November 16, 2022

The Amazing Arctic Willow

Written by
Sprouting Arctic willow saplings Sprouting Arctic willow saplings Courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

The arctic brings to mind visions of barren, white, ice-laden tundras and intense snow storms, nary a leaf in sight. A harsh landscape with minimal resources for survival - but still a vibrant ecosystem called home by organisms big and small, including arctic hares, polar bears, flowers, and even trees! 

Although trees in the arctic don’t reach heights as grand as elsewhere in the world, they are still there, providing the same benefits to the land and its inhabitants as they do anywhere else. Their roots help precent erosion, their branches provide shelter for wildlife, and their leaves carry nutrients that are essential for certain animals’ survival. Tree species in the arctic include alder, birch, juniper, and willows. 

Arctic willows are the hardiest of the bunch, growing in the broadest range of environmental conditions. The tree is incredibly adaptable, tolerating droughts, urban pollution, occasional flooding, and any soil type - a hardcore survivor. In the harshest conditions, the tree might only grow up to six inches tall, cementing its status as a dwarf species. When conditions are right, however, the tree can grow up to 5 feet tall with a spread of 7 feet. Its amazing adaptability has enabled the tree to become the northernmost woody plant in the world, with its natural habitat extending far above the tree line all the way to the north coast of Greenland. You can also find the tree growing in the wild further south in the Sierra Nevadas and in the Rocky Mountains.

While the tree’s natural habitat doesn’t extend into the Utah valleys, the Arctic willow can be used in home landscaping in the northern areas of Utah. Its low profile and dense branches make it a perfect addition to live wind barriers to protect homes from winter winds.

In addition to its utility in home landscaping, the Arctic willow has been used in several ways by the Inuit and Gwich’in for generations. The plant has been used for medicinal purposes, such as relieving toothaches, curing indigestion, and as a poultice on wounds. It is also a valuable food source for those living in the Bathurst Inlet area. Especially as a source for vitamin C which, as you can imagine, is hard to come by in the arctic. One young leaf from the Arctic Willow contains 7 - 10 times more vitamin C than an orange! The soft insides of young shoots are also an essential source of fiber. The tree is also an essential food source for the Arctic woolly bear moth, whose larvae depend entirely on Arctic willows as their primary food source.

Trees are essential components of ecosystems, even in the harsh ecosystems like the arctic. Without them, our planet couldn’t support the vibrant, thriving life that exists today. To learn more about the benefits of trees in our urban ecosystem, click here.