Which plants grow in Iceland? Are there Icelandic wildflowers, and if so, what are their names? Is it true that there no trees in Iceland? And are there any edible or medicinal plants that grow in the barren landscape? Read on for an introduction to the flora to be found in Iceland.
As you arrive in Iceland, you could be forgiven for thinking you have landed on another planet; the lava landscapes which surround Keflavík International Airport are so otherworldly that you might find yourself wondering how anything, let alone people, can survive on this rock in the middle of the Atlantic.
Look a little closer, however, and you will discover a rich and delicate eco-system, finding life in even the most extreme conditions.
There might not be many trees in Iceland, but including fungi and lichen, there are between 5000-6000 known plant species fighting for survival in this challenging environment.
It is not within the scope of this article to discuss all of the plants in Iceland, instead what follows will be a summary of some of the most iconic flora in the Icelandic psyche and scenery.
The old joke goes like this: "What do you do if you find yourself lost in an Icelandic forest? ...Stand-up!". This joke rests on the fact that there are very few trees in Iceland and the ones that make it, are quite small.
This wasn't always the case; we know from the written sources of the early settlers that the country was "forested from mountain to shore".
It is estimated that before the arrival of the Viking colonists over 1000-years ago, 40% of Iceland was wooded. Mass deforestation occurred as the early Icelanders needed materials to build their ships, homes and fires to keep them warm.
This process only took approximately 300-years and since then, Iceland has suffered desertification as well as issues with soil erosion, leaving the barren treeless geography that characterises most of Iceland today.
That is not to say that there are no trees in Iceland! In recent years, considerable efforts have been made to recultivate woodlands with a significant degree of success.
Over 85 foreign tree species have been introduced to Iceland, the most common and triumphant to flourish include the sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis), black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) and lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta). These varieties originate from Alaska and are grown as a sapling in Icelandic greenhouses as it is illegal to import live trees into Iceland.
Common native plants species include the downy birch (Betula pubescens), the rowan (Sorbus Aucuparia), the tea-leafed willow (Salix phylicifolia), and less frequently the Aspen (Populus tremula). Most of these grow to shrub height with the birch reaching the maximum height of 15-metres (but most often only 4-5-metres).
The largest forest is Hallormsstaðaskógur and it can be found in the East of Iceland, close to the idyllic town of Egilsstaðir.
The mountain avens or, 'Holtasóley', was voted the National Flower of Iceland by the public in 2004. It is a white Arctic-alpine flowering plant and it flourishes in every region of Iceland.
This pretty wildflower is the favourite food of the rock ptarmigan, or 'Rjúpa' leading it to be nicknamed 'Rjúpnalauf' which directly translates to 'rock ptarmigan's leaf'.
Throughout the ages, humans have made use of its herbal qualities; mainly as an astringent as well as an agent to reduce inflammation. Dried Holtasóley leaves once served as a valuable substitute to highly coveted tobacco and tea.
In Icelandic folklore, the flower is allegedly imbued with the power to attract wealth from the earth. To harness the flower's power you have to follow some pretty deplorable steps.
First, you must steal money from an impoverished widow while she is attending church and then bury the spoils underneath a spot where the flower grows. The legend goes that your ill-gotten gains will then double.
This folk-belief most likely contributed to another name the plant has been given: 'Thief's Root' and historically thieves were frequently hung at sites where the flower was found in abundance.
Arctic Thyme, '´Blóðberg' as it is known in Iceland, can be found across the island due to its proclivity for sandy and gravelly soils of which there is no shortage.
The pretty purple flowers have long been used to make tea and Blóðberg is considered a staple in the world of Icelandic herbs. It is regarded to have medicinal properties as well as health benefits such as strengthening the heart and head, cleansing the blood and contributing to menstrual regulation.
It is also naturally quite tasty and the strong fragrance it exudes has been likened to oregano. The scent is so strong that a good nose will often be able to smell it before it can be spotted by the eye. If you would like to sample this versatile herb, many shops in Reykjavík sell Blóðberg tea or flavoured salts.
There is no other plant in Iceland as controversial as the iconic Lupine. The perennial plant is native to North America and was introduced to Iceland in 1945 to tackle topsoil erosion.
Since its arrival, the lupine has prospered and spread all over the country, sometimes in locations where it is not wholly welcome. In many areas, it poses a threat to a number of indigenous plants, including some moss species which are notoriously difficult to establish or recover.
Worries about a lupine monoculture homogenising the natural flora of Iceland fuel anti-lupine sentiment but it has proven difficult to halt the proliferation of the species.
Not everyone is against the lupine! Many take pleasure from the colour it has added to the Icelandic countryside and the pretty purple flowers provide ample photo opportunities for visitors and locals alike.
