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Flat Plants from a Flat Land


Would you believe me if I told you that a plant in the coffee family grows wild on the expansive tundra outside Arviat, Nunavut, or that pale green, mosquito-pollinated orchids can be found right on the doorsteps of Arviamiut?

Though many outside the North might assume the territories to be all snow and ice, you know better. During the sunny Arctic summer, the tundra bursts with colour. Flowers of all shapes and sizes push forth and track the sun; it’s a frantic rush for pollination and reproduction as fall is sometimes only a few weeks away. These blooms are a beauty to behold, but when you’re a member of the Canadian Museum of Nature’s annual Arctic botany expedition, once the gawking and photo- snapping is over, it’s your job to pick these plants and squash them flat, all in the name of science.

At the museum, Arctic biodiversity is one of our core activities, and our library of pressed and dried plant specimens (the National Herbarium of Canada) is well stocked from the collective output of botanists over the last 200 years. These million-some-odd specimens, like collections in herbaria around the world, are the foundation for knowledge on how to tell plant species apart (by comparing their physical attributes and DNA), and where these species occur in any given part of the world. Early on in the museum’s history, collectors working in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories deposited their plants here, through time our herbarium grew to include one of the finest collection of Canadian Arctic plants anywhere. Today, we continue this tradition through research programs that take us throughout the North.

Bedstraw (Galium trifidum) is a  tiny, uncaffeinated member of the coffee family (Rubiaceae). Paul  Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature
Bedstraw (Galium trifidum) is a tiny, uncaffeinated member of the coffee family (Rubiaceae). Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

This year brought us to Arviat, on the vast, flat, windswept tundra shores of Hudson Bay. Our team: expedition leader Dr. Lynn Gillespie, lichen expert Dr. Troy McMullin, botanist Dr. Geoff Levin, graduate student Sam Godfrey, field assistant Ruth Kaviok (our Arviat hometown hero), and myself were on a mission alongside David Beamer from Nunavut Parks and Special Places. The point just east of Arviat is the location of the currently proposed Nuvuk Territorial Park, and we were there to catalog each and every plant and lichen species in the proposed park as a baseline for this future protected area.

So, each morning, after coffee and tea, we’d meet up with our bear monitors, Shane Ubluriak and Leo Ikakhik, climb on our convoy of Hondas, and zip out to Nuvuk to explore the land. We spent a lot of time gazing at our feet, and crawling about on our hands and knees searching out new plants and digging them up. Over tundra hummocks (and while dodging angry Arctic terns) we swapped plant names with Ruth, who gave us the Inuktitut names of plants in return for the English and Latin ones. More than once loud exclamations of “neon moss!” and “paunaq!” could be heard shouted across the land.

Once we’d filled our collecting bags with the day’s spoils, it was time to head back to home base and flatten our plants between sheets of cardboards in a plant press — a design that hasn’t changed much since the 1700s. Our finds, ranging from cauliflower-shaped reindeer lichens to insect-eating butterwort plants, totaled some 700-odd specimens, will become our research focus for the next several months while we summarize the flora of Nuvuk.

When we weren’t collecting or pressing, we had ample time to get to know “Nunavut’s Friendliest Community”— as proclaimed by the large sign on the road in from the airport (and confirmed by us). Word spread quickly that a group of “plant experts” had come to visit, and we met many who were happy to share what they knew about plants in Arviat, and even (in one case), show off their own pressed specimens. Towards the end of our trip, we sat down with seven community Elders over a table spread with branches, grasses, berries, and leaves. Samples in hand, the Elders shared the Inuktitut names and traditional uses of each plant, and more than a few jokes and stories about life in town and out on the land.

Arviamiut young and old made us feel right at home on the shores of Hudson Bay, so we were all a bit disappointed that there was no flight-delaying fog to give us at least one more day. Though next year will take us to different plants in a different part of Nunavut, I hope that one day my travels will take me back to this flat and friendly hamlet.

Paul C. Sokoloff
Paul C. Sokoloff is a Senior Research Assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, Ontario. The Canadian Museum of Nature will be opening their Canada Goose Arctic Gallery in June 2017. Visit mus-nature.ca.

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