Blooming time

Flowers flourish at Iqaluit’s sewage lagoon



Iqaluit possesses a wide range of habitats, from flat sandy shores to craggy outcrops, that make it an ideal home for a variety of Arctic plants.

But the Nunavut capital’s growing population size could be another reason why plants flourish near the city.

“Want to see a lot of lush, beautiful plants in Iqaluit?” asked Dr. Susan Aiken, a botanist who has studied plants beyond the tree line since 1984, as she spoke to a group of about 10 who gathered inside the Nunavut Research Institute last weekend. “Head on down to the sewage lagoon.”

It’s sewage to some, but nitrogen-rich fertilizer to plants, and this boom in growth could be carrying its way up the food chain.

Recently Aiken spoke with Terry Dick, a researcher from the University of Manitoba who’s studying fish in the Sylvia Grinnell river. Excited that the fish have grown in size by about 30 per cent since his last visit, he told Aiken he wondered if global warming played a role.

“I said, well, the population’s gone up about that much,” she recalled. She then paused and suggested: “You’re doing your part just being here.”

Last year Aiken co-wrote Common Plants of Nunavut, an illustrated guide to flowers and shrubs in the territory. This year she’s ironing the bugs out of a CD-ROM, Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, to help people better identify plants.

While the book catalogued about 80 different plants, the CD, which will be available from the National Research Council, includes nearly 400. “It’s a learning tool,” she said.

Later this summer, she plans to visit Cape Dorset with a graduate student to conduct field work, helping update studies last done during the 1920s. During her crash course in floral botany for the dozen onlookers last weekend, she shared some other unusual insights.

Just as people have influenced the growth of flowers in Iqaluit, so flowers helped build the city.

When the time came to paint the roof of the newly-constructed Arctic College building during the early 1980s, the college dean decided to take a cue from the vibrant purple flowers that had colonized the nearby grounds: the dwarf fireweed.

This plant grows best in disturbed soil, where its large number of airborne seeds parachute in, taking advantage of their strength in numbers. A single pod holds up to 500 seeds, Aiken said.

The college’s roof has since faded to a dull mauve, but fireweed still skirts the building, along with many other areas in town where construction has taken place.

In 1989 students discovered another sort of poppy growing near the college grounds not native to the region – the opium bearing sort.

Other alien species include wild barley, found in front of the former Hudson’s Bay Company post in Apex, where a manager fed a goat with packing straw from freighter canoes.

Wild barley is a weed that grows near fields where those canoes were made in Montreal, and Aiken suspects that could be the plant’s origin. Dandelions, which have slowly spread across town from the site, also grow in a dense patch in front of the old Bay post.

Then there’s Baffin Island’s loner flower, a European variety of alpine chamion. Only a single instance of this rangy purple flower has been discovered on Baffin Island, about 60 kilometres downstream from Iqaluit.

It grows not far from another anomaly: the giant land-locked cod that occupy lake Ogac. The two probably arrived there for the same reason.

During the retreat of the Ice Age, waves of a shallow ocean lapped over most of the area surrounding Frobisher Bay. When the waters receded, the fish became trapped inside Lake Ogac.

Similarly, Aiken said the alpine chamion probably grew on a point of land above the waters, when most of Baffin was still submerged, allowing this plant, also found in Norway, Greenland and Northern Quebec, to take root.

In most of the world, flowers are commonly pollinated by bees. But in the Arctic, this work is more commonly done by other insects. “A significant number of plants are fly pollinated,” Aiken said.

Purple saxifrage and arctic poppy are the plant poster girls of the eastern Arctic, but perhaps their bright hues overshadow a whole host of lesser known, unusual flowers.

The sea thrift, a plant that grows a pale pink head of tightly-bunched flowers, holds the distinction of being the only plant in the arctic that bears small nuts. Or how about the sea lung-wort, which can excrete salt through pores in its leaves.

To survive the punishing cold, arctic plants have developed a range of survival strategies, from hairy limbs to waxy leaves that, when peered at from beneath, appear duffel-lined, as if the plants are growing themselves a parka.

And staying low to hug the earth makes sense in an environment where, during the summer, the temperature can vary by 15 C within the first foot or so. Plants remain small, and shrubs hug the earth.

“See, a willow,” Aiken says later during a walk outdoors, picking a tiny branch from the hillside. Stretching across the tundra is an entire forest, no more than a few centimeters in height.

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