We have a large collection of lantern slides from the Manchester Geographical Society in the museum stores, including some of Iceland, and they gave us a window onto the lansdscapes of the past. Some of the most striking were images of Thingvellir National Park.
Iceland’s native forests are primarily composed of downy birch (Betula pubescens) with some rowan (Sorbus acuparia). The aspen (Populus tremula) is also found in Iceland, but is extremely rare and the shrubby tea-leaved willow (Salix phylicifolia) can sometimes get tall enough to be counted as a tree.
Beyond these species, the Iceland Forestry Service has experimented with a number of species from overseas, as well as planting more birch, and plantations of trees are now maturing. We have wandered through a few forested ares and we were privileged to meet Throstur Eysteinsson (division chief of the forestry service) who wrote this excellent description of forestry in a treeless land.
Apparently there wasn’t much of a tradition of eating mushrooms in Iceland, it is only relatively recently that the arrival of people from Poland have started to harvest the birch forest bounty and to introduce Icelanders to the idea.
One of the aims of our field work in Iceland was to visit the areas with the native forest of Downy Birch (Betula pubescens). We’ve visited several places with the birch forest, for instance, the site in the southern shore of the Lake Myvatn and the forest along Logurinn fjord in eastern Iceland. In both places the forests were full of edible mushrooms, and I could not help myself and collected some, which then we cooked and eat together. Here are the photos or some of those edible mushrooms we encountered during our trip.
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The Nootka lupin was brought to Iceland to help to restore degraded soils. It’s use began in the 1960s when the Icelandic Forestry Service used lupin to fertilise newly-planted forest areas. As a plant which needs a sunny spot, lupins could not thrive once the trees grew tall enough to create shade. After this it was then sown by the Soil Conservation Service to help to improve soils.
Soil erosion is a considerable problem for Iceland. At the time of settlement, Iceland was actually more vegetated, with habitats such as forests, grasslands and willow tundra. Before the Vikings there were no grazing animals in Iceland (the Arctic fox was the only mammal) but with the people came the sheep, goats, cows and horses.
Centuries of sheep farming are thought to have taken their toll on the land putting an intense pressure on fragile grazing lands. Woodlands suffered when sheep could graze the regenerating shoots from felled birch and willow trees, preventing the formation of coppices. In addition, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the climate became harsher slowing vegetation growth, and land was lost to disasters such as meltwater outwash caused by volcanic eruptions under glaciers.
Lyme grass and lupins can both grow in loose soils and help to combat erosion.
Myvatn is a shallow, eutrophic lake in north Iceland. The name means Midge Lake and the area is inundated with them every summer. Luckily, when we visited the midge swarms were of non-biting chironomid species (it’s very handy traveling with an entomologist!).
Besides being beautiful, formed from volcanic action and full of wildfowl, Lake Myvatn is also famous for balls of algae known as lake balls, marimo (Japanese) or kúluskítur (Icelandic). These are spherical colonies of filamentous algae (Aegagropila linnaei) which are thought to form when algae living on the rocks are torn off and are rolled around in the lake currents. Rolling helps to keep the ball clear of debris and mud so the colony stays velvety green.
Recently, however, lake balls have been vanishing from Lake Myvatn as sediments begin to silt over the the lake floor. They can be seen in aquaria in a few places in Iceland, I hope they will still survive in their famous lake home too.
With a group of curators away on a trip together one thing is guaranteed – we’ll find some museums to visit!
So one Icelandic word I’ve learnt is ‘safn’ meaning museum or collection. We’ve visited a whole host of wonderful museum large and small since arriving in Iceland.
There was Arbaer open air museum with it’s beautiful architecture and really stylish displays of Icelandic life and commodities.
Then there was Eldheimar (Pompeii of the North) telling the story of the eruption on Heimaey with it’s evocative excavated house and clever use of audioguides. David has an interesting interview with the Director of this new museum here.
The Aquarium and Natural History Museum in Heimay celebrating it’s 50th anniversary with decorated stones and the chance to meet it’s VIP resident:
The eclectic shark fishing museum on the north of the Snaefellsness peninsula with artifacts, drying shark and the opportunity to buy the real thing. Visit Dmitri’s blog for a full write-up of this one!
