In this land of fire and ice, a visit to a botanical garden isn't the first stop for most when they travel to Iceland. Sure, you can see volcanoes (the Bardarbunga volcano is the most recent to erupt), soak in the waters of the famed Blue Lagoon, and walk on glaciers and through fields of thermal mud pots. But for those curious about plants thriving this far north in such extreme growing conditions, the Iceland botanical gardens are an unexpected delight.
The country's top botanical garden, Lystigardurinn, is a mere 60 miles below the Arctic Circle in Akureyri, Iceland. Considered one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, it features about 6600 types of Icelandic, Arctic and foreign flora.
The small garden (about 8 acres) originally opened as a park in 1912 and became a botanical garden in 1957. Its mission is to "identify and test trees, shrubs and perennials to see whether they fulfill the demands for beauty and hardiness in the region." The garden also serves as a gene bank for hardy plants suitable to the weather conditions in Iceland.
Most of the plants in the garden have their origin in the Arctic or in the temperate zones and high mountain climates found around the world. A small garden bed specific to Arctic plants includes Arctic willow (Salix artica), Arctic butterbur (Petasites frigidus) and Arctic bluegrass (Poa artica). It also includes high elevation plants found in North America, such as mountain sorrel (Oxyria digyna) and lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis). And, of course, there are Icelandic poppies.
It helps to know Latin plant names here as the plant signage is in Icelandic, a Northern Germanic language closely associated with Old Norse using some unfamiliar letters. It's hard to read, but the Latin is recognizable. Or you can forget about reading the plant labels and just enjoy seeing the plants and experiencing the garden.
What's surprising in this garden is by September the plants look "super-sized," nearing the end of their short growing season in the 20-plus hours of sunlight per day that they receive during the summer.
The main path in the garden leads to a charming coffee house opposite an expansive lawn and festive gazebo, both popular spots for weddings and gatherings. Small side paths lead to little gems; a pond with arched bridge, classical fountains, shade gardens, sun gardens, and rock gardens. A good plan when visiting is to start at the garden's main entrance and wind your way down the hill to the exit opposite the fjord. From here you can take a 10-minute walk along the water's edge back to town.
The garden's website has an impressive index of the plants growing in the garden with a special section on Icelandic flora.
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