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.
In many of the landscapes we’ve visited in Iceland we have found loose mounds of ash from eruptions, black sand dunes or debris from glacial meltwater streams. One plant which happily colonizes this unstable, well-drained ground is Lyme grass (Leymus arenarius), a tall grass with distinctive blue-grey leaves.
Clumps of this grass will spread, growing new shoots from underground rhizomes and so can create large swathes of vegetation across empty expanses of sands.
After the 1973 eruption of Eldfell in Heimay, Vestmannaeyjar, residents had to dig their town out of the tonnes of smothering ashes. To stop the material blowing off the volcano slopes and back into the town, they planted species such as this to bind the new surfaces together.
Lyme grass is tolerant of sea salt and tolerant of drought. It is found around Central and Northern Europe and has been introduced to many locations (such as N America). It is planted because of it’s ability or bind sand together, stabilizing environments such as fore dunes, but it’s spreading habit means that it can become invasive.