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.

Close-up of frosted tundra rose
Frosted tundra rose (Dasiphora fruticosa). hekakoskinen / Getty Images

The tundra, Earth’s coldest biome, is home to some impressively resourceful plants. They survive and often thrive in an environment that sees just a maximum of 10 inches of rain annually and temperatures as low as -64 degrees F. The tundra is just below the Arctic ice caps and includes parts of North America, Europe, and Siberia (a vast portion of Alaska and nearly half of Canada fall in this biome).

Tundra plants are well-adapted to this harsh environment, though. They grow low to avoid winds, develop waxy leaves to avoid water, and even sometimes keep warm with "hair."

These 15 types of tundra plants certainly know how to survive frigid temperatures.

Tundra Plants and Climate Change

Climate scientists see tundra plants—specifically shrubs—as a barometer for the entire arctic environment because research shows the plants grow more when temperatures are warmer. An increase in shrub growth not only indicates but also perpetuates warming. The larger and taller they grow, the more 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). Shrubs 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 botany perspective—it is necessary for preserving the balance between the tundra and the rest of the Earth’s connected ecosystems.

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Arctic Willow (Salix arctica)

Arctic willow plant surrounded by frost on the ground
Gerald Corsi / Getty Images

The creeping arctic willow has 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.

This plant comes in many different shapes and sizes, though it typically ranges between six and eight 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.

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Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea)

Looking down into the foliage of the dwarf willow plant
Kevin Smith / Design Pics / Getty Images

Also known as the snowbed willow, the dwarf willow is one of the world’s smallest trees, growing up to about two inches tall. Its tiny size helps 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.

This perennial shrub is partial to well-drained riverbanks and steep, rocky slopes. It produces flowers that range from red and pink to yellow and brown.

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Arctic Poppy (Papaver radicatum)

Arctic poppy flower growing on rocky terrain
Richard Packwood / Getty Images

The arctic poppy is found throughout most of the North American Arctic and follows the Rocky Mountains all the way down to northern New Mexico. Though still vibrant, these flowers have a lighter color than other poppy species, which helps 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 growing in an alpine meadow in Iceland

Cavan Images / Getty Images

A common plant of the tundra biome, cotton grass is a herbaceous perennial with slender skinny leaves that look like grass. The stems grow anywhere from eight 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 cottonlike 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 wicks for lamps or candles made 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 against deep-green background
cash14 / Getty Images

The tundra rose, aka 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 colors vivid and bright 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)

Deep purple berries and green leaves growing on woody stem
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 Saskatoon berries do look like blueberries, the plants 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)

Pink pasqueflowers emerging from the ground in soft light
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 U.S. 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.

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Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Red berries and waxy green leaves growing on vinelike branch
Natalya Naumovec / Getty Images

This evergreen plant, named for the bears that 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 (which help them stay out of the wind) and sand. They are able to live in extremely dry and harsh climates without much need for soil-derived nutrients. Their leaves are dense, leathery, and dark green. Bearberry plants can reach between six and eight inches in height.

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Arctic Crocus (Anemone patens)

Purple arctic crocus flowers growing in snow
Evgenii Mitroshin / Getty Images

The arctic crocus comes in combinations of purple and white with a beautiful, bright-orange stamen that attracts 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 warm and have shorter roots to conserve energy and avoid the permafrost layer.

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Labrador Tea Shrub (Ledum groenlandicum)

Two bunches of purple flowers growing on parallel stems
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 adapts its growing style to 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 growing on rocky landscape 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.

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Arctic Moss (Calliergon giganteum)

Overhead view of different-colored arctic moss growing together
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)

Mound of pink flowers growing 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)

Bright blue flowers poking through snow on rocky ground
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 eight 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)

Bush of pink flowers growing between rocks on the ground
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 an otherwise monochromatic environment.

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 the centerpiece of the International Tundra Experiment, which researches the impacts of climate change on tundra ecosystems.

What Characteristics Do Tundra Plants Have to Survive the Harsh Environment?

Tundra plants have developed many clever adaptations to survive arctic temperatures, snow, ice, and long stretches without water. Here are some characteristics they share.

  • Shallow roots: About 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.
  • Low growth: Tundra plants grow low to the ground so they can stay protected from strong winds.
  • Waxy leaves: Especially waxy leaves help tundra plants preserve water.
  • Trichomes: This hair, basically, grows on the flowers and stems of tundra plants to trap heat.
  • Cupped-shaped buds: To channel sunlight to the center of the blossom.
  • The ability to dry out and grow back: Tundra plants practically die and come back to life once the ground has developed an adequate amount of moisture.
View Article Sources
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