On the vegetation of Iceland

Characteristic features, ecology and natural history:

3) Main vegetation types

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages


On Iceland one can differentiate two forests types: the indigenous Birch forests and the recently planted new forests with species from outside Iceland. Many species have been tested and it has been showed that quite a few conifer species from the America's and Siberia thrive well in protected valleys. The indigenous forests consists only of two (three) tree-species, being the most common Downy Birch (Betula pubescens - Birki) Downy Birch (Betula pubescens - Birki) and the less common Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia - Reyniviður) Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia - Reyniviður) . It is quite striking that the Rowan often grows taller than the birches (in most countries the Rowan is an under story tree in forests). This can be seen in this photo this photo . A third quite rare tree species is the Aspen (Populus tremula - Blæösp) Aspen (Populus tremula - Blæösp) . This species is very poorly adapted to conditions of Iceland and it never blooms! In the Icelandic birch forests there are of coarse many low-shrub species (heather types) and herbal species present. These are usually the species found in the heather lands. I found though, that one species is found much more present in birch forests than outside. This is the Serrated Wintergreen (Orthilia secunda - Grænlilja) Serrated Wintergreen (Orthilia secunda - Grænlilja) . True forests (be they indigenous or planted with exotic's) make up no more than about 1% of Iceland. Before the arrival of the Vikings this was about 30%!. The Vikings did not appreciate the slow regeneration of forests, as a result Iceland has suffered a lot of land-degradation since. Finally there is an intermediate vegetation type between forests and heather lands, being a low birch growth (2,5m max), which can be found quite often along the slopes of fjords.

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages

Heather land

By definition the heathers are made up of predominantly low shrubs like the Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris - Beitilyng) Common Heather (Calluna vulgaris - Beitilyng) and the Crow Heather (Empetrum nigrum - Krækilyng) Crow Heather (Empetrum nigrum - Krækilyng) . It should be noted that in the Crow Heather, the subspecies "hermaphroditum" is far more common than the nominate "nigrum". The latter can only be found in southern Iceland. Next to these two species are two other common heather-family species belonging to the Vaccinium genus, being the Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus - Aðalbláberjalyng) Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus - Aðalbláberjalyng) and the Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum - Bláberjalyng) Bog Bilberry (Vaccinium uliginosum - Bláberjalyng) . A third Vaccinium species, the small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus, aka Oxycoccus microcarpus - Mýraberjalyng) small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus, aka Oxycoccus microcarpus - Mýraberjalyng) is a small herbal plant of bogs that is found in some regions of Iceland. Another heather-like shrub growing commonly in Icelandic heather lands is the juniper (Juniperus communis - Einir) juniper (Juniperus communis - Einir) . In most regions outside Iceland this species usually grows into a small erect tree, but on Iceland conditions are too harsh and it is usually spreading low over the ground. Other more or less common small shrubs growing in the Icelandic heather's are the Dwarf Birch (Betula nana - Fjalldrapi) Dwarf Birch (Betula nana - Fjalldrapi) , and the willows: the Arctic Willow (Salix arctica - Grávíðir) Arctic Willow (Salix arctica - Grávíðir) , the Wooly Willow (Salix lanata - Loðvíðir) Woolly Willow (Salix lanata - Loðvíðir) and the Tea-leaved Willow (Salix phylicifolia - Gulvíðir) Tea-leaved Willow (Salix phylicifolia - Gulvíðir) .

Next to shrubby species of coarse, many herbal species grow in these regions. Only a few are mentioned here. Very common is the Alpine Bartsia (Bartsia alpina - Smjörgras) Alpine Bartsia (Bartsia alpina - Smjörgras) . Next to the Alpine Bartsia the Wild Thyme (Thymus praecox ssp arcticus - Blóðberg) Wild Thyme (Thymus praecox ssp arcticus - Blóðberg) and the Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea - Grasvíðir) Dwarf Willow (Salix herbacea - Grasvíðir) are very common. An interesting - also very common - plant is the Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara - Kornsúra) Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara - Kornsúra) . This plant has true flowers in the top part of the inflorescence stalk but bulbils in the bottom part. Another interesting plant is the Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris - Lyfjagras) Common Butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris - Lyfjagras) . The leaves of this plant catch flies with to its stickiness and they are then "digested".

