15 Taiga Plants That Thrive in the Boreal Forest

Lingonberry leaves in the snow
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Taiga plants are some of the toughest plant species out there, adapted to withstand the cold temperatures and poor soil quality that’s characteristic of the taiga biome.

Also known as the boreal forest, the taiga biome is found just south of the Arctic Circle, in a region where nine-month-long winters are not uncommon. In order to survive, certain species of trees within the biome don’t shed their leaves during the winter to avoid wasting excess energy from regrowing leaves in the summer. Others grow in a cone shape to avoid collecting heavy snow. Boreal forests have a short growing season of about 130 days, so the plants have to get to work pretty quickly in order to endure the remainder of the year.

The taiga doesn’t have as much diversity in its plant and animal species when compared to other biomes, but that in no way means it isn’t important in terms of conservation. Forests within the taiga biome store a massive amount of carbon—in Canada alone, just 54% of the nation’s boreal forest area stores 28 billion metric tons of carbon in biomass, dead organic matter, and soil pods. When these forests are subjected to unsustainable or severe levels of wildfire, they release deep soil carbon that could possibly accelerate global warming. As a result, some plants have adjusted by growing thicker bark to help protect themselves from fires, while others have grown to rely on the intense heat that wildfires provide in order to open their cones and spread seeds. 

Some of the plants that exist within the taiga biome are unlike those found anywhere else on Earth. The following ferns, trees, mosses, and even flowering plants have adapted themselves to not only survive this harsh climate, but thrive.

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White Spruce (Picea glauca)

White Spruce (Picea glauca)
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Also known as the Canadian spruce or the skunk spruce, the white spruce is an evergreen conifer tree that’s common throughout Northwestern Ontario and Alaska (there are very few conifers that grow farther north).

This medium- to large-sized tree is highly adaptable to a range of moisture conditions thanks to its resilient wood, which is also why the white spruce species is often chopped and sold as plywood. According to the USDA, white spruce trees that occur above the Arctic Circle can reach nearly 1,000 years old.

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Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)

Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea)
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Known for being one of the smallest conifers, the balsam fir grows to heights between 40 and 60 feet throughout its taiga forest range, from central and eastern Canada to a handful of other Northeastern U.S. states.

They are extremely cold-hardy, continuing to grow during January temperatures (between 0 F to 10 F on average). These trees reproduce using their winged seeds, which are dispersed by the wind and can travel up to 525 feet from the parent tree. You’ll commonly see balsam fir trees used as Christmas trees during the holidays.

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Dahurian Larch (Larix gmelinii)

Dahurian Larch (Larix gmelinii)
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Part of the pine family and native to Siberia, the Dahurian larch is a midsized conifer that grows in high elevations of up to 3,600 feet above sea level. This tree is exceptionally unique, as it is both the most cold-hardy and northmost tree on Earth, growing farther north than any other tree.

Unlike other conifers, the Dahurian larch is deciduous, meaning its needles turn yellow and fall off in the autumn.

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Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)

Jack Pine (Pinus banksiana)
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Jack pine trees have serotinous cones that are protected by a natural resin (which prevents them from drying out), so they require heat from wildfires in order to release their seeds. The heat melts the waxy coating and, while the fire may kill the original parent tree, the next generation of seeds survives and grows faster than other saplings in the boreal forest.

Jack pines are widely distributed throughout northern Canada and parts of the US.

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Feather Moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis)

Feather Moss (Ptilium crista-castrensis)
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One of the most widespread moss species in the taiga biome, feather moss makes up a majority of the ground cover inside boreal forests. Studies show that feather mosses naturally secrete chemical signals to gain nitrogen in nitrogen-lacking boreal forests, taking it from the soil or absorbing the essential mineral after it's been deposited onto leaf tissues.

The moss grows neat peat bogs, so it has adapted to soggy surroundings as well, and flourishes mostly in the summer months when the weather is warmer.

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Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia)

Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia)
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Bog rosemary plants are distinguishable by their small, clustered flowers that are shaped like a bell and range from pink to white. They’re found all throughout the eastern boreal forests as far as Saskatchewan, Canada, and (as their name suggests) are partial to peatlands and open bogs.

