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.


Iceland was far down on my bucket list. But I had promised to take my granddaughter Holly there, and in July of 2018 I made good on that promise. This country far surpassed my expectations. It is indeed “the land of fire and ice.” Volcanoes spew fire and glaciers spawn ice floes. Eventually though, this country will explode your senses; it will grab you and pull you in. But only if you dare to venture out of Reykjavik and its touristy Golden Circle to explore the hinterlands along the Ring Road. My advice: Drive around the entire Snaefellsnes Peninsula for starters. You won’t be disappointed.

Iceland

The word Snæfellsnes might seem like a bit of a mouthful, but it’s less so when it is broken down. It translates to Snow Mount’s Peninsula, a fitting name for a long peninsula tipped with a glacier on top of volcano. “Snæ” means snow; “fells” meaning mountain, and “nes” means peninsula.

Borgarnes. We had reservations for Fosshotel in the town of Stykkishólmur and our guidebook, Iceland’s Ring Road, said the trip would take three hours nonstop from Reykjavik. No problem; we would sleep in. It was still light at midnight, but we pulled the light-blocking curtains in our hotel room and tried to catch some zzzs. Still, the light came through! We decided to set out early for the second day in a row. We’d beat the traffic out of the city and buy coffee along the way. Famous last words. We could not get coffee anywhere so early. Finally, driving through the foggy fishing village of Borgarnes at the end of a rock-strewn peninsula, we discovered Café Braka. The sign said “OPEN 9 A.M.” So, we wandered through this quaint town of 2000 souls and fell in love with it. Men with metal lunchboxes trudged toward the wharf and its fish factories. Other workers bicycled to work. Storekeepers opened shuttered doors. A narrow road into the Snæfellsnes National Park led to the town’s backdrop, brooding Hafnarfjall mountain–blackened with volcanic ash. When the café opened, Holly and I savored the egg dishes and sipped cappuccinos. “This was worth it,” we exclaimed in unison. Fueled with caffeine, we continued our drive around the peninsula.

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Volcanoes, Lava Fields, Waterfalls, and Moss. What amazed me about Iceland was that no two views were the same; in one photo stop, we could see moss sprawling and oozing over lava rocks, backed by a volcanic mountain, and to the side, snow-capped peaks! Ten minutes later, we would stop again to photograph a ridge with three different waterfalls. The drive was never boring. But after the 25th waterfall, we decided we needed to limit our stops. We’d already gone 8 hours into a supposed 3-hour drive and our destination was still far away. With light until midnight, we weren’t worried about having to drive in the dark; however, the hotel restaurant might not be open late and places to eat along this part of the Ring Road were few and far between.

Hellnar. Seeing a turf-roofed Fish & Chips restaurant and a little settlement—all painted black with white trim, caused us to stop again. Later, we stopped to view the famous pitch-black Búðir Black Church.

Rauðfeldsgjá is a deep gorge that cuts into Botnsfjall, an unusual mountain. In the summertime, it is possible to hike into the crack in the mountain wall, which cleaves all the way down to the root of the mountain.

auðfeldsgjá Gorge Snaefellnoss Penninsula Iceland

Rauðfeldsgjá Gorge Snaefellnoss Penninsula.

Lóndrangar Basalt Cliffs are uniquely-formed remnants of ancient basalt volcanic dikes sticking out from the sea. Both Lóndrangar and the hill Svalthufa are the remains of a crater eroded by the sea. Legend has it that farmers in the area never made hay on the hill because it belongs to the elves living in the area. Below the hill, the poet Kolbeinn Joklaskald reportedly had an encounter with the Devil. Younger lava fields surround the old crater ruin.

lóndrangar cliffs iceland

Lóndrangar cliffs.

Skarðsvík Beach was another must-stop. Surrounded by harsh, pitch-black lava, the soft orange-yellow beach and shallow baby-blue Atlantic Ocean provided a surprising contrast. Fortunately, we visited at low tide! An intact Viking grave was found here in 1962; the skeleton and his belongings are now preserved at the National Museum of Iceland.

skarðsvík-beach

Skarðsvík Beach.

After one final waterfall stop that we couldn’t resist, we were on our way to our destination.

Waterfalls Snaefellnes Penninsula

Waterfalls everywhere in the Snaefellnes Penninsula.

Stykkishólmur. After a day of country landscapes, we were treated to this charming town, the gateway to the numerous islands dotting Breiðafjörður Bay. With all its renovated, historical buildings, this town of 1200 souls felt like a place lost in time. What once was a library is now an art installation; a fish packing house is now a restaurant; an old recreation center is now a volcano museum. The architectural structure of church in Stykkishólmur fascinated us and the view from the church over the bay took our breath away. We arrived at Fosshotel Stykkishólmur in time to change quickly for dinner. Wow! That first sip of wine was lovely!

Stykkishólmur Iceland.

Stykkishólmur Iceland.

The Long Way Back to Reykjavik. Because we didn’t want to go back the way we came, we were forced to choose 40-50 miles of gravel road. Our SUV was a four-wheel drive and the roads were well-maintained; however, there were some challenging moments. Some of the roads were quite narrow—with steep overlooks and no guardrails. Was it worth it? Yes!

Skallagrimsgardur in Borgarnes. After that exhilarating drive, we needed a rest. We ended up back in Borgarnes at Café Braka for cappuccinos and muffins. On the way back to the Ring Road, we noted a sign for a public flower garden called Skallagrimsgardur. We’re both flower-lovers, so we had to stop. We were surprised to see such an abundance of blooms. We met a colorful display around every bend in the gravel path.

We realized that—although the growing season is short—the days are extraordinarily long.

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The Tunnel Detour and the War and Peace Museum. Again, Holly and I chose the road less traveled. Instead of returning through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, (3.6 miles long and 541 feet below sea level), we took the tunnel detour. Thank God Holly is an excellent driver! The detour curving above the peninsula was scarier than the tunnel. “Just don’t look down,” I warned Holly. In addition to the view, an unexpected benefit was touring the War and Peace Museum. I never realized what a large part Iceland played for the Allies during World War II. The entire island was turned into a defensive bulwark. Farther down the road, we stretched our legs by walking to a pretty little waterfall called Fossárrétt on the grounds of an ancient Viking encampment. It was a refreshing end to tour of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

Photo Credits: Holly Ricke And Lois Hofmann

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 nautical adventure trilogy.