Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Searching for a Needle in a Haystack

Zoe Panchen

Plants in the High Arctic are small, really small, some smaller than a dime. I had a list of plants I wanted to find at Lake Hazen and some documentation on areas where they had been found before by botanists participating in Operation Hazen in the 1950s but it was still like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
The tiny Cardamine bellidifolia, barely bigger than a 5cent piece
In order to record the developmental progress of each species, I wanted to find the plants before they started to flower so I was locating many by last years’ seed heads or marsescent leaves (dead leaves that persist on the plant over winter and protect the plant from the harsh winter conditions) and the rest I found when the tiny new leaves emerged. As with many of the more exciting finds, I happened to notice the seed head and then plants of the tiny primula, Androsace septentrionalis, while sitting down for lunch. Other plants like the Louseworts (Pedicularis) with their 6” tall seed heads were much easier to locate. Very quickly I had sites for over 20 species I am interested in but then many days went by when I found no new species…...

A pencil dwarfs the primula species,
Androsace septentrionalis
Then, while climbing McGill Mountain, a 1000m high peak behind Camp Hazen I came across the Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa) nestled amongst the rock near the summit! I was not sure it was going to be logistically possible to climb for 3hrs twice a week to monitor this species. Fortunately I found many more lower down the mountain but still a 2 hour hike from Camp Hazen.
A few days later when doing a 3 day hike from the Henrietta Nesmith Glacier back to Camp Hazen via Weasel Lake, Nesmith River and the Snow Goose River and again while sitting down for lunch we saw the cup of distinctive bristle lined leaves of the Spider Plant (Saxifraga flagellaris) emerging from a mound of moss. I nicknamed the plant the strawberry plant as it sends out runners just like a strawberry plant. Alas again this plant was a 2 day walk from camp!

Spider Plant (Saxifraga flagellaris)
has runners like strawberries and
distinctive bristles along the leaf margins
On Canada Day we climbed up Omingmak Mtn, and I found Cardamine bellidifolia, sheltering under a rock high up in a talus field, another plant I had been looking for! Once I had the search image of these tiny plants I was able to locate them on the slope of McGill Mountain within daily walking distance so I could study them.
Some plants not only thrive in the harsh Arctic environment but actually prefer to grow in even harsher arctic-alpine conditions and the tufted saxifrage and spider plant are among them. I am doing a lot of hiking up hill to see these beautiful plants twice a week and they are fast turning into my favourite species too!
Marsh Saxifrage (saxifraga hirculus) proved to be about the toughest plant to find with its tiny linear leaves hidden by the taller sedges and grasses but when it opened its bright orange-yellow flowers it could be seen all over the sedge meadows.


  1. Fascinating reading this - from comfort of home!
    Having found that "needle in the haystack" did you mark its position - with a marker of some sort or GPS?
    Your fitness must have been very useful!
    Look forward to next episode.

  2. To mark the location of the plants I was studying I often built a small cairn to locate the area and then marked each plant that I was photographing with a white plastic plant tag. All of which I dismantled or removed before leaving Lake Hazen. I also took GPS co-ordinates of each site. On one occasion I did use my GPS locator to find a Saxifraga cespitosa (Tufted Saxifrage)that I had found high up on McGill Mountain.