At first glance Svalbard appears to have very scant vegetation. A closer look will, however, reveal a large number of plants. There are in fact 170 plant species, altogether on the archipelago.
Large and luscious plants are not the ones to deck the slopes of Svalbard. The wind and cold tend to destroy anything that does not cling to the ground. The dwarf arctic birch, for instance, looks quite different from dwarf arctic birches on the mainland in that it is a creeper, whereas it is a bush elsewhere.
Plants adapt to the harsh climate in various ways. Some of them have furry leaves or stems. The fur acts as insulation by blanketing the plant with a layer of air. Other plants limit energy output by not producing pigment. The purple saxifrage has petals of varying colours from vivid pink to almost white. Plants have also developed different ways of ensuring reproduction in spite of the rough climate, brief summers and scarcity of insects to take care of pollination. Propagation can be achieved asexually, in various ways. Some species generate infertile seeds, whereas others produce bulbils, as does the drooping saxifrage. Others, again, produce offshoots that take root and develop into independent plants or seeds that are self-fertilising. We often find both sexual and a-sexual reproduction in arctic plants.
Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga oppositifolia)
The purple saxifrage is one of the most common species in Svalbard and we find considerable variation of colour and shape. Sometimes the plant develops dense clumps with dark red flowers. Elsewhere it forms loose carpets of white flowers. Clumps allow the plants to preserve heat even without sunshine. The sun heats the clumps which is able to retain the heat even when the sun disappears. These conditions are conducive to growth and propagation, and the variations make the plant an interesting subject of study.
The Svalbard Poppy (Papaver dahlianum)
The Svalbard poppy is endemic and commonly referred to as Svalbard's "national flower". The plant is widespread throughout the archipelago and is found in two varieties, one with white and the other with yellow flowers. In the realm of plants, colours are often governed by a single gene, but in this case both varieties belong to the same species. The large cup-shaped flowers allow the Svalbard poppy to make the most of sunlight, heating its anthers and ovate in the flower centre, thus enabling seeds to ripen quickly. Moreover, the flower attracts insects that contribute to its pollination.
Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala)
Mountain avens is found throughout Svalbard except on Bjørnøya. It is easily recognised by its large white flower with eight petals. The plant has a woody stem and a root system. Like the Svalbard poppy, its flower is cup-shaped. When the seeds ripen in autumn, the style is transformed into woolly tufts which serve as wind dispersal organs: a breath of wind will carry the fruit off. Very efficiently the seeds can be spread far and wide. The species thrives in dry areas, particularly in limy soil.
Source: Kjell Tore Hansen, Svalbard Science Forum.