Alaska is one of the most unique places on the Earth, featuring a plethora of flora and fauna that cannot be seen elsewhere. Due to Alaska’s remote location and extreme climate, few plants can thrive in its lands, and those that do are specially adapted for survival there. In addition, Alaska’s sparse population has allowed plants and wildlife to flourish without being interfered with by human development, allowing for an amazing variety of species to evolve and adapt.
The Alaskan Interior is one of the most remote and difficult-to-travel regions on the planet, and its biodiversity of flora is a wonder to behold. Here is a brief guide to the types of trees and plants you can expect to see in the Alaskan Interior.
Trees and Plants of the Alaskan Interior
A major mitigating factor in the growth of plants in Alaska’s Interior is the presence of permafrost. Permafrost is a term used for land that remains completely frozen for at least two years straight. Much of Alaska is composed of permafrost due to its northerly location. Trees often have difficulty growing in permafrost because the ice and cold temperatures prevent them from taking root. Additionally, permafrost also lacks many of the nutrients that are necessary for trees and other plants to grow. Roughly 40 percent of Alaska’s land area consists of permafrost.
A large portion of Alaska is located north of the tree line, an invisible barrier beyond which trees cannot grow due to permafrost, high winds, cold temperatures, a lack of sunlight, and other factors. When traversing Alaska, you’ll notice the tree line when you pass into an area that is full of trees into one that is completely treeless. Trees located near the tree line will often be stunted and deformed, and as you approach the tree line, trees will progressively become shorter and smaller in width.
The landscape of the Alaskan Interior is also marked by what are known as thaw lakes, portions of the ground in which permafrost partially melts, leaving a hole in the ground that is filled up with water. These thaw lakes eventually dry up and are filled with vegetation, melting back into the landscape from which they came.
Forests comprise about a third of Alaska’s total area, primarily concentrated in the south, where trees can more easily grow due to warmer temperatures and a lack of permafrost. Common tree species in Alaska are birch, western hemlock, white spruce, black spruce, and Sitka spruce, the latter of which is Alaska’s state tree.
Birch trees of various types are the most common trees in Alaska and can be found throughout the state south of the tree line. Birches are best-known as the source of the chaga mushroom, a medicinal mushroom that has been harvested for generations as a folk remedy for illness and other health problems. Chaga grows on the sides of birch trees and is harvested by collectors using hammers and other tools, and is traditionally consumed as a tea, though tinctures and other chaga recipes exist. Chaga is also common in neighboring Siberia and has become a popular “superfood” due to its nutritional content and scientific studies showing its medicinal benefits.
The southern portion of the Alaskan Interior is generally dominated by white and black spruce, with occasional Sitka spruce. Chugach National Forest is noted for possessing the largest timber stand in the state. The southwestern portion of the Interior—as well as the southwestern portion of the state—is generally treeless due to poor weather and is instead dominated by grasses. Flowers are also common in this part of the state, including anemones, lupines, marsh marigolds, paintbrushes, and dwarf rhododendrons. The forget-me-not (Alaska’s state flower) can also be found in abundance here.
Northern Alaska, past the tree line, is a tundra climate dominated by grasses, though trees can sometimes be found in river valleys. Flowers also grow in this part of the state during the summer months, benefiting from excessive sunshine due to the Earth’s axial tilt. Common grasses in the Interior tundra include mosses and lichens that can grow up to two inches in height, as well as willows that are taller than the average adult human.
Due to the lack of vegetation in the northern part of the Interior, both animals and humans who live there have adapted to eat a meat-and-fish based diet. Animals such as seals and walruses subsist off of the abundant fish in the streams and ocean, while polar bears and other apex predators prey upon these creatures. Similarly, Native Alaskans who reside in this part of the state traditionally fed themselves through fishing and hunting, with occasional gathering whenever they were lucky enough to find edible plants.
Alaska’s unique location in the world has allowed it to become host to some of the most beautiful and majestic plants and trees that have ever existed. Thanks to the state’s small population, much of Alaska remains unspoiled by human development, allowing visitors to observe ecosystems and landscapes that have persisted for thousands of years. If you’re planning to visit Alaska, no matter what time of the year it is, you’ll be guaranteed to see some amazing plants, as well as the animals who live among them.