15 Unique Plants That Flourish in the Tundra Biome

From shallow roots to fuzzy stems, these tundra plants have adapted to grow in some pretty extreme conditions.

Frosted tundra rose
Frosted tundra rose (Dasiphora fruticosa). hekakoskinen / Getty Images

Earth’s coldest biome is home to some pretty resourceful small plants. In the bitter cold of the tundra, these plants grow close to the ground, where they find protection from strong winds. They also have shallow roots to prevent damage from permafrost. Many have adapted waxy leaves to preserve water and even hairy stems to trap heat. Some of the few flowering plants have developed cupped-shaped buds to allow for more sunlight exposure to the center of the blossom. Others have adapted to bloom at lower temperatures and even the ability to dry out completely and grow back much later, after the ground has developed more moisture.

The tundra sees just 6 to 10 inches of rain per year and temperatures that range between -40 F and 64 F. It’s found just below the Arctic ice caps, including parts of North America, Europe, and Siberia (a vast portion of Alaska and nearly half of Canada are included in the tundra biome).

Climate scientists study tundra plants—specifically shrubs—as a barometer for the entire Arctic environment, and research shows that the plants grow more when temperatures are warmer. An increase in shrub growth, however, isn’t necessarily a good thing when it comes to the tundra, as it can actually cause more warming in the ecosystem and thus in the rest of the planet. For example, when shrubs grow larger and taller than usual, they can influence soil temperatures and thaw the permafrost layer, or even change the soil’s nutrient cycle and carbon levels (affecting decomposition and the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere). They also prevent snow from reflecting heat from sunlight back into space, which can warm the Earth’s surface further.

Raising awareness about these unique plants isn’t just important from a botanist perspective—it is necessary for preserving the balance between the tundra and the rest of the Earth’s connected ecosystems.

These 15 types of tundra plants have adapted to the coldest biome on the planet.

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Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)

Arctic willow plant
Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

The creeping Arctic willow comes in many different shapes and sizes, though it typically ranges between 6 and 8 inches in height and has long trailing branches that root to the surface. Its leaves are oval-shaped and have a pointed tip, while its flowers are spiky with no pedals.

This plant has even adapted to the North American tundra by forming its own natural pesticide to keep insects away. It also has a shallow growing root system and the leaves grow long fuzzy hairs to help combat the weather.

Why Do Tundra Plants Have Shallow Roots?

Since only the top layer of soil thaws out during the warmer seasons in the tundra, the plants here have very shallow root systems—in fact, 96% of tundra root mass is found in the top 12 inches of the soil profile, compared to only 52% to 83% in temperate and tropical biomes. This adaptation enables roots to avoid the permafrost, the permanently frozen layer of soil, gravel, and sand below the Earth's surface.

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Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea)

Dwarf willow plant
Kevin Smith / Design Pics / Getty Images

Also known as the snowbed willow, this perennial shrub grows up to about 2 inches tall with flowers that range from red and pink to yellow and brown.

Partial to well-drained riverbanks and steep, rocky slopes, the dwarf willow is one of the world’s smallest trees, its tiny size helping it survive the extreme climate of the tundra. Apart from staying close to the ground to avoid the worst of the harsh winds, its leaves grow broad to maximize the amount of sunlight it receives.

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Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum)

Arctic poppy flower
Richard Packwood / Getty Images

The Arctic poppy is found throughout most of the North American Arctic, as well as the southern Rocky Mountains to northeastern Utah and northern New Mexico.

Arctic poppies have a lighter color than other poppy species to help them camouflage with their Arctic environment. They also have a root system made of runners that spread out over a wide area, allowing them to access water over larger surfaces.

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Cottongrass (Eriophorum vaginatum)

Cottongrass in Iceland
Cavan Images / Getty Images

A common plant of the tundra biome, cotton grass is an herbaceous perennial with slender skinny leaves that look like grass. The stems grow to about 8 to 28 inches tall with three to five fluffy clusters of seeds on the top of each stem—these heads help carry the seeds through the wind for dispersal.

The dense cotton-like hairs also keep the plants protected and help them survive for longer periods of time. An important plant in Inuit culture, the grass was once used as candle wicks in lamps or candles by drying out the grass and mixing it with seal fat or caribou fat.

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Tundra Rose (Dasiphora fruticosa)

Yellow tundra rose
cash14 / Getty Images

The tundra rose, or the shrubby cinquefoil, comes in a variety of colors including white, yellow, orange, and pink. Its hardiness and low maintenance help it survive the worst of the tundra environment while keeping its vivid, bright colors to attract pollinators. Tolerating factors like drought, erosion, and even air pollution, the tundra rose grows successfully in a wide range of conditions and temperatures.

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Saskatoon Berry (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Saskatoon Berry
Avdeev_80 / Getty Images

Saskatoon berry plants have something to offer no matter the time of year, from dainty white flowers in the spring to striking leaf colors in the fall and fiber-rich berries in the summer.

