In the Garden: Iceland, “Garden Spot” of the North Atlantic

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By Charles Kidder

Meconopsis in Petra’s Stone Collection
Meconopsis in Petra’s Stone Collection

The mention of Iceland hardly conjures up gardens. Volcanoes, lava, geysers, hot springs, glaciers—sure, Iceland has plenty of those. But can you really find gardens in a country that sits just below the Arctic Circle? You might be pleasantly surprised. But first, some basic information on Iceland.

The Republic of Iceland sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a range that runs the length of the Atlantic Ocean and connects with similar ridges in all the world’s major oceans.  The Mid-Atlantic Ridge generally lies at the bottom of the ocean, but comes to the surface in a few places, such as The Azores, St. Helena, and Iceland.  Along the Ridge, the earth is spreading apart; in Iceland, the North American Plate and the Eurasian Plate are pulling apart from each other at the rate of about one inch per year.  In actuality, this motion isn’t occurring continuously.  Tension builds up in the rocks for a time and then is suddenly released.  As in: earthquakes.  One of the best places to observe the Ridge in Iceland is Thingvellir National Park, about thirty miles northeast of Reykjavik.  Here you can stand on a cliff in North America, then descend into the fissure where Europe is pulling away to the east.  (Incidentally, Thingvellir is the Anglicized version of the Icelandic spelling, which includes several letters not found in our alphabet.)

Sitting between latitudes 63 and 66 degrees North, the southern coast of Iceland is almost a thousand miles north of the U.S.- Canadian border. Central Iceland is at the latitude of Fairbanks, and well north of St. Petersburg, Russia. So, it’s really cold, right? Not as much as you might expect. Iceland’s climate is maritime, moderated by the North Atlantic Drift, an offshoot of the Gulfstream.  In Reykjavik, January’s average high is about 35 degrees F, the low 26.  The lowest temperature ever recorded in the capital was twelve degrees below zero F, about the same as Charlottesville’s minimum.  In summer, the high temperature averages 56, the low about 47.

So, given a climate that is not that extreme, you might expect to find a rich Icelandic flora.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Iceland was pretty much covered by glaciers in its own mini-Ice Age very recently.  As an island remote from most large land areas, plants could not migrate south to escape the glaciers as they could do on continents. So, today Iceland has only about 465 species of flowering plants and ferns (Hordur Kristinsson, Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland), including several alien species that have become established. (Virginia, only slightly larger than Iceland, is home to more than 3,000 plant species.)  Some Icelandic plants would be familiar to us: the Sea Campion (Silene uniflora) is similar to the Bladder Campion (S. vulgaris), a European plant considered weedy in our area.

Glossy professional photos of Iceland typically show a stark, barren landscape, with nary a tree or shrub in sight, primarily focusing on glaciers, waterfalls and volcanoes. Indeed, much of Iceland is that way. Recent lava flows are virtually devoid of plants, fully revealing the frozen waves of craggy rocks.  After not too long, moss and lichen colonize the lava, and as some soil builds up in the crevices, flowering plants move in.  And later, shrubs and trees can take hold.

Despite expanses of bare lava and severely eroded hillsides, there are more trees than you might expect in Iceland.  And there were probably even more trees in the past.  Early settlers reported that the island was covered with trees right down to the coast.  They were ignoring the higher interior, so in actuality, forest cover was probably between 25%-40%, far more than today. People set about cutting the trees for firewood, and sheep insured that young sprouts were promptly removed. Today, there are remnant forests, primarily birch trees that can attain a height of thirty feet. Currently much more significant than the native birches and willows are the spruces, pines and larches that have been introduced for forestry, as well as for ornamental and shelter belt purposes.  All of these are reportedly “naturalizing” in adjacent areas, but it doesn’t appear that they have been labeled as invaders just yet.

One plant that definitely has invaded Iceland is the Nootka Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis), originally brought in from Alaska to stabilize severely eroded soils.  It certainly has helped in that regard, and as a legume it also fixes nitrogen in the soil.  Nonetheless, in addition to covering previously barren areas, the lupine has invaded natural shrublands. That said, in late June lupines provides huge swaths of blue in the Icelandic landscape.

As for gardens, you could consider Iceland to be one big 40,000 square-mile “rock garden,” but what about official botanical gardens? As near as I could determine, there are two of those: the Reykjavik Botanical Garden in the capital city and the Akureyri Botanical Garden (also known as Lystigardur Akureyrar) in the largest city of the north.  Both are relatively small, seven to nine acres, but are home to thousands of species and varieties. But now, TRUE CONFESSION: On my recent trip to Iceland, I visited neither of these gardens.  Regrettably, I was on guided group tour, and there was not always either time or the means to visit everything.  If you go, don’t repeat my mistake.

I did come to one Icelandic garden quite by serendipity. Petra’s Stone Collection (www.steinapetra.is) is just that: a collection of stones (primarily), bottle caps, stuffed animals, yard “art” and anything else she amassed in her ninety years.  Beguiling for its sheer quirkiness, it was surrounded by a lush garden housing a wide variety of plants, including tulips and Meconopsis (Blue Poppy). A wondrous place, but out of the way in the little East coast town of Stodvarfjord. If you find yourself in Iceland, get to Petra’s if at all possible.

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