Approximately 1,700 species of plants live on the Arctic tundra, including flowering plants, dwarf shrubs, herbs, grasses, mosses, and lichens. The tundra is characterized by permafrost, a layer of soil and partially decomposed organic matter that is frozen year-round. Only a thin layer of soil, called the active layer, thaws and refreezes each year. This makes shallow root systems a necessity and prevents larger plants such as trees from growing in the Arctic. (The cold climate and short growing season also prevent tree growth. Trees need a certain amount of days above 50 degrees F, 10 degrees C, to complete their annual growth cycle.)
Tundra vegetation is characterized by small plants (typically only centimeters tall) growing close together and close to the ground. A few of the many species include:
Arctic willow: A dwarf shrub that is food for caribou, musk oxen, and arctic hares. The Inuit people call it the “tongue plant” because of the shape of its leaves.
Purple saxifrage.This plant grows in a low, tight clump. It is one of the earliest plants to bloom. The tiny, purple, star-shaped flowers (1 cm wide) often can be seen above the melting snow.
Arctic poppy.This plant is about 10-15 cm tall, with a single flower per stem. The flower heads follow the sun, and the cup-shaped petals help absorb solar energy.
Cottongrass: Named for its fluffy, white tufts, cottongrass is an important food source for migrating snow geese and reindeer.
Snow Buttercup: Ranunculus nivalis
One of the first plants to flower after the snow melts, it has basal leaves with three to five lobes. A single yellow flower occurs at the tip of a 5 to 10 cm stem. It grows in wet areas such as snow bed zones.
Lichens grow in mats on the ground and on rocks across the Arctic. Lichens provide an important food source for reindeer in the winter.
Adaptation to the Polar Environment:
First, the size of plants and their structures make survival possible. Small plants and shallow root systems compensate for the thin layer of soil, and small leaves minimize the amount of water lost through the leaf surface.
Plants also grow close to the ground and to each other, a strategy that helps to resist the effects of cold weather and reduce damage caused by wind-blown snow and ice particles. Fuzzy coverings on stems, leaves, and buds and woolly seed covers provide additional protection from the wind.
Plants have also adapted to the long winters and short, intense polar summers. Many Arctic species can grow under a layer of snow, and virtually all polar plants are able to photosynthesize in extremely cold temperatures. During the short polar summer, plants use the long hours of sunlight to quickly develop and produce flowers and seeds. Flowers of some plants are cup-shaped and direct the sun’s rays toward the center of the flower. Dark-colored plants absorb more of the sun’s energy.
In addition, many species are perennials, growing and blooming during the summer, dying back in the winter, and returning the following spring from their root-stock. This allows the plants to direct less energy into seed production. Some species do not produce seeds at all, reproducing asexually through root growth. Websites that can help you with plant identification are as follows (and the first also has an iphone and android app which can be downloaded).
Thanks to the pure and Arctic air, the natural produce found in Enontekiö – wild berries, mushrooms, herbs, fish, reindeer and game birds – are all pure and aromatic.
During late summer the area’s berries and mushrooms are ripe for picking.
In late fall astute berry hunters may also find some cranberries. Mushrooms which are abundant in the Jyppyrä area during a normal autumn are the variegated bolete (Suillus variegatus), the tall russule (Russula paludosa), the orange birch bolete (Leccinum versipelle) as well as different types of milk caps (Lactarius).
The first berries to arrive are the cloudberries (lakka: Rubus chamaemorus) around the middle of July. They are still out until the end of August but they are in such high demand that it is not likely that you will find too many if you wait too long.
They are followed by blueberries (mustikka: Vaccinium myrtillus) towards the end of July. Black crowberries (variksenmarja: Empetrum nigrum) come next and then lingonberries (puolukka: Vaccinium vitis-idaea), in the second half of August. The last berries to arrive are the cranberries (karpalo: Vaccinium oxycoccos) at the end of September.
High on the hills, grouseberries (riekonmarja: Arctostaphylos alpina) can be found at the end of August - this is the plant that paints the fells red with the Autumn colours. The berries are dark, like crowberries and lie close to the ground. Bog whortleberries (juolukka: Vaccinium uliginosum) can also be found around this time and these – as well as cranberries – are likely to gain in socio-economic importance throughout Europe in the coming years.
Mushrooms are abundant in the Jyppyrä area during a normal autumn are the variegated bolete (Suillus variegatus), the tall russule (Russula paludosa), the orange birch bolete (Leccinum versipelle) as well as different types of milk caps (Lactarius). The main berry picking season is in the Autum ‘Ruska’ season.
Enontekiö Mountain Grain is a one-woman company run by Sari Keskitalowhich specialises in activities relating to natural products (mushroom-hunting, berry picking, making jams and other produce from sustainably produced or collected products etc).
Picking berries is such an important persuit that Finland has been forced to address the working rights of international pickers: A court ruled earlier this year that the pickers do not have an employment relationship because they are independent entrepreneurs. You can find out more, here