Human Flower Project
Flowers of Antarctica—All Two of Them
Only two flowering plants have been able to survive on the iciest continent—but global warming may bring them company.
Antarctic Hairgrass (taken in Chile)
Photo: Universite Joseph Fourier
We’ve claimed to study “flower customs on seven continents” and today stand, shivering, by our word. Welcome to the tiny flowering plant kingdom of Antarctica.
99% of the continent is ice bound year round. Just a few islands, coastal slivers and patches of the Antarctic Peninsula can support any plant life at all, and because of the extreme cold and dry winds, most growing things are simple mosses and lichens. No trees, no shrubs. In fact, there are only two flowering plants on the whole continent: Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia antarctica) and pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis). And neither one of them is exactly corsage material.
Researchers in hats and long underwear who have been examining the continent’s ecology see these two plant populations gradually growing, though. At the same time, Loose Tooth, an ice shelf on the east, is cracking away from the mainland. Que pasa?
Jim was amused to think of his work in the context of flowers… “since one of the most distinctive aspects of Antarctica is the complete absence of plants. The most plantlike things around (native to the area) are some dried seaweed along the shore and the occasional lichen. There is a small greenhouse at the station where we grow things like lettuce and cucumbers, cucumber flowers being the only flowers I saw during my stay.”
(Hey, Jim, that looks suspiciously like basil at right in your photo. Did your team include a pesto chef?)
Dr. Jim Behrens checking on his seaweed in the greenhouse
Amery Ice Shelf, Antarctica
Photo: Courtesy of Jim Behrens
Without realizing it, all of us, even the palest city-dwellers, are drenched with plantness. Except, perhaps, someone confined to an intensive care ward for many weeks, we never live apart from the green world. But Jim has. He describes heading back from the Antarctic:
“After several months of rocks and ice, I could smell Tasmania before I could see it as the week-long boat ride back north came to an end. When it first hit me it was the strongest, lustiest aroma I have ever experienced, but within minutes my olfactory sense had re-calibrated and the smell of vegetation slipped into the background once again.”