If you’ve ever been to Iceland, you may have been shocked at the otherworldly landscapes that help make it famous. Its volcanoes and stark landscapes make it seem like a place that shouldn’t be rich in plant life. After all, it’s in the name – a land of ice! The name, however, is highly misleading. Summers in Iceland are notoriously green, with fields carpeted by plants such as wildflowers and grasses. In fact, Iceland is home to around 1,000 plant species. When you include fungi and lichen, this number grows to 5,000 species!
There is a myth, though, that Iceland is completely devoid of trees. Trees can’t survive in temperatures that are too cold year-round. One reason is that prolonged freezing temperatures can freeze the sap for too long, and kill the tree. Another reason trees can’t survive in extreme cold is that their roots can’t penetrate deep enough through permafrost to access nutrients. So, is Iceland actually devoid of trees? Are there trees in Iceland? To answer these questions, we have to go back to when humans arrived on the small island.
History of Iceland Trees
When Vikings first arrived on the island more than a millennium ago, up to 40% of the landmass was wooded. This percentage could have been even higher long before Vikings set foot on the rocky shores of Iceland. After their arrival, mass deforestation ensued to provide wood for houses and other structures as people settled. After just a few hundred years, most of the trees in Iceland had been cut down, leading to “desertification.”
Desertification is when once fertile land becomes infertile as a result of drought, unsustainable use, or in this case, deforestation. No trees meant there was more erosion, which led to poor and shallow soil that couldn’t support tree life. To make matters worse, animal agriculture kept forests from regenerating due to sheep and other animals eating saplings, leading to even more erosion.
The resulting landscape is now extremely characteristic in Iceland. Rocky and barren fields are the first sight visitors see when they land in Reykjavík. Even when people completely expect such a sight, it can be a surprising and alien-looking environment.
Native Trees in Iceland
Despite diminished numbers, there are some tree species native to Iceland. They were once abundant on the island before it was settled, and made up the bulk of the long-gone forests. Now, they are relics of the past, but you can still find them in certain areas today. Although trees are often thought of as big, towering giants, trees in Iceland are much smaller due to the limited growing season and harsh conditions. Rarely do even the largest ones get to be 15 meters in height.
Downy Birch (Betula pubescens)
This particular birch species is also native to Northern Europe all the way into Siberian Russia. Downy birch is definitely the most common tree species in Iceland and makes up the bulk of the forested area that’s still present in the country. Historically, settlers used birchwood as a building material and as a fuel source. Perhaps the most important product of birch was charcoal, which was necessary for metalworking.
Tea-Leaved Willow (Salix phylicifolia)
Tea-leaved willow is more of a shrub than a tree, but it does occasionally get to be tree-sized. This is probably the second most common tree in Iceland and often accompanies the downy birch in forest stands. It’s also present in marshlands throughout its range. The Icelandic name of the tea-leaved willow is Gulvíðir.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
Rowan is a more uncommon tree species in Iceland. It’s typically pickier than other Iceland trees and is only found in more favorable conditions. Where it is found, it’s often the tallest tree in the area, outperforming other more common species.
European Aspen (Populus tremula)
This is the rarest tree species in Iceland, although it’s extremely common throughout the rest of Europe and Asia. Interestingly, it doesn’t actually flower in Iceland. It spreads by shoots that come from the roots, essentially cloning itself over and over again. A different species of aspen in Colorado does this too, and is now the largest clonal organism on the planet!
Reforestation in Iceland
In recent years, reforestation efforts have been underway to restore parts of Iceland that were once covered by trees. Downy birch is really the only commercially valuable tree in Iceland, so this particular species has been a target for reforestation efforts. Unfortunately, climate change is making it hard for native Icelandic trees to thrive. So, many non-native species have been introduced to the country. These days, we know introducing non-native species can have drastic negative impacts on local ecosystems. Regardless, trees in Iceland are making a comeback one way or another.