Did you know that there are versions of some of your favorite plants here in the Arctic too? I’ll try to keep the science to a minimum and just post some pretty photos, but let’s at least get a few things straight. All of the plants up here (just like the plants in your backyard) can be grouped into various categories based on all sorts of characteristics. Obviously, there are some plants that produce delicious fruits, some which are trees, some which are grasses…you get it. For the Deep Roots team, some of the groupings we use here have to do with the actual anatomy and the relationships they form with fungi. For example:


    Ericoid plants are from the family Ericaceae, which are plants that live in acidic, often times infertile environments. Rhododendrons, blueberries, cranberries, azaleas – these are all examples of the plants in this family. Since these plants grow in poor soil conditions, they form symbiotic relationships with fungi at the root level to help them get nutrients into their cells. This symbiotic relationship between a plant's root system and fungi is referred to as mycorrhiza (myco – fungus, riza – root) and is of particular interest to the Deep Roots team.

    Arctic blueberry – scientific name: Vaccinium uliginosum
    Lingonberry or cowberry – scientific name: Vaccinium vitis-idaea
    Bog Rosemary
    Bog rosemary –scientific name: Andromeda polifolia

    Bog Cranberry
    Another Arctic berry, sometimes referred to as Bog Cranberry - scientific name: Oxycoccus microcarpa By Christian Fischer, source: Wikimedia commons
    Arctic Heather
    Arctic White Heather – scientific name: Cassiope tetragona By Bjørn Christian Tørrissen, source: Wikimedia commons

    Labrador Tea
    Labrador Tea, a Rhododendron – scientific name: Ledum decumbens
    Black crowberry – scientific name: Empetrum nigrum


    Sedges are grassy plants that exist all over the world, but mostly in wetlands (marshes, bogs, etc). Sedges dominate the tundra – here in the Arctic Alaska they form tussocks, which can best be described as 2-4 ft tall grassy tufts.

    Typical tussock tundra

    The two main sedges found at Toolik are Eriophorum vaginatum and Carex bigelowii

    And the rest…shrubs

    One of the other major plant types that dominate the tundra are shrubs – small to medium sized woody plants. Due to the limitations placed on plants here (i.e. the abiotic conditions), most shrubs do not grow more than a few feet tall and are not significant in size.

    Dwarf/Arctic Birch – Scientific name: Betula nana

    Tea Leaf Willow – Scientific name: Salix pulchra

    Cloudberry – Scientific name: Rubus chamaemorus

    So many more

    Those are not the only “green things” out here – there are many other plants species too numerous to list, lichens, moss of different types, fungi, etc – these are just the ones of particular interest in the Deep Roots research study. So just what are we studying about these plants? Stay tuned for the next journal to see!

    For now, here are a few pictures of all of these beautiful plants as their colors change:

    Autumnal tundra carpet.

    Boardwalk in fall
    Bright reds punctuate the landscape.

    Toolik Field Station
    The field station looks drab compared to the natural foliage.

    Toolik Field Station
    Weather Summary
    Cold and sunny


    Frank Ochoa

    Hello! This is probably my favorite journal so far its very interesting! I was curios as to how do these plants adapt. How deep are the roots and how do they live in such cold conditions.

    Frank Ochoa

    Hello! This is probably my favorite journal so far its very interesting! I was curios as to how do these plants adapt. How deep are the roots and how do they live in such cold conditions.

    LePra George Jr

    I had never knew that blueberries lived in acidic environments. Did they always live in acidic?

    Daisy Valle

    So since some of the plants can grow in two very different temperatures and conditions does that mean they grow anywhere regardless? Because if the sedges can grow all over the world including the Arctic there must not be any specific temp . And do the Shrubs take up a lot of space or not because if they are very small and can't grow that big does that mean there are many of them or less of them ?

    Joseph Munoz

    Hi Miss Kemp. So I was reading the journal and what caught my attention is how ericoid plants have symbiotic relationships with fungi to survive. Were they always like that? Do other plants have to change or adapt to survive because of global warming? If so, in what ways?

    Bridget Grason

    In addition to what Lepra asked, I also would like to know if the Arctic Blueberries were always in acidic environments, or have they adapted to live in those kind of conditions?

    Jasmin Nunez

    Are any of these plants affected by global warming? If so, how? Also are there any positive changes that global warming has done for the ecosystem? If not, what is one major negative impact to the environment?

    Makayla Idelburg

    Hi Ms.Kemp, I was wondering if you encountered any animals in the Toolik Field Station? And if you have, what were they? Also, you mentioned that because of abiotic conditions the shrubs (which dominate the tundra) weren't allowed to grow to their full potential. Could this be considered a food resource problem for the animals in that area?

