Iceland was becoming known as the land with no trees, but then reforestation began. Fossil evidence shows it was once heavily treed. At the time of the Vikings, it’s estimated that birch forest and woodland covered up to 40% of this island. Over time, however, sheep grazing, volcanic activity, and wind took out trees and now only 1.3% of Iceland is forested. Land of few trees seems more accurate.
This was dramatically brought home to me in the National Museum in Reykjavik where I saw 2 lighted maps. One showed the extent of birch forest at the time of settlement and the other birch forest now. I had to look very closely to see the 21st century coverage. Besides birch, the other 2 somewhat common trees in Iceland are willow and rowan. Rowans are also called mountain ash, and they’re common in Great Britain, especially in Scotland, and in Scandinavia.
Iceland is trying to reforest but the process is slow. Inland in the northeast, its largest concentration of trees has a challenging name, Hallormsstaoaskógur. In addition to birch and rowan, there are 80 other tree types there gathered from around the world. Nevertheless, this forest is small by global standards.
If Iceland has a tree capital, it’s Akureyri. The garden at its cultural museum was the first place on the island to plant trees when a nursery was established in 1899. Akureyri’s Lystigardurinn, the world’s most northerly botanical garden, is so impressive that it became one of Akureyri’s 3 top attractions to both Ruth and me. The variety of plant life was startling considering this garden’s closeness to the Arctic Circle. We were there in mid-October and many cold-loving flowers were still blooming. This botanic wonder specializes in native species, 400 of them. However, there are 6,600 foreign species being coddled in greenhouses and in protected areas throughout Lystigardurinn, which opened in 1957. There are forests scattered all around Akureyri. Kjarnaskógur, Iceland’s most visited forest, is south of town. Its mountain bike and pedestrian trails are very popular.
On my way to the land with few trees, a flight attendant told me with a big smile that we were visiting at a beautiful time because forested areas were losing their mostly yellow leaves. Since there were so few of those as Ruth and I circled Iceland, they certainly stood out.