Ice and bald rock dominate 75% of the Arctic Cordillera. For plants and animals, this is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. To the north, ice caps prevail; to the south, glaciers are more common. Even lichens, which as a group are immensely adaptable, are largely absent from the area. Summer lasts just a few weeks and killing frosts are not unknown throughout the season. The average July temperature is only 5oC. Soils are virtually non-existent over much of the area due to ice cover and the slow rate of soil formation. Moreover, the area receives about the same amount of precipitation as the Sahara desert. What little moisture there is in the soil, or in plants themselves, is liable to be sucked away by fierce arctic winds.
In spite of the generally severe conditions, several hardy plant species flourish where moisture, heat, and nutrients create favourable microhabitats. Isolated pockets of biological productivity can be found in sheltered streambanks and coastlines, south-facing slopes watered by late-melting snow, and fertilized areas near animal dens and bird perching sites.
Arctic plants share several characteristics that help them cope with the extreme conditions. Most hug the ground to avoid the chilling and drying effects of summer winds and to ensure protection beneath the snow in winter. Some species grow in dense mats or cushions, creating tiny forests where temperatures can be 10oC to 20oC warmer than the air just above the plants. For added insulation, many species are covered with thick heat-trapping and wind-stopping hairs.
For those who know where to look, this seemingly desolate landscape will yield surprising floral treasures. Once discovered, the best way to enjoy them is on hands and knees, since few plants reach the height of a hiking boot. The inevitable rewards in colour, fragrance, and, in some cases, taste will make the search worthwhile.