The Ice Maiden

Hardiest plant in the world
Saxifrage in bloom. Photo by Walter Sturn.

Purple Saxifrage is native to temperate, Alpine and Sub-arctic regions.has been found growing near the summit of the Dom in Switzerland, the Alps third highest mountain. As if that is enough of a testimony to this plants rugged character, it is also found on permafrost islands and on the arctic tundra.

Arctic Tundra
Tundra. Photo by Taken from Pixabay.

The name ‘Saxi’ coming from the Latin terms ‘saxum’ (stone) and ‘fraga’ from fragus (breaking). This translated to ‘rock breaker’ and although it is found in rock clefts, it also has medicinal properties that help with the breaking up of kidney stones.

Purple Saxifrage
Another version of Saxifrage. Photo by Zoosnow from Pixabay.

So how does this delicate looking flower survive out there, firstly there are in the region of 400 odd species but the purple variety is known to be particularly hardy and common in the tundra. They provide nourishment for the likes of the arctic hare and are rich in vitamin C.

But how does anything survive in these testing temperatures typical to the tundra being -30 C to a relatively warm -6 C. This amazing plant has a few characteristics that help it survive. Firstly the environment has hectic strong and freezing winds but our plant gets some protection by growing in rock clefts and secondly, it doesn’t grow up but rather horizontally creating a dense carpet. As can be imagined, growing in such a cold environment is a slow process. A tap root grows down as deep as it can go, given the mostly rocky environment this is a time consuming achievement but necessary to anchor the plant.

Further adaptations can be found in the leaves which grow one over the other much like fish scales thereby providing some protection to the leaf below. The leaves are more succulent-like and covered in small hairs which help trap a layer of relatively warm air. Pollination is a short window of opportunity and insects may be scarce so our Saxifrage is able to self pollinate.

Sadly, our beautiful Ice-maidens biggest threat is global warming!

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