storing nutrients and energy to form new leaves in spring.
- Eight Petal Mountain-Avens (Dryas octopetala) — A member of the rose family, this unique low-lying shrub also thrives in another alpine tundra. It can reach up to 4 inches (10 cm) in height and spread to a meter. Most species under the Rosaceae family usually have 5 petals or are divisible by 5, but this one, in particular, is crowned with 8 white corolla, which is why it got its Latin names: Dryas, a tree nymph of Greek mythology and octopetala or simply eight petals. This evergreen carpeting arctic plant makes a great wall, border plant, or in a rock garden, as it is easy to grow.
- Mountain Cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) — Also known as Lingonberry, this arctic evergreen shrub also exists in alpine and boreal forests throughout the northern hemisphere. It can handle well with frigid environments, even in snow-covered forests. Despite these freezing-tolerance adaptations, a recent study has concluded that with climate change, it can as well resist sudden frost and quick melting of snow, making it one of the most resilient plants in the tundra. In agriculture, it is being commercialized on a large scale as its ruby fruits are of great agricultural importance, for it is used in jam-making or simply consumed as fresh.
- Tall Cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) — The Cottongrass is not actually an actual grass but belongs to the sedge family, characterized by its angled stem, unlike the grasses with a round one. It is native to the northern hemisphere and is widely distributed along the arctic belts, from the north American arctic to the Eurasian continent. Thriving in phosphorus and nitrogen-devoid soils, mainly peat or acidic, it takes advantage of the absence of competition with other plants, dominating the cold and treeless habitat. After fertilizing its inconspicuous flowers in the summer, it pops into little white fluffs in the tundras, resembling the cotton tufts where it got its name.
- Alpine Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis alpestris) — The Alpine Forget-Me-Not is an emblematic flower of Alaska in the United States. Blooming in midsummer, the contrasting blue flowers with yellow centers are a marvelous view of the tundra biome's rocky places and open grounds. It is a relatively small herbaceous perennial plant, reaching its maturity size of at least 4.7 inches (12 cm). Along with other winter tundra plants, you can find it in its natural habitat in many high-elevation mountains in central Europe, extending from Spain to the Alps, North Africa, and Central and East Asia.
- Alpine Foxtail (Alopecurus magellanicus) — Alpine foxtail is a grass species common in alpine tundras in both the northern and southern hemispheres but can also be found in other temperate biomes. It has an underground stem called a rhizome, which is highly resistant to hostile climates. When favorable conditions return, it brings forth new leaves and inflorescence closely resembling a foxtail, hence its name. Anthropogenic activities such as overgrazing and disturbance of off-road vehicles are the major threats in some areas.
- Alpine Bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina) — Another fruit-bearing dwarf shrub native to the mountainous tundra is the Alpine bearberry. Bearing the "bear" in its name, we cannot blame the first people who named it as the tiny tree's scarlet fruits are the animal's favorite meal after hibernation, including the other 2 species of bearberries. In urban landscaping, it is a wise choice to include it as green soil cover on hillsides, rocky terrain, or under taller trees.
- Purple Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) — The native range of this mauve flower lies in the Earth's northern Alpine and arctic regions. This perennial tundra plant loves to form low-lying mats of vegetation along cliffs, rocks, and open grounds, forming like a cushion of herbs. They typically bloom in April in the highland mountains while in June in Arctic tundras. It is a low-maintenance flower in artificial condition, ideal for city and courtyard gardens, gravel, patio, and container plants.
- Labrador Tea (Rhododendron groenlandicum) — One of the tundra flowers adapted to the harsh environment, Labrador tea is native to Alpine tundra but has become popular in many gardens due to its peculiar clusters of white flowers. In the wild, it maintains a bushy structure, between 19-39 inches (0.5-1.0 m), to keep itself warm against unforgiving cold and wind gusts. And you guessed it right! This evergreen shrub is processed as a tea to treat common conditions such as sore throat, chest congestion, and coughs.
Where Do Tundra Plants Grow?
Plants of tundra grow either in the Arctic circle reaching up near the north pole or in alpine regions with arctic-like climates with permafrost soil layers. For this reason, some plants native to the tundra belt are also often found in the highland mountain range of lower latitudes, including the southern hemisphere. The Arctic tundra is situated in northern America, Europe, and northern Asia, while the alpine tundra is the rest of the planet's mountainous regions with tundra biomes.
What Fruits Grow in the Tundra?
Many fruit-bearing plants have evolved to survive in the tundra, mostly berries from the Ericaceae family. For example, the most notable fruits that grow in the tundra are Mountain Cranberries, Alpine and Common Bearberries.
What Is the Most Common Plant in the Tundra?
Plants that grow in the tundra are mostly grasses, dwarf bushes, and short-season flowering herbaceous perennials. These include Mountain Cranberry, Alpine Bearberry, Cottongrass, Alpine Foxtail, Alpine Forget-Me-Not, and Purple Mountain Saxifrage.
Does Grass Grow in the Tundra?
Yes, plants in the tundra biome also host some of the most cold-resistant grasses, like Alpine Foxtail. Thanks to its hardy rhizomes, it can repeatedly shoot up new leaves during the warm season.
Why Are the Tundra Plants Small?
Types of tundra-dominant plants are often small as an ingenious strategy to adapt. The low and dense structure is efficient heat-trapping and stable, protecting the core from battering icy winds.