Hey, This Looks Like a Geranium


Geranium sylvaticum
wood (or woodland) geranium
(or cranesbill)
Icelandic: blágresi


As we hiked up the lower slopes of Mount Esja in western Iceland, the vast sweeps of Nootka lupine and cow parsley started giving way to other plants. I did a double-take when we spotted this one: could it be Geranium maculatum?


The North American native G. maculatum, also sometimes called wood geranium, flowering in the Maryland Piedmont

No, but it’s close. It’s Geranium sylvaticum, a species native to northern Europe (including Iceland). It’s been introduced to North America and can be found in Quebec and Greenland, so no overlap with G. maculatum, which can be found through most of the eastern and mid-western US (with scattered occurrences in the Great Plains).


G. sylvaticum stands about 12-20″ tall (about the same size as G. maculatum), and blooms in June. It has a fairly widespread distribution in Iceland, though I never saw much of it in any one place. Look for it at lower elevations in shady or sheltered areas, especially near stands of trees and in birch scrublands. It’s showy and therefore hard to miss.

In addition to Mount Esja, I saw it blooming on the Snæfellsnes penninsula, and in a wooded vale near Ísafjörðer in the Westfjords region.

This wasn’t the only look-alike we spotted in Iceland. More on those in upcoming posts.

A Beautiful, Useful Pest in Iceland

Lupinus nootkatensis
Nootka lupine, Alaskan lupine
Icelandic: Lúpína


My recent post about yellow flag iris (“A Beautiful, Useful Pest”) was written in the lounge at Dulles International Airport while I waited for my flight to Iceland. It struck me as funny, then, that the next day, when we parked our rental car near a trailhead and started hiking, that the first flowers I noticed were the Nootka lupines. They were everywhere – wide swaths of blue-and-white flowers ascending the slopes of Mount Esja.

There was so much of it, I wondered if it was an alien invasive. In my limited experience, it’s unusual for native plants to form such massive colonies. Was this another beautiful, useful pest?

Short answer: yes. It’s native to the coastal areas of northwestern North American, and is alien to Iceland. But it didn’t sneak in via packing on a cargo ship or by hitchhiking on other agricultural material. It was introduced, possibly as early as the late 1800s (I’ve read conflicting stories), and certainly by the mid-1900s, when it was planted deliberately and extensively by first the Icelandic Forestry Service, and later by the Soil Conservation Service, to help with land reclamation.


You may recall from the previous post that after Icelandic settlement, deforestation and overgrazing led to lifeless soil, which is easily eroded and transported by winds. The Nootka lupine grows fast and roots well, keeping soils in place. It’s perfectly suited to Iceland’s cool, wet growing conditions. And like most members of the Fabaceae (pea family), it takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the soil, which together with decaying plant material (from dead lupines) results in soil fertile enough for native plants to colonize. It’s even thought to have helped with the problem of sandstorm-induced road closures in the eastern parts of the country.

But (of course there’s a “but”), it’s too aggressive. It grows tall enough to form a canopy that blocks sunlight to mosses and lichens (which are important pioneer species). It can invade nearby plant communities, outcompete the natives, and form monocultural stands. So yes, it exhibits the usual alien-invasive characteristics.

There’s a little more good news, though: studies have shown that in some sites, lupine colonies will eventually decline to the point where they no longer out-compete other species. It seems that if managed correctly, the Nootka lupine will continue to be a valuable tool for soil reclamation.

lupines on the lower slopes of Mt. Esja

for more information:

Biological Diversity in Iceland (The Icelandic Institute of Natural History; go to page 10 for the case study of Nootka lupine)
Alaskan “Wolf” Invades Iceland (Reykjavik Grapevine, August 25, 2011)
Invasive purple flower Impacts Iceland’s Biodiversity (mongabay.com)
Invasive Alien Species Fact Sheet (nobanis.org)

And the Answer is…


The Nootka lupines pictured in my last post were in a little nature preserve near the town of Ísafjörður, in the Westfjords region of Iceland. We just returned from a ten day trip to the south, west, and north of that wonderful country, the main purpose of which was to see the midnight sun and the gorgeous scenery.

