The tundra is the coldest of all biomes in existence. It covers about one-fifth of the land on earth. The tundra climate was found in the Arctic, where it is known as Arctic tundra. And there are Antarctic Tundras (Antarctic region) and Alpine Tundra ( On mountain tops) as well. All these Tundra types are characterized by cold temperatures, drying wind, low nutrients, and open spaces. Each year, the Tundra gets around 6-14 inches of precipitation. There are 2 seasons there – summer and winter. Snow-covered for all but a few months, the tundra biome experiences scouring winds, even in summer.
Despite the almost year-round freezing temperatures, there is low diversity in organisms that live here and may even flourish. Many mosses, lichens, and small shrubs flourish in the arctic tundra. To cope up with the extreme conditions, the tundra plants have developed a variety of coping mechanisms to grow in the least hospitable areas including hairy stems and ability to grow quickly in short growing season.
Like other plants, these Tundra plants get their energy from the sunlight but have adapted to low light intensities and low temperatures. Some plants grow with little or no soil. And you can’t find any tree on the tundra because trees can’t handle the harsh conditions and the poor soil. That is how it got its name – the word comes from a Finnish word that means treeless plain. However, some plant species that appear as trees in other biomes are present on the tundra biome in a prostrate or creeping form, such as willow (Salix purpurea) and dwarf birch (Betula nana).
Plant adaptations in the tundra
As I mentioned, it is the tundra plant adaptations that help it survive where Mother Nature is the least nurturing. Since most of the plants require water, humidity, sunlight, fertile soil and other conditions for optimal growth, it’s really interesting to know that plants found in the tundra have some unique features in them to grow without requiring these optimal conditions. Let’s check some more tundra plant information to see how they can survive in the harsh cold environment with less precipitation and limited sunlight.
- Plants in the tundra biome are short and small for some reasons. First of the soil is nutrient-poor, so it lacks nitrogen and phosphorus – two viral elements plants need to grow. This makes these plants growth slow and keeps them small. The plants’ small statures help them absorb heat from the dark soil, which keeps their tissues from freezing. The smaller they are, the more chance they have of survival because the smaller statures protect them from winds and cold air. Since the plants’ roots cannot penetrate the permafrost, they are short and grow sideways.
- The Tundra only gets a small amount of precipitation each year, but the tundra plants are specially adapted to only need a small amount of water to grow. They absorb what they can with their short root systems.
- These tundra plants tend to grow in clumps, clumping offers protection from the extremely low temperature and constant snowfall.
- The tundra is also a windy place, the tundra plants grow together as plants sheltered from the whipping winds are more to survive.
- The hairy stems of many tundra plants act as protection from the wind and help to trap heat near the plant as well. These plants also have small waxy leaves to prevent the loss of water in this cold and dry environment.
- Tundra plants grow in the summer months. Until then, they remain dormant to preserve nutrients and moisture.
- Another interesting tundra plant adaptation is its ability to harvest more light and heat in summer. Some tundra plant species have red foliage for the purpose of absorbing atmospheric heat as much as possible.
- Tundra plants can flower at lower temperatures than any other flowering plants on earth. As expected, the flowering period occurs early in the summer to let them mature and put out seeds in short growing season. The flowering period lasts about six to eight weeks – the summertime.
Many tundra plants have cup-shaped flowers that move with the sun. That allows more sunlight to focus on the middle of the flower, the warmth from the sunlight helps the plants to grow quickly.
- The soil is not needed for growth in tundra biome. Many tundra plants grow on rocks such as lichens and mosses. Mosses can continue photosynthesis and growth in colder temperatures than any the flowering plants in the tundra biome. Many species have the ability to dry out and still grow back many years later, when more moisture may be available.
Tundra Plant species
Despite all the harsh conditions on the tundra, there is diversity. You can find 1700 kinds of plants on the tundra, most of which are mosses and lichens. There are four hundred varieties of flowers, such as foliose lichen and crustose. But compared to other biomes, that’s actually not a lot, making this a low-diversity biome. Listed below are types of the plant that are found mostly in the tundra biome.
Common Name: Arctic Moss
Arctic moss is the common moss on the tundra. Like many tundra plants, it is not native to any specific continent. It is an aquatic plant which can grow on the bottom of tundra lake beds and in and around bogs.
