Icelanders are at odds with each other, and they are split 50/50. This battle has nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with aesthetics, conservation, and the color purple.

Lois with lupines
Lois with lupines

The Alaskan lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) is under attack. Warriors head for their battlefield in Eastern Iceland, armed with long knives and weed whackers. Their enemy? Purple lupines, stretching high into the mountains above—alien invaders that carpet gorges, sprawl over lava fields and climb the very mountains trekkers used to climb—without pushing through meter-high plants. These Icelandic warriors found that if they slash lupines during their peak blooming season in June, when all their effort goes into the blooms, they have a better chance at killing the enemy. Under the cover of twilight, Lupine Defenders, their pockets full of lupine seeds, visit the scene of devastation to spread them among the fallen, hoping they will rise again. 

Iceland botanicals

Defenders have a point. Tourists and half of Icelanders think the lupine fields are breathtakingly gorgeous. Plus, Lupine Defenders say lupine beauty goes well beyond skin deep. They point to conditions before lupines were introduced by the Icelandic Forest Service. Up to 40% of Iceland was covered by forest before the settlers arrived. Today, there are very few trees, and those that remain are small and twisted. A common joke among Icelanders goes like this: “What do you do if you’re lost in an Icelandic forest? Stand up.”

After 1,100 years of settlement, much of the island was ecologically exhausted from overgrazing and slash-and-burn agriculture. Less than 25% of the island’s green cover remained and strong winds were blowing the remaining soil into the sea. In 1945, Hakon Bjarnson was sent to Alaska by the Forest Service to find plants suitable to revegetate his country. He returned with Alaskan lupine in his luggage, along with a clever plan. Besides reducing erosion, lupines would improve the soil at almost no cost. That’s because—as part of the pea family—they are “nitrogen-fixers.” The plants host bacteria that gather nitrogen from the air, transferring the gas to its root nodules and providing nourishments for other plants. 

Those plants grew quietly around Reykjavik for 31 years until 1976 when an initiative was made to spread the seeds throughout the country. The objective: to improve the soil so trees could grow. When tall, their shade would dominate the three-foot lupines. 

Iceland
Field of lupines Iceland
Field of lupines near Reykjavik.

The plan worked well—too well, detractors say. Scoops of lupine seeds to spread were made available at gas stations! Lupines are tall and dense, so they can starve small plants and moss of crucial sunlight. When I visited Iceland with my granddaughter in late July, 2018, we missed most of the early summer lupine season. When we drove the Ring Road, Route 1, we saw lupines growing alongside a stream, in a few fields, and at the botanical garden in Borganes (Skallagrimsgardur).  Along the way, we talked to many friendly locals and the divisive subject of lupines never came up. We were amazed, however, at the 600-plus species of moss! These lichens draw their nutrients from the environment and are easily contaminated. They grow slowly—about one centimeter in length each year. I’d hate to see any precious moss fields overtaken! 

There are over 600 species of moss in Iceland.
There are over 600 species of moss in Iceland.

Lupine Creep. “Exponential growth is the nature of an invasive species,” says Pawel Wasowicz, a botanist and lupine expert at the Institute of Natural History. The growth curve, he estimates, will peak in the next two decades. Eastern Icelanders have experienced lupine creep in real time. Over the past 17 years, the plant has spread up to 35-fold in areas of East Iceland. 

“We are at the point of no return,” says Arni Bragason, director of Soil Conservation Service of Iceland. “The best thing we can do is reach a consensus about where the plant should be. That has been hard too.”  In the spring of 2018, his agency, the one that introduced lupine decades ago, called for its eradication. After 42 years of providing seeds to the entire country, the agency terminated its lupine project. Grabbing a free scoop of seeds at gas stations is no more! Most of the culling of plants, however, is carried out by volunteers. Cities and towns have been hesitant to allocate money, given the controversy that would entail.

Meanwhile lupine slaughtering parties, followed by determined lupine seeders, continue to roam the landscape.

Lupines along stream Iceland
A stand of lupine alongside a stream.

