The willowherb family (Onagraceae) is large (about 650 species), cosmopolitan (represented just about everywhere), and taxonomically complicated (“relationships within the family have not been fully understood”*). So taxonomically complicated, it’s hard to even figure out what the current accepted botanical name is for this plant.


This first species, found near Akureyri in Iceland, has the common names broad-leaf fireweed, broad-leaved willowherb, arctic fireweed, dwarf fireweed, arctic river beauty, glacier rose, and who knows how many more. The Icelandic name is eyrarrós. The currently accepted botanical name (per ITIS) is Chamerion latifolium, but it’s also known as Chamaenerion latifolium and Epilobium latifolum.


Whatever you call it, it’s striking, standing about a foot tall, the blue-green leaves contrasting the rosy purple blossoms. It’s fairly common in Iceland, though with scattered distribution. It can also be found in higher latitudes around the northern hemisphere, and in mid-latitudes at high elevation (India, Pakistan, Nepal). In North America it’s present in Greenland, much of Canada, Alaska, and in mountainous parts of the West. A closely related species, Chamerion angustifolium, is found in parts of Maryland (as well as Iceland). And Nova Scotia, where I saw it two years ago.

There are about nine species of plants in the Onagraceae in Iceland, but I saw only two; this second species was near the glacier Sólheimajökull in the south of Iceland. It’s callled fjalladúnurt in Icelandic and alpine willowherb in English. It’s also called pimpernel willowherb, alpine willowweed, and dwarf fireweed. The accepted botanical name is Epilobium anagallidifolium. 

This species has an interesting split distribution in North America: in the east it’s found in Greenland, Quebec and a few of the Maritime provinces, New England, North Carolina, and Tennessee, then westward from the Rocky Mountains. (Note that BONAP does not show it present in the two southeastern US states.) It’s also found in northern Europe and northern Asia.

E. anagallidifolium is readily identified by the bent flowering stems (a harsh-weather adaptation according to NatureGate) and the dark red calyx.


Would you believe that I keep a detailed “life list” of my finds? No kidding. It’s arranged by plant family. Noted under Onagraceae are the two species in Iceland, two more in Nova Scotia, four in the Potomac gorge, and three in Death Valley.

I’m a botanerd.

One more thing, I can’t resist. Speaking of complicated, here’s a comically complicated explanation of Oenothera (the type species for this family):

  • Oenother’a: one source says that this name derives from the Greek oinos, “wine,” and thera, “to imbibe,” because an allied European plant was thought to induce a taste for wine. However, Stearn’s Dictionary of Plant Names gives an alternate meaning for thera as ‘booty,’ but also suggests that Oenothera could be a corruption of the Greek onotheras from onos, “ass,” and thera, “hunting, chase, pursuit” or ther, “wild beast.’ The root ther also can have the meaning of ‘summer.’ What this might have to do with the actual plant is unexplained. (ref. genus Oenothera)
    from’s California Plant Names

*Wagner, W. L. and P. C. Hoch. 2005-. Onagraceae, The Evening Primrose Family website. (July 28, 2016)

Two More Adorable Ericas

We were hiking on a trail south of Akureyri when threatening weather turned us around. I promised Steve I wouldn’t take as many pictures on the way back, since we would be retracing our steps while trying not to get rained on. And almost as soon as I said that, I saw these flowers blooming on the hillside.


Harrimanella hypnoides
moss plant, moss bell-heather,
mossy mountain-heather
Icelandic: mosalyng


This tiny thing is actually a subshrub: though no more than four inches tall, it does have woody stems. In Iceland it’s a common plant in the mountains, but not in the lowlands. The species grows through much of the sub-arctic, including Russia, Fennoscandia, Greenland, Canada as far west as the Northwest Territories, and in the US in New York, New Hampshire, and Maine. It’s threatened in the latter two states.

Some sources claim Harrimanella to be a monotypic genus, but a very similar looking plant formerly known as either Andromeda stellariana or Cassiope stellariana is now called Harrimanella stellariana. That plant is found in northern North America where the other species isn’t: British Columbia, Yukon, Alaska, and Washington. H. hypnoides likes altitude: the excellent Finnish website NatureGate (luontoportti) claims that it shares the record for highest-growing vascular plant in Finland, having been found on top of Halti at 4,478 feet.


Click on these pictures to get a sense of how small the plants are. The gray-green stuff nearby is lichen, and that’s a 77 millimeter lens cap in the second photo. The flowers are a little under a quarter-inch wide. I was able to shoot at this angle because the trail was going through a little hollow, and the ground where the plants were growing was about chest-high.

Kalmia procumbens
(formerly Loiseleuria procumbens)
trailing azalea, alpine azalea
Icelandic: sauðamergur

This species is a cousin to the mid-Atlantic’s mountain laurel (K. latifolia), but much, much shorter, growing no taller than four or five inches. Its range is similar to moss plant’s, except that it grows further south in Eruope and further west in North America. It’s listed as sensitive in Washington, threatened in Maine and New Hampshire, and endangered in New York. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center site claims that it’s common above tree line on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire.

Adorable Ericas

It’s hard to choose favorites, but I’m perennially drawn to the beautiful flowers of the Ericaceae (the heath or heather family), be they on trees, shrubs, sub-shrubs, or herbs. I’m writing this after eating a bowl of blueberries, thinking about the other edible ericaceous fruits: cranberries, bilberries, crowberries, lingonberries, huckleberries. Gardeners in the mid-Atlantic states grow azaleas and rhododendrons, Japanese andromeda, leucothoe, zenobia. Real garden geeks (e.g. me) seek out specimen plants like enkianthus. Sourwood is one of the most beautiful trees, though very difficult to grow in a home landscape.

