This is the first post in a five part series on Arctic flora research at the Canadian Museum of Nature. Join us as museum researcher Paul Sokoloff introduces the fieldwork and lab work involved in writing a new flora for the North American Arctic.

Three people stand on the edge of a ravine looking at a winding river on Victoria Island, NWT, in the Arctic.
Lynn Gillespie, Jeff Saarela and Paul Sokoloff rest at the top of a ravine to survey the surroundings. Image: Roger D. Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

The first time I set foot on the tundra back in the summer of 2010 and crunched over the dry plants flooring the wide open sky, I knew I had found that one thing that I really wanted to make a career out of. I mean, I have always found plants interesting and really enjoyed being outdoors. But who would consider being paid to camp out and search for interesting and rare plants even a remote possibility? Yet here we were, five scientists from the Canadian Museum of Nature, finally stretching our legs after the fourth and final plane ride out to the remote field camp. At last we were standing on our makeshift runaway out in the middle of Victoria Island, 600 kilometres due north of the Arctic Circle in the Northwest Territories.

This expedition was not a vacation by any stretch of the imagination. But even through the long hikes and the late evenings under the midnight sun, none of us would have rather been anywhere else. Over the next three weeks, we would spend all day collecting every species of plant we could find, and data on the habitat surrounding us.

Every collection we brought back to Ottawa would find a permanent home in the National Herbarium of Canada. There, it would become a record for the occurrence of that particular species in that particular place at that particular time. In short, it proves a plant species exists where a researcher says it does. More importantly, other researchers can confirm the record, or re-identify the specimen in light of new data. These records, and all those that have been collected by botanists before, will form the backbone of the museum’s latest large-scale research endeavour: to research, write, and publish the first comprehensive Arctic flora of Canada and Alaska.

About 20 tents and Quonset huts, and a helicopter are grouped on the tundra, on Victoria Island, NWT, in the Arctic.
Our final destination on Victoria Island, the 2010 Geominerals Exploration and Mapping camp. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Just what is a flora anyway? If you garden, or like to hike, or have even taken a high-school science class, the chances are good that you’ve used the information in one. A flora is essentially the sum of knowledge on the plant species in any given area.

Inside a tent, a botanist uses newspapers in the pressing of cottongrass samples (Eriophorum sp.).
Paul Sokoloff presses cottongrass (Eriophorum sp.) samples in the expedition's processing tent. Image: Roger D. Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

For instance, there are floras for British Columbia and the Great Lakes wetlands. Each published volume brings us incrementally closer to a comprehensive picture of the evolution and distribution of plant species across the planet. Keys to assist in identifying a species, maps covering their known range, and synonyms (different names for the same species) are all common components in these books.

Whether it’s used by professionals attempting to identify a plant specimen, or a student tracking how a species name has changed over time, a frequently consulted and used flora is a successful flora. This is at the forefront of our minds as we begin to develop this new project: a flora targeted towards anyone with an interest in the plants of Canada’s Arctic ecozone.