Icelanders love berries and it is a cultural tradition to harvest these natural fruits each season to make a wealth of jams and jellies or, to stockpile a healthy addition to much-loved desserts such as pies or the nation's favourite—Skyr.
Going out to collect berries is called 'Berjamó' and it is characterised by red tongues and empty ice cream containers to stash your bounty.
Berry-picking season in Iceland is traditionally between August and mid-September, but this, of course, depends on what time of berry you are after. Berries grow wild in Iceland and are free from pesticides, making for a real treat. Here's a guide to Icelander's favourite berries.
This is most likely, the most picked berry in Iceland since it grows across the entire country. It is called ‘Bláber’ in Iceland which translates to blueberry, however, it is in fact not a blueberry but a bog bilberry. Confusing but delicious as they are much sweeter than your typical North American blueberry.
The common bilberry is also widely picked in Iceland and it is called 'Aðalbláber' which translates to 'main blueberry'. It is in fact, again, not a blueberry but a bilberry and grows abundantly in the North East of Iceland. Although it is slightly less sweet than its bog counterpart, it is widely collected and both are used to make jams and to garnish Skyr and other desserts.
You can tell the difference between these two types of bilberry as the 'main bilberry' is slightly smaller and darker in colour. The leaves are always a good indicator; the bog bilberry will have more rounded leaves.
This evergreen plant belongs to the heather family and produces small black berries which are called 'Krækiber' in Icelandic. Although they can be quite bitter to the taste, crowberries are great for cooking or being baked into muffins and many people pick them to make jam.
They have also been used to make Iceland's only native wine, 'Kvöldsól' which translates to 'Midnight Sun', acclaimed for its rich taste and high anti-oxidant properties.
The most coveted of Iceland's indigenous berries, the wild strawberry, or 'Jarðarber', is incredibly rare and hard to find in the wild.
They are most likely to be discovered in the north of the island and are incredibly sweet and tasty. If you find yourself in Reykholt in the West of Iceland, you can go visit a strawberry farm set up by a couple of horticulturalists from the Netherlands.
The redcurrant is a member of the gooseberry family and although it is not indigenous to Iceland, it is grown in many gardens all over the country.
If you can beat the birds to the berries, they are excellent for making a delicate sweet jelly called 'Rifsberjahlaup' which is traditionally enjoyed on fine cheeses.
This delicate berry is called 'Hrútaberja' in Icelandic which translates literally to 'Ram's berry', and like redcurrants, they are popularly made into delicious jellies to be eaten enjoyed on special occasions.
The berries are small and red with a stone in the middle and are sour to the taste. Although they are found all over the country, they are most bountiful in the North of Iceland and the Snæfellsnes peninsula.
Sheep sorrel (or sometimes, 'red sorrel') is known as 'Hundasúra' in Iceland. It is a member of the buckwheat family and it is favoured for its tart and tasty leaves.
As young children, Icelanders know they can nibble the sour leaves and will do so throughout their lives. The leaves are a perfect addition to a salad or simply something to forage as you go for a hike.
Rhubarb or 'Rabarbari' in Icelandic is not indigenous to Iceland; it was introduced at the end of the 19th century but since then has positively thrived in the climate, which is not common amongst exogenous plants.
No serving of Icelandic pancakes or waffles is complete without some rhubarb jam handy and young children will often enjoy a stick of rhubarb dipped in sugar. In the past, it has been used as a pesticide and dye. Be careful not to eat the leaves as they are poisonous!
Dandelions grow everywhere in Iceland and in huge abundance. These wildflowers are suited to disturbed soils which are common across Iceland.
Although dandelions can be considered a family of wildflowers of which quite a few different species grow in Iceland, most Icelanders when referring to a dandelion would simply use the term 'Túnfífill' or simply 'Fífill'.
Dandelions are rich in vitamins and minerals and the whole plant is edible from flower to root. They have therefore long featured in the Icelandic diet be it as a tea or tonic or by adding the leaves to salads. The root of the plant has long been used as an invaluable coffee substitute since coffee was expensive and often in short supply.
The wildflower caraway is treasured for its tasty seeds which are a favourite choice to garnish bread rolls as well as flavouring Iceland's most iconic drink, Brennivín. Also known as 'Black Death', the Icelandic schnapps Brennivín often accompanies rotten shark but it's also tasty in its own right.
Caraway is called Kúmen in Icelandic, as is Cumin which can make for some confusion but nothing that can't be fixed with a good nose.
Angelica ranks supreme in the world of Icelandic flora, referred to as 'Hvönn' and known as 'Angel herb' in Anglo-terms thanks to a monk in the midst of the plague. This medical marvel was assumedly brought to Iceland by its first settlers. Along with livestock, this plant was considered invaluable for the survival and success of an intrepid nation.
Recently, Angelica has been scientifically proven to alleviate and prevent, stomach ailments, respiratory problems, infections, antitumour activity, digestive agitation, congestion, cramp, flatulence, and liver problems, as well as cancer. The list is endless.
