In Nunavut, the growing season for its native flora is so short that even the tallest plants will rarely have enough time and sun to get taller than a foot.
For this reason, the leaves, flowers and berries of Nunavut stay quite miniature and lay low to the tundra ground. This is pretty fine though because it means hikers’ views will not be obscured by foliage or tall trees standing up against the landscape.
The lands seem to go on forever and the sky appears bigger.
It also means that if you are a forager looking for a natural snack on the tundra, you have to get much closer to the earth – probably on your knees – to gather.
Here are the top 12 best plants to snack on while hiking out in Nunavut.
Dwarf fireweed, also known as Arctic fireweed, river beauty willowherb or more scientifically the chamerion latifolium, is a nutritious form of the primrose plant. The flowers, fruits and leaves are edible raw and are often used in salads. It tastes a bit like spinach. Inuit steep the leaves in tea and traditionally that tea is used to soothe a sore stomach. It is also popular to make fireweed jelly.
Alpine sorrel looks a bit like basil. It is a shrubby flowering plant in the buckwheat family that has the nickname “sweet leaves.” This is because sorrel leaves have a fruity citrus flavour. It is most commonly found in the tundra around animal dens, bird roosts and old Inuit campsites.
In Nunavut, there are two types of gooseberries: white-stemmed gooseberry and northern gooseberry. Since they have a high level of pectin they are good for jam-making. They can taste tart if picked and eaten too early. To avoid this, you can collect them and leave them to ripen a bit before snacking on them. Gooseberries can also be cooked and then spread out to dry into cakes or they can be dried for storing.
Like the common blueberry, the three varieties that grow in Nunavut are small, round and, of course, blue. However, Nunavut blueberries will be tinier than the typical grocery store variety. There are velvetleaf blueberries, dwarf blueberries and bog blueberries that grow out on the tundra. They can also be dried for storage or boiled in water, then spread out to dry as a cake. As well, the juice from boiled berries can be cooled to make a jelly. Gathering berries is an important cultural activity for Inuit – it brings a sense of community and connection to the land.
The common bearberry is a little shrub that spreads along the ground from its main taproot without making any new roots. It has small white flowers and dark purple berries that appear almost black when ripe. In the late summer, the foliage of this plant turns a bright red, colouring entire hillsides in crimson. The berries have a thick skin and are often dried for storage. The dried berries can be ground and cooked into porridge. They can also be popped like popcorn when fried in oil over a flame. While they are edible, pregnant or breast-feeding women are advised to avoid them and so should children. In fact, if anyone eats too many of them, it can cause stomach upset or liver problems.
These grow on a dwarf evergreen shrub. The edible crowberry fruit looks like a blueberry but blacker and glossier. They are smaller than an alpine bearberry at about a third of an inch in diameter. The fruits usually will stay on the plant throughout the winter. The taste is very subtle but tastes best after cooking or freezing. Since they have so many seeds, they have a kind of gritty texture.
Yellow oxytrope has a hidden, edible inner root. When the root’s barkier, dirtier surface is peeled it reveals a smaller white nut-like inner root that is edible. It looks like a slender brown finger of ginger at first, before peeling. The white flesh tastes like a mix of carrot and sweet potato. You can cook it like any other root vegetable or just eat it raw.
In Nunavut, the alpine bistort has tiny edible seed-like bulbils which grow as a cluster of miniature flowers in the shape of a beaded necklace. These bulbils are edible and often used inside salads. They taste like a blend of almond and coconut and have the tiniest, gentlest little crunch.
9. LABRADOR TEA
Labrador tea is a wetland shrub plant of the Heath family with aromatic leaves and has been a favourite traditional Inuit drink for thousands of years. While Labrador tea (or more fancily, rhododendron tomentosum) has some traditionally medicinal purposes, it should not be boiled too hot and it will make you sick and hallucinate if not dosed correctly. Inuit foraging experts suggest just dipping the leaves in water for flavour if you are looking to avoid the risk of hallucinations. The leaves have also been used by Inuit traditionally as a mosquito repellent since they smell like citronella.
10. ROCK TRIPE LICHEN
It looks something like kale leaves or algae or even sheets of old paper but typically blackened. Almost like burnt lasagna. Rock tripe lichen, also known as umbilicaria mammulata, grows on rocks out on the tundra in northern regions of Canada and Europe. It can get quite big as it spreads across rock surfaces. Usually when foraged it is quite dry and brittle, and tastes pretty bitter – but it will do in a pinch or survival situations. Before eating it you will probably want to boil it for at least 10 to 30 minutes, as this will make the flavour milder and the texture chewier.
Whether you prefer berry-picking on your knees, digging up edible roots or collecting flowers to bring home for jelly, there are so many snacks available at your feet on a Nunavut tundra. It gives “living off the land” a new meaning. Just don’t forget to wear your parka to the picnic.