Do lupines destroy the view? The question is also a point of friction among Icelanders. Old-timers don’t care all that much about revegetation and reforestation. They care about image—and memories. They show visitors an iconic picture of Neil Armstrong salmon fishing in Iceland in 1967, two years before he made history with one small step on the moon. They’re proud to tell you that nine of the twelve astronauts who walked on the moon came to Iceland first. “They were there because in the middle of Iceland’s highlands, NASA had found a landscape that paralleled the lunar: no vegetation, no life, no colors, no landmarks. The entire area was essentially a natural gravel field,” wrote Egill Bjarnason, in his recently-published book, “How Iceland Changed the World.”  

“The term ‘lunar landscape’ is a phrase often used to describe the boundless Icelandic deserts shaped by volcanic eruptions and covered in different shades of lava…their very barrenness is an asset,” Egill continues. 

Magnificent Desolation is the phrase Buzz Aldrin once used to describe the moon. Some Iceland homeowners love that view and regret that their magnificent desolation has been replaced by the color purple. Farmers, on the other hand, appreciate the lupine cover. They recall roads blocked by sandstorms many times every year. 

Magnificent Desolation in Iceland
Magnificent Desolation.

And so the debate continues. If you were an Icelander, which side would you take?

Stories about Iceland: 

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading Lois’s award-winning nautical adventure trilogy. Read more about Lois and her adventures at her website and stay in touch with Lois by liking her Facebook page. Lois’s books can be purchased from PIP Productions on Amazon.


I’m furious. I’m angry. No, I actually want to cry. Why? Because I’m feeling left out yet again. Over our morning coffee, Gunter pointed out to me yet another article about the baby boomers, “The Generation that Changed the world.” By the end of 2014, every boomer will be 50 or over. This time, the article is in AARP, that magazine that arrives mysteriously in the U.S. mail when a person turns 50, at the height of his or her earning power, barely thinking about retiring. The magazine is the voice of the American Association of Retired Persons. Always and forever, the attention is placed on that huge generation that began in 1946, at the close of World War II, and ended in 1964.  Last Sunday, Parade magazine carried an article about Jane Pauley’s monthly TV special and her recently released book, “Your Life  Calling, Reimagining the Rest of Your Life.”

I grab the AARP article and read it voraciously, searching for any mention of my generation. Of course, there is none. The article blithely skips from The Greatest Generation—who was “lost all the time” with no GPS in their cars and having to understand the Dewey Decimal System to look things up—to speculating how Generation X and the Millennials will run the world.

It is as if my generation, 1929-1945, never existed! Leaving us out is more insulting than not even having a name! A few have named us. They call us “The Silent Generation.” Apparently our voices were overtaken by all those screaming babies! In a scholarly study published in 2008, we are called “The Lucky Few.”

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Some of us gained international fame: Elvis Presley, Neil Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Sandra Day O’Connor, Colin Powell. Others of us broke through glass ceilings to allow the big rush of baby boomers to storm through. I remember sitting in the main conference room of a Fortune 500 corporation, the only woman, waiting to present the business strategy for my department. I had to endure the slow slide of the foot of the V.P. sitting next to me inching up my leg. I pretended not to notice. He didn’t believe in women in the Board Room and wanted to throw me off my game.  While attending a conference in Washington D.C., the only woman in the audience, the speaker joked that “women belonged in the kitchen.” Overcoming adversity, we businesswomen took it all in stride and marched forward, paving the way.

Perhaps we are indeed lucky. We “silent few” have always been the scouts, the forerunners. It is we who were the big brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles who showed the way to this huge crop of baby boomers! When I retired from business as CEO of a publicly held company, I reinvented myself by sailing around the world with my husband on a 43-foot catamaran.  During our eight-year circumnavigation, I noticed that many fellow cruisers were paving the way for a new, less-consumptive lifestyle—one that values the great outdoors, yet leaves a clean, pollution-free wake. With my “In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss” book series, I have reinvented myself yet again, so that I can share that rewarding lifestyle with those who follow. And because I’m of that “lucky generation,” I can demonstrate that it works. I’ve already “been there, done that.” And I vow to be silent no more!