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Arctic Blossoms: Purple Saxifrage

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Varieties

Arctic Blossoms: Purple Saxifrage

Purple Saxifrage

Purple Saxifrage a.k.a. Saxifraga oppositifolia has been around since at least the last ice age. Known as the northernmost wildflower on Earth as it’s found on the northernmost piece of land on Earth, Kaffeklubben Island, it can survive extremely cold environments periodically lacking in sunlight, lacking in water when everything is frozen over, and with very brief growing seasons.

Research suggests that Purple Saxifrage had its start in a high alpine region developing adaptations there that would also help it survive conditions it encountered when it later spread to the Arctic. For example, this flowering plant is adapted to the short growing seasons of alpine and arctic areas by overwintering in an advanced stage. In other words, during winter, it is already set to bloom and is just waiting for the snow cover to melt. It blooms within just a week or two of snow melt.

As for adapting to adverse weather conditions found at high elevations and in the Arctic, Purple Saxifrage can avoid being swept away by high speed winds and blizzards as it does not grow tall. Instead, it stays close to the ground or between rocks and grows in dense mats, a buffer against the elements.

The leaves of Purple Saxifrage offer protection from extremely cold temperatures. The rosette shape of the leaves with their tiny cracks and crevices trap warm air on sunny days. And, these leaves contain anthocyanin, a red pigment that is said to protect plants against cold temperatures. In Planet Arctic, Wayne Lynch mentions how a “scientist in northern Greenland recorded a toasty temperature of 38 degrees F (3.5° C) in a clump of purple saxifrage when the air temperature was 10 degrees F (-12° C).”

In August 2009, botanist Christian Körner, of the University of Basel, found Purple Saxifrage growing between solid rock in the Pennine Alps at an altitude above 4,500 meters. Prior to this discovery, no plant had ever been found at such heights in Europe. Any other plant species most likely would not survive such an environment. Körner describes the place where he found the Purple Saxifrage plant as possibly the coldest plant habitat on Earth. Every part of the plant he found, roots and all, experiences temperatures below freezing every night of the year. However, Purple Saxifrage can withstand such extreme cold so long as it experiences a total of at least 600 hours per year of temperatures above 37.4 degrees F (3° C).

 

Purple Saxifrage to be added as topping for pizza. The flowers have a sweet taste and according to the Inuit can remedy gastric problems.

Purple Saxifrage as topping for pizza. The flowers have a sweet taste and according to the Inuit can remedy gastric problems.Photograph by Peter Ewins, WWF Canada

 

Arctic hare delight in snacking on Purple Saxifrage. Muskoxen and caribou also like to eat this flower.

Arctic hare delight in snacking on Purple Saxifrage. Muskoxen and caribou also like to eat this flower.Photograph by David R. Gray, Canadian Museum of Nature

 

Elevations of some peaks of the Pennine Alps. Purple Saxifrage was found growing in the Pennine Alps at elevation of 4.505 m.

Purple Saxifrage was found growing in the Pennine Alps at elevation of 4.505 m.Photograph by Corvus, SummitPost

 

Purple Saxifrage on Dorset Island, July 2019. Its crowded low lying leaves protect against evaporation, freezing temperatures, and wind-driven snow and sand.

Purple Saxifrage on Dorset Island, July 2019Photograph by Roger Bull, Canadian Museum of Nature

 

Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) on Devon Island after a brief incident of summertime snowfall. The latinate Saxifraga notes its characteristic appearance of rock breaking, as it’s often found growing on or in between rocks. Oppositifolia points to its leaves being opposite-facing. To guess the age of a Saxifraga oppositifolia plant, look to its leaves. Each plant only grows about two leaves per growing season.

Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) on Devon Island after a brief incident of summertime snowfall.
Photograph by Wayne Lynch in Planet Arctic (2010)

 

References

“The purple saxifrage is the most northerly ranging wildflower on the planet. Its habitat extends to the tip of northern Greenland – the very limit of land in the Northern Hemisphere.”
Planet Arctic by Wayne Lynch (2010)

“The genus name, Saxifraga, is derived from the Latin saxum, meaning ‘rock,’ and frangere, meaning ‘to break,’ a reference to the belief that plants in the genus are capable of breaking rocks into soil. The species name, oppositifolia, refers to the opposite arrangement of the leaves. Purple Saxifrage is the official flower of Nunavut.”
Alpine Beauty by Neil L. Jennings (2007)

“The plant blooms early in the year, and given its blooming time and its somewhat inaccessible habitat, it is often gone before it is seen by many people.”
Central Beauty by Neil L. Jennings (2008)

