Background Information on the Flora of Iceland

Characteristic features, ecology and natural history:

1) introduction

The remarkable position of Iceland as a large island in the north Atlantic - somewhere halfway the American and Eurasian continents - makes one wonder if the flora of this country has unique or otherwise special traits. This question becomes even more interesting given the very volcanic nature of Iceland.

In a number of pages these topics are dealt with:
1) introduction (this page - continues below this list of pages)
2)  Is the flora American or European?
3)  The main vegetation types
4)  Regional differences in the flora
5)  Influences of the glacial era's and the revegetation after the last glacial period

Characteristic features

The number of plant species (excluding mosses. lichens, algae) is no more than 490 species(2). This is in fact a rather low number. Another striking feature is that the number of endemic species is also limited. One very characteristic endemic species is the Icelandic hawkweed (Hieracium islandicum) - Islandsfífill Icelandic hawkweed (Hieracium islandicum) - Islandsfífill . One would expect many endemic species given its distance to the major land masses. However, the time since the last glacial period has (in evolutionary terms) been very short. Thus there has hardly been any time for speciation. Next to the Icelandic Hawkweed two other species have been identified as endemic species. These are: Elymus alopex (bearded couch) and Euphrasia calida (the status of this eyebright-species is not sure). But of coarse in the area of micro species within an apomictic group (like the dandelion, Taraxacum sp.) there could be many endemic's, but this falls far beyond the scope of these pages. One could though point at two semi-endemic species being the Faroer Lady's-mantle (Alchemilla faroensis - Maríuvöttur) Faroer Lady's-mantle (Alchemilla faroensis - Maríuvöttur) which grows in eastern Iceland as well as its western neighbor the Faroer Isles, and the Northern green orchid (Platanthera hyperborea - Friggjargras) Northern green orchid (Platanthera hyperborea - Friggjargras) which grows also on its western neighbor Greenland and on one island in the Hudson Bay (Canada).

Total number of species: about 490(2)
Clearly European: about 100(1)
Clearly American: about 10(1)
Circumpolar: about 150 – Remaining: Eur/Am/worldwide(1)

The human factor on the flora and vegetation of Iceland

Basically the influence of Homo sapiens on the vegetation can be split in the effect of medieval Viking settlements and the more modern footprint of the human culture on the Icelandic vegetation. For one thing the early Vikings destroyed most of the original birch forests. For more on this topic see vegetation types/forests. But even up to date one can question some of the farming practices on Iceland. The sheep culture is so deeply embedded in the Icelandic heritage that the erosion effects of these practices on the landscape is socially undebatable. Nevertheless, the Icelanders have become aware that something had to be done about erosion. One thing that was done - as so often all over the world - was not to address the real problem (erosion by overgrazing) but to find a quick solution. The idea was that a single species from Alaska, being the Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatesis - Lúpina) Nootka lupine (Lupinus nootkatesis - Lúpina) would solve the problem. It has been sown all along roadsides (where obviously soil-degradation is most apparent). And it has been successful, so successful that it grew to become mono cultures giving no chance to indigenous species!

– 1: The Vegetation and Flora of Iceland, Hörður Kristinsson American Rock Garden Society Bulletin,Vol. 33, July 1975: 105 – 111
– 2: Info from the Natural History Institute of Iceland 2017

Continue with:
1) introduction (this page)
2)  Is the flora American or European?
3)  The main vegetation types
4)  Regional differences in the flora
5)  Influences of the glacial era's and the revegetation after the last glacial period

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