A Visit to Greenland - Part 1: the Native Flora
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on February 28, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Very few people ever get the chance to visit Greenland. I was fortunate to be invited along as a naturalist on an Expedition Cruise from Greenland to Newfoundland during August of 2004. I really didn't know what to expect, other than ice and snow, however, I was pleasantly surprised. Greenland was indeed green...at least along the coast! In reality Greenland is 95% covered by a huge ice cap. The spring icebergs along the Newfoundland coast (the nemesis of the Titanic) all spawn from a tiny portion of this ice cap located on the western side of the country. So how does a land mostly covered by ice get the name ‘Green' land? The name is thanks to Eric the Red, the famous Norse Explorer who traveled across the North Atlantic all the way to Newfoundland, around the year 1000 AD. As a way to encourage settlers, he called this great land Greenland. In fairness, the world's climate around 1000 AD was much milder than today and records show that much of the lowland regions of southern Greenland were covered in birch forest, with grass and willow-covered hillsides; a fine area for grazing sheep. A small offshoot of the Gulf Stream reaches this region and the even today, the seas remain ice-free year-round and the climate is equivalent to USDA zone 2. Erik did not see the huge icecap that covers much of the land since in the southern part of Greenland, that was located beyond sight.
The people of Greenland are a mix of Inuit and Danes (Greenland is part of the Kingdom of Denmark although they have ruled themselves since 1979.) Paleo-eskimo immigration to Greenland arose around 2500 BC. These native peoples came and went. During the time of the Norse settlements, the southern regions of Greenland were uninhabited. The last wave of native peoples were the Thule (ancestors to today's Inuit), who moved into Greenland from Alaska and Canada around 1200 AD. The Norse settlements were abandoned by the late 1400s, leaving Greenland in the hands of the Thule until Dane and Norwegian missionaries revisited Greenland in the early 1700s. Shortly thereafter, new settlements arose to take advantage of the fishing and whaling opportunities that existed.
Some greenland scenes: coastal icebergs abound as to towering mountains and spectacular glaciers.
Now that I have presented a brief history of Greenland, what about the plants. The areas I visited were all located on the western side of Greenland. We flew into Kangerlussuaq, cruised along one of the world's longest fjords then proceeded north to Illulisat, then south to Sisimiut and finally Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. The small coastal towns had a distinct Scandanavian look with brightly coloured houses and white-trimmed windows. Everywhere we landed, I was amazed at the diversity of plant life. I was even more amazed at some of the flower gardens I saw in Sisimiut and Nuuk! That is the subject for the next article!
Town scenes from Illulisat, Sisimiut and Nuuk.
The vegetation along Greenland's coast is Arctic tundra. While birch and mountain-ash do exist as 4 to 6 m ‘trees' in southern Greenland, the tallest woody plants of the western region were willows which reached up to 2 m in height. On the more exposed hillsides, these willows were completely prostrate. I saw at least 5 different species of willow. Dwarf birch (Betula nana) was also among the more common deciduous woody plants. The vast majority of woodies were evergreen. The advantage of these plants is that they can start growth as soon as the temperatures rise above freezing. Ericaceous plants dominate; arctic cassiope (Cassiope tetragona), purple mountain heather (Phyllodoce caerulea), crowberry (Empetrum nigrum), alpine bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), Labrador-tea (Rhododendron palustre), lapland rosebay (Rhododendron lapponicum), alpine bearberry (Arctous alpina) and bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) were among these. The result was a kaleidoscope of colours. Wet depressions were a sea of cottongrasses (Eriophorum) whose bunnytail seedheads swayed in the gentlest of breezes.
Some woody plants included dwarf birch, willow and crowberry (left to right).
Other common woodies included Labrador-tea, lapland rosebay and bearberry (left to right)
Wet areas were awash in cottongrass
Rocky outcrops were home to a vast array of arctic-alpine plants that would make any rock garden enthusiast drool (more than once I had to wipe the corners of my mouth!). I was surprised by how many of these herbaceous plants I recognized from northern areas of my own province of Newfoundland. As it happens, northern Newfoundland has the southernmost distribution of many arctic-affinity species. Saxifrages were by far the most common: S. oppositifolia, S. aizoides, S. hirculus, S. nivalis, S. paniculata, S. rivularis, S. cernua, S. tricuspidata, S. caespitosa and S. flagellaris. As garden plants, I have only been successful with cultivating S. paniculata and S. caespitosa; the others seem to need cooler summer temperatures than I can supply.
An assortment of saxifrages: S. caespitosa, S. aizoides and S. paniculata.
Some of the other showier natives included riverbeauty (Epilobium latifolium), arctic poppy (Papaver radicatum), roseroot (Rhodiola rosea), alpine catchfly (Lychnis alpina), moss campion (Silene acaulis), alpine chickweed (Cerastium alpinum), alpine stitchwort (Stellaria longipes), few-flowered anemone (Anemone parviflora), white mountain avens (Dryas integrifolia), Greenland primrose (Primula egaliksensis), three-toothed cinquefoil (Potentilla tridentata), arctic plumboy (Rubus acaulis), rockcress (Arabis alpina), harebell (Campanula rotundifolia - it seems to grow everywhere in the Northern hemisphere!) and various Draba. All this diversity makes for intense colour in the Greenland landscape during their short growing season, which runs from mid-June to early September. Of course, 24 hours of daylight throughout most of this period makes for nearly 6 months of growing during the 3 month period! Mind you, a summer day is only about 6-10 C (40-50 F) and snow can fall at anytime during the summer months. I was fortunate to experience a freak day that reached 21 C (70 F)....it set a record!
Assorted Arctic-alpines: harebell, riverbeauty and alpine campion.
Arctic poppy, alpine stitchwort and moss campion
White mountain avens, plumboy and few-flowered anemone
This is but a sampling of the wonderful diversity of plants that exist in Greenland. Readers hailing from or having visited northern regions of Alaska, Canada or Scandinavia will recognize many of the plants as these regions have similar climates and flora. I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit this remote and starkly beautiful corner of the world. It was a trip of a lifetime.
In part two, I will describe some of the surprisingly showy gardens that exist in Greenland. Stay tuned!