The sting of summer
Swarm of mosquitoes joins a plant walk on Parks Day
With mosquitoes buzzing incessantly, it’s hard to focus on Joanne Rose’s voice as she explains why most plants in the Arctic grow low to the ground.
“The plants are short because it’s the microclimate close to the ground that keeps them warm,” Rose says.
Speaking to a group of about 10 people gathered near the pavilion at Sylvia Grinnell Park in Iqaluit, Rose is guiding a plant walk as part of Parks Day. The weather is damp and the bugs force participants to pull up their hoods and zip up their jackets.
“I can’t see through my eyelashes,” one woman complains, brushing the mosquitoes from her eyes and continuing up the path.
Rose bends over a patch of the common purple flower seen here.
“This is fireweed,” she says. “Other people call it dwarf weed. It grows mostly in open, scraped-clear areas.”
Northern plants have adapted to survive and flourish in an environment of harsh temperatures and varying amounts of sunlight.
“Some of the plants have grown sideways, short, low to the ground and in brighter colours to absorb more heat,” she says. “Many are perennials, so if their growth is cut off by frost, they can come back again next year.”
The intense purple saxiphrage, Nunavut’s territorial flower, is one of the first to bloom in the spring. Rose says unless one takes a trip to Pond Inlet where the seasons come a little later, few purple saxiphrage plants remain in the fall.
“Northern plants know winter is coming and get the blooming done as soon as they can,” she says, wiping a mosquito away from her forehead as others land.
Mountain aven, the Northwest Territories’ flower, are like sun catchers, Rose says, leaning over to the small white flower that resembles a satellite dish with a golden centre.
“This is what helps some plants grow,” Rose says, halting the group near a deposit of round, brown caribou pellets. “A caribou stopped here and left a little offering. Maybe it will come back later and take advantage of what grows here.”
Rose slowly makes her way up the hill by the pavilion stopping here and there to point out plants of interest. Moths, beetles, spiders and butterflies all help to spread pollen from plant to plant, she says.
“The bumble bees you see here are big and solitary. They are like cargo planes,” Rose says. “They don’t hive and are so heavy when they land on thin-stemmed plants they can bend them right over.”
The big, slow, persistent mosquitoes flying around might give them a run for their money, someone jokes.
“This one has quite a strong smell,” Rose says, crushing a piece of a green leafy plant between her fingers and offering it to others in the group. “It’s called Labrador tea and it smells great when you step on it.” People make tea from the plant and some use it as a tonic.
“Mmmm, did you smell that?” a woman asks, holding a piece of the plant to her nose. “I didn’t know it had such a perfume, such a lemony smell.”
Farther up the trail where there is less green ground covering, Rose points to patches of green and dark orange on the rocks. They are lichens and, along with erosion and the freezing-thawing cycle, the plants are partly responsible for the breakdown of the rock, as they get their nutrients and moisture from hard surfaces.
A small stick lays on the rock and Rose picks it up to hold it out for inspection.
“Trees grow really, really slowly here,” she says. “This piece is from about a 25-year-old tree. So when you break it, it takes a long time to grow.” Willows like this one have an advantage if they grow next to a rock as it tends to attract heat for the plant.
Moving back down toward the pavilion on the side of the hill, Rose presents a piece of browning peat moss. It soaks up water like a sponge, she says, and that helps the plant because it not only slows the water, and thus erosion, it can also hold the moisture for future use.
As members of the group break off to take photos and ask questions, others run for the bug-free pavilion.
A woman standing and watching a cloud of mosquitoes against the cloudy sky has some advice.
“If you don’t think about them, they won’t bother you.”