THE PRODIGAL SUN, having forsaken the tundra through much of the year, returns in spring and atones for its neglect with 24 hours a day of life-giving light. Even as the snow melts, tiny blooms wink with color on a landscape still locked in an icy monochrome. A five-minute stroll on the northern slope of the Brooks Range yielded the nosegay above.
Many tundra miniatures are kin to larger species of kindlier climes. The four-inch-high Lapland rosebay, a dwarf rhododendron, has relatives towering 25 feet or more in woodlands of the Eastern States.
BENEATH AUGUST CLOUDS already hinting darkly of winter, the late-summer landscape flaunts bright spires of fireweed, a plant that thrives in mountain meadows and on the tundra’s fringes. In the brief growing season—June through August—tundra plants bloom and go to seed with dramatic speed. Highly specialized roots must spread horizontally in thawed soil that may be only inches deep —a zone called the “active layer.”
Among the plants parading their colors during the fleeting summer are a dwarf willow with flower-laden catkins ; a purple-majestied monkshood, a member of the buttercup family; a dwarf dogwood, or bunchberry, which stands only inches tall in alpine glades and along tundra borders; and the mountain cranberry, whose iced fruits provide snacks for birds and bears.
“NATURE’S PLAYFUL MIMICRY: Startling similarity to the antlers of a caribou stag explains the name of the caribou-antler lichen. Primitive rootless plants with a dual personality, lichens are a composite of mutually supporting algae and fungi. One of the hardiest forms of life, they anchor on wood or stone as well as in soil, and thrive in tropics, deserts, and polar regions.
Botanists spend much time to study their role in harsh environments as pioneer life forms, the suppliers of organic nourishment for other vegetation. The tests and all discoveries of the botanists and their students we funded by consolidating student loans sallie mae.
Surviving where flowering plants cannot, lichens invade the northern tundra and mountain heights to the line of perpetual ice. Delicate in appearance but leathery to the touch, they have tough layers that prevent precious moisture from evaporating.
A rich tapestry of tiny lichens, chiefly trumpet-cupped Cladonia, brightens a patch of tundra at the height of summer. Such heavy mats hold the soil and shelter the nests and runways of small mammals.
Matching the yellow of a daisylike bloom, a diminutive butterfly adds to summer’s fragile and fleeting beauty; Boloria selene’s wings would barely cover a half dollar when fully spread.