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Bloomin’ Lupines

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When the summertime comes to Iceland, the light it brings with it stretches out each day longer and longer.

As well as playing with your head a bit—“No, I really don’t need any sleep”—the light also transforms the landscape and suddenly everything just seems more vivid as the contrast gets turned up.

I generally don’t wander about in a daze but I am always amazed at buildings, or colors, that seem to emerge with the growing light and the frequency of my double takes increases over these months: “Is that building new? Have they painted that a different color? Did that always use to be there?”

My first summer in Iceland made me think that the council had some sneaky deal going on. For waking up each morning the grass seemed a more luminous green than the day before. I had considered that council gardeners were secretly painting the grass overnight.

It wasn’t quite Wizard of Oz brilliant technicolor but Iceland truly transforms itself in the summertime. For those that love the bright colors of nature, invigorating fresh air and genuine peace and quiet, Iceland in the summer is a paradise.

In addition to the ever bright grass, there is also another annual visitor, that of the lupine. And right now, there are bloomin’ lupines all over the place, particularly on the outskirts of Reykjavík where I live. This results in great lilac and purple swathes of flowers carpeting the landscape.

Whilst it is delightful to look at these innocent-looking flowers, there is also a bit of science behind the story of how they came to be in Iceland.

The species of lupine that can be seen in Iceland is called the “nootka lupine” and was introduced for purposes of soil fertilization.

The flower helps the soil by turning atmospheric nitrogen (N2) into organic nitrogen through using specialized bacteria living in the flower’s roots.

What this means is that it helps to increase the quality of the soil, which is good news for Iceland, a country that has well-documented issues with soil erosion.

Consequently, these purple flowers have settled in different regions of Iceland where there are dry, poor and often disturbed soils.

And if you are lucky enough to be in Iceland in June, you can also see them growing abundantly along the roadside, a phenomenon that you can also find on the other side of the planet, in New Zealand.

However, there is also a school of thought that lupines may not be as friendly to the environment as we would like to think.

The lupine is a quick growing plant, that can grow tall and reproduce quickly (which makes me chuckle, as it draws a general comparison to the Icelandic woman’s breeding patterns).

That said, in the north of Iceland the lupine is smaller, 40-110 cm, than in the south of Iceland, 80-120 cm. And yes, I can already hear you ask, is this mirrored in the Icelandic population? However, I fear that calls for quite another study, altogether...

The fact that these beautiful flowers are abundant is all well and good but the downside of this is that where they are growing, freely, happily and often, they are at times doing so at the expense of other plants, especially the birch tree.

To illustrate how happy they are to grow in their Icelandic home, we don’t need to look any further than the barren areas of Baejarstadur forest in Skaftafell, where lupine seeds were planted in order to stop soil erosion.

Subsequently, Skaftafell became a national park and with that it lost its grazing sheep, resulting in the lupine flourishing and literally claiming the land as their own. So much so that between 1982 and 1988 the lupine-covered area in Skaftafell increased seventeen fold. A lot of lupine by anyone’s accounts.

So, whilst they may cover formerly barren heath lands and moors injecting some color into the area and some nitrogen into the soil, they can also be viewed as a nuisance that can hinder and prevent other species.

As a result, since 1991, lupines have actively been cut back in order to reclaim natural growth and a more-managed approach has been introduced.

Ultimately, whilst some people love them and others think they are a pest, what is clear is that the flowers are a sight to behold and can’t be ignored. They brighten up the Reykjavík landscape and they brighten up the countryside. They also brighten up my June.

Mica Allan – [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.