Monday, 26 August 2019

Plant hunting

This year I decided to do a bit of plant hunting and collect herbarium specimen of all the plants that grow at Alexandra Fiord. This turned out to be a rewarding and instructive endeavour. I learnt so much about the plant species and where they grow at Alex. I improved my ID skills of species I was less familiar with, particularly the sedges and grasses, and it gave me an opportunity to explore new areas of Alexandra Fiord. Over the summer I collected 75 different vascular plant species out of the 115 species that have been found at Alex over the past 40 years.
Fragrant Shield Fern (Dryopteris fragrans) at Taraxacum Ridge with Alexandra Fiord and the Thorvald Peninsula in the back ground. Taraxacum Ridge, named after the dandelion that only grows on this ridge, was a great spot to explore and a Mecca for unusual plant species.

Ferns are not that common in the High Arctic. The High Arctic is a polar desert with little water for transporting the fern spores for reproduction. The cold winters are also often too severe for ferns to survive except for in the most sheltered spots. I was quite surprised to find three different species of fern at Alex from the robust looking Fragrant Shield Fern (Dryopteris fragrans) to the delicate Fragile Fern (Cystopteris fragilis). The fern species most commonly found at Alex is the Smooth Cliff Fern (Woodsia glabella). All three were only found in sheltered spots under rock overhangs, in rock crevices and where the snow lies deep in winter.
The three species of fern that grow in Alexandra Fiord. From left to right Fragrant Shield Fern (Dryopteris fragrans), Fragile Fern (Cystopteris fragilis) and Smooth Cliff Fern (Woodsia glabella)
It is hard to believe that one could get excited over a dandelion but I did! The only place where the dandelion (Taraxacum phymatocarpum) grows around Alex is even named Taraxacum Ridge. I find it interesting that at my field site at Lake Hazen, which is further north and at a higher elevation, species of dandelion are more common but ferns are rarer. Taraxacum Ridge is a small rocky outcrop rising just a few 10s of meters above the surrounding glacial valley bottom and yet it was a Mecca for unusual plants. In this rocky outcrop, I also found 2 species of fern and Pallas’ wallflower that rarely grow elsewhere in the valley.
The rarely seen dandelion (Taraxacum phymatocarpum)
growing at Taraxacum Ridge, Alexandra Fiord
Another Mecca for plants was in Helms Deep. This is a deep gorge carved out by a glacial river at the head of the valley. Towards the end of the field season, when I was now left with only the rare and unusual plants to find, I hiked up into the gorge and over the Dome behind in search of plants. In Helms Deep gorge on the south facing slopes, I observed plants growing bigger and more vigorously than in the valley. I was excited to find just 2 plants of Arnica (Arnica angustifolia), neither of which flowered and clumps of the Arctic Harebell, (Campanula uniflora). Unfortunately, I found the Harebell too late in the season to see its beautiful blue flowers, just the fruits were present when I found these plants.
Amongst the rocks of Helms Deep gorge (left), on the sunny south facing bank, I found Arctic Harebell, (Campanula uniflora), Arnica (Arnica angustifolia) and Fragile Fern (Cystopteris fragilis). With the high summer temperatures the Helms Deep Glacier (right), at the head of the gorge, was melting fast resulting in a roaring river through the gorge.

The melt water ponds around camp also proved to be fruitful places to find plant species. I found 2 species of grass that I found nowhere else: Semaphore Grass (Pleuropogon sabinei) and Vahl's Alkali Grass (Puccinellia vahliana). The aptly named Semaphore Grass has very distinctive with a pretty flower stem, the flowers are a bright purple-pink and grow in downward-pointing spikes from the stem like outstretched arms. Mean while the Vahl's Alkali Grass has a bushy inflorescence that glows bronze in the sunlight. One of my favourite grasses and one that only grows at a couple of spots along the banks of the glacial rivers from Twin and Helms Deep glaciers is the Alpine Sweet Grass (Heirochloe alpina), it forms lovely tall clumps of flowering stems and has a very distinct spicy sweet smell.
Three of my favourite grasses found at Alexandra Fiord, clockwise from top left,
Semaphore Grass (Pleuropogon sabinei) and Vahl's Alkali Grass (Puccinellia vahliana)
and Alpine Sweet Grass (Heirochloe alpina) with Twin Glacier in the background
At another melt water pond not far from camp where the Inuit families that lived at the RCMP post made their summer camp I found a treasure trove of cool plants that I rarely saw elsewhere at Alex. These included Edwards Eutrema (Eutrema edwardsii), and Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia groenlandicum) from the mustard family (Brassicaceae), Scheuchzer's Cotton-grass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri) with its lovely white pompom flower, Nodding Campion (Silene uralensis) and Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa).
Pond at the Inuit summer camp at Alexandra Fiord with Scheuchzer's Cotton-grass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri) in the fore ground where a treasure trove of interesting plant species grow (left). Poppies growing up through the old wooden platform that used to be used for butchering seals at the RCMP post Inuit summer camp at Alexandra Fiord (right).
Nodding Campion (Silene uralensis) and Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa) growing at the pond at the Inuit summer camp at Alexandra Fiord.

It was always exciting to come upon a plant species that I was looking for, many I found by chance but others I knew roughly where to look for them. The crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) is quite common further south in Nunavut, I saw it all over the tundra around Iqaluit, Baffin Island. However, it is extremely rare at Alexandra Fiord. It had been found before on a steep heather slope leading up to the East Ridge of the valley but try as we might, with an almost grid like search, we never did find it on this slope this year or last year. By chance we did, however, find several patches of the Crowberry on Skraeling Island.

The crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) with autumn colouring in early August.
We found a rare patch of this heather related species on Skraeling Island.

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