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:


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