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages

Moss vegetations

On lava's one can find large fields of mosses and or lichens with few other higher plant species. In the north of the country often lichens dominate where in the south mosses dominate. This is (probably) due to the fact that in the south snowfall is more erratic and summers in the north are generally drier. Two species of the moss genus Racomitrium Racomitrium dominate, these are Racomitrium lanuginosum (Hoary Rock-moss/Hraungambri) and Racomitrium canescens (Hoary Fringe-moss/Hærugambri). Gradually other species settle although this can take a long time. One of the first species that grows in the moss fields is the Three-leaved Rush (Juncus trifidus - Móasef) Three-leaved Rush (Juncus trifidus - Móasef) . In hollows of lava fields one can often find ferns and in lower parts birches birches can emerge in the landscape.

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages

Open grounds (highland deserts)

Sparsely vegetated or even non-vegetated grounds make up a large part of Iceland, especially in the interior (the highland deserts). The volcanic nature of this country, the slow soil formation on rock/pebble/ash grounds and the influence of human culture (wood-chopping in the past and {over-}grazing by sheep) have had a detrimental effect on Iceland's vegetation (see the "forest" section on top of this page). On these barren grounds two species thrive. These are the Thrift (Armeria maritima - Geldingahnappur) Thrift (Armeria maritima - Geldingahnappur) and the Moss Campion (Silene acaulis - Holurt) Moss Campion (Silene acaulis - Holurt) . Apart from these two species many dwarf versions of plants from other vegetation types can be found. A common example is the Northern Rock-cress (Arabidopsis petraea - Melablóm) Northern Rock-cress (Arabidopsis petraea - Melablóm) which can be found in highland deserts as miniatures of the lowland individuals.

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages


As mentioned in the page on American species, the Lyngbye's Sedge (Carex lyngbyei - Gulstör) Lyngbye's Sedge (Carex lyngbyei - Gulstör) is a dominant species of many wetlands. Another very common sedge species in the Icelandic wetlands is the Common sedge (Carex nigra - Mýrastör) Common sedge (Carex nigra - Mýrastör) . Wetlands can vary from rather dry to near-permanent inundated grounds. One can find the Bottle sedge (Carex rostrata - Tjarnastör) Bottle sedge (Carex rostrata - Tjarnastör) often along the edges of lakes and ponds. In more boggy wetlands two cotton grasses often dominate, being the Common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium - Klófífa) Common cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium - Klófífa) and the Scheuchzer's cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri - Hrafnafífa) Scheuchzer's cottongrass (Eriophorum scheuchzeri - Hrafnafífa) . Many other medium-sized sedges can be found in the wetlands, to name two: the Silvery sedge (Carex curta - Blátoppastör) Silvery sedge (Carex curta - Blátoppastör) and the Star sedge ( Carex echinata - Ígolstör) Star sedge ( Carex echinata - Ígolstör) . But there are many more sedge species.....

In the wet meadows of the lowlands a very conspicuous flower can be seen very often in spring being the Marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris - Hófsóley) Marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris - Hófsóley) . This plant usually grows along waterways like ditches.

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages

Highlands and mountains

There are quite a few species which only grow in the (high) mountains. A beautiful example is the Glacier buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis - Jöklasóley) Glacier buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis - Jöklasóley) . A less conspicuous buttercup of the mountains is the Pigmy buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus - Dvergsóley) Pigmy buttercup (Ranunculus pygmaeus - Dvergsóley) . Another plant of the high mountains is the Alpine whitlowgrass (Draba oxycarpa - Fjallavorblóm) Alpine whitlowgrass (Draba oxycarpa - Fjallavorblóm) . This species is rather rare though. Far more common (also at lower altitudes of mountains) is the Creeping sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens - Fjallasmári) Creeping sibbaldia (Sibbaldia procumbens - Fjallasmári) .