The seeds of bog rosemary plants require cold soil in order to germinate, and stay underground for at least one year’s time before they do. These plants can grow up to 2 feet tall and are extremely poisonous due to their high levels of grayanotoxins—which is so toxic that even secondary products like honey made from plant pollen can cause symptoms like dizziness, hypotension, and atrial-ventricular block.

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Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)
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Fireweed is often found in areas that have been cleared due to burning by fires, as they have non-woody stems. In fact, they are often the first plants to appear after massive wildfires and even volcanic eruptions, making them a colorful symbol of regrowth and recovery.

These tall wildflowers and hardy perennials can reach as high as 9 feet, with abundant clusters of cylindrical flowers becoming most abundant from June to September. Seeds have a delicate tuft of silky hairs on top, used by early inhabitants of their endemic regions as padding or fiber for weaving.

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Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Wild Strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
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Found throughout the United States, Canada, and Scandinavia, wild strawberry plants are both decorative and functional when it comes to the taiga biome. They are creepers that grow low to the ground, producing small white blossoms before shooting out small, edible berries.

The brightly colored berries (often richer in flavor than the domestic species you’ll buy at the store) stick out among the boreal forest to the many species of birds who rely on them as a source of food and vitamin C.

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Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)

Purple Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia purpurea)
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One of the more prehistoric-looking plants on the list, the purple pitcher is a carnivorous plant that gets most of its nutrients by capturing insects, mites, spiders, and even small frogs. These plants use their striking appearance and pitcher-shaped leaves, ranging from green to purple in color, to attract and trap prey.

Native to North America, this plant prefers wetter bog areas inside of boreal forests.

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Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)

Round-leaved Sundew (Drosera rotundifolia)
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Another bog-loving carnivorous plant, the round-leaved sundew uses its naturally sticky leaves to trap insects. The ends of its leaves secrete a sweet-tasting liquid to attract insects, while the stickier droplets on the leaf surface prevent them from flying away. With small white or pink flowers, they grow lower to the ground and thrive in nutrient-poor soil.

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Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)
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Also known as salmonberry or bake appleberry, the cloudberry plant is closely related to the rose family and is native to both Arctic and subarctic regions of the north temperate zone.

Their edible berries taste like a cross between a raspberry and a red currant, making them popular with both animals and humans alike. These low-growing plants have leathery leaves and the fruit ranges from yellow to amber colored, ripening from August to September. 

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Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)

Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
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This evergreen shrub can be found creeping or trailing along the boreal forest floor, growing to just 8 inches tall, with rounded leaves and cup-shaped flowers that bloom in the summer. Their small red berries that ripen from August to September are edible but highly acidic, though they are still popular among foragers for use in preserves.

Widely touted as a superfood, lingonberries have been found to prevent weight gain in mice with high-fat diets and may decrease cardiovascular disease in humans.

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Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)

Wild Sarsaparilla (Aralia nudicaulis)
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A member of the ginseng family, wild sarsaparilla has compound leaves, meaning each plant produces just one single leaf that is divided into separate leaflets. The leaves emerge in the spring as a deep bronze color, changing into green in the summer, and yellow or red as the weather grows colder in the fall. Their clustered white flowers develop into purple berries in late July, and are commonly consumed by chipmunks, skunks, red foxes, and black bears.

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Stiff Clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum)

Stiff Clubmoss (Spinulum annotinum)
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A perennial moss that grows on or near the ground surface, extending up to 3 feet in length and anywhere from 2 to 12 inches tall, stiff clubmoss is widespread across the boreal forest of northwestern Ontario and north to the Arctic coast. These plants are partial to wet forests but also thrive in alpine environments.

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Running Ground Pine (Lycopodium clavatum)

Lycopodium clavatum
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Running ground pine grows close to the ground and spreads rapidly through boreal forests. Their branches look similar to more conventional pine trees—only much smaller—and their spores stick up vertically.

Native Americans used Lycopodium clavatum as homeopathic remedies for ailments like digestive disorders and scientists continue to study the plant today. In 2015, for example, researchers from India found that ground pine may help improve learning and memory in rats.

View Article Sources
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  3. "Balsam Fir." United States Department of Agriculture.

  4. "Larix gmelinii / Dahurian larch." American Conifer Society.

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