The charming natural history museum in Ólafsfjördur with an extensive collection of birds, a polar bear and something which I particularly enjoyed…..a little browseable herbarium.
At the Museum of Akureyri the current exhibition was an interesting display of images of Iceland today taken using the wet plate technique. We have some plates like this in our collection and even though ours are about 100 years old and these were modern, all the smudges and drips around the edges look identical. ALongside this chenging temporary exhibition they also had two more permanent displays about mapping Iceland and life in Akureyri in ages past.
….when I said that the Common butterwort had finished flowering in Iceland in August and had set seed.
Today we went to the site of the Krafla fires eruption at around 650m above sea level and there were still a few early summer flowers to be found. Mountain avens (Dryas octopetala) is the national flower of Iceland and all the other locations we’ve visited have been covered with it’s beautiful fluffy seedheads.
I was also delighted to find the pretty purple bells of the Alpine bartsia (Bartsia alpina) which had gone to seed in other localities we’d visited.
While butterworts rely on carnivory, alpine bartsia has different specialist lifestyle which can help it to succeed in difficult environments:
The Akureyri Botanic Garden is one of the most northerly in the world and the oldest in Iceland. Along with displays of Icelandic and arctic plants, it has an amazing array of plant species in bloom in August. I wish I could grow delphiniums like these!
The garden is beautifully laid out and card for with very detailed labels describing the characteristics of the plant families on show.
As a member of the pea family, the Nootka lupin has root nodules for nitrogen fixation. We’ve also seen other peas, clovers and vetch plants capable of fixing nitrogen as we’ve travelled around Iceland.
Carnivorous plants, however, have a unique way of gaining nutrients which are not available in the soil. The butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) is quite common in a lot of the damp environments that we’ve visited. The succulent leaves are covered with tiny glands which secrete fluids containing digestive enzymes. Small insects are trapped on the sticky surface of the leaf, and are digested by the enzymes. The fluid is then absorbed back into the leaf along with essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus which have been released from the insect corpse.
Common butterwort has a pretty purple flower held on a long stalk to keep pollinating insects away from the danger of the leaves. At this time of year plants have mature seed capsules.
However, as well as producing seed, the Common butterwort can also reproduce vegetatively, producing offshoots and new plantlets.
Hrísey is the second largest island in Iceland (after Heimaey off the south coast) and it was looking magical in the sunshine. The island’s name comes from the Icelandic word for the dwarf birch (Betula nana), hrís, suggesting that this was common here at the time of settlement. On this visit I found several clumps, but it’s been a much more prominent part of the vegetation in other places we’ve visited.
The island has not been grazed by sheep since 1974 and is now covered by low-growing shrubs and heath-land plants such as heather, crowberry, bilberries, mountain avens and woolly willow. The island is a birdwatching destination as over 40 species are known to breed there.
However, I was particularly interested in a plant new-comer, the Nootka lupin (Lupinus nootkatensis).
Introduced from Alaska for land reclamation, the Nootka lupin has taken to Iceland and has naturalized in many parts of the country. The lupin changes soil chemistry as it has root nodules containing nitrogen fixing rhizobacteria. Rhizobacteria fix nitrogen from the air, making it available for the plant to utilise and leading to soil enrichment. On the island of Hrísey, another introduced species, Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris) has started to grow within the patches of lupins where the soil is more nitrogen rich.
Many of the patches of lupins we found on Hrísey had been cut back, perhaps to try to decrease their vigor and allow light to reach the ground. Lupins grow taller than the low heathland plants and can shade them out, but they do not colonise vegetated heath as rapidly as bare ground so cutting may maintain the size of a patch. Cutting had spurred some of the lupins into some late-season flowering and so I collected some examples for the Manchester Museum herbarium.
Lupins are a bit like marmite, however, and so while some people hate them, others think they are a welcome addition to the flora. They are undeniably pretty and I would think that the bumblebees like them too. On Hrísey we spoke to Júlla, manager of the Júllabúð store…..definitely a fan.