In the tundra biome, there is permanently frozen (permafrost) soil that prevents plants’ roots to continue growing longer and thicker, thus there are no deep root systems here. Because of the Permafrost, moisture from snowmelt cannot drain during the growing season, causing boggy areas highly suitable for arctic moss. The permafrost may also cause ground collapsing and loss of soil. Therefore, the moss has rhizoids (tiny rootlets) instead of roots. They have tiny leaves, usually only one cell thick that helps them adapt to the fact that the soil is poor and there are not much nutrients for plants to create photosynthesis. There are lots of leaves on the stems but Arctic moss doesn’t have flowers. They have two life stages: gametophyte and sporophyte.
There are several things that are unique about the Arctic moss. It is the low-growing plant – about one centimeter per year. It lives a long time, the shoots live eight to nine years, the leaves live for three to five. Throughout time, Arctic moss has adapted well to its climate by being able to store nutrients even when it isn’t growing so that new leaves can be made quickly when spring re-arrives. Like most plants in the tundra, Arctic moss grows near to the ground to avoid the freezing cold and harsh winds. It can also grow under water so it is protected from the cold and dry air of the frozen tundra. Its slow growth and long life are probably adaptations to the short growing season and the conditions.
There are few uses for the Arctic moss. In the Arctic tundra, they spread and cover the ground which warms up the soil for various other tundra plants to grow. They are also an important food source for many migrating animals that pass through the tundra on their migratory paths. Some type of these plants was frozen for thousands of years and has been helping scientists learn about life on our planet.
Common Name: Caribou Moss, Reindeer Lichen
Caribou Moss can be found in arctic and northern regions around the world. There are some ways Caribou moss is unique. Caribou Moss is a decomposer so it breaks down dead fauna and flora. It grows on the ground and on rocks and can grow up to a whole four to six inches. The stems and stocks of caribou moss are hollow and branch out many time. Although it is called caribou moss, it is actually a lichen. It is made of fungi and algae which grow together. The spongy threads of lichens support and protect the algae. The algae has chlorophyll which can make food. This is called a symbiotic relationship since each has something the other needs.
Over a long period of time, the Caribou moss has many adaptations living in the tundra that is its tissues isn’t easily damaged by frost and instead of ding, it hibernates. Which makes it ideal for the tundra.
Caribou moss can survive for a long time without water. It just dries out and goes dormant when there is little or no light or water. It can begin to grow again after being dormant for a very long time. The caribou moss most likely would be able to survive in other biomes but some of their adaptations would go to waste.
Caribou moss is one of the only things that animals such as Reindeer have for food during the coldest periods of the season. It has lots of carbohydrates that give the reindeer energy. These animals have special microorganisms in their stomachs which lets them digest caribou moss. Very few other animals eat caribou moss. People are afraid that the reindeer is dying from eating caribou moss. Caribou moss absorbs moisture and nutrients through their surface cells. Deadly radiation or pollutants can pass easily into their cells. The reindeer eat the radiation-rich caribou moss and pass it on those who can get the radiation from reindeer meat.
Common name: Bearberry, Foxberry, and Kinnikinick
Bearberry is a low growing evergreen that belongs to the heather family. It gets its name because it is a diet for the bear. It is adapted to long periods of cold climate and it can easily thrive in the tundra biome. Bearberry grows in a diversity of areas in which there is dry, non-nutrient, usually sandy soils, exposed to direct sunlight. Therefore, the plant can be found in a wide range of locations, especially in North America such as northern California, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland, throughout northern Europe and Asia and other alpine regions like mountains in western Montana. Bearberry is plentiful in the wild and can survive from 25 to 50 years in the wild.
Bearberry has made many adaptations that allow for success in the tundra biome. The plant is short which helps it avoid the substandard biome. It has a stem which is 2-8 inches from the ground and is covered in a thick bark. It also has fine and silky hairs that help keep it warm. On the stem, there are many leathery, oval-shaped leaves up to 1 inch long.
Bearberry uses asexual reproduction and hence, the seeds are distributed by either gravity and animals. The growth of the seeds is slow for about the first three or so years before it increases.
