The Little Saplings That Could

Far, far above the tree line, two black spruces peek out from beneath a pile of snow on the steep and narrow Iqaluit, Nunavut street aptly called “One Way Road.”

One tree is a bit taller than the other, while the other is a bit wider.

They are tucked side-by-side against the wall of an L-shaped house, the little bend in the architecture creating something of a nook to protect the trees from the worst of harsh Arctic winds.

Both have grown there against all odds through long Iqaluit winters and the few summer days warm enough for tree growth.

These two conifers have not just survived more than 30 Arctic winters now but have grown over a metre since their Iqaluit transplant back in 1988.

That was the year a research botanist working with the Canadian Museum of Nature, Susan Aiken, had brought Iqaluit residents Bert and Joanne Rose a gift of four saplings to plant in their front-yard garden in Iqaluit.

It was a friendly gift as well as an experiment.

Aiken is the first author of The Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and co-author of Common Plants of Nunavut.

Since the seedlings had sprouted in Inuvik, in the Northwest Territories, Aiken thought they should be able to grow in Iqaluit if they had the right soil and fungi all wrapped up together in a root bundle.

โ€œIqaluit is at least four degrees of latitude further south than Inuvik but Iqaluit has no spruce trees,โ€ Aiken said in an email, to explain what had prompted her experiment.

At the time of the gift, she had wanted to know why.

Was it because trees had not been re-introduced to Baffin Island after the last Ice Age or was it because the soil doesnโ€™t have the essential root fungi?

Or was the climate really too severe?

Map of Canada by Wikirictor. CC-BY-SA

A burglar of trees

The trees are kept in an elevated bed in the front yard beside the house which allows them to get optimal sun.

The bed is supplemented with earth that Joanne and Bert found on old construction sites over the years, including the “jackpot” of discarded greenery found left over from the construction of the historic yellow airport terminal that was completed in 1985.

The couple had shoveled up the soil, grass and moss in many rounds. Much of the rest of their front yard was created in this way.

Unlike most Iqaluit residents, during the short Iqaluit summer season the Roses have something of a patchwork of grasses, mosses and plants to green up their yard from that discovery and hard work.

Grass is a rarity in Iqaluit. Tucked into marshy corners by water, out on the tundra and on cliffs by beaches, more greenery grows freely – and quite long too! However, the town’s parks, home and school yards are mostly a reddish brown dusty dirt and rock in the summer with sparse wildflowers like fireweed or arctic cotton – and of course snow in the winter.

We could see where someone had come with a serving spoon and dug it out to get a root ball and stolen it in the night.

-Bert Rose

Interestingly, just in the last year the Nunavut Legislative Assembly has laid down its first small patch of a front lawn. But there are less than a handful of other actual lawns or grass patches outside Iqaluit buildings or homes.

According to Bert, the original four trees grew quite happily together for about 10 years, until one died. Shortly afterward another one was stolen.

โ€œThey were about 12 or 14 inches high and we came home one day and it was gone. We could see where someone had come with a serving spoon and dug it out to get a root ball and stolen it in the night,โ€ Bert said.

However, these days, the Roses have no fear of tree theft. The trees are too tall now, with roots so large it would take much more than a spoon to dig them up.

Checking in on the spruces and Roses

The remaining two spruce trees grow about a centimetre per year, when the weather is above 10 degrees, according to Bert. This means their growing season has been about a month each year for the most part.

He provides growth updates to Aiken regularly even to this day, so the Roses keep a good watch on them.

When brought to Iqaluit 30 years ago, the saplings could fit in an adultโ€™s hand.

Now they are about four feet tall.

This is mostly due to the amount of care and attention that Joanne gave the saplings in the first few years. Bert is clear that it is his wife who is the true green thumb between them.

I wonder what those birds thought being able to live in a tree here.

-Joanne Rose

Her devotion to plants is clear from inside their cozy, cottage-like living room, which is clustered with climbing vines, leaves and flowers – especially at the large bay window.

It looks out to the front yard where even more plants and the trees continue surviving and thriving.

The spruce’s trunks are about two inches in diameter now and are slightly stunted because only the part that remains below the snow can survive the winter.

