While Iceland's name suggests frigid tundra plains devoid of any life or greenery, that's far from the truth. In spite of its northern location in the Arctic Ocean, ice rarely forms on the coast, and the summer months regularly reach median temperatures of 55 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. The plants of Iceland are prolific enough to support animals like sheep, cattle and horses, all native to the island as well; and because it is an island, many of the plants there have remained unchanged for centuries.
This herb has been used for medicinal purposes for more than 1,100 years. Spread through the rest of Northern Europe by the Vikings, this tall, long-stemmed herb was so valuable that it was once used as currency. It gets its name from the angels that supposedly pointed it out as a cure for the Black Plague; a monk from the 17th century is said to have had a prophetic dream in which the herb was given to him by an archangel. This lead to its other name--Monks' Weed. The roots and seeds of the plant were frequently distributed to those afflicted with the plague and remained a cure-all throughout the next century as a blood purifier, for relief from stomach ailments and headaches, as a remedy for poison and as a preventative and cure for influenza. Even today, it is still a popular herbal medicine, used mainly as a vitamin and preventative.
So treasured is the plant that the highest mountain in Iceland is named for it--Hvannadalshnjúkur, or Angelica valley peak.
Juniper is the only conifer native to Iceland; while many other firs have been introduced over the years to help alleviate problems due to soil erosion, the juniper is the only native which, fortunately, has not been pushed out by other, non-native conifers.
Called einiber or einir in the native language, the juniper that grows in Iceland is different than the varieties found in other parts of the world. While most areas are familiar with junipers that are shrub-like or even resemble a small tree, Icelandic juniper is more akin to ground cover. It stays low to the ground, spreading its branches horizontally rather than growing upwards.
Like other junipers, the Icelandic variety also forms berries from its cones. After two years, the berries ripen and are used in spices.
Birch trees, with their distinctive black and white bark, are the only trees that are native to Iceland. Like the junipers, they have also adapted to life in the island environment. Whereas birch trees found in other parts of Europe and in North America can grow to be up to 20 feet tall, Icelandic birches rarely get more than 2 feet tall.
At one time, birch forests covered much of the Icelandic tundra. They existed in groves, only a fraction of which can be seen today. Due to over-harvesting that dates back to the time of the Vikings, the number of birch trees has dwindled so dramatically that only a small percentage of the groves still exist, mostly along the northern and northeastern coast in protected areas. In any society, wood is a valuable commodity, and it was no different in the Norse society. Now, measures are being taken to preserve these little birch forests.