Saxifraga oppositifolia is almost always the earliest ‘flower’ to appear in spring, although sometimes some of the willows will be earlier by a day. The flowers overwinter in a well-developed condition. In December, in Greenland, petals and stamens were already coloured. In West Greenland, they have been observed to flower as early as late March.”
Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago by S.G. Aiken et al (2007)

“The flowers of the purple saxifrage have a sweet taste and are eaten especially in communities where berries are not abundant. When eaten, the flowers can help relieve gastric problems, but, as with all herbal remedies, if eaten in excess can cause complications. The stems and leaves can be used to make tea.”
from website of Legislative Assembly of Nunavut

“The reverend had mentioned the plant was edible; this I found to be true, the initial bitter taste of its flowers quickly turning to a delightful sweetness.”
Green Gold by Gabriel Hemery (2019)

“The flowers of purple saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia) are a favourite food [of the Arctic hare] in late spring and early summer. As it moves from plant to plant, the Arctic hare will mow the flowers down, eschewing the careful nibbling of the muskoxen and caribou, which share a liking for this plant.”
Virtual Museum of Canada, Canadian Museum of Nature (2004)

“There is clear evidence from fossil and molecular studies, that Alaska was a refugium for S. oppositifolia during the last ice-age and it is possible that the species has occurred continuously in this region throughout the Pleistocene.”
“Evolution in the Arctic: a phylogeographic analysis of the circumarctic plant, Saxifraga oppositifolia (Purple Saxifrage)” by Richard J. Abbott and Hans Peter Comes, published in New Phytologist (2003)

“Paleobotanists suggest that purple saxifrage evolved in a high alpine region, so it was well adapted to spread successfully into the arctic.

“This plant has a very long life span. Its habit of growing low to the ground protects it against evaporation and abrasion by wind-driven sand or snow. The foliage is low and crowded, and living parts don’t project very high above the ground surface. Plants put out about two pairs of new leaves each growing season, so a dense cushion of this plant only 10 cm (4 in.) wide is probably many decades old.”
–“Purple Saxifrage” edited by Mikael Stenström and Felix Gugerli in Alberta Plant Watch

“Purple saxifrage is also adapted to the very short growing season of arctic and alpine environments. The flowering buds overwinter in an advanced stage (ready for blooming), protected by the foliage. Once the snow cover melts, flowering occurs in about 5 -16 days. Individual flowers last about 12 days.”
–“Purple Saxifrage” edited by Mikael Stenström and Felix Gugerli in Alberta Plant Watch

“University of Basel botanist Christian Körner discovered [Saxifraga oppositifolia] growing above Saas Fee in canton Valais, on the Mischabel mountain range where it snows ten months of the year. Details of the find are published in the journal Alpine Botany. According to Körner, all plant parts, including roots, experience temperatures below zero degrees Celsius every night, even during the warmest part of the year. It is the first time a plant has been found growing at such a high altitude in Europe, and thought to be only plant in the world able to do so. ‘In comparison with climate data for other extreme plant habitats in the Alps, Himalayas, in the Arctic and Antarctic, these data illustrate the life conditions at what is possibly the coldest place for angiosperm plant life on earth,’ Körner wrote. The saxifrage flower is resistant to extremely low temperatures. It needs just 600 hours of temperatures above three degrees [Celsius] per year to survive.”
–“Scientist finds flower growing above 4,500m” by SWI

“On sunny days, warm air becomes trapped in the tiny cracks and crevices of such plants. When the leaves contain the red pigment anthocyanin, as they do in the purple saxifrage, the heating effect is even greater. A scientist in northern Greenland recorded a toasty temperature of 38 degrees F (3.5° C) in a clump of purple saxifrage when the air temperature was 10 degrees F (-12° C).”
Planet Arctic by Wayne Lynch (2010)

“No more moisture falls on the arctic tundra in a year than falls on the Mojave Desert; and it is available to arctic plants in the single form in which they can use it –liquid water–only during the summer. […] Adaptive strategies show parallels with those of desert plants. The leathery leaves of saxifrage […] reduce the transpiration of precious water in the short summer.”
–Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez (1986)


published on August 4, 2019.
Main Image photo (top) by Erik Thomsen in Arctic Biodiversity Assessment 2013.

About Author

JEREMY CHEN is Editor of Bloomsday Review, which he co-founded with Kristina Anderson. He is involved in the floral trade as a marketer of hardline goods. Jeremy is based in Irvine, CA.