Use of Plants

Plants have been used for food, medicine, fuel, and the wicks of oil lamps by the indigenous peoples of the Arctic. The underground stems and roots of some species are gathered and eaten (Eskimo potato, Hedysarum boreale; Alpine bistort, Persicaria vivipara). The fresh leaves of mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) are deliciously fresh and today are often eaten in salads. The flowers of the purple saxifrage, one of the first species to bloom, are relished after a winter without fresh food. The heath family has several species that produce edible berries that are gathered when they are ripe and were traditionally preserved in seal oil, or with seal meat for the winter. These include different species of bear berries (Arctostaphylos sp.), mountain cranberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), bilberry (Vaccinium uligi-nosum), crowberry, or curlewberry (Empetrum nigrum).

Several species were used medicinally by people living in the Arctic, for example, cloud-berry Rubus chamaemorus L. that was used to calm upset stomachs. The leathery leaves of Arctic heather (Cassiope tetrag-ona (L.)D. Don) are used as a fuel for small fires to boil water for tea in a landscape where there are no trees. The fluff that helps disperse the seeds of willows (Salix sp.) and cotton grass (Eriophorum sp.) was traditionally gathered to make wicks for the large oil lamps that were kept burning in houses during the winter (see Food Use of Wild Species; Plant Gathering).

Susan Aiken See also Tundra; Vegetation Distribution

Further Reading

Aiken, S.G., M.J. Dallwitz, L.L. Consaul, C.L. McJannet, L.J. Gillespie, R.L. Boles, G.W. Argus, J.M. Gillett, P.J. Scott, R. Elven, M.C. LeBlanc, A.E. Zamluk & A.K. Brysting, Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Descriptions, Illustrations, Identification and Information Retrieval. onwards Edlund, S.A., "High Arctic plants: new limits emerge." GEOS, 13 (1984): 11-15

-, "Plants: living weather stations." GEOS, 16(2) (1987):


Edlund, S.A. & B.A. Alt, "Regional congruence of vegetation and summer climate patterns in the Queen Elizabeth Islands, Northwest Territories, Canada." Arctic, 42 (1989): 2-23 National Atlas Information Network, National Atlas of Canada,; Geogratis,, Ceonet,, 2001 Nordal, I. & V. Yu. Razzhivin (editors), The Species Concept in the High North—A Panarctic Flora Initiative, Oslo: Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, 1999

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