Apart from specific mountain plants one can differentiate species of the highlands that can be found on mountains but are more common on rather flat highlands where vegetation develops along rivers, ponds or sheltered places. One of the prettiest species of the highlands is the Red-tipped lousewort (Pedicularis flammea - Tröllastakkur) Red-tipped lousewort (Pedicularis flammea - Tröllastakkur) . In the rough highlands one can also find the Slender snow saxifrage (Saxifraga tenuis - Dvergsteinbrjótur) Slender snow saxifrage (Saxifraga tenuis - Dvergsteinbrjótur) , the Northern sandwort (Minuartia biflora - Fjallanóra) Northern sandwort (Minuartia biflora - Fjallanóra) and the Wavy meadow-grass (Poa flexuosa - Lotsveifgras) Wavy meadow-grass (Poa flexuosa - Lotsveifgras) .

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages

Thermal soil plants

Iceland is of coarse famous for its volcanic nature. Thus "thermal" soils are abundant, some very hot, others only mildly warm. As such one can expect special species growing on these grounds. A very characteristic species is the Small Adder's-tongue (Ophioglossum azoricum). Sorry no own photo but see the Wikipedia page on the Small Adder's-tongue (Naðurtunga). Another species that - on Iceland - is restricted to thermal soils is the Marsh cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum - Grámygla) Marsh cudweed (Gnaphalium uliginosum - Grámygla) . Another species that is restricted to thermal soils is the Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris -Vatnsnafli) . Marsh Pennywort (Hydrocotyle vulgaris - Vatnsnafli) . Apart from these three obligatory thermal soil species, there are some species that occur occasionally on "cold" soils but nevertheless have a preference for thermal soils. Notably this is the Drug eyebright (Euphrasia stricta) - Kirtilaugnfró) Drug eyebright (Euphrasia stricta) - Kirtilaugnfró) and strangely enough also the Greater Plantain (Plantago major - Græðisúra) Greater Plantain (Plantago major - Græðisúra) . It should be noted that the Ribwort Plantain (Plantago lanceolata) which is only common in the very south of Iceland grows - be it rare - on some thermal grounds in the north. Finally Water Mint (Mentha aquatica - Vatnamynta) Water Mint (Mentha aquatica - Vatnamynta) should be mentioned. This species grows on two thermal grounds (west and north-west Iceland), but this species has probably been introduced recently.

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages

The rest

There are certainly many more ecological-based vegetation zones. For example the coastal shore regions. On the black beeches one can find the Arctic Sea Rocket (Cakile arctica - Fjörukál) Arctic Sea Rocket (Cakile arctica - Fjörukál) and the Sea Sandwort (Honckenya peploides - Fjöruarfi) Sea Sandwort (Honckenya peploides - Fjöruarfi) . A completely different system is the mossy banks of cold streams. Here the Starry Saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris - Stjörnusteinbrjótur) Starry Saxifrage (Saxifraga stellaris - Stjörnusteinbrjótur) is a conspicuous species among the mosses. Next there are full aquatic vegetation systems where species of the Potamogeton and Callitriche species can be found, but also a species like the Thread-leaved Water-crowfoot(Ranunculus confervoides - Lónasóley) Thread-leaved Water-crowfoot(Ranunculus confervoides - Lónasóley) with their pretty white flowers emerging above the water can be found. Sometimes ponds can dry up during summer. Here species like the Creeping Spearwort (Ranunculus reptans - Flagasóley) Creeping Spearwort (Ranunculus reptans - Flagasóley) and the Bulbous Rush (Juncus bulbosus) - Hnúðsef) Bulbous Rush (Juncus bulbosus - Hnúðsef) can appear, the latter often forming red mats. Sometimes, when ponds dry in summer open grounds appear on which delicate species like the Awlwort (Subularia aquatica - Alurt) Awlwort (Subularia aquatica - Alurt) may appear. Along the coast small pockets of salt-marsh grounds can be identified with their characteristic species. A final word, this page is still far from complete, nor will it ever be...

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

Forests -- Heather -- Moss lava's -- Open grounds -- Wetlands -- Mountains & Highlands -- Thermal soils -- Other Ecosystems -- Top -- Other Plant Background Pages

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