Icelandic Pinks

“Pinks” in this case refers to plants in the pinks family, Caryophyllaceae, so named not for the color but for the jagged edges on the petals (in some species), which look as though they’ve been cut with pinking shears.

The Caryophyllaceae is a cosmopolitan family, and a big one, with over 2,000 species in 80 genera. The genus Silene is said to be the largest genus in the family; on-line sources list anywhere from 300 to 700 species in it.

There are five species of Silene in Iceland, though you may only find three in many sources; the two others are Lychnis species that have recently been renamed. There are about a dozen in Maryland, of which only four are native.

Silene acaulis
moss campion; cushion pink
Icelandic: lambagras


This plant grows almost everywhere in Iceland except on the glaciers. It’s similar in form to our native S. caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica (wild pink):

The flowers of the Icelandic species are smaller, and although the plant itself can be sprawling, overall the leaves and blossoms are quite compact. Wild pink is more open, and doesn’t grow as large.



Silene dioica
red campion
Icelandic: dagstjarna


Native to subarctic Fennoscandia, red campion can be found as an introduced species in both Iceland and North America (Canada and about half of the US). In Iceland it occurs in only a few lowland areas; I found it near Akureyri and Ólafsfjörður.



Silene suecica
formerly Lychnis alpina,
Viscaria alpina
alpine catchfly, alpine campion
Icelandic: ljósberi



Not quite as common as S. acaulis, but still pretty widespread. Its native range includes northeastern Canada, Greenland, and Fennoscandia. I found both the white and pink forms near Húsafell.

Silene uniflora
formerly Silene maritima ssp. islandica
sea campion
Icelandic: holurt


Although widely available in the nursery trade in the US, S. uniflora is endemic to Iceland. It’s easy to identify because there’s nothing quite like it. It’s common in the central highlands as well as much of the lowlands. I saw it near Ísafjorður, Akureyri, and Húsafell.20140702-DSC_0008


Just for fun, here’s the other Silene I’ve found in the Maryland Piedmont: S. stellata (starry campion), which should be blooming now. Maybe I’ll go hunting for it and try to get better pictures.

Orchids in Iceland?!

I spotted this charmer in a little forest park outside of Ísafjorður, in the Westfjords. I was wearing contact lenses at the time so couldn’t make out any details (I usually wear glasses when I’m shooting, since I see much better close up with them). All I saw was spotted leaves and a spike with pinkish flowers. The general form made me think monocot (correct), and the spots reminded me of trout lily, so I was thinking maybe it was in the Liliaceae (wrong).

As soon as I got the pics on the computer and zoomed in I saw my mistake. This is an orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata. The English common name is heath spotted orchid. In Icelandic it’s brönugrös.


It’s one thing to have read that orchids are found the world ’round (except Antarctica), in most habitats, but quite another to trip upon one in Iceland when you aren’t expecting it. I was so happy!

In Iceland, heath spotted orchid is rather common within its range, but its range isn’t too extensive. It’s found in some coastal areas but not the central highlands. It’s a subarctic plant that ranges through northern Europe, further south in Europe in the mountains, and even parts of North Africa.

This species does not grow in North America, but three other Dactylorhiza species do, including one that’s endangered in Maryland.


Hrafnaklukka: Cuckoo Flower, Indeed!

Cardamine species
Icelandic: hrafnaklukka


The flowers pictured here are easily identifiable as a Cardamine species. In the Maryland Piedmont, we have about 10 species of Cardamine, a handful of which have flowers very similar to what’s pictured. We call them “toothwort”, and the various species are readily identified by differences in their leaves.

Not so with this one. Almost as soon as I started trying to identify these I ended up in a taxonomic whirlpool.

A Guide to the Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland shows one species with flowers like this, and calls it Cardamine pratensis ssp. angustifolia. The listing Cardamine nymanii in the index goes to the same plant. Are the names synonyms? The book doesn’t say.

The Integrated Taxonomic Information Service accepts both C. pratensis and C. nymanii, but does not accept C. pratensis ssp. angustifolia, which it considers a synonym for C. nymanii.

The Botanical Map of Iceland shows a similar-looking plant and labels it C. nymanni.

The Natural History of Iceland website shows only C. nymanii.

In English one of these is called cuckoo flower, and the other is lady’s smock. Both have the same common name in Icelandic: hrafnaklukka.

I had to go to Svalbard to get an answer. Not literally, of course (I wish!), and only an answer, not the answer. The comments section of the listing for C. pratensis ssp. angustifolia on the website says “The Cardamine pratensis group is unusually complicated taxonomically.” It goes into a rather interesting discussion (interesting if you’re into that sort of thing) about the taxonomic difficulties and distribution of the similar species.

But hey, useful ID tips from the same site:

Cardamine nymanii is distinguished by, e.g., the glabrous, entire, fleshy leaflets with impressed veins. In the two others, the leaflets are often hairy, dentate, thin, and with protruding veins. Cardamine nymanii is distinguished from C. pratensisalso by the often distinct petiolules of leaflets on stem leaves (in common with C. dentata but absent from C. pratensis).

Well, guess what? I don’t have good enough pictures of the leaves. The ones I do have definitely show glabrous (smooth), entire (not toothed or lobed), fleshy leaflets, but they don’t have distinct petiolules (leaflet stems).

Gah! So what species did I find? I really can’t say.

Maybe I should just dub them “Icelandic toothwort” and add to the confusion.

Whatever species they end up being, they’re fairly common throughout Iceland, found almost everywhere except in parts of the highlands. I saw them blooming on Mt. Esja and in several places around Ísafjörður in the Westfjords.


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.

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: