Text by: Michael Chapman
What are some of Iceland’s best-known plant and flower species? Is it possible to go berry picking, and why doesn’t Iceland have any real forests? Read on to find out all there is to know about the colourful bouquet that is Iceland’s natural flora.
Iceland’s craggy, volcanic hillsides are decorated with a vibrant array of native and non-native flora. Despite its lack of forests, amateur conservationists will be delighted by the wide array of floral life found here, not to mention the diverse range of animals that call Iceland their home.
Botanists and nature-lovers alike will relish the opportunity to see Iceland’s plantlife in the bright, warming days of spring and summer. Quite naturally, the winter cloaks the island in darkness and snow.
But, before venturing further, we must first address an obvious and much-asked question…
Where Are All The Trees?
In 870 A.D, the proposed year that Iceland was first permanently settled, the island was covered with thick birch forest. This is, of course, in stark contrast to now, where the vast majority of the landscape is either farmland, lava field or gravelly coast.
This deforestation lies with Iceland’s earliest people, who chopped down the forests for fuel, agriculture and building. Today, efforts are being made to reforest much of the island.
An excellent example of this progress is the island’s largest national forest, Hallormsstaðaskógur, which covers 740 acres of East Iceland, as well as holding over eighty tree species and countless fun hiking trails. In the summer, Hallormsstaðaskógur is a popular spot for camping and berry-picking among both visitors and locals alike.
So, without further delay, just what are some of Iceland’s most beautiful plants? Please note, this is not a comprehensive list of Iceland ́s flora, only a showcase of its most unique and gorgeous.
Summer visitors will find Iceland blanketed in a bright purple flower, known as a lupine. This species was introduced to the island to help fertilise much of its barren soil. Having settled, the flower has spread across the island, often fooling visitors into believing it must be native.
Strangely enough, lupine flowers also come in pink and white. However, the purple variety is by far the most commonly seen around Iceland.
Much of Iceland’s volcanic terrain is covered in moss; over 600 species, in fact! Icelandic moss is particularly fragile, and visitors are asked to take special care when walking not to disturb or damage it.
You can learn all there is to know in our article The Importance of Protecting Iceland’s Moss.
‘Söl’ – Dulse Seaweed
Having fed Icelanders for nearly 10 centuries, this red seaweed was vital to this island’s burgeoning civilisation. Fishing was of vital importance, not only for nourishment but also trade and domestic economy, making settlement along the coastlines a necessity.
Thankfully, Dulse was and remains plentiful along Iceland’s shores, and it should come as little surprise that it was quickly incorporated into a variety of delicacies.
Blóðberg – Arctic Thyme
This delicate pink flower is dispersed across the island thanks to its penchant for rough, sandy soil. Blóðberg is not only a popular herb, widely utilised in tea, but is also revered for its medicinal properties. Among other things, a dose of Blóðberg is thought to help strengthen the heart, cleanse the blood and aid menstrual regulation, though in the past it was mainly used to fight the flu.
For those looking for a unique and authentic souvenir, a variety of Blóðberg tea and scented salts can be found while shopping in Reykjavik.
The green, spiralling, dome-shaped Hvönn plant can be found all across Iceland. Otherwise known as Angel Herb, or Angelica archangelica, this valuable plant was brought to Iceland by the earliest settlers and was quickly favoured for its therapeutic qualities.
This particular species was considered so precious that, for a time, it was even used as the island’s major currency. In the 12th Century, legislation was imposed that protected Hvönn farmers from burglary, and some folk still claim the plant holds hidden healing powers.
Moss Balls, a particularly rare formation in the world of botany, can be found in one specific Icelandic location, Lake Mývatn, found in the north. Here, lapping waves gently create spherical formations of moss, known as Marimo, that perfectly complement the alien aesthetic of Lake Mývatn.
Visitors to this delightful region are also only a quick drive away from the rocky formation, Dimmuborgir (known otherwise as “The Dark Fortress”) and Námaskarð Pass, a martian-like geothermal area.
The only other locations this amazing phenomenon can be seen include Japan and some rare lakes in Europe.
Voted the National Flower of Iceland in 2004, this gorgeous white mountain flower flourishes in each of Iceland’s regions. When dried, this flower’s petals were once used to substitute the sparse pleasures of tobacco and tea.
In Icelandic folklore, Holtasóley is favoured by thieves due to infamous legends that suggest the plant holds the power to endow wealth. To profit from the Holtasóley, thieves must steal coins from a grieving widow while she attends church. This illicit steal must then be buried wherever the flower grows. Following these steps was once thought to double the thieves gain.
Berries & Rhubarb
September is peak berry picking season in Iceland and is often considered a family activity, venturing out into the wild, only to return to the comforts of home to make jam and sweet treats. Berries that can be found in Iceland include bog bilberries, crowberries and wild strawberries, among others.
Rhubarb is not indigenous to Iceland, but it has taken to its climate and soil with surprising ease. Icelanders love to serve up rhubarb jam with waffles, pancakes and pie.
If you want to learn more about Iceland’s diverse flora, make sure to visit the country’s stunning national parks; Þingvellir, Vatnajökull and Snæfellsnes. You can also find out more information with a trip to the National History Museum of Kópavogur, only ten minute’s drive from downtown Reykjavik.