Subarctic Lichens

    Seeking the tiny in the immense

    Where several ecosystems intersect, Churchill contains small communities of plants that emerge in microcosms of larger systems.

    The starkness of the horizon is deceptive. The treeless landscape contains plants grown in the lushest southern gardens, at one hundredth of the size. Tiny purple azaleas carpet the ground as “Into the Wildflowers,” a learning vacation hosted by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, welcomes participants for a taste of botany in the field.

    Standing on History

    Rates of decay are slower in the subarctic, and so are rates of growth — evident on our visit to Fort Prince of Wales. The map lichen (Rhizocarpon geographicum) on its walls grows at the staggeringly slow rate of half a hair per year. These lichens have been here since the Fort’s construction began in 1731. Elegant starburst, another local species, is so slow-growing that it is used in lichonometry — determining the age of rock faces using the lichens growing on them.

    Lapland rosebay resembles tiny rhododendrons.

    Because of the slow growth rates, lichens are an especially delicate group. Crustose lichens, such as map lichen and elegant starburst, do not extend far beyond the surface on which they grow. However, inky black rock tripe, a foliose form, curls upwards from the face of the rock, leaving brittle edges at risk of being trampled.

    The plants have been shaped by their physical environment, but their roles in human history have affected them as well, providing a wealth of common names in many languages and a place in northern cuisine. Cloudberries, Labrador tea, and members of the rose family have medicinal and culinary uses. Woody plants such as scrub birch provide firewood on the tundra, and mosses have been traditionally used by the Dene in diaper bags for infants. These snatches of botanical history, however limited, highlight the variety and complexity of the area, its position at the convergence of cultures, ecosystems, and communities.

    Collection Challenges

    Searching the sands for a variety of northern bluebell felt risky in the shadow of the rocks. No one wanted to surprise a bear. Knowing they were around made us see the landscape in a different way: bending down to look at a tiny, delicate plant specimen, it was easy to lose track of our surroundings. The role of bear guards was crucial, both at the coast and in the boreal forest, looking for delicate northern orchids. In some cases, these were too rare to pick, and it was necessary to identify them in the field, take photos and notes, and leave them alone.

    In the evenings, we focused on the details, using the plant key — an elegantly straightforward method of identifying species based on a series of questions. Sometimes a hand lens was necessary, and sometimes even this didn’t help much. But with expert guidance, it wasn’t long before even subtle differences started coming to light. Grasses and sedges proved to be the hardest to identify, though they are easily distinguished from each other by the rhyme “sedges have edges.” Grasses are usually round-stemmed. This identification process often relied on the smallest parts of the plant, so care in collecting specimens meant more accurate results.

    Plant Names

    2017 was a unique year for the program: Dr. Karen Johnson was about to retire, after leading for 20 years, and Jackie Krindle was preparing to step into the position. Having two experienced instructors on an already small course was a stroke of fortune, allowing for many opportunities for questions or one-on-one instruction. Karen and Jackie used the plants’ scientific names, explaining that in the vernacular, regional variations and occasionally misattributions mean that their common names can vary. Botanical language thrives on clarity and precision to avoid misidentifications. Latin names are favoured in botanical gardens around the world, and in Karen’s own book, Wildflowers of Churchill and the Hudson Bay Region.

    But most people know the plants by their common names. Sometimes these combine several species into one, split a single species based on minor differences, or identify relations that turn out to be superficial. There can be multiple names for a plant, even in the same region, or they can vary based on geography. High altitudes and high latitudes share plants but alter the names appropriately: mountain avens in the Hudson Bay lowlands become Arctic avens.

    The beaches are covered in kelp at low tide.

    Plant names range from the descriptive to the whimsical. The tender purple orchid-like flowers, with a distinctive curving shape, are called elephants’ heads (Pedicularis groenlandica). These are tricky to find amid the boggy undergrowth, but their shape is unforgettable. Likewise, lichens known as “British soldiers” (Cladonia cristatella) provide tiny points of vivid colour in the rock-scape, their scarlet “coats” standing out against grey and green. Nearby, the delicate fairy candelabras (Androsace septentrionalis, part of the primrose family), minuscule flowers atop branching stems, embody their name.

    Going from the vastness of the landscape to the intimacy of the study table, we get to see the plants in micro and macrocosm and viewing the tiniest parts of the plants is like a journey into an unknown realm. The names are a helpful guide to the territory. Collecting, identifying, and dissecting the specimens is a lesson in attention to detail, an exercise in the powers of observation — and in the excitement of seeking something tiny in the immense.

    VIAText and photos by Karin Murray-Bergquist
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