โ€œWith the position of this house, there is a natural snow drift that blows over the top… and dumps in front and it buries them very nicely,โ€ Bert said.

Any part that is not covered with snow’s protection each winter is damaged by frostbite and falls off.

Nesting instincts

Unfortunately, the Roses donโ€™t decorate the trees with ornaments over the holidays but this is only because they cannot.

Starting in December, the snow drift against their home will have mostly covered the trees. This is of course a blizzard town.

The spruces don’t really get to be Christmas trees for that reason and are mostly only visible during the summer.

In 2017, though, nature provided its own decoration: a birdโ€™s nest.

โ€œI wonder what those birds thought being able to live in a tree here,โ€ Joanne said.

It is an interesting thought when you remember that, unlike the rest of Canada, Iqaluit has no vertical trees peppering its landscapes. The native birds, such as the enormous and clever ravens, hang out on roofs, window sills and balconies.

Yes, what would it be like to be a Nunavut bird, tucked into branches, hidden in conifer needles, elevated from the ground for the first time? That would be prime bird real estate in Iqaluit.

Climate change could mean more Nunavut trees

The winter season starts in September or October in Iqaluit most years. That is when temperatures drop below zero and the lakes and bay start to freeze.

A winter season runs up until June or July, depending on – like most things in Nunavut – the weather.

Though in recent years, Iqaluit has seen major temperature increases, shorter winters and summers lasting longer with many more sunnier and warmer days extending to weeks or even a few months at a time.

This may mean that, with global warming, the trees will be uncovered from the quilt of snow for longer periods and with more days warm enough for growth.

However, it could also mean with less snow in the winters, there will be more parts exposed to the air without snow’s protection and could lead to larger losses from frost’s damage each year.

Local anomalies but not alone

Bert is clear when pointing out that these are technically not the only “trees” in Iqaluitโ€•there are Arctic willows, for example, crouching on the land around their house.

There are Arctic versions of several tree species, with their tangled branches lying low. Perhaps a foot high on the tundra but expanding outward.

They are stunted and vine-like, growing horizontally rather than vertically. Some grow branches or vine gnarls anywhere from six to 10 feet wide.

But the Roses believe they have the only non-native trees in Iqaluit. And certainly the tallest ones.

The tree line has been mapped to occur where the mean July temperature is 10 degrees.

-Susan Aiken

And these trees are grown outdoors for the public to experience as well – not little potted trees in a kitchen or a greenhouse. These are trees for the community.

He hopes when Nunavummiut (the Inuktitut word for Nunavut residents) see these trees growing, surviving and thriving, against all odds, it prompts them to reflect on possibilities.

Anything can grow and keep growing with the proper foundation, resources and regular devotion in their formative years.

Even 30 years in, the trees continue growing on their own without much need for maintenance. But the Roses do check in and do some pruning, take measurements and make sure they are well.

The experiment continues

Over the years, Aiken has been checking in with the Roses through Bert’s regular progress reports. She even visits the couple and the trees in person every few years.

But it was only in 2001, at a conference session about a study of tree lines, when Aiken found the answers to the questions that caused her to take the four saplings to Iqaluit originally.

โ€œThe tree line has been mapped to occur where the mean July temperature is 10 degrees. It is possible that in the long days and sheltered location where the trees are growing in Iqaluit, the mean July temperature is over 10 degrees, which in most of Iqaluit it currently is not,โ€ Aiken said.

In other words, the Roses’ little nook against the wall of their house, on the elevated land, on their little street at the correct altitude and placement is a perfect area for tree growth in Nunavut.

There could be other sweet spots in Iqaluit and other communities too.

Additionally, should climate change result in warmer summers for Iqaluit, it would be possible to introduce and grow many black spruce across Iqaluit and Nunavut, bringing other non-native (and upright) trees to a place many have believed could not foster such growth.

Maybe what we have long known as the tree-line is shifting and experimenting with more botany in Arctic regions would be worth the challenge, patience and devotion. Finding the right place and people able and willing to do the work to grow something meaningful may be the hardest part.

If the Nunavut Legislative Assembly lawn stays in tact over the years, like these trees, maybe more will come.

Perhaps there are always new possibilities when we are willing to go out on a limb to cultivate them.