While they do look like blueberries, they are far less picky about their soil conditions and are actually more closely related to the apple family. Also similar to apples, saskatoon berries continue to ripen even after they are picked. Needless to say, numerous bird species rely on these berries as a food source, while the pollen and nectar attract bees and other pollinating insects in the spring.

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Pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens)

Maria Swärd / Getty Images

Like many other tundra plants, the pasqueflower grows low to the ground and is covered in fine hairs to help insulate it from the cold climate, similar to animal fur. It is found as far as the Northwest United States to northern Alaska, and grows cup-shaped, dark purple to white-colored flowers that have adapted to gather more sunlight and bloom earlier in the year.

The pasqueflower plant grows exclusively on south-facing slopes, preferring soil that is sandy or gravely. Although early Ingenious groups used the oil from dried plants as a healing agent in small quantities, handling or eating it fresh can cause severe reactions and even death.

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Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Bearberry plant in Russia
Natalya Naumovec / Getty Images

This evergreen plant, which gets its common name from the bears who like to feast on its bright red berries, has a stem covered in thick bark with fine hairs. Older stems are distinguishable by their peeling or smooth texture, while new stems feature a redder color with smoother hairs.

Bearberry plants grow on rocks and sand (the rocks helping them stay out of the wind), and are able to live in extremely dry and harsh climates without much need for soil-derived nutrients. Its leaves are dense, leathery, and dark green. Bearberry plants can reach between 6 and 8 inches in height.

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Arctic Crocus (Anemone patens)

Arctic Crocus
Evgenii Mitroshin / Getty Images

The Arctic crocus comes in combinations of purple and white, along with a beautiful bright stamen to attract pollinators. The plants are also covered in fuzz on their stems, buds, and leaves to protect them from harsh winds. What’s more, they grow close together to stay warmer and have shorter roots to conserve energy and avoid the permafrost layer.

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Labrador Tea Shrub (Ledum groenlandicum)

Labrador Tea Shrub
Grigorii_Pisotckii / Getty Images

Related to the rhododendron, labrador tea is common in wet bogs and lower-latitude forested areas of the tundra biome. The plant has the ability to adapt its growing style depending on its specific climate; in the warmer, southern tundra latitudes it grows straight up to take advantage of the sun, while in the colder, northern latitudes it grows closer to the ground to avoid the wind and chill.

Labrador tea plants are brewed into a tea that’s believed to reduce blood glucose and improve insulin sensitivity.

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Arctic Lupine (Lupinus arcticus)

Arctic Lupine in southern Iceland
Marco Brivio / Getty Images

Arctic lupine’s blue and purple buds are a stunning sight against the otherwise grassy, snowy, or rocky alpine slopes of the tundra. Preferring wide-open areas with plenty of room to spread, these bushy plants can actually enrich soils with low nitrogen levels, making them a great asset for areas that lack minerals. Their wooly stems help trap heat and protect them from the wind, and their fruit can be toxic to certain animal species.

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Arctic Moss (Calliergon giganteum)

Arctic moss
Ed Reschke / Getty Images

Also referred to as giant spearmoss or giant calliergon moss, Arctic moss is an aquatic plant that grows both on the bottom of tundra lakes and around bogs. Like other mosses, Arctic moss has tiny rootlets instead of traditional roots, only they have found interesting ways to adapt to their exceptionally cold climate.

Arctic moss grows extremely slowly, as little as 0.4 inches per year, and has the ability to store nutrients for use in the following spring when leaves need them to grow.

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Moss Campion (Silene acaulis)

Moss Campion under a layer of snow
Tui De Roy / Getty Images

One of the most common plants found in the northern Arctic, moss campion is a variety of cushion plant, a slow-growing class of perennials that have adapted to hug the ground as they grow to form a cushion shape. Its characteristic shape helps the moss campion retain heat, while its small leaves keep the plant from being exposed to wind and freezing weather. Along with its clusters of dainty flowers, it grows in sandy, rocky soil in the lower Alpine.

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Snow Gentian (Gentiana nivalis)

Snow Gentian
Tokle / Getty Images

One of the national flowers of both Austria and Switzerland, the snow gentian is a vascular, annual plant that thrives in the Arctic. They germinate, flower, and set seeds within a very short growing season during the Arctic summer, getting as big as 8 inches tall. They grow mainly in the mountains of Norway and Scotland, as well as the Pyrenees, Alps, and Apennines on rock ledges, gravel, grasslands, and marshes. Their blue flowers bloom in July and August.

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Purple Mountain Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia)

Purple Mountain Saxifrage in Norway
Dorit Bar-Zakay / Getty Images

These low, matted plants grow with tightly packed stems and overlapping oval leaves. Their star-shaped flowers, which range from magenta to purple, grow in a cushion shape, adding an important pop of color to the tundra.

Purple saxifrage is also one of the earliest blooming plants in the tundra, flowering as early as April in the mountains and June in the Arctic. The plant is studied in the International Tundra Experiment, which researches the impacts of climate change on tundra ecosystems.

View Article Sources
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