Nunavut is home to some of the most beautiful and resilient plant life in the world. As the spring snow thaws, you immediately see the explosion of plants and flowers that signals the arrival of Arctic summer. The sights and smells will fill you with hope and wonder.
As you move across the land, you will see that it is teeming with beautiful and intricate mosses, lichen and flowers. Plants like Arctic Willow, standing tall in the wind will contrast on the micro level the enormity of the rolling tundra and mountains.
In the late summer, entire communities spend hours every day gathering berries. These small but delicious blackberries, blueberries and bake apple berries are a treat and people will efficiently pluck them by the thousands. The sense of peace on the tundra, absorbed in the moment and soaking in the summer sun, is like a meditation. Just follow the crowd and find your own patch of tundra to take part in this annual tradition.
The territorial flower of Nunavut is the purple saxifrage (saxifraga oppositifolia). The Inuit name. 'aupaluktunnguat.' is the plural Inuktitut word for these vivid purple blooms. Purple Saxifrage is common throughout the territory. These beautiful flowers are the first to bloom in the summer, and you will be transfixed by the contrast as they emerge on still snow covered ground. Used for tea and to treat stomach problems, the Purple Saxifrage is an important part of Inuit life and heritage of living with the land.
Inuit have learned to use the plants and flowers of Nunavut for medicine, food and beautiful symbolism in art. Local guides will be able to identify these wondrous plants and their uses for you.
Arctic cotton (eriophorum), also called cottongrass, is a sedge plant that thrives in acidic bog habitats. It grows abundantly in the tundra and its silky white plumes have long been collected by the Inuit to be used as wicks for the traditional seal-oil lamp known as a 'qulliq' in Inuktitut.
Arctic fireweed (chamerion latifolium), also called dwarf fireweed or river beauty willowherb is a nutritious species of flowering primrose plant. Inuit steep the leaves in water for tea and also eat the leaves, flowers and fruits raw, often as a salad. It tastes a bit like spinach.
Arctic white heather (cassiope tetragona) is a highly resinous dwarf shrub plant. The leaves are evergreen and its bell-shaped flowers are yellowish white with pink lobes. Inuit traditionally collected this plant for use as a bedding material in summer camps. Its branches are still widely used as fuel by Inuit families spending time on the land.
The arctic willow (salix arctica) is a tiny creeping member of the Salicaceae family. Fluffy willow catkins emerge before the snow disappears completely. The hairs of pussy willows are transparent, which conduct sunlight into the plant, warming it to several degrees above the surrounding air temperature.
Labrador tea (rhododendron tomentosum) is a wetland shrub plant of the Heath family with strongly aromatic leaves that can be used to make a delicious herbal tea that has been a favourite beverage of Inuit people for thousands of years.
Lapland rosebay (rhododendron lapponicum) is a small tundra shrub plant with a purple flower. The woody stem of a Lapland rosebay plant, which usually grows no thicker than a person's finger, may contain as many as 400 annual growth rings!
Moss campion (silene acaulis) is small, evergreen perennial wildflower also known as cushion pink. It is common all over the high arctic and tundra regions of Nunavut. As a low, ground hugging plant, it is often densely matted and moss-like. Thick clumps of this plant have a substantial taproot, which is edible.
The mountain aven (dryas octopetala) is a small evergreen shrub of the Rosaceae family. Its botanic name comes from the Greek words 'octo' (eight) and 'petalon' (petal), referring to the eight petals of its distinctive small white flower. Eight is common, but this flower also naturally occurs with up to sixteen petals. The Inuit named this flower 'malikkat' in Inuktitut, which means 'the follower,' because it moves throughout the day to always face the sun.
Mountain sorrel (oxyria digyna), also called alpine sorrel, is a species of flowering plant in the buckwheat family. It is most commonly found in the tundra around animal dens, bird roosts and old Inuit campsites where the thin arctic soil has been enriched with nitrogen. Some other Nunavut plants that employ this same survival strategy are chickweed and stitchwort.
Wintergreen (gaultheria procumbens) is variety of creeping shrub that, as its name suggests, remains green throughout the year. This botanical characteristic is commonly now called evergreen. The round leaves of wintergreen plants are very tough in order to survive freezing, retaining their colour when dormant in order to maximize photosynthesis as soon as they thaw in the sunshine.
The yellow cinquefoil (dasiphora fruticosa), also called shrubby cinquefoil, is a shrub of the Rosaceae family. It often grows inside dense clumps of mosses and lichens that provide extra warmth and protection. Its bright yellow flowers appear in the spring once the snow has melted.
Alpine bearberry (arctostaphylos alpina) is a procumbent shrub that spreads along the ground from its main taproot without making any new roots. It has small white flowers and dark purple berries that are almost black when ripe. In the late summer, the foliage of this plant turns a brilliant scarlet red, colouring entire hillsides.
Blueberries (vaccinium corymbosum) are perennial flowering plants of the genus Vaccinium. Harvested every summer in Nunavut for many centuries by Inuit women and children, these low-lying plants provide a small but sweet, abundant and highly nutritious fruit.
Northern cranberries (vaccinium oxycoccus microcarpus) belong to the same Vaccinium genus as blueberries, bilberries and huckleberries. The flowers are dark pink, with a purple central spike, growing on hairy stems. The fruit is a small pale pink berry with a refreshingly sharp acidic flavour. They are great for cooking!
The crowberry (empetrum) is a variety of dwarf evergreen shrub, which bears an edible fruit that looks similar to a blueberry and is smaller than an alpine bearberry. Black, plump crowberries are a favourite of the Inuit. Their many seeds give them a gritty texture.
Lichens (cladoniaceae) are not single plants — they are instead a symbiotic association of algae and fungi cells living together. The ubiquitous map lichen is named for its map-like appearance on rock faces. The rock tripe lichen is edible and Caribou moss, which is actually a lichen, is a winter staple food for caribou.