“Taiga” is a Siberian word; it has recently become better known through the efforts of the Taiga Rescue Network, doing important conservation work throughout the Northern Hemisphere. In North America, taiga is known as the “boreal coniferous forest,” which is what covers much of Canada. Note that although the West Coast forests of British Columbia, Oregon, and Washington also have conifers, they have a much higher diversity of plants and much bigger trees, so they are not the true taiga. In Northern Eurasia, the taiga is a huge biome (covering over half of all Russia), but it is rather monotonous. In European Russia the main species are Scotch pine, Norway spruce, and European fir; in western Siberia they are Scotch pine, Siberian cedar pine, and Siberian fir and spruce; and in eastern Siberia they are two species of larch. Coniferous but also deciduous, larch is the only tree that can survive the brutal cold of the Verkhoyansk area, which is the coldest in the Northern Hemisphere. Birch and aspen may be found as secondary-growth species on clearcuts and fire clearings. Low shrubs with berries of the Vaccinium group are very common, as are mosses and lichens. Interspersed with big trees are nutritionally poor bogs with peat mosses (Sphagnum), Labrador tea, cranberries, and carnivorous sundew (Drosera). The boreal forests of Eurasia make up about 21% of the world's total tree cover on 5.3 million km2; this area is twice the size of Argentina!

Russia: Taiga

From north to south, three subzones can be distinguished in the taiga: northern, middle, and southern. The biodiversity and the productivity are highest in the southern taiga, which extends south to an imaginary line from Moscow to Yekaterinburg to Krasnoyarsk. Over 2,500 species of flowering plants occur in the taiga. Some, especially orchids, can be beautiful, but are very rare. Mosses, lichens, ferns, and mushrooms thrive under the canopy of the coniferous trees. Soils of the taiga are poor in nutrients and acidic; the most typical are called “podzols,” or “spodosols” in the U.S. classification. Consequently, few crops can be grown in the taiga zone. The main crops are the hardiest grains, like barley and rye, which are raised on small clearings of land near the rivers. Meadows in the floodplains can produce good hay, and berries and mushrooms from the forest complement the diet.

Typical taiga mammals include the symbol of Russia, the brown bear (the same as the North American grizzly, albeit a different subspecies). They also include gray wolves, lynxes, red foxes, Siberian sables, minks, wolverines, moose, elk, shrews, red squirrels, flying squirrels, chipmunks, and mice. The local mammal fauna ranges from 30 to 50 species. Over 160 species of taiga birds include black storks, various raptors, eagle owls, capercaillie (turkey-sized black forest chickens), grouse, black woodpeckers, waxwings, and many finches (crossbills, hawfinches, siskins, etc.). Some of the same species occur in North America.

The best places to visit taiga in European Russia include the Darwinsky, Tsentralno-Lesnoy, Kivach, and Kostomuksha Zapovedniks and the Paanayarvi, Vodlozerski, Kenozerski, and Valdaiski National Parks. For the ultimate in European taiga, the virgin forests of the Komi Yugyd Va area near the polar Urals are worth a visit; this is the largest remaining fragment of original forests that covered northern Russia and Scandinavia, and it is a World Heritage Site. In Siberia, most of the taiga can be observed directly along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, although much of it is secondary growth. More pristine landscapes include Visimsky Zapovednik in the central Urals and Yuganski Zapovednik in the Tyumen region. Lake Baikal is surrounded by three zapovedniks and two national parks, and is mainly in the taiga zone. East of Lake Baikal, Zeisky and Bureinsky are two relatively new zapovedniks protecting the true wilderness of the eastern taiga. If you are only visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg, several of the forests near these cities are southern taiga as well; there are many local nature parks and wildlife sanctuaries, including Losiny Ostrov National Park, partially within the Moscow city limits! The park's name literally means “Moose Island,” and it used to be the hunting preserve of the tsars.