Curious about which plants you’ll spot when travelling in Iceland? Explore Icelandic flora with us, including some of the most common flowers in Iceland.
When you imagine the wide, open landscapes of Iceland, you couldn’t be blamed for wondering “does Iceland even have any plants?”. Rolling arctic deserts and glaciers aren’t exactly home to the same daisies that we’re used to at home. However, the lack of colorful flowers doesn’t mean there isn’t a fragile ecosystem at work everywhere you look - without you even realizing it!
Iceland’s flora includes both plants and trees, contrary to popular belief. Most Icelandic trees are under 7 ft tall, with some taller trees located in wind-protected valleys to the east and north of Iceland. Some 540 plant species found here include plenty of woody plants that grow close to the ground, like willow, rowan, bilberry, heather, and hairy birch. Fungi and lichen thrive in lava fields and otherwise barren landscapes where other flowers struggle to grow.
Each and every plant is vital to the natural landscapes of the country. In this blog, we’ll be taking you through some of the most important members of Icelandic flora.
Icelandic sheep by the mountains in south Iceland
History of Icelandic Plants
The unique vegetation at play in Iceland is largely due to the history of agriculture in the country. Upon the arrival of settlers, cattle like sheep were introduced quickly to the open areas of the country. Grazing, and overgrazing, meant that livestock devastated the plants so much that they struggled to grow back in the following seasons. As a result, volcanic soils underfoot were damaged, and even today about 75% of the island is afflicted with soil erosion.
Poor soil erosion means that taller plants and flowers cannot find footing in Iceland, which is why the most common types of flora are mosses, lichens and other sedges. These can survive in the marshy and barren plateaus that cover a large percentage of the country. In fact, there are 550 lichen species, 1,200 fungi species, and around 47 species of grass.
Most Common Icelandic Wildflowers
Let’s take a look at the most common flowers you could come across on your Icelandic adventures.
Lupine or Lupinus nootkatensis
Blue Lupines growing in the Icelandic fields
The Lupine’s purple-blue flowers are the iconic sign that summer has arrived in Iceland. Lupines can be found just about everywhere in Iceland during the summer months, but it by no means was always here. In 1945, the country decided that the soil erosion caused by past over-grazing needed a solution. The Lupine, a perennial plant native to North America, was introduced as a measure to improve topsoil across the country.
While the color is a bright welcome, particularly for visiting tourists, the Lupine spread like wildfire to all corners of the island, even onto farmland. Plants species and mosses indigenous to Iceland have, in some cases, been threatened by the presence of the brightly colored newcomer. The controversial nature of the plant is complicated further by the fact that it’s now almost impossible to get rid of the wildflower, now that it has been allowed to spread just about everywhere.
Arctic Thyme or Thymus praecox arcticus
Wild Arctic Thyme
Due to its ability to thrive in sandy or gravelly soil, Arctic Thyme can be found all over the country. Its purple petals are distinctive among a sea of other mosses and lichens. Arctic Thyme has also been used in teas for a long time and is also a traditional herb for Icelanders, with a strong smell similar to our oregano. You’ll be able to find the herb and tea, known as “Blóðberg tea”, in Reykjavik shops with ease. There is said to be no shortage of health benefits to drinking this tea, including cleansing blood, strengthening both hearts and heads, and promoting regular menstruation.
Sheep Sorrel or Rumex acetosella
Red berry-like leaves of Sheep Sorrel growing in Iceland
Another common Icelandic flower is Sheep or Red Sorrel, also called Hundasúra locally. Foragers should take note of this image, as these are renowned for their tasty leaves. They will leave a tart taste in your mouth, and Icelanders small and large know about taking a few leaves to nibble when hiking. Whether you grab a handful on your way past as a snack or to use later in a salad, don’t forget about these tasty morsels!
Harebell or Campanula rotundifolia
Purple petals of Harebells found in East Iceland
Similar to bluebells, Harebells are distinctive purple or blue flowers with bell-shaped petals at their head. If you’re driving through East Iceland on the Ring Road, you might spot these stunning wildflowers, particularly in areas of grassland. If not here, you’ll need to be lucky to catch a glimpse of a gorgeous Icelandic Harebell.
Angelica or Angelica archangelica
Angelica flower found in Iceland
The Latin translation of this plant is “Angels Root”, likely named because of its recently scientifically-proven health benefits. It is assumed that the herb was brought with the first settlers to arrive in Iceland and was believed to be a key element to their survival here.
Whether respiratory problems, infections, digestive agitation or even cancer, Angel Herb, or Hvönn, has been proven to be effective. In fact, the high value of Angelica was once used to trade as currency within Iceland and even internationally.
Along rivers and small creeks all over the country, or in specially planted sections on farms, will be the best place to spot Angelica flowers when in Iceland.
Mountain Aven wildflower
Even Iceland has a National Flower! The Mountain Aven, known as Holtasóley in Icelandic, is the public’s National Flower according to a vote in 2004. This wildflower thrives typically in arctic and alpine settings, and so is found in all areas of Iceland. Known for its herbal qualities, particularly for reducing inflammation, Holtasóley has also been used in tea for centuries.
What's more, Icelandic folklore suggests that the flower has the power to attract the earth’s wealth. In order to gain this wealth, the tale goes that you must steal money from a poor widow who is attending church, and then bury that money under the earth where the flower is found. Legend has it, the buried spoils will double as a result. A great place to find Mountain Avens is near the edges of Dettifoss waterfall, which you’ll spot on our incredible 10-day ring road self drive tour, though we don’t recommend trying this method on your visit here…