Icelandic or Arctic?

Papaver radicatum
arctic poppy, rooted poppy
Icelandic: melasól

If you’re a gardener or flower enthusiast of any sort, you’re probably familiar with Icelandic poppies, popular in the florist trade. These are not Icelandic poppies. They’re arctic poppies.

Because the two common names seem to be tossed around with abandon, I’m going to stick with the Latin here. P. radicatum has four subspecies (according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System), which may explain why I found conflicting data from various sources. Some claim the species is endemic to Iceland. Others claim it’s endemic to Norway and Sweden. And still others say its native range includes Iceland, Jan Mayen, and North America (Greenland, Canada and the US). Probably what’s going on here is each of the subspecies is endemic or native to a particular area.

I can’t say which subspecies this is, but for sure it’s P. radicatum: the hairy leaves and stem are the signs. This species is found in the western and eastern regions of Iceland, with a few scattered occurrences elsewhere. I saw it in the Westfjords near the waterfall Dynjandi, and in the Snæfellsnes penninsula. In the US it can be found in a few counties in the Rocky Mountain states (and in Alaska).

As for the so-called Icelandic poppy of the florist trade, that’s P. nudicaule (or P. croceum in some older sources). It’s hairless – nudicaule means “naked stem”. This species is not native to Iceland, but rather to North America. Sources disagree on its range, though. BONAP shows it as a native in part of eastern Canada only, while USDA shows it as a native in Alaska, Utah, Colorado, and Virginia, and introduced in parts of western Canada.

We did see Icelandic poppies in Iceland:


They grow there in gardens.





still life with poppy

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: