Churchill has over 200 different types of wildflowers and plants, ranging from boreal to low-arctic tundra species. Here is a quick guide to some of the more common plants.
White Mountain Avens (Dryas Integrifolia) – White mountain avens, also known as arctic dryad, is a member of the rose family, and the territorial flower of the North West Territories. It is widespread, and forms mats on beaches and gravel ridges around Churchill, especially near the coast.
Its pretty white flowers are seen from June (cross fingers) through July, and are often seen with Manitoba’s only native rhododendron, Lapland Rose Bay. Each plant may be from 6-12 cm tall, and bears a single 7-20 petalled flower that follows the sun. Leaves are leathery, and look like little arrowheads, ~1-3 cm long; ~.5 cm wide. They are dark green above and are white and fuzzy beneath, with edges curled under.
Dryas is instantly recognizable in the fall. Fields of fluffy twisted seed heads can be seen from the road all around Churchill. These gradually untwist, taking advantage of the wind for dipersal.
Purple Saxifrage (Saxifraga Oppositifolia L.)
Purple saxifrage is a low matted plant (~5cm) with a relatively large purple flower with five petals. It is the first wildflower of the season and should be rearing its lovely head even as snow still blankets the ground. You will find it on gravel ridges and in rock crevices.
Purple saxifrage is a great example of a plant adapted to our cold, dry climate. It grows low, close to the ground, reducing its exposure to harsh winds. Its leathery leaves hold water through the long, hot sunny days of summer. And its large showy purple flower with its bright orange pollen is very visible to insect pollinators.
Purple saxifrage lasts for only a short while, and unless you make a concerted effort to see it, it may be gone before you get a chance. So take the dog for a walk and go check it out before it is too late.
Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja raupii)
Also known as Indian Paintbrush, purple paintbrush blooms from late June through August, its stunning spike of flowers making it easily recognizable. Plants vary in height from 15-30cm with long (4-5cm) narrow leaves. Clusters of snpdragon-like flowers, pale green with purple edges, are somewhat hidden behind the more conspicuous pale pink (almost white) to dark purple floral bracts (specialized leaves).
Paintbrush grows in a wide range of habitats from lakeshores and heath (ground shrub) communities, to well-drained areas, to disturbed gravel and roadsides. Like others in the Figwort familiy, it is semi-parasitic, joining roots with neighbouring plants to steal nutrients.
Northern Gooseberry (Ribes oxyacanthoides)
Around Churchill gooseberry grows as a sprawling shrub, 30-150cm tall, and is found in open woods and on exposed rocky sites. Its leaves are green to purple, maple like, with rounded toothed edges, 3-5cm across, and grow from branches covered with ~1cm long spines (ouch!). The white/greenish bell shaped flowers occur in drooping clusters of 1-3, and are ~2mm long. Gooseberries are smooth, 10-15mm across, and very, very tasty (not to be confused with swamp gooseberries, Ribes lacustre, which are prickly and don’t taste as good).
Yarrow (Achillea milfoil) is a common site all over Manitoba, along roads and in ditches and other disturbed areas. It grows to about 40 cm here, and is easy to spot, with its tight clusters of little white/sometimes pinkish flowers that bloom most of the summer. Yarrow leaves are soft and fuzzy and look like narrow ferns.
As food… Young leaves in the spring can be eaten as salad greens, while older leaves can be boiled, but these are pretty strong, given yarrow’s aromatic nature. So pungent is yarrow, in fact, that its leaves are used in bitters and in flavoring beer in Europe. Here in North America, the FDA has approved the use of yarrow in vermouth and other alcoholic concoctions.
As medicine… Internationally recognized for its usefulness medicinally, yarrow is named after ‘Achilles’, hero of the Trojan War, who used poultices of yarrow flowers to stop the bleeding in his wounded soldiers. The Ute Indians’ (from the southern U.S.) name for yarrow literally means ‘wound medicine’. Scientifically, it has been proven to be both hemostatic (stops bleeding) and anti-inflammatory (brings down swelling).
Tea made from dried yarrow flowers induces sweating, and so is useful for colds and fevers. It is also a mild sedative, and may be taken to relax the intestinal and female reproductive tracts.
Yarrow is a proven mosquito repellant that has been used by birds and people alike for ages to repel bugs and fleas from their abodes, and experiments with yarrow oil have shown it to kill 98% of mosquito larvae exposed to it. I am steeping some herb as we speak; will let you know about its effectiveness next bug season…
Wildflowers: Churchill’s Orchids
Orchids are the largest family of flowering plants on the planet, with as many as 25 000 species listed. This being said, individual sightings of orchids are relatively rare. When we think of orchids, we think of showy tropical epiphytes, living up in the trees, absorbing moisture in the air for their nutrients. Here in Churchill, though, you have to look down to the ground to see them.
There are nine or so species of orchids around our parts, and though small, they are all totally impressive, both aesthetically and in their habits.
The pretty, fragrant flowers are designed to lure insects. Once inside, they get trapped in the mouth of the flower, buzzing around, covering themselves with pollen. When they finally find their way out, and make their way to the next flower, they deposit that pollen and pick up this pollen and do a little pollination.
Each flower may produce thousands of seeds, though few ever germinate (so don’t pick!) Orchid seeds are virtually devoid of nutrient stores. Instead they rely on special fungi (mycorrhizae) in the ground attaching themselves to them, to absorb and pass on nutrients to the growing plant. This relationship may continue, even when the plant has leaves and is capable of photosynthesis (so don’t pick!)
Prepared by Carmen Spiech