There are many reasons why people join Aurora Expeditions in the European Arctic. It could be to see the deep shimmering fjords, the formidable sea ice or watch a polar bear mother play with her young cubs. However, whatever your goal, there is something that will stand out across the entire region – the flora.
Over thousands of years, the Arctic flora has been forced to adapt to the tough environmental conditions in order to survive, often possessing various biological differences to plants found across the rest of the world. Providing a colourful backdrop to the clean, white landscape, the wildflowers of Svalbard, Greenland and Spitsbergen are great examples of how resilient nature can be, regardless of the challenges of the environment.
Before you embark on your Arctic adventure, what flora should you be familiar with? Read on to find out.
Arctic Cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri)
Arctic Cottongrass is found across Greenland and Iceland, and can be categorised by its wispy, white cotton flower head. Part of the sedge family, Arctic Cottongrass mostly grows at sea level in the European Arctic – lining lakes and the open ocean.
Interestingly, the flower head of cottongrass has been used by local native and indigenous peoples for many centuries to treat wounds.
Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)
Part of the Rosaceae family, Mountain Avens is a plant that makes its home in the colder mountainous regions of Europe, including the Arctic. In fact, it is the national flower of Iceland.
Mountain Avens are categorised by the unusual number of white petals compared to other members of its family and feature a golden yellow stamen. This flower has distinctive leaves which have become a tell-tale fossil guide for scientists in the region. According to Nature Gate, Mountain Avens leaves provide good insight into the age of bedrock.
Svalbard poppy (Papaver dahlianum)
Poppies are one of the most recognisable flowers around the globe, and the Svalbard variety is no different. Durable and tough, Svalbard poppies can grow in a number of environments including near gravel, rock and scree slopes, meaning that you can spot the white petals while you are travelling with Aurora Expeditions.
Of all flowering plants in Svalbard, this poppy holds the record for its ability to grow at the highest altitude, further highlighting its ability to reproduce and develop in difficult atmospheric conditions. While the Svalbard poppy isn't the most northern growing plant, it is certainly one of the largest, potentially growing to 25 cm and standing strong in the face of the bitter icy winds.
Pygmy buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus)
Buttercups are found across the globe with the pygmy or dwarf variety found around extensively around the European Arctic. Only growing to a height of 5 cm, the yellow flowers contrast against the polar environment.
As a result of the small stature of pygmy buttercup, they need an environment where they can compete for sunlight and food. This means that they are mostly found in snowbeds and moss carpets where there is abundant moisture.
Moss campion (Silene acaulis)
High in the mountains, colours such as pink easily stand out. For this reason alone, the moss campion is certainly a bright addition to the European Arctic, with the ground-hugging wildflower certainly one flora you'll want to get a snap of.
While the foliage or leaves are easily mistakable for moss, the dense cushions produce bright pink flowers between 6 and 12 mm wide. During a full bloom, hundreds of flowers illuminate the windswept rocky ridges and mountainous terrain. Some moss campion plants have been dated at more than 100 years – showcasing how beneficial that growing low to the ground can be.
Yellow mountain saxifrage (Saxifraga aizoides)
While a number of the plants already mentioned enjoy growing in bedrock, gravel or even sand, the yellow mountain saxifrage is quite the opposite. Found in the cold environment of Svalbard, the plant prefers moist, well-draining soil around woodland and the forest belt where it can absorb nutrients.
The alpine plant grows to around 10 cm and produces yellow-green flowers with five sepals and petals. Depending on the environment, the flowers can appear purple or orange which can make for a great photograph to take home.
Drooping saxifrage (Saxifraga cernua)
As a result of the isolation of the European Arctic, it is possible to find all sorts of weird and wonderful flora. A great example of this is the drooping saxifrage.
Upon finding this plant, the white flower may not stand out, but the kidney-shaped basal and lower stern leaves will – producing a fantastic contrast between red and white. Common across snow beds and ledges, the drooping saxifrage can be found widely across the Arctic.