Radiant and resourceful
One of the wonders of the Arctic is that there are any flowers there at all, but every May after nine months of incredibly low temperatures, they begin to re-appear, radiant in their various colours, reminding the world to wake up because spring has arrived! Northern flowers and plants were used by Inuit in pre-contact times over the centuries for medicinal reasons as well as for making tea or simply serving as a change of diet.
Purple Saxifrage: Being the first plant of spring, the purple saxifrage was chosen as the official flower of Nunavut although it can also be found as far north as northern Greenland. A hardy individual, able to grow in damp, exposed and windy places, purple saxifrage grows close to the ground, its leaves clustering close together, fringed with tiny hairs. Traditionally Inuit used it to make tea and to enjoy the sweet taste of its blossoms when eaten with seal blubber, but if too many of its leaves were eaten at one sitting, diarrhea was the punishment! Mountain Avens: Called malikkaat in Inuktitut meaning “the one that follows,” this dwarf shrub, somewhat resembling a small radar dish, turns to face the sun wherever it is in the sky all through the day. In this way it was used by Inuit to determine the season and in midsummer, even the time of day. When the stem is coiled tight, it signifies mid-summer and when it starts to uncoil, it is an indication that fall is approaching. Arctic Poppy: There are several poppy species in Nunavut, usually with yellow or white petals. The leaves of this perennial grow in tufts at the base of the plant while its flower turns and follows the sun during the daytime. The Arctic Poppy can be found growing throughout the territory and not surprisingly was chosen to go on the Nunavut coat-of-arms. Willow: The willow is the Arctic’s closest thing that Nunavut has to a tree. Yet it grows as close to the ground as possible since in summer the air temperature within a foot of the tundra is 10 degrees warmer than elsewhere. In sheltered areas it can even grow into small man-high bushes, such as in the Soper Valley near Kimmirut. Being a rich source of vitamin C, willow forms an important part of the diet of most Arctic land animals and birds. For centuries Inuit used it for fuel, drum hoops, drying racks, kayak ribs and other items. As its buds swell in springtime, the plant produces fuzzy scales, giving it the nickname of “Pussy Willow of the North”. White Arctic Heather: A faintly scented bell-shaped shrub, white Arctic heather produces petals which provide a sharp contrast to its dark leafage and grows in large clusters all over the tundra. As heather burns easily, Inuit have used it for centuries for camp fires, giving off a mild but pleasant aroma. To suddenly catch a whiff of a heather fire is always a reminder that the snow is starting to melt, that springtime has arrived, and that camping will soon be on many people’s minds. Cotton Grass: This sedge, growing between 10 and 40 cm high, is always found in marshy areas all over the North. Arctic Cotton Grass is truly beautiful. When in fruit it somewhat resembles a dandelion puffball and when the seeds are ready to travel, they take off dressed in their silky white nightshirts. In the past, Inuit used it for a variety of purposes, from treating warts and relieving sore throats to curing ear infections and cleaning umbilical cords. They would collect it in late summer and store it for medicinal use during the winter.
Nick Newbery taught in several communities in Nunavut from 1976-2005. He would like to acknowledge the assistance he received for this article from Bert Rose, northern educator and long-time resident of Nunavut. The photos in this article are from Nick’s Arctic photo collection that can be found at www.newberyphotoarchives.ca and should be viewed from a historical perspective.