The many deserts or semi-deserts and the limited wooded areas are very
conspicuous and tell us much about the constant devastation during the
centuries. When the country
was settled about 1100 years ago, extensive areas in the interior, the
mountain regions and along parts of the coastline were devoid of
vegetation of natural causes. Debris
laden glacial rivers, ashes and lava flows caused by eruptions, sea and
wind erosion constantly affected the cover of vegetation.
There was, however, a natural equilibrium, which was disturbed by
the human settlement of the country.
The present conditions of the country are to a considerable degree
the result of this additional element. The woods were cut for fuel and
housing, and the heavy grazing by the livestock added to the gradual
destruction. The coarse soil
eventually did not have any vegetation to hold it together and was
increasingly easily eroded. About
half of the land area below the 400 m level, which was without doubt
covered by vegetation, is now more or less bare and only small, wooded
areas still exist. Overall,
however, the country has an extremely interesting phytogeographic
The flora of Iceland comprises 470 species of indigenous and nationalized,
vascular plants, including 37 species of Cryptogams, 1 Gymnosperm, nearly
290 of Dicotyledons, and 145 of Monocotyledons.
About 97% of these species are found in Norway, 87% in the British
Isles, and 66% in Greenland. The
character of the Icelandic flora is more North European and Scandinavian
than arctic. The western
element of vascular plants not growing elsewhere in Europe is very small,
but the eastern one is about 9 times larger (about 72).
The governing element is, however, the circumpolar one.
Close to half of the Icelandic species are vascular plants of
boreal origin and mostly found in the conifer regions of the northern
hemisphere. About one third
is of arctic-alpine origin, mostly found in the treeless areas north of
the Arctic Circle and mountainous areas further south.
The rest is mainly coastal plants and other species with wider
distribution, such as freshwater plants and weeds. The country is situated entirely south of the Arctic Circle
and the climate is cold temperate and oceanic.
The paucity of species is therefore not a reliable reflection of
the climate and mostly due to the countrys isolation and the shortness
of time since the last Pleistocene glaciation.
About half of the present 470 species are regarded as survivors of
the last glaciation.
The families of grasses and sedges comprise about 53 species,
>11% of the total number of vascular species, among them the buttercup,
saxifrage, rose, pink, and daisy families are also common.
The western indigenous species are commonly of special interest to
European visitors. The
following are the most conspicuous: The
arctic fireweed or river beauty (Epilobium latifolium) with its large,
purple flowers, growing on gravelly riverbanks, dry riverbeds or river
gorges all over the country, but more common inland.
The northern green orchid (Platanthera hyperborean) with sweet
scented, greenish-white flowers, growing in meadows and moorlands in the
lowlands. The broad leaved
willow (Salix callicarpaea), a variable scrub all over the country. The lyngbyes sedge (Carex lyngbyei), tall and beautiful
sedge with brownish, upright-pendulous male spikes and dark brown
pendulous female spikes, growing very densely in wet places.
The marsh felwort (Lomatogonium rotatum) with blue flowers, growing
in bogs, most common in the north. It
is closely related to the gentians and is found in Arctic Russia.
American visitors are usually more interested in European and Eurasian
plants not found in the western hemisphere, but partially reaching as far
as Western Greenland. Among
them is the birch (Betula pubescens) varying from a bush to 10-12 tall
trees. The rowan (Sorbus
aucuparia) also varies in size, sometimes 10 m tall, and found in birch
woods and gardens throughout the country.
The angelica (Angelica archangelica) is common in herb slopes,
moist rock-ledges or along rivers and streams, and even in bird cliffs.
It reaches 1-1½ m. The
wood cranes bill (Geranium sylvaticum) with its beautiful blue flowers is
common in scrublands, woods, and herb-slopes.
The heather (Calluna vulgaris) is one of the most common plants of
lowland heaths and moorlands, except in the northwest.
It is very conspicuous in late summer when it is flowering pink
flowers. The thrift (Armeria
maritime) is on of the most common plants in gravelly and sandy areas and
has pink flowers. The
moorland spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) is common in lowlands and
in the lower mountain slopes mixed with grass- and herb-vegetation,
sometimes in moors and shrub- and wet woodlands. It has pink-lilac flowers
with numerous red dots and usually dark spots on the leaves.
half of the Icelandic species of vascular plants is common in most parts
of the country, in both the lowlands and the mountains.
A considerable number of species has a restricted distribution and
only occur within more or less limited areas, sometimes specific for them.
The floristic difference between the various parts of the country
is, however, not as big as might be expected considering the landscapes
and climate, especially the precipitation.
The harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) is one of them with its
conspicuous blue flowers from middle to late summer, and the arctic poppy
(Papaver radicatum), commonly found in gravelly and stony soils in the
northwest, mainly in hills and mountains.
In the north, there are several arctic-alpine species not found
elsewhere, such as the foliolose saxifrage (Saxifraga foliolosa), the
mountain heath (Phyllodoce coerulea), and the upright primrose (Primula
stricta). Some species are
only found in the south, such as the ragged robin (Lychnis floscuculi),
the devils-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), and the valerian (Valeriana
The bryophyte flora comprises about 500 species.
It is more temperate than arctic, at least in certain parts of the
country. The woolly fringe
moss (Rhacomitrium lanuginosum) is extremely common in lava fields and
gravelly and stony areas. The
sword moss (Bryoxiphium norvegicum) is one of the most interesting plants
of the country, but does not grow in Norway as the name might suggest.
Its Icelandic habitat is mainly on Lake Kleifarvatn in the
southwest and has a curious distribution.
Outside Iceland, it is found in Northeast Greenland, North America,
Mexico, and the Orient.
Macro lichens count about 200 species and about 300 species of
micro lichens have been found. Most
of the macro lichen flora is of Scandinavian character.
In the ocean around the country more than 230 benthic algae have
been discovered, and about 40% of them belong to the red algae, 31% to the
brown, and 29 to the green. About
half of them are known all around the country.
A considerable number of arctic and sub arctic species are
restricted to the north and northeastern coasts, and more southerly
species in the south.
areas offer favourable conditions to several species of plants.
Some species and subspecies of others are solely found in such
places and many additional ones thrive exceptionally well and grow to
unusual sizes. The adders
tongue (Ophioglossum azoricum), the red shank (Polygonum persicaria), the
marsh pennywort (hydrocotyle vulgaris), the water speedwell (Veronica
anagallis-aquatica), and the marsh cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum) are
only found growing in warm soils and water.