Trees in Iceland
Iceland used to be known around the world as the land with no trees, but thanks to the increased flow of tourists and Icelanders collectively saying “Hey, that's not exactly fair”, most people now know that we do in fact have trees.
Reputations, though, are not gained for nothing and Iceland does indeed have fewer trees than many other countries. So why the fuss, you ask? It probably has something to do with the intonation that Iceland doesn't have any trees because it's too cold for them to survive there. If you were a schoolchild in California, Ghana or Taiwan, you'd probably believe that. But it is not true at all. Trees actually do well in Iceland and we get almost offended when people say otherwise – as stupid as that sounds.
On the other hand, there is nothing offensive in pointing out that the Icelandic countryside is very short on trees. The story goes that when the Vikings arrived the country was forested “from mountain to shore” – at which point they promptly cut all the trees down for building material and firewood. Then their sheep made sure they could never grow back and subsequent erosion and soil loss ensured that the reign of trees really was over.
Birch and willow seem like the likeliest candidates for those trees; although we can't be sure. Birch is Iceland's biggest and most widespread wild and truly native tree today and there are many examples of these attractive, gnarled plants reaching heights of three, four…even five metres! Yes: believe it, people!
Most parts of the world with Iceland-like climates seem to abound with evergreen pines, spruces, firs and conifers; but their cones don't travel well across oceans it seems and they are therefore relatively recent introduced species to Iceland. If the Vikings had been thinking a bit clearer they'd have brought a few sacks of fir cones with them to plant a thousand years ago…
Iceland is unusual in having more trees in its towns than in its country- side; and a stroll around the leafy suburbs of Reykjavík or Akureyri will reveal how wide a variety of trees can thrive on this windy sub-Arctic rock. Most towns also have a forest area (mostly established after 1940) and two of the most impressive are near Egilsstaðir and Akureyri.
The long Icelandic winters do not help the trees out much; but the endless summer daylight is a real boon to them. In fact the country's lack of tall trees probably has more to do with their young age than anything else. But that's just as well really, because a massive tree wouldn't stand much of a chance in some of our winter gales (see shocking proof here)!
Check out the photos on this Flickr page for some at-first-glance extremely un-Icelandic scenes: lots of lovely photos of lovely trees – all taken in Iceland!