These plants usually bloom between March and June and attract bumblebees, responsive for the pollination of the Bearberry. The flowers of the plants are bell-shaped, eight white and pink with 5 curled-up petals. The fruit of bearberry is red and is 1/4″-1/2″ in diameter. Each fruit is filled with 4 or 5 individual nuts. Glossy bearberry seeds ripen during the autumn and remain on the bush during the winter.
Bearberry is a very useful plant. All parts components of it can be used in some way. For example, the red berry fruits can be used in the human diet for the preparation of jellies, jams, and sauces. The roots of the bearberry can be consumed in the form of tea that can treat several medical purposes such as a constant cough and may also excessive menstrual bleeding. The leaves can be mixed with tobacco or used as a substitute for it. A tea made from the leaves can be able to treat kidney or bladder problems. A tea from the plants’ stem is also used to prevent miscarriage and to speed up recovery periods of a woman after the childbirth. It is clearly demonstrated the fact that bearberry plants play a significant role in the medical economy.
Some other benefits of bearberry are many migratory animals rely on the fruits of these plants as food. The plants also cover ground for difficult landscapes, provides flowers for insects and berries for birds as well as it is low maintenance and salt and wind tolerant.
Common Name(s): Rock Willow
Arctic willow can be found in the North American tundra which consists of Northern Canada and Northern Alaska. These plants prefer to live in dry, cold, and open habitats, which makes this treeless plain a perfect place for it. That said, arctic willow has adapted extremely well to the harsh arctic conditions. It is very plentiful in the wild but is still vulnerable because of the delicate habitat it lives in.
Arctic willow is 15-20 cm in height, has long, fluzzy hair which protects it from cold temperatures. One of the arctic willow’s abilities is to produce a pesticide for itself to keep predators away. The plant adapted to the permafrost by growing shallow roots, not long roots, to keep from freezing itself over. Also, it grows close to the ground, to get out of the way of the wind. It grows prostrate, shrub, and carpet. The leaves are oval-shaped with pointed tips and have little stalks. The leaves are dark green at the bottom and a light green at the top.
The flowers of these tundra plants bloom in the spring and are dark brown or pink. Their flowers are upright scaly spikes that are unisexual flowers with no petals. There’s no fruit on the arctic willow, only seeds.
Arctic willow is very useful with many economical significances. The brak and leaves can be used for medical purposes, the wood may be used for basket weaving, and even various types of clothing. The plants can be benefited to produce willow snowshoes, bags, pouches, water jugs as well as fuel in some areas where the only source of source of fuel is made from wood.
Common Name: Marsh Tea, Swamp Tea, Hudson’s Bay Tea, and St. Jame’s Tea
The Labrador Tea is a very special type of plant that has its name because its leaves are brewed to make tea, which is rich in vitamin C. Labrador Tea is found in tundra, peatlands, and moist coniferous woods and is a frequenter of swamps, though it may be found in rocky, drier areas in the mountains.
The permafrost means that the soil is very shallow. Like other tundra plants, the Labrador tea plants have adapted well to these conditions. Their root system is also very shallow which allows them to avoid deeper frozen soil. During warmer times, the plant can easily grow to be 4 to 5 feet. During colder times, it adapts by growing low to the ground to avoid the cold tundra climate.
The plant has woolly branches with narrow leaves which are smooth on the upper side, providing them with insulation against the cold climate of the Tundra. The leaves of the plants are dark green that attracts more sunlight and heat, allowing the plant to carry on the process of photosynthesis even during low sunlight and cold temperatures. Labrador tea is considered an evergreen since it does not shed its leaves. It keeps them as it allows the plant to keep warm while holding onto much-needed moisture.
Labrador Tea has large white flowers which absorb heat to help the plant grow. The large flowers also attract potential insects that act as pollinators to the plant. The fruit of the plant has many seeds that increase the chances of at least a few seeds sprouting out.
The part used from the Labrador Tea is, of course, the leaves, which were brewed for tea by Native Americans. They were also scattered among clothes to keep moths away. They are said to use for medical purposes. The plants were used for all kinds of skin problems. Tea was used for stomach and nerve ailments. However, unusual about the Labrador Tea plants is that they are not consumed by any of the animals on the tundra.
In conclusion, the main plant species which listed above are considered to be the most definitive of the tundra biome. Although tundra is an apt environment for plants to grow, there are many other plants that can be found growing in the tundra.