But nothing I’d read prepared me for the variety of wildflowers. I haven’t yet identified everything I photographed, but can estimate that I saw about 60 different species of plants in flower.



the town of Ísafjörður lies along the base of the left mountain and on a little spit in the fjord (zoom in to see the skyline)


Iceland sits just south of the Arctic circle in the Atlantic ocean, but despite the high latitude it has a cool maritime climate, due to the effects of the North Atlantic current from the south and east and the East Greenland current from the north.  A semi-permanent low pressure system brings in both warm and cool air masses. That plus the effects of topography (mountains to almost 7000′ in elevation ring the interior volcanic plateau, and about 12% of the land is covered by glaciers) yield highly active weather within a rather narrow temperature range (on average).

There’s plenty of fresh water – groundwater and runoff from glaciers and snowpacks – running in small, swift streams everywhere, with plenty of larger rivers, too, so that the land is beautifully verdant at lower elevations.



unnamed waterfall on the Snæfellsnes penninsula


There’s a huge variety of grasses, rushes, and sedges, as well as mosses and lichens, and a good variety of boreal and alpine forbs. But there aren’t many trees. When Nordic settlers arrived in the late 800s CE, about one quarter to one half of the land was forested (mostly with birch species), but after a few hundred years of harvesting trees for building houses and ships, fueling iron smelters, and clearing land for sheep to graze, virtually no trees were left. Subsequent overgrazing by sheep led to serious degradation of the soil, so that many areas still have almost no plant life, and without plants to hold the soil in place the windy weather can create massive dust storms. Only about 1.4% of the total landmass is considered arable. Reforestation efforts have been under way since the mid-20th century, so there are small stands of trees dotted about, but there’s not much of anything like a forest.

Back to wildflowers: I was happy to find that in most cases I could tell right away what family plants were in, and in many cases I got the genus correct, too, even before opening the wonderful book my husband found and purchased for me: A Guide to the Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland (Hörður Kristinsson, 3rd ed., in English). I also got a lot of use from the poster-sized Botanical Map of Iceland published (in Icelandic, English, and German) by Mál og menning (Reykjavík).


reforested area near Húsafell, looking east toward the glacier Eiríksjökull

Further reading:


Guess Where I Am?

Here’s a clue: Nootka lupines (Lupinus nootkatensis, Fabaceae) do not grow in the Maryland Piedmont.

I’ve been travelling and won’t be home for a few more days, but rest assured I have plenty of wildflower pictures to share, as soon as I have a chance to develop them and identify and research the plants.

Here’s another clue: I’m posting from a cafe (free wifi!) at lattiutue 65°41′ N, and lupines are an introduced species here.

More in a few days!

Two Pines Found in Maryland

After finding table mountain pine (Pinus pungens) on Sugarloaf Mountain earlier this year, I did a little research on how to identify pines, intending to write a post about it. And since the Maryland Native Plant Society designated 2016 The Year of the Conifer, I of course checked their website, where I found a key, which was great except now it seemed pointless to write the post.

Anyway, there are two other species of pine that I see fairly often on Sugarloaf (and other natural areas in the Maryland Piedmont): white pine and scrub pine.


eastern white pine
Pinus strobus

White pine is familiar to many people as a popular landscape tree. In the right conditions is grows fast, straight and true, providing shade, privacy, and a pleasing light green fluffy backdrop. Unfortunately it is also susceptible to “white pine decline”, a mostly abiotic problem but this isn’t a gardening blog so I’ll just provide a link.

Eastern white pine is found in the eastern half of the US and Canada, except for the Deep South, and is listed as rare in Indiana. Specimens found in the woods of course won’t be as stately as the ones in landscape gardens, but it’s still a nice find.

According to the Maryland Biodiversity Project, this tree is native only to the westernmost part of the state, but is naturalized and can found throughout most of Maryland except parts of the Coastal Plain.

It’s fairly easy to identify, as it is the only pine in this area to have needles growing in bundles of five. They tend to be several inches long, soft, and a light gray-green.



scrub pine, aka Virginia pine
Pinus virginiana

As beloved as white pine is in the landscape, scrub pine is not. I’ve never met a landscaper or gardener who would consider using one. But there were several at my former house, and I just loved them. I had a hammock slung between a scrub pine and a black gum, and would lie in it quietly, watching the black-capped chickadees crawling up and down the trunk of the pine. Scrub pines grow crooked and the branches and needles are sparse, but they add interesting texture to a manicured landscape.


Scrub pine is found from New York (where it’s endangered) in the north to Georgia in the south and as far west as Missouri. It has shorter, darker needles than white pine, and they’re found in bundles of two.