For our first experience of the Arctic flora of Norway we were driven across the bridge that leads to the mainland, and up to the base station of the Fjellheisen, the cable-car that whisks tourists such as ourselves to the restaurant on the mountain ridge at 420m. The area around the upper station was crowded, and there was a constant stream of walkers trudging to the summit, but with just a few paces, we found ourselves in a different place.
The low scrub areas resolved themselves as a mixture of Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea) superimposed with supine branches of Dwarf Birch (Betula nana). Here and there were small upright twigs of Mountain Willow (Salix arbuscula) and the much bigger bushes of Woolly Willow (S. lanata) with their showy male catkins. In exposed areas, a tundra heath was seen consisting of Diapensia (D. lapponica), Moss Campion (Silene acaulis), Dwarf and Net-Leaved Willow (Salix herbacea, S. reticulata), and Trailing Azalea (Kalmia procumbens), a plant with a troubled nomenclatural history but now shown to be embedded in the otherwise American genus Kalmia.
A small ridge of marble was crossed, and here the more alkaline conditions were home to Alpine Cinquefoil (Potentilla crantzii), the insignificant Bald White Whitlow-Grass (Draba fladnizensis) and the only 3 saxes we saw on this hill: Purple, Drooping and Alpine (Saxifraga oppositifolia, S. cernua, Micranthes nivalis), the latter 2 hard to spot and still in bud. Indeed, the Alpine Saxifrage plants were so small, that I only noticed them when reviewing my pictures of Drooping Saxifrage. Further exploration to one of the small tarns garnered bigger and better specimens for the cameras, coupled with the views of the city and the mountains of Kvaløya beyond. We also discovered Lapland Lousewort (Pedicularis lapponica) showing yellow buds, and a minute form of Mountain Avens (Dryas octopetala) with developed leaves under 5mm long.
Most of the group returned back from the base station by walking past the modernist Arctic Cathedral at the entrance of Tromsdal, its prismatic design mirroring the shape of the looming Tromsdaltinden mountain behind, and thence recrossing the bridge to the city.
On the Monday morning Arve and the team drove us 70 or so kilometers south along the Balsfjorden, past birchwoods filled with Ostrich Ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), to a logging stop by a road above the village of Seljelvnes. We were told that this was an relatively easy way to see a good example of the boreal and tundra flora, and it proved to be the case. Hollvassfjellet is a 500m high spur of a larger hill surrounded by spectactular mountains including the “mini-Matterhorn” Piggtinden, and overlooking the fjords.
As we ascended into the forest of Downy Birch (Betula pubescens), Arve stopped and dug a hole to demonstrate the typical stratification of the podzolic soil, and informed us that Boreal forest of this type was rare worldwide. The understory flora included Wood Cranesbill (Geranium sylvaticum), Small Cow-wheat (Melampyrum sylvaticum), Yellow Wood Violet (Viola biflora) and Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), with wide patches of Oak Fern (Gymnocarpium dryopteris) and Cowberry. Special plants joyfully photographed here were Black Alpine Sedge (Carex atrata), Dwarf Cornel (Cornus suecica) and the Primula relative Chickweed Wintergreen (Trientalis europaea).
Further up, in a damp patch, a patch of Alpine Butterwort (Pinguicula alpina) was showing its yellow-marked white flowers, and nearby Nodding Wintergreen (Orthilia secunda) and the diminutive orchid Lesser Twayblade (Neottia cordata) were spotted. A few clumps of Holly Fern (Polystichum lonchitis) was pointed out, and also Interrupted Clubmoss (Lycopodium annotinum), the first of 5 of this ancient group we saw. One of the features for visitors from the UK is that many of the species we saw were Scottish rarities, and a common plant both in the higher areas of the forest and tundra is Blue Heath (Phyllodoce caerulea). Quite how this species with green leaves and purple flowers got its epithet is quite mysterious.
The forest thinned out eventually and gave way to an exciting but sparse dwarf heath community with the microform of Mountain Avens, the gorgeous Diapensia, and Trailing Azalea. Net-Leaved Willow and Alpine Bearberry (Arctous alpina) each with equally beautiful corrugated foliage grew near the bramble flowers of Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus), and the Arctic Bell Heather (Cassiope tetragona). A bank had scattered plants of Purple Saxifrage in a neat form with darker eyes.
Our path veered up a steep slope towards the cairn on the end of the summit spur, and here in flower was the Lapland Lousewort and some good Moss Campions. On the summit ridge there are 2 small lakes, and an even sparser tundra flora is found. Here we stopped to drink in the spectacle around us in every direction. The local Lapland Rhododendron (Rhododendron lapponicum) was here, just finishing its display of small pink Azaleas, and my favourite plant here, the fairy-like Mossy Bell Heather (Harrimanella hypnoides). Members of the Heath family make up a major portion of the arctic flora.
We trudged back down the hill, and after lunch and a rest and a drive back, we reconvened.
With the midnight sun comes a loss of any sense of time; we set out on the second trip of the day at 7 pm not returning until midnight, and it seemed bizarre to be photographing plants when normally we might be asleep. Rekvik is a small village by the sea at the end of an unmade road in the west of the spectacular island of Kvaløya. This is Norway’s fifth largest island, reached by a bridge from Troms island. In shape, size and mountain character it reminded me of Skye; the deep indents in its coastline nearly cut it into three, and around each corner of the 55km drive, the views changed minute by minute revealing rugged mountain ranges, fjord views, small hamlets and even geazing reindeer.
Just south of Rekvik the coastline steepens rapidly to sheer cliffs, but we were promised a little stroll along the shore. The path meandered for a while through a mire amid drizzle, but the Dwarf Cornel, Cloudberry and Bog Rosemary (Andromeda polifolia) made colourful splashes amonst the Crowberry. Along the back of the shingle beach I was delighted to find sprawling plants of the blue-white leaved Oyster Plant (Mertensia maritima) coming into flower, a species that has always eluded me in Scotland.
Martin told us there is a cliff a mile or so further on where a good form of Saxifraga oppositifolia was collected which is being grown at the Botanic Gardens under the cv. name ’Rekvik’. We didn’t go much further though, we simply scrambled up a boulder slope to red granite overhangs, some dry; some dripping. Here the crevices had Bladder and Beech Fern (Cystopteris fragilis, Phegopteris connectilis) but for our Society members the Starry Saxifrage (Micranthes stellaris) and a robust plant of Alpine Saxifrage in peak bloom, fully 25 cm high were the prizes, with a few scrawny specimens of Tufted Saxifrage (Saxifraga cespitosa) seen on boulders below.
The drive back was mainly memorable for the crawling traverse of the track to Tromvik through low cloud with visibility down to a few metres. The longest day of botanizing in my life ended after midnight with another sunny night in prospect.