Actually many ericaceous plants are difficult to grow. They usually require humusy, acidic soil, and are often shallow-rooted, hence easily disturbed and damaged. And quite a few of them are mycorrhizal (meaning they can only grow in symbiosis with certain soil fungi).

Then there are the wildflowers. In the mid-Atlantic we’re blessed with a good variety: Indian pipe and pinesap, spotted wintergreen, sweetbells, shinleaf, deerberry, mountain laurel, and the stunning pinxter azalea.

It’s a big family, represented in many habitats around the world. Of course Iceland has its share, too, ten species or so. I saw six, two of them not flowering but identifiable nonetheless (heather and crowberry).



Vaccinium myrtillus
bilberry, whortleberry
Icelandic: aðalbláberjalyng





Vaccinium uliginosum
bog bilberry
Icelandic: bláberjalyng


Bilberries are in the same genus as blueberries, but I can’t tell you if they taste similar. I saw both species near Akureyri, and bog bilberry also near Húsafell. Bog bilberry is very widely distributed around Iceland, bilberry less so. In Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland, Hörður Kristinsson states that the latter grows “where snow cover is ensured throughout winter”. Interestingly this does not include the interior highlands, presumably because the combination of windiness and lack of substantive vegetative ground cover means that fallen snow just doesn’t stay put.

Both species are sub-shrubs: they have woody stems, but never grow more than a foot tall. In North America, bilberry is found in the mountainous West from Arizona to British Columbia (but not California). Bog bilberry has a much wider range, including Greenland, all of Canada, most of the American West, parts of the upper Great Lakes States, and New England.

Both species have some interesting characteristics, including usefulness in rehabilitating disturbed areas, and bog bilberry is tolerant of high levels of heavy metals in soils. Read more about them on the USFS website: bilberry, bog bilberry.

Next time, the other two ericaceous species.


The last plant (woolly willow) in my last post got me to thinking about other woolly Icelandic things. Like sheep, and grass.

Sheep are everywhere. On-line travel guides will warn of common road hazards, like sudden changes from asphalt to gravel, or one-lane bridges, or fords (not Fords), but they don’t always mention this common cause of sudden braking:

Sheep are as common in Iceland as functional fences aren’t. Mostly bred for meat, this breed of sheep’s double coat yields two different types of wool, which are spun together to form lopi, from which the traditional sweaters (lopapeysa) are knitted. These sweaters are itchy but incredibly warm. After two trips to Iceland I own more of them than I care to admit.

Note how bright the sky is in that photo. It was around 9:30 pm when I shot it, and it’s an accurate exposure.


As for grasses, there are a lot of grass and sedge species in Iceland, but this one is really eye-catching. It’s Eriophorum angustifolium, common cottongrass (Icelandic klófífa). It’s actually a sedge. (Some day I will write about the difference between sedges and grasses.) I saw another cottongrass, E. scheuchzeri, but never got any good pictures of it. Both are very common in wetlands all over Iceland.

Sing Willow, Willow, Willow

The genus Salix (willow) consists of about 400 species of woody plants (trees and shrubs) found in many of the temperate and colder regions of the northern hemisphere. How many of these are native to Iceland seems open to debate, with the answer depending in part on the definition of “native”. If “native” means before settlement, then there’s at least one, S. phylicifolia. Hörður Kristinsson in Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland claims that there are four native willows, but in the same book uses “native” to indicate “resident in Iceland for more than 300 years”.


I’m not sure if this plant (right) is S. phylicifolia (tea-leaved willow) or S. myrsinifolia ssp. borealis (boreal willow). The latter species is a naturalized alien with limited distribution that does not include the region in which I found it (Ísafjorður). On the other hand, I didn’t find it “in the wild” – I found it in a cultivated parkland next to an area of summer houses surrounded by densely planted gardens. The limited information I have from this picture suggests boreal willow, despite the location. Or maybe it’s yet another species.

At any rate, tea-leaved willow is the only willow to form woodlands in Iceland. The other species shown below are hardly what you’d think of as shrubs and trees.

Take this one, for example:

This is dwarf willow, Salix herbacea, which grows no more than eight inches tall. Despite the specific epithet, which means “herbaceous” (as opposed to woody), it’s considered a shrub. The stems are lignified and have a thin bark. It can be found in Fennoscandia, Russia, and North America (Greenland, parts of Canada, and a few New England states, where it’s either threatened or endangered).

All willow species are dioecious – that is, a single plant will have either male flowers or female flowers, but not both. In S. herbacea, the female flowers are red. The Icelandic name for it is grasvíðir, but it’s also called smjörlauf, which means “butter leaf”. Sheep love to graze on it.


A little more shrub-like, and a little taller-growing (up to two feet), is the arctic willow, Salix arctica (left). The Icelandic name is grávíðir. Pictured here are female flowers.

Like dwarf willow, it can be found almost everywhere in Iceland. It can also be found in Russia, Fennoscandia, North America (Vermont and the Pacific Northwest), China, and… Madagascar?! This last entry had me chasing wild internet geese but I could find no explanation, only records that the species had been found there.


Starting to look more like what we think of as a shrub or tree, Salix lanata (woolly willow, right) can grow to over six feet tall. The Icelandic name is loðvíðir, and these are female flowers. Like the others, it grows all over Iceland as well as Fennoscandia and Russia. The Encyclopedia of Life provides links to records of it in North America, but it’s not listed in either BONAP or USDA PLANTS Database.

Fun bit of trivia: aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, a compound created by adding an acetyl group (CH3CO) to salicylic acid, which was originally synthesized from salicin, a substance extracted from the bark of willow trees, for which it is named. Willow bark tea is an ancient analgesic, used in many parts of the world.