Thursday, 22 November 2012


Now for a set of photos taken over a year ago during a trip to Iceland in September of 2011. In preparation for the trip I invested in the only portable flora of iceland: Hörður Kristinsson's 'Flowering Plants and Ferns of Iceland'. The book is pleasant enough for a photo-flora though it falls down in fetureing my pet-hate; arrangement by flower colour. A good percentage of the flora's content can be found on the web, though in a somewhat clunky format. As it turned out we visited too late in the season to see many species at their best. While I did encounter a wide range of species few were in a state suitable for the purposes of photography.

Our first week was spent in the capital, Reykjavik. Meandering around the city I noted the first Icelandic species new to me. These included Angelica archangelica, Ranunculus hyperboreus and Rumex longifolius all observed while making a circuit of the municipal lake. A species that somehow elicited much more excitement than those listed above was Mertensia maritima, the Oysterplant. I found a couple of plants among the boulders that form the artificial sea defences along the Reykjavik bay. A rare and decreasing species in the UK the distribution of M. maritima is thought to be governed by temperature. The seeds are known to require exposure to cold temperatures to stimulate germination (1). It is perhaps for this reason that many of the more southerly colonies in the UK are no longer extant (map). I also recently spotted this species on a TV cookery show. Perched atop a piece of fish and and some pointlessly arty vegetable shapes it was served under the name oyster-leaf and said to actually taste of oysters. I now regret not testing the veracity of this claim on the Icelandic plants.

Mertensia maritima Reykjavik, September 2011

Leaving Reykjavik we drove out along Route 1. Practically the only 'major' (two lane) road in Iceland.  Encircling almost the entire country Route 1 begins and ends in Reykjavik. When travelling east as we were the initial section follows the fringing plains of the south coast. Snaking along a thin strip of flat land  between the black sand beaches and the volcanic bulk of ice and lava that forms the Vantajökull. 

The lower lip of the Vantajökull glowers down on your left as you drive east along the coast. The larva cliffs interpolated by countless waterfalls. These cliffs support a rich flora as well as a huge number of Fulmars and other sea-birds. Unfortunately, the season and haste resulted in my having little opportunity to explore. One of the species I did observe was the pretty Saxifraga cotyledon. It had long since gone over but it's neat rosettes of white trimmed leaves were still a pleasant site adorning the dark algal slime covered rocks.

Continuing along the south coast we paused where a track diverged from the straightness of the road as it cut through lava fields spanning the horizon  While the landscape clearly consisted of lava its volcanic origins  was superficially disguised; hidden under a thick carpet of the moss Racomitrium lanuginosum. This surreal landscape, dominated by mosses and lichens supported a handful of  vascular plants. The most frequent and interesting of these was the fern Woodsia alpina (Alpine Woodsia). A very rare plant in the British Isles mostly due to its diligent eradication by collectors during the Victorian fern craze. This species is not particularly common even in Iceland this being the only place I observed it. 

Woodsia alpina Iceland 2011

Leaving the south coast we continued into the Eastfjords. The landscape drawn in ferrous red and blue as we drove for hours in and of the deep fingers of the fjords. Slow progress was made but once we had conquered the fjords we made a stop shortly before the main road degenerated into a zig-zag dirt track. Here I found one of the plants I had most anticipated, Harrimanella hypnoides the Mossy Mountain-Heather. In what was an enduring theme of the trip it was well past its best. It grew in abundance intertwined with  Loisleuria procumbens, the Trailing Azalea.   

Harrimanella hypnoides near Breiðdalsvík, Iceland

Our next stop was at the highest point of the pass that leads to the isolated port town of Seyðisfjörður. We walked north from the road to the snowline and continued to the top of the nearest peak. A number of interesting species were encountered during the climb. Firstly large amounts of the moss Paludella squarrosa growing in flushes. This species was thought to be extinct in the British Isles until a small remnant population was discovered in Co. Mayo, Ireland. Many other species were scattered around including Sibbaldia procumbens (pictured below) and Sedum villosum. We also surprised a covey of ptarmigan hidden amongst the heath.

Paludella squarrosa near Seyðisfjörður
Sibbaldia procumbens near Seyðisfjörður

The ground became rough as we neared the summit and we found ourselves scrambling up gulleys of frost loosened scree. This treacherous terrain yielded  a high alpine species that I was pleased to encounter and, most remarkably, one still in flower: Ranunculus glacialis.

Ranunculus glacialis near Seyðisfjörður

A final stop at the lake of Mývatn before a speedy drive back to Reykjavik produced little in the way of botanical observations but did reward us with sightings of both Barow's Goldeneye and a single Harlequin Duck.

Barrow's Goldeneye (Bucephala islandica) Mývatn
1 - Skarpaas, Olav, and Odd E. Stabbetorp. "Diaspore ecology of Mertensia maritima: effects of physical treatments and their relative timing on dispersal and     germination." Oikos 95.3 (2001): 374-382.

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