Nunavut’s flora, in all its glory

Colourful new guide describes 87 different types of vegetation



Plant lovers and tundra walkers in Nunavut have a new trekking companion: Common Plants of Nunavut, a guide to 87 different types of grasses, sedges and flowers that grow across the territory.

Common Plants, published by the department of education, is written for Grade 7 and Grade 8 students, says co-author Carolyn Mallory, but is expected to reach a much wider audience.

The last comprehensive guide to plant life in the Canadian Arctic was Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, published in 1957. It was in black and white, and according to Common Plants co-author Susan Aiken, was “not particularly user friendly,” even to botanists.

In contrast, Common Plants is full of bright colour photos and illustrations, in both English and Inuktitut. Aiken, a botanist and researcher with the Canadian Museum of Nature, says their main purpose was to make a book that people want to read.

“We tried from our limited white man’s knowledge to make it interesting to people who are close to the land.”

She hopes the book will encourage people in Nunavut to observe their surroundings with the botanist’s eye for detail.

“I still remember when I was in school and my math teacher came in and said, ‘What sort of four is on the clock on the post office? Is it a Roman four, is it a Latin four, what is it?’ and nobody knew,” Aiken says. “And his point was that you go past the post office every day. Learn to observe.”

The book is part textbook and part field guide, and comes with a complete glossary and index. For people who don’t know all of their plant names , there is also a “colour index,” where plants and their page numbers are listed according to the colour of their flowers.

Impatient users can skip the colour index, and use another handy navigation tool: colour illustrations on the top right-hand corner of each page that form a moving plant parade as you thumb through the pages.

An illustration of each plant next to a lemming shows how big the plant is in real life. A photo of the plant and a description of the roots, stems, seeds and flowers, are followed by a “Did you know…” section, which relates a unique or interesting fact, such as, “Inuit used crowberry to clean the barrels of guns.”

Or for English-speaking readers, did you know that the Inuktitut word for cotton grass, puallunnguat, means “imitation mittens?”

Almost every entry also has a “Traditional Use” section, which describes how the plant was used in Inuit culture, some through direct quotes from interviews with elders.

Finding words and descriptions that would make sense to people in Nunavut, and could be translated into Inuktitut, was a challenge that Aiken overcame by using images that are familiar in the north, such as “satellite dish-shaped,” which is used to describe arctic poppies.

“We described one of the shapes as ulu-shaped,” Aiken says. “Down south, no one would know what an ulu shape was. Up north, we assume everybody would. Instead of cuneate, which is the technical term.”

Each entry also comes with a map, showing where in the territory the plant has been found. To make the book most useful to Nunavummiut, the book’s authors included only the most common plants that could be found near settlements in most parts of the territory.

The Department of Education printed 3,000 copies to distribute to Nunavut’s schools and libraries. The remaining copies will be put up for sale, as soon as the department can figure out a way to retain the proceeds in a fund that will go towards future books.

The book is the fourth in a series published by the department of education, in collaboration with the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board and the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The first three books looked at birds, marine mammals and terrestrial mammals in the territory. A French and Inuinnaqtun version of this book is planned.

Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., Sustainable Development and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans contributed funding.

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