Not only has it alimentally sustained its earliest cultivators but it has also medically assisted the Vikings and their descendants ever since its original transition to the harsh conditions of the Icelandic environment.
Angelica was so widely valued that it served as currency within Iceland and abroad. It has been so highly prized throughout the years that in the 12th century AD there were laws set in place to protect cultivators from burglary.
The whole plant can be used including its roots; a lifeline for early Icelanders. This miracle plant is still valued today. Angelica literally translates from Latin as 'Angels' Root'; its precious value has never been overlooked. So much so, that many places in Iceland bare its name; Hvannadalshnúkur, the highest peak in Iceland is named after it and literally translates to 'Angel Root Valley Peak'.
The history of Iceland is deeply intertwined with the sea. Not only did the Viking settlers have to cross it to reach Iceland but it has long served as a critical source of food and not only for fish.
Dulse is known as 'Söl' in Iceland, and it is a type of red seaweed which nourished Icelanders since the first settlers arrived in the 10th century. It was collected in vast quantities in the spring and summer and then dried to stockpile or for trade. Winters were long and hard and dulse could often be depended on as a reliable source of nutrition
Traditionally, it was boiled and eaten with butter or cod-liver oil. It's recently making a bit of a comeback as a tasty health food with some people likening its flavour to bacon!
These brown algae are farmed in Iceland, especially in Breiðafjörður fjord in the Westfjords of Iceland. It is especially coveted for its role in skin care products and also in beauty products in general as it acts as an organic binding agent. It can also be dried and ground down for use in nutritional powders as well as animal feed.
It is not possible to write an overview of plants in Iceland and not mention moss. Famously thick woolly green moss covers much of Iceland's lava landscapes and there are over 600 species discovered so far. The endless fields of rolling green blankets leave no surprise that mosses account for more than half of all the vegetation cover in Iceland.
Mosses are multi-cellular flowerless plants that are capable of photosynthesizing and they grow in clumps or 'mats'. Scientists reckon that moss arrived in Iceland by reproductive spores and were most likely some of the first species to colonise the island.
Moss is very well suited to the Icelandic climate; they do well in wet conditions and during cold spells, they can 'hibernate' or stay dormant as they wait for better conditions.
In the challenging and barren landscapes, moss has flourished and Icelanders have a deep respect for this resilient group of species. Although they are robust in terms of being able to withstand the weather, they are delicate in that they take a long time to grow; only 1 cm per year in good conditions.
A lot of damage can be caused by walking over these carpets of moss and the Icelandic government has made noble efforts to educate those visiting Iceland to be mindful of where they roam so as not to cause unintentional damage underfoot.
One of the most infuriating purposeful cases of vandalism occurred on a hill near Nesjavellir in the South of Iceland whereby someone wrote ‘Send Nudes’ into the hillside by tearing up huge clumps of this precious vegetation.
Justin Bieber filmed shots for his ‘I’ll Show You’ music video on particularly delicate moss in the South of Iceland and received condemnation from the local park rangers. So if you're coming to Iceland, please don't step on the moss!
Moss balls are extremely rare phenomena and are only found in a handful of lakes around the world. Here in Iceland, they are found in Lake Mývatn ('Fly Lake') in the Northern region of the country.
These unique algae formations are caused by very gentle wave action which round the plant matter into these rather adorable spherical organisms. In Iceland, they are called 'Kúluskítur' which translates to 'Dirtballs' and their survival might be threatened as their colonies have been rapidly declining in recent years.
In Japan, some enthusiasts treasure marimo as pets and here in Iceland, they have been a protected species since 2004.
Contrary to its name, Iceland moss is actually not a moss, it's a lichen. Algae and fungus form a mutually beneficial relationship to create lichen, a dynamic symbiote. Along with moss, lichen is thought to be one of the first plant species to colonise the barren lava landscape and it can be considered an extremophile as it tends to thrive in extreme conditions.
Iceland moss has the appearance of a moss which is where it gets its name. It is called 'fjallagrös' which translates to 'mountain grass', and it has long been revered for its medicinal properties. It is used to treat loss of appetite, the common cold, irritation of the mouth or throat, dry coughs, indigestions, fevers, lung disease; the list goes on!
The main form of preparation is steeping the lichen in hot water to make a tea or it can be heated in milk for extra comfort. In times of hardship, Iceland moss was eaten and today, it has been used to flavour some liquors and schnapps.
Once again, the name is misleading here as Reindeer moss is, in fact, a lichen. It is native to Iceland and has recently been discovered to secrete medicinally useful substances that could prove useful in the treatment of cancer.
Did you find this article useful? Are there any plants missing from this list that you think should be there? Do you have a favourite plant in Iceland? Make sure to leave your thoughts and queries in the Facebook comments box below.