    Nell Kemp

    This is a great question to start off the year with! Our first unit will be evolution and we will be talking a lot about adaptations that have emerged over time to increase an organism's chances for survival and reproduction. I don't know how many millions of years this particular symbiotic relationship has existed, but there are many more examples of this in nature. Plants will certainly have to adapt due to our changing climate - think about the discussions we had about the polar bear population and the sea ice loss, if organisms don't figure out a way to get the food they need and reproduce to pass their genes along to the next generation, then that species will go extinct. I don't think anyone has an idea of how these plants will adapt - maybe that is something you could research if you decide to make science your career!

    Nell Kemp

    Plants are definitely being affected by our changing climate, but I think it is too early to understand exactly what those changes are. Maybe if you decide to make science your career, you can study how these organisms have (or haven't) changed with our changing climate!

    Nell Kemp

    There aren't a lot of large animals here at the field station, but there are a lot of birds and we often see fat ground squirrels stocking up for the winter. Further up the tundra (about a 1-2 hour drive), you can sometimes spot musk oxen and caribou, which both feed on the tundra grasses and shrubs. Sometimes a bear can be spotted, but you are right - there isn't a lot of food for them up here (although bears do like to eat other animals, so it's not as much of a problem). Most of the animals you see are pretty small and have no problem with food availability. Good thought though, if the shrubs do grow bigger then perhaps we will see the animal populations change too.

    Lamya Powell

    Hi Ms. Kemp, I wondering if there were any insects, bugs, worms, etc. in the arctic climate, and since you said that most of the plant life doesn't grow to be very tall, and some are very close to the ground, would they feed on the plants, and or help the plants to grow, or is the climate too cold to sustain the insects' life?

    Brian Pugh

    Hello ms. kemp. I didn't know that many common backyard plants can be found in very cold temperatures. I originally thought that there are specific plants in specific environments.

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Lamya, There are DEFINITELY insects up here in the arctic, in fact, that’s what I studied when I was here in 2013. I was studying the Arctic wolf spider (you can check out my journals if you are really interested), but there are butterflies, leaf hoppers, dragonflies, gnats, and the dreaded mosquitoes always flying around up here. There are also lots of soil microorganisms and decomposers that exist below ground that help the plants to grow by breaking down dead material. Scientists are very interested in these insects because of how cold it gets here in the winters, but not a lot of research has been done on them during “hibernation.” Insects probably make up a huge portion of the animal biomass here in the arctic, pound for pound.

    Nell Kemp

    Thanks Susan! Just back in FBX and catching up on all these comments before we head down to Healy (yes, I saw Karen's shout out to us - awesome, love this community!) and you had already answered the question before I realized it :)

    Jamelya Simmons

    Miss Kemp if mainly all plants produce or have the same outcome why does the plants there need more than the plants everywhere else?

    Nell Kemp

    Hi Jamelya,
    Plants in the Arctic don't need any more than plants in other places do, but up here all of those nutrients are in very LIMITED supply. Since the dead organisms don't decompose as quickly as they do in other places, that means the soil doesn't have as much Nitrogen as soil in lower climates. Also remember that this area of the earth only gets sunlight for 6 months out of the year, so when these plants can grow (when sun is available), every little bit helps...

    Zora Beaty

    I was reading this article I saw that ericoids grow in poor soil conditions and get their nutrients from fungi and shrubs have a limit to height and size due to the abiotic conditions. What about shrubs, are there any limitations or cons for growing in the Arctic?

    Eghonghon Eromosele

    So, I noticed in your post that although there is limitation to shrubs, it is the dominate plant in the tundra. Why is this so? Does this type of thing also happen in other biomes?

    Nell Kemp

    Yes! The whole point of this experiment is basically because of those limitations - since the soil in the tundra doesn't have as much Nitrogen (and other nutrients) as other soils in the world due to the low rate of decomposition (because it is frozen for most of the year), the plants aren't able to grow as large as they potentially could. In areas where it is warmer (like the greenhouses and areas at lower altitudes like our other research sites), we see more shrubs and small trees because the soil is warmer and roots can penetrate deeper, there is more decomposition, more available nutrients, etc.

    Nell Kemp

    Such a good question! We sort of talked about this last year, but absolutely - the environment "dictates" what organisms exist there (for example, polar bears live in the arctic and have very special traits that help them there, but might hurt them if they lived elsewhere). Our first unit in biology will be evolution and we will talk about adaptations and the process that allows adaptations to exist, natural selection. So excited to talk to you guys about this!

    Kevin A.

    If any of the plants in the ericaceae family were planted in nutrient rich soil then would they not need any fungi to form a relationship with or do they need the acidic soil to survive?