A man sits on a hillside digging up plants.
Jeff Saarela collects grasses along the Soper River, Nunavut. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

After a month of fieldtrip in Nunavut this summer, the 2012 Arctic Botany Expedition is back with plant presses packed to the brim with new collections.

Our trip to the Soper River on Baffin Island, Nunavut, marked the first really exhaustive survey of the valley’s plant life since Dewey Soper’s 1931 excursion. Even then, as a general naturalist, Soper had only two days to collect what he though was most interesting. Later on, museum botanists visited the Soper on helicopter, homing on habitats likely to harbour interesting species. In all likelihood, this is the first botanical survey of this length ever undertaken along the Soper River.

Therefore, when arrived at Mount Joy, our drop-off point, we knew we’d find a lot of very common Arctic species, a few taxa that had perhaps been overlooked and therefore never collected, and a few rare gems.

Coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida) blooming in the wild.
A coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida), one of the two species of orchids discovered along the Soper River. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

None of us knew that we would find the second physical collection of coralroot orchid (Corallorhiza trifida) made in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago by day two. By the end of the trip, we had made several collections and recorded approximately 50 individuals of this species along the valley.

As if we weren’t excited enough about this discovery, another orchid species was lurking just around the corner from our second camp. In a wetland likely never visited by scientists before, we found the northern bog orchid (Platanthera obtusata).

A clump of northern bog orchid (Platanthera obtusata).
The northern bog orchid (Platanthera obtusata). This trip marked the first time this species has been recorded in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Image: Roger Bull © Canadian Museum of Nature

As our teammate Roger Bull described it, both Lynn Gillespie and I—separated by at least 100 metres—dropped to our knees and started waving our arms in the air at the same time. This meadow was thick with tiny green orchids. In the field, we observed approximately 1000 individuals, a substantial sum for a species never before known from the Canadian Arctic islands!

As expected, we collected tea-leaved willow (Salix planifolia) specimens from the three large stands documented by Soper. They are advertised in the Katannilik Park guidebook as Nunavut’s tallest forest, and there was a group of river rafters visiting the largest stand when we got there! In their sheltered location, these shrubs reach up to 3.5 m tall with trunks up to 15 cm thick!

A man stands among willows (Salix planifolia).
Jeff Saarela takes notes among one of the Soper River’s large tea-leaved willow (Salix planifolia) stands. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

Among the 898 specimens that we collected is one of bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia). It is the first known record for Baffin Island, and only the second for the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) in bloom on the tundra.
Bog rosemary (Andromeda polifolia). Jeff and I got really excited when we stumbled onto this patch. This is only the second record for the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

We also collected inflated locoweed (Oxytropis podocarpa), a legume that is endemic to only southern Baffin Island and the Rocky Mountains, and foxtail barley (Hordeum jubatum), a weedy species recently introduced to Kimmirut. We think this because Lynn and Roger found it near the town’s grocery store, and Jeff Saarela and I found it in the town dump (he takes me to all the nicest places…).

Inflated locoweed (Oxytropis podocarpa) in the wild.
Inflated locoweed (Oxytropis podocarpa) is endemic to southern Baffin Island and the Rocky Mountains. We found it only once during our trip, where it carpeted the park campground at the Soper River. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

Finally, there were two exciting finds for our resident caricologists (a botanist who studies sedges), Jeff and Julian Starr. One, a capitate sedge (Carex arctogena) is a re-collection of this species, which was found only once before in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, also on Baffin Island. The plant was recently revised by a master’s-degree student of Julian.

Capitate sedge (Carex arctogena) in the wild.
Capitate sedge (Carex arctogena). The Soper River is one of two places, both on Baffin Island, where this species occurs in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature
Sedge (Carex sp.) in the wild.
A mystery sedge (Carex sp.). Although Jeff Saarela has a hunch as to the identity of this plant, he will require resources unavailable in the field to identify the plant. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The second is a sedge (Carex sp.) that we have yet to identify. While our experts do have a hunch as to which species it is, they will need time to consult the literature and compare the specimen to the collections housed in the National Herbarium of Canada at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The following time-lapse video shows Jeff (on left) and me in the work tent, preparing plants for pressing. We sometimes worked late into the night because our time in the Arctic was so short.

Now that the collecting has wrapped up, the work of identifying, preparing and publishing our specimens begins.