In part one of this two-part series, I gave a brief overview of the history of Greenland and described the main native flora that exists on this surprisingly lush land (at least those portions not covered by the giant ice cap!). While I was touring around the communities of Sisimuit and Nuuk, in southwestern Greenland, I was amazed to see honest to goodness flower gardens! I figured there would be some interesting native Arctic flora in the wild areas but never expected to see ornamental gardens so far north. Once I did more reading on their climate, I was amazed to discover that the mean winter temperature is a mild -8 C (18 F) with the record cold being -26 C (-16 F)....that makes them the equivalent to hardiness zone 5! However, it is the degree days that make the difference. Even zones 2-3 in North America, which may have colder winters than western Greenland, are quite warm, if not hot in summer. There are plenty of degree days to allow for trees to grow. Greenland, however, has very few degree days. The average summer temperature of western Greenland is only about 6 C (42 F), although scattered days may reach into the high teens (60's). Southernmost Greenland may average about 10 C (50 F) which is just warm enough to support some trees which include white birch, European birch, balsam poplar and mountain-ash. The areas I visited were too cold in summer to support those trees. Sisimuit and Nuuk's tallest plants are Arctic-affinity willows which may reach 1-2 m.
The importance of using natives as garden flowers was not lost on Greenlander gardeners. Several of the flowers I saw were indeed natives, and rightly so. The floral display of riverbeauty (Epilobium latifolia), Arctic poppy (Papaver radicatum) or harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is every bit as attractive as many of our ‘exotic' ornamentals (I also grow native harebell in my own garden).
Natives used in gardens included arctic poppy, harebell and riverbeauty.
Meanwhile, Greenland gardeners also use ‘exotic' plants. Perhaps the most popular is a plant from their neighbour Iceland; the common Iceland poppy, Papaver nudicaule. These are so prolific, that they actually grow as garden escapes along roadsides in those communities. With their cool temperatures, the Iceland poppies bloom continuously from late June through to early September. Most of the ornamentals I saw were spring-bloomers in most temperate gardens. Globeflower (Trollius europeaus), leopard's-bane (Doronicum orientale), orange avens (Geum X bourisii), columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris) and polyanthus primroses were in full glorious bloom in August! (see opening picture). I was even surprised to see a couple of taller perennials such as fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium), monkshood (Aconitum napellus) and angelica (Angelica archangelica). Angelica, lady's-mantle (Alchemilla sp.) and Iceland poppies were among the most common flowers in the cemeteries. The most prolific garden ‘weeds' were buttercup and dandelion, very reminiscent of home!
Among the common 'exotics' were globeflower, leopard's-bane and orange avens.
Taller perennials inlcuded fireweed, monkshood and angelica
Cemetaries with Iceland poppies and angelica
Even a few annuals were utilized in gardens. Foremost among these were pansies, violas, alyssum, stock, cornflower and calendula. Us southern gardeners will recognized that these annuals are among the toughest and cold hardy so again, it should not be too surprising that Greenland gardeners would take advantage of these. No doubt, these annuals were started earlier in a nursery then planted out when about to bloom. I even saw a few pots of geraniums (Pelargonium) on sheltered patios.
Gardens awash in buttercups!
Common annuals grown in Greenland gardens included alyssum, calendula and viola.
Vegetable gardens also existed. Obviously, cool-season crops dominated; lettuce, cabbage and radish in particular. One brave farmer was trying to grow potatoes. These were growing out of a large coldframe. He would start the tubers under glass in these frames (24 hours of light means they stayed warm at all times). Once the plants reached the glass, he removed the lids and let them continue their upward growth. He claimed this method worked like a charm. Makes sense to me!
If you look closely you will see frames with removed lids where potatoes are being grown. The attached greenhouse is also a bonus!
I was humbled to see the perseverance, determination and ingenuity of Greenland gardeners to try and establish flower and vegetable gardens in so harsh a climate. I complain about the growing conditions in my own garden located in St. John's, Newfoundland, which is considered harsh by North American standards. Yet, my climate is almost tropical in comparison! There is no doubt that even if you garden in the most miserable of regions, there are at least some plants you can have success with, even if